There is hardly an abundance of Polish art on display in Britain. The vast majority of the population will never have seen Polish art at all. But interest is growing, in correlation with a cultural spring taking place in the Polish art world.
Poland is by no means lacking in renowned cultural figures – it has produced Joseph Conrad, Frederic Chopin, and has won four Nobel Prizes for Literature in the past 110 years. Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988) was a pioneer of the classical avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s and co-creator of the Geometric Abstract movement. But between the early twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, there was somewhat of a cultural freeze.
The suppression of culture that went hand-in-hand with Communism stifled art in Central Eastern Europe in the twentieth century. Destruction of historical culture was perpetrated by all sides during the Second World War, and continued long afterwards with totalitarian regimes. This is now provoking an embrace of modernity in the Central Eastern European art world – perhaps to be considered a search for, or rebuilding of, an attention-grabbing artistic identity.
At the Venice Biennale this year, Polish artist Pawel Althamer displayed in the Arsenale. His installation Venetians was met with critical acclaim. The 90 ghoulish figures were composed of plaster casts (of the faces and hands of locals) and strips of plastic – draped over rough scaffolding supports to create a sinuous, muscle-like effect. Such work from a little-known artist exposed the dark imagination thriving beneath the surface of the glossy modern art world, often saturated with celebrity. Wojciech Fangor, Szymon Urbanski, Andrzej Cisowski and Andrzej Jackowski are other talented individuals.
Wilhelm Sasnal’s work typically sells for several hundred thousand dollars, after being discovered by Saatchi. His work reflects Poland’s Communist history in a hazy memory. His piece Soldiers is mimics modern pop culture more than conflict. The Saatchi Gallery describes them as ‘reduced to a kitsch logo: war, oppression, and authority are reconstituted as youth culture communismo-chic.’ His work Factory is painted from a famous propaganda image, but swaps glorified labour for a hardened, grey, uniform reality.
One reason for the flourishing culture is a revival of the Polish art market. Acclaimed artist Anna Szprynger commented: ‘the trouble is after so many years of dictatorship that there is no tradition of an art market in Poland. People respect you if you’re an artist, but they expect you to lead the existence of a starving pauper and they don’t tend to buy the art.’ The modern art scene has been free from Communism for nearly 25 years, but it is restricted by poor financial support. Mentalities are changing, however. Disposable income is rising rapidly, and consequently the art market is now growing at around 20-30% a year. Skate’s, a New-York-based arts market research company, recently estimated the country’s “innovative and quickly growing art market” at an annual worth of £66m.
Recently there was a speedy 4-day exhibition called ‘Polish Art Now’ at the Saatchi Gallery – a mélange of highlights from the past 50 years and up-and-coming names. The force behind this project was Abbey House. Based in Warsaw, the auction house has devised a scheme whereby unknown artists are contracted for a 5-year period and given a permanent wage, in return for the auction house having exclusive rights to sell their work: amalgamating financial security with publicity and growth.
Many have denounced Abbey House’s work: they argue it hikes the price of the artists’ work to extremes, distorting the market. But is this too large a cost, when the house gives many new artists an environment in which to improve and create? The prices may be marginally artificial, but they facilitate thriving culture. They allow artists to become self-sufficient, and in turn encourage more to take up the profession.
Government funding for the arts is increasingly scarce and insecure. This may encourage the treatment of art as a commodity – something to be priced, and a market to be manipulated – but if this allows art to grow when public subsidy is dwindling, is it detrimental to the nature of the product?
The prosperous trajectory of Polish art is worth this cost. Hopefully, the nationality will ultimately drop from the label entirely. Art should be appreciated regardless of its origin, and technique and meaning should be the focuses. With Warsaw overtaking Berlin as Europe’s artistic hub, however, an influx of Polish art is on the horizon.
With thanks to the Daily Telegraph, the Muzeum Sztuki, Deutsche + Guggenheim, theartnewspaper.com, it.phaidon.com, the Tate Modern and the Saatchi Gallery for photos.