Merkel, Putin and a flaming swastika: three members of Polish Venice pavilion jury decry artist selected

Ignacy Czwartos, The Painter was kneeling when painting, installation view, Zachęta, 2023. Photo: Juliusz Sokołowski

Three members of the committee tasked with selecting the Polish representative at the Venice Biennale have openly criticised the choice of artist Ignacy Czwartos.

In an open letter, curators Jagna Domżalska, Joanna Warsza and Karolina Ziębińska-Lewandowska say Cwartos’s proposed exhibition depicts Poland as a ‘homogeneous, unopen country focused only on itself and on speaking from the position of a victim’ and that it ‘does not in any way reflect Poland’s contemporary art scene’.

Polish Exercises in the Tragedy of the World: Between Germany and Russia is to feature 35 paintings depicting scenes of violence perpetuated by German and Russian aggressors against Poles. One proposed work, titled Nord Stream 2, shows Angela Merkel with Vladimir Putin and a flaming swastika between them. In another oil on canvas work, SS officers Heinz Reinefarth and Hermann Schaper will be depicted alongside their Polish victims.

The exhibition proposal submitted to the committee outlines two strategies for the pavilion, advocating the second, into which its claimed Cwartos’s art falls. ‘The first is an attempt to fit in with current, fashionable trends and the expectations of the foreign audience, an attempt to guess what foreign journalists will like and will intrigue them enough to find a place in their reports from the Biennale to describe the Polish exhibition, and also what the jurors will like, who decide to award our pavilion. Looking at the selection of projects representing Poland at the Venice Biennale after 1990, it must be admitted that this strategy was often chosen. The second strategy is to focus on what is specific to us and, above all, the Polish community and perhaps potentially unknown to the foreign audience. Focusing on the works of artists who may not necessarily follow global trends. The curator of next year’s edition of the Venice Biennale, Adriano Pedrosa, encourages the adoption of such a strategy with the title: Foreigners Everywhere.’

The chair of the jury was Janusz Janowski, the director of the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, who curated an exhibition by Czwartos at the institution in February. Janowski’s own appointment in December 2021, under Poland’s previous right-wing government, also caused criticism for its lack of transparency.

In October’s national elections, Donald Tusk’s Civic Coalition denied the incumbent Law & Justice party an overall majority, with all other parties ruling out a partnership, however the latter still claim they will be able to form a government. Tusk says he has a cabinet including a new culture minister in waiting.

The dissenting Venice jurors say that the other two considered projects, a proposal of the Ukrainian collective Open Group and the collective proposal Own, ‘formally and ideologically present the values that we want to defend: openness, tolerance, care, empathy, and opposition to armed conflicts’.

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