The Night of the Great Season

19 February – 11 May 2014, Kunsthalle Mulhouse, Centre d'Art Contemporain

By Barbara Piwowarska

Agnieszka Polska, Arton 1, 2010. Courtesy the artist and ŻAK | BRANICKA, Berlin Alina Szapocznikow, Autoportrait II, 1966. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Piotr Stanislawski and Galerie Loevenbruck, Paris Bruno Schulz, Groteska. Kataryniarz na podwórku, 1936. Courtesy Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute Museum, Warsow

For a Polish art historian, seeing Polish Surrealism and neo-Surrealism at a Kunsthalle located in a former foundry in postindustrial Mulhouse, Alsace, might be compared to an exotic accident while on the Grand Tour: a surreal chance encounter of sorts. The Night of the Great Season is a bold show, juxtaposing a limited selection of well-known Polish avantgarde and neo-avant-garde artists (Tadeusz Kantor, Erna Rosenstein, Bruno Schulz, Alina Szapocznikow) with three artists of the current generation (Tomasz Kowalski, Agnieszka Polska, Jakub Julian Ziółkowski). The most interesting aspect of the exhibition is that it presents them together for the first time in the context of Surrealism.

The title comes from a short story by one of the most famous Polish-Jewish pre-war writers and artists, Bruno Schulz, part of his masterpiece The Cinnamon Shops (Sklepy Cynamonowe, 1933–4), a strange modern ‘degenerate’ text exploring time and the perception of Jewish life in the small town of Drohobycz. Schulz is represented here by drawings related to his prose, though they are closer to Neue Sachlichkeit than to Surrealism. Echoes of Schulz were strongly present in Kantor’s self-founded theatre, Cricot 2, particularly in his ‘Informel Theatre’ and later ‘Theatre of Death’ approaches, represented here by The Dead Class (1975), a great documentary showing Kantor’s performance by Andrzej Wajda. Interestingly, it was Erna Rosenstein’s husband, Artur Sandauer, who rediscovered and reinterpreted Schulz in his literary essays of the 1970s. Kantor, Rosenstein and Sandauer were all members and cofounders of the second Kraków Group in 1957, which also represented surrealist tendencies in Polish art.

That Rosenstein’s works are being exhibited in this part of Europe for the first time since the 1980s deserves special attention. This Polish- Jewish artist, one of the most original among her peers, combined surrealistic automatic drawing with a focus on the female body, the feminine and the fetish. She was one of the first to do so in Poland, tackling alienation, abjection and difference. A great example of her painting here, Become! (Stan sie,1988), is a fantasy about insemination, mysterious sperm levitating in abstract oceanic space cutting the canvas. 

The curatorial strategy here was inspired by Jakub Banasiak’s book Tired of Reality (2009), and his argument that in turning away from the Polish ‘critical art’ generation of the 1990s, the younger generation is now evidently ‘tired of reality’ and embracing alternative approaches – surrealist, among others

In interesting relation to her works are small-scale sculptures by Alina Szapocznikow and large c-prints by Agnieszka Polska. Rosenstein and Szapocznikow shared not only the traumatic past of the Holocaust experience, but also both made fetish and assemblage structures from refuse and remnants. In her collages, Polska makes direct reference to Włodzimierz Borowski’s Artony series of ‘assemblages-beings’, translating them into an organic ‘fairytale’ made of mud and branches (Arton series, 2010). On the other hand, other younger artists, the aforementioned Ziółkowski and Kowalski, take formal inspiration from surrealist imagery, creating their own ahistorical language in spectacular paintings and drawings.

The curatorial strategy here was inspired by Jakub Banasiak’s book Tired of Reality (2009), and his argument that in turning away from the Polish ‘critical art’ generation of the 1990s, the younger generation is now evidently ‘tired of reality’ and embracing alternative approaches – surrealist, among others. The clear minimalist display is in some respects misleading, though. One might think that what is on show constitutes the very few embodiments of surrealist art in Poland, and echoes Kantor’s famous statement that ‘we didn’t have Surrealism in Poland because we had Catholicism’ (a stance reflected in Banasiak’s book).

But Polish Surrealism did exist, albeit marginally, in several artistic and clearly communistic formations in Lvov and Kraków: the pre-war Artes group, the first pre-war Kraków Group, and the second Kraków Group including (among many others) Kantor and Rosenstein. Poland didn’t have a figure like André Breton. It had neither the strong circle that he consolidated nor a tradition of surrealist exhibitions. Nevertheless, many artists of different generations did become ‘surrealists’ and ‘neo-surrealists’, such as Edward Krasiński, Kazimierz Mikulski, Jerzy Kujawski and Janina Kraupe- Swiderska. Surrealistic tendencies appeared also in Polish film and in experimental cinema – we could mention here early films by Roman Polanski, the filmic oeuvre of Wojciech Jerzy Has or the experimentation of Walerian Borowczyk. This show, then might serve as evidence that research into this broad topic has just begun.

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.