Uncensored: Polish independent art of 1980s on display in Kutná Hora

An exhibition presenting an overview of independent Polish art of the 1980s got underway in Gallery of the Central Bohemian Region this week. Called Uncensored, it presents the Polish equivalent of the post-1968 Czech underground art scene. I discussed the exhibition with one of its curators, Richard Drury:

Richard Drury | Photo: Kateřina Rychtecká,  Czech Radio

“The exhibition showcases work done by young artists and independent artists during the 1980s who protested against the repressive regime that followed from 1981 with the declaration of martial law in Poland. These artists refused to work with the regime and found alternative ways of working and showing their art.”

Czech-Polish Mural in Prague Holešovice | Photo: Martin Vaniš,  Radio Prague International

Would you say the situation in which the Polish artists found themselves in the 1980s was similar to that in Czechoslovakia at the time?

“I would say if anything, the situation in Poland of the 1980s was similar to the situation in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. The Czechs had this period called Normalisation, while the Poles were living in the era of quite brutal repression, which I have to say in Poland wasn’t just brutal ideologically, it was also brutal in terms of physical violence from the side of the Communist regime.

“So in a sense you can compare the situations because in this country as well artists didn’t boycott the state, they were boycotted by the state.

“So in Poland you would talk more about an opposition movement than an underground movement. It really is a kind of large community of people – citizens, artists, and writers – who came together and created interconnected national alternative culture.

“And I have to say the Catholic Church opened up its doors to a lot of these exhibition, because they weren’t taking place in official galleries.

“Young artists and artists of older generations as well staged independent exhibitions in churches with no questions asked, basically. So the church spaces became a kind of focal point for a lot of artistic activity.”

Photo: GASK

And are there any similarities between the Polish unofficial art scene and the Czechoslovak one?

“There is and there isn’t. In Poland, obviously, you have a lot of Christian symbolism, but I think you would find a similarity at an existential level. The artist becomes an exile in his or her own country. You are marginalised and you are excluded from public life.

“But I think with the Polish art, as well as Christian symbolism, you find a lot of deep irony. I know that Czechs pride find themselves on being ironic, but with the Poles, they take it a step further.

“Because their situation was appreciably worse than it was in this country. Let’s not forget that apart from the ideological oppression, Poland was also suffering shortages of food and consumer commodities. So it was not an easy life in many respects.

“The Poles reacted to this with deep irony. For instance the Orange Alternative Movement, which was a kind of dadaist student protest movement in Wroclav, which would stage mock tank battles in protest against the regime’s insistence on military education at schools and universities. So I think the Poles took the fight to the regime in this respect.”

GASK | Photo: GASK

The exhibition showcases around 130 works by 60 artists. What are some of the most interesting items on display?

“I would stress that the exhibition shows works by different generations of artists. It is really interesting to see how artists of different generations reacted to this very difficult situation in Poland during the 1980s.

“You have a work for instance by the older artist Leszek Sobocki. It is entitled ‘Stifling Situation’. It is a self-portrait. He is in a kind of tight-fitting uniform, which he is trying to pull down from his neck so he can breathe. So this says everything really, the artist’s self-portrait showing how difficult it was just to exist and breathe in that country.

“You also have a very interesting chapter in terms of its concept, the so-called suit-case exhibitions arranged by the photographer Erazim Ciołek.

“At the exhibition, you have a life-sized photograph of these small-format paintings that were transported around the country and shown guerrilla-style to allow people to see what the unofficial art was being made.

“And so in places where we still have the original paintings available, they are hung on the wall on this large photograph where they would have hung in the 1980s.

“And then of course you have younger artists who are contemporaries who in Germany were called the Neue Wilde, or the New Wild painters, born in the second half of the 1950s.

“That includes an artist like Jacek Sroka, who paints this kind of neo-expressionist prison painting showing Lech Wałęsa allowed to walk in jail under the surveillance of a guard and his dog. So you see this young generation breaking through at the conclusion of the exhibition.”

Would you say the art is still relevant to the present day?

“Very much so. The exhibition shows what is formally a historical chapter — the fight for freedom and freedom of expression in Poland in the 1980s.

“But I think given the situation we are living in now, where democracy and freedom are under threat, I think the idea of artists being in the sort of a vanguard of this fight for artistic and civic freedom is very much an important theme.

“I have to stress the emblem of the exhibition is a stencil street art piece by an artist Piotr Młodożeniec. It’s got a tank in a red circle with a title No Entry for Tanks. And the emphasis of this entire exhibition is that this protest is peaceful. It is about overcoming violence and evil by peaceful means.”

Author: Ruth Fraňková
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