FEW SURVIVING INSTITUTIONS are born of artists self-organizing in times of extreme stress. On February 15, 1931, in the depths of Poland’s interwar depression and deeply uneven modernization, Katarzyna Kobro and her husband, Władysław Strzemiński, attended the opening of a room in the new municipal museum of Łodz, an industrial city two hours southwest of Warsaw. Though “room” might sound modest, this particular one became central to the story of European modern art: Here, Kobro and Strzemiński, together with friends and colleagues such as Henryk Stażewski, presented the International Collection of Modern Art. Practitioners and theorists, the group ventured into institution-making when it was clear to them that not only their small city but Poland as a whole lacked both awareness of modernist tendencies in art and networks for international dialogue. The twenty-one works forming the collection were accompanied by a short-lived publishing house and an exhibition circuit designed to allow exchanges among far-flung avant-garde coteries, from Cercle et Carré in Paris to UNOVIS in Vitebsk. That these artists managed to do so much while making their own work, teaching, writing, and unionizing––a multipronged set of activities familiar to any member of the committed classes of contemporary Poland, where turning up in the streets to protest the Law and Justice Party’s relentless assaults on democracy can consume as much or more of one’s time, energy, and devotion as one’s day job—is one remarkable aspect of the story of the Muzeum Sztuki, the institution that grew from that collection to become a jewel of Poland’s sophisticated, albeit stressed, art scene.
Cut to April 25, 2022: The director of the museum, Jarosław Suchan, is abruptly ousted at the behest of a deputy minister of culture and national heritage, a member of Poland’s far-right ruling party. Suchan had occupied his post since 2006. In that time, the Muzeum Sztuki had grown to include MS2, a second building, in which works from the permanent collection could come into dialogue with others through temporary exhibitions. The museum had become a charged, brilliant space of exhibition and research during Suchan’s tenure, thanks in part to that expansion. However, it is possible that it is a 1970s addition to the museum’s campus, the Herbst Palace, that has caught the eye of regional party ministers. A mini Versailles that testifies to the wealth amassed by nineteenth-century Polish industrialists, the palace, with its gilded carvings, lustrous curtaining, and stately oil portraits, is plausibly an attractive target for power brokers from the autocrat class. Or this is simply the next step in the abhorrent sequence of dismissals that has already cost Poland professional leadership in other key institutions, such as Warsaw’s Zachęta National Gallery of Art and Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art––both of whose directors were fired without cause and replaced with direct appointments by the Law and Justice Party.
Whatever the rationale, it is the museum itself, its fully loaded exhibition calendar, its extensive research and public programming, and its staff of highly educated experts, that, along with Suchan, is paying the price. How deep is the threat, if not to the museum’s remarkable collection then to the kind of programming for which it has become known? A quick glance at the lineup of forthcoming shows provides a sense of what is at risk. As of this writing, the roster includes “Time out of Joint,” about queer temporalities as well as the impact of Covid on artistic thinking; “Tectonic Movements,” about the Polish period of transition out of state socialism; and a show exploring Cosmism, the Russian-born philosophical school that placed the right to immortality within the scope and aims of the revolution of the international proletariat. In other words, an exhibition program as inventive and transformative as one might encounter anywhere.
The museum’s new director instrumentalizes the concept of battle to justify using any means necessary to win a culture war.
“You have lost.” At once confounding and hair-raisingly direct, those three words condense the attitude of Suchan’s replacement, the newly appointed director of the Muzeum Sztuki, Andrzej Biernacki, a small-town gallerist and painter, toward art professionals in Poland’s committed class. They were uttered in a public meeting of the members of the Citizens’ Forum for Contemporary Art (Obywatelskie Forum Sztuki Współczesnej, or OFSW), a self-organized group of artists and museum workers striking and lobbying for fair wages and livable conditions for creative work in Poland since 2009. A kind of twenty-first-century Art Workers’ Coalition—one that joins street protests by other professional groups as well as demonstrations defending abortion rights and gay and queer life—the OFSW has labored diligently to narrow the gap between “elitist” artists and art workers, whose position in the unstable Polish economy is increasingly precarious. To claim to their faces that the members of the OFSW “have lost” goes beyond bad faith and hypocrisy; it foments opposition with the very art workers who make up the profession.
Not only does Biernacki thereby implicate and declare fealty to an unnamed group who are not art professionals, he also instrumentalizes the concept of battle to justify using any means necessary to win a culture war. This rhetoric and the attitude it signals would be unscrupulous at any time, but it is that much more distressing during an actual war in which Poland acts as buffer zone between Ukraine, Belarus, and Western Europe. War, playing out on the cultural field as well as in the air and on the ground, is known for its lightning ability to erase complexity with a “moral factor which slides and deceives,” as Jacqueline Rose puts it in her 1991 essay “Why War?” Surprising no one, Biernacki also called for “sovereignty” in his new workplace, contrasting it with the “pro-environmental, gender, or queer narratives” that he intends to displace. He has claimed a desire to disrupt the system of loans, insurance coverage, and privileged status that has enabled the Muzeum Sztuki to stay afloat despite its perennial underfunding and its location in a city whose largely abandoned downtown looks familiar to anyone who has seen deindustrialization in living color. These are the lifesaving measures that have been painstakingly put in place to achieve institutional autonomy and sustainable working conditions. They are what allow the museum to realize ambitious international exhibitions and robust public programming and research efforts while maintaining and expanding an international collection whose historical core––including Kobro’s and Strzemiński’s own art––had already been designated “degenerate” (entartete, as in entartete und jüdische Kunst) in 1941.
Kobro lived a decades-long effort to define her nationality. Born in Moscow to a family of German descent and raised in Riga, she fled back to her birthplace during Germany’s eastern offensives in World War I. In Moscow, she began art school precisely as the October Revolution was unfolding and in 1918 entered the same trade union of artists as Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Olga Rozanova, and Vladimir Tatlin. Of that remarkable pool, only Kobro and Strzemiński would migrate to Poland (in Strzemiński’s case, returning), specifically to one of the many smaller cities on the country’s surprisingly decentralized art circuit. During World War II, Kobro would have to continually navigate her own peculiar identity: refusing German nationality, signing a “Russian list,” thereby declaring herself an outsider to the Nazi occupiers, while helping to rebuild the collection’s new home in the postwar period. Then as now, artists determined whether and how their personal trajectories defined their nationality and what to make of the relation between the internationalism that nurtures so much art and the nationalism that constantly reconstructs a world stage in its image. Creating a cosmopolitan collection of avant-garde art was one means of responding to the framework of nations and nationalism at a time when existence itself was precarious. Rather than submitting art’s institutions to war’s leveling effects, Kobro and Strzemiński made strenuous efforts to protect ideas, objects, theories, and pleasures. We cannot safeguard forever against extinction—Kobro famously burned her own sculptures to keep her daughter alive in the bitter days of early 1945—but we can militate against the cooptation of that which is still of value.
Rachel Haidu is an art historian and critic. Her book Each One Another: The Self in Contemporary Art (University of Chicago Press) is forthcoming in March 2023.