Poland is home to a dynamic and distinctive contemporary art scene and a legacy of avant-garde culture. It has a rich stock of exceptional and often controversial artworks exhibited across galleries and modern art museums locally and internationally. We profile ten must-know contemporary polish artists and where to find them.
Katarzyna Kozyra at Zacheta National Gallery of Art
Part of the ‘Critical Art’ movement, Katarzyna Kozyra regularly provokes controversy. Her work often consists of gruesome images and materials, igniting extreme reactions. Her installations investigate and subsequently provoke cultural taboos and universal truths about life and death though the exhibition of sensitive content; dissected animals, photographs of human sickness, and nude women placed beside religious symbols. Kozyra has worked with various forms of art, from music to dance and performance art.
Miroslaw Balka graduated from Warsaw’s Academy of Arts in 1985, now a member of the Akademie de Kunste in Berlin. One of the finest contemporary Polish sculptors and video artists, he has exhibited his works in numerous international shows and in 2009 he presented his special project How It Is at the Unilever Series in Tate Modern, London. Born in Poland after the Second World War into a family of gravestone cutters and engravers, Balka is deeply influenced by his country’s history of war and memories of death. His ascetic sculptures reflect the vanishing of the body and memory and his artistic expression moved gradually from literal depiction of the human figure to an abstract expression. His works can be found in many of the world’s major collections such as the Tate in London, MoMA in New York City, and Fundacion La Caixa in Barcelona.
Winner of the Vincent Award in 2004, the contemporary Polish sculptor is primarily a collaborative artist who beyond his personal creations is also involved in extensive social community activities. A founding member of the so-called Kowalski Studio at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, Althamer is also a teacher of ceramics for the Nowolipie Group, a Warsaw organisation for adults with mental or physical disabilities. His exhibitions around the world seek very often to invade public spaces with different projects that alter reality, such as the recent ‘Draftsmen’s Congress’, originally presented at the Berlin Biennale in 2012. His bodies of work such as ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Venetians’ consist of haunting sculptures, presented alongside his own videos and are often used as vehicles to benefit local communities.
Primarily a painter and an illustrator, Wilhelm Sasnal is a multi-layered artist who employs a variety of media in his art and has recently turned to photography and video. Taking his inspiration from everyday life, mass media, photojournalism or his country’s historical past, he produces paintings where he mixes romanticism with realism, often based in real life situations. His portraits of women often depict worn-out models, always smoking cigarettes, possessing a contemporary form of beauty disassociated from classical icons. His video work is realistic, sometimes brutally honest, accompanied by clips of his favorite music, and given titles such as ‘The Band’ and ‘Cars and People’.
A radical member of the Kowalski Studio and the Polish critical art movement, the visual artist, filmmaker and photographer Artur Żmijewski is the Art Director of socio-political magazine Krytyka Polityczna. The freedom of video as a medium of artistic expression is ideal for Żmijewski, who expresses the complexity of the world and life around him in his works. His films are often controversial, depicting humans and their bodies as crippled, sick and handicapped; expressing messages about bodily constraints, the contrast between the healthy and the sick, the plague of society and existential questions. Out for a Walk, Karolina and KR WP are films about paraplegics; people experiencing severe pain who are constantly helped by strong, healthy peers. The sad and often tragic history of Poland, the Holocaust, and religious pilgrimages are also major themes and influences in his work.
A multimedia artist of the Raster generation, Aneta Grzeszykowska is a creator of photographs and films, where the themes of intimacy, absence, disappearance, dismemberment are prominent. Along with her husband, Jan Smaga, she has created a significant body of work such as the architectural photography projects Plans and YMCA, using digital techniques to alter images. Her solo career focuses mostly on symbolic narratives of childhood traumas and womanhood. Her exhibition at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, Death of a Maiden, examines the themes of invisibility and anonymity. Her 2007 film Black utilizes her own naked body and her film Headache is a dance pantomime ending in dismemberment.
A painter and an illustrator, Marcin Maciejowski studied graphics design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland. A renowned cartoonist in his home country, he owns a particular style of painting expressed in cartoons, posters, and illustrations, often full of humour and comments of the contemporary times. Maciekowski paints from newspaper and magazine cuts he keeps in his personal archives, cutting, pasting or adding details or photographs. His paintings consist mainly of light sketches with a cartoonish form, and his themes stem from contemporary media. Works such as ‘The Young’ and ‘Marines at Anchor’ are group portraits of famous and ordinary people, whereas ‘Base’ depicts a military shelter. According to the artist, his job is not to criticize reality but instead to tell the stories of family and friends, to report rather than to comment. He has worked in the weekly magazine Przekrow and he is the author of the work How to Live In Here Now. His art has been exhibited at the prestigious Art Basel show and in museums worldwide.
Throwing himself to the arts after studying architecture in Krakow and working as a construction site supervisor, the great Polish artist Zdzisław Beksinski produced some of the most abstract, surreal and disturbing images in painting. Beksiński, who was murdered in 2005, painted a series of Gothic masterpieces focusing, in the first period of his work, on utopian realism. His self-proclaimed ‘fantastic period’ comprises post-apocalyptic pieces which are ingenious, haunting and ominous, depicting nightmarish landscapes, deformed figures, and death. Beksiński, who always worked while listening to classical music, blended vivid and more subdued colors, manipulating the effects of light and creating, in his later work, less lavish but equally powerful work.
One of the most original sculptors of our time, the Jewish-Polish Holocaust survivor Alina Szapocznikow studied sculpture first in Prague and then at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris. Her early works, such as ‘Self-portrait’ and ‘First Love’ were lyrical, praising youth and femininity, but the use of easily destroyed material, such as plaster, bronze and stone showed the transient nature of youth and beauty, documenting her own fragility. Her personal experiences of death and illness influenced the later phase of her career where her forms became more abstract, depicting fragmented body parts; in many of these works the artist expresses her own physical battles with tuberculosis and cancer using revolutionary materials, as casts of body parts replace the whole sculpture. Her work has hints of self-irony and at the same time evokes memories of her own sick body, exhibiting its history and suffering.
Konrad Smolenski, who represented Poland in the Venice Art Biennale with his installation Everything Was Forever, is a multimedia artist who uses audio and visual components in his art projects and installations. A musician in several bands, he is also a member of the alternative Penerstwo group, and the Pink Punk scene. Smolenski makes objects that are artifacts and instruments, such as a guitar made of a dog’s skull, or builds installations of musical instruments. He is also a visual artist and often uses metaphorical actions, such as inscriptions that are set on fire to show self-destruction. He has also produced films which have a disturbing effect on the viewer, mainly thanks to their jarring electro sounds.