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Ewa Malgorzata Tatar: Polish women artists on femininity, what is public, and exhibition/gallery space in the 1970s

On femininity

Research on Polish feminist and women’s art and exhibition practices started in the 1990s, around twenty years after the initial appearance of these kinds of interventions. My contribution and selections for the “Archive of Eastern European Exhibitions” is strongly connected to the activity of the participants of the first nationwide show of women’s art, organized by Izabella Gustowska and Krytysna Piotrowska at ON Gallery in Poznań in 1980. Before 1989 in Poland, feminist ideas were known only from a few publications by Polish authors and translations of foreign texts—so far no systematic studies on this topic have appeared. It seems that the first text translated into Polish that introduced considerations of gender and gendered subjectivity was The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, published in 1972.[1] The first publications on feminist art and aesthetics appeared in the 1970s and ’80s.[2]

As for the art community, Natalia LL undoubtedly has a major role in popularizing feminist art in Poland. In 1977 she spent six months in the United States thanks to a grant from the Kosciuszko Foundation, and after her return she gave a series of lectures covering feminist thought on art (her 1977 article “Feminist Tendency” was republished in a 2004 collection of her texts by Bielska Gallery in Bielsko-Biała, Poland). This point marks the beginning of feminist art in Poland, while the earlier practices I would describe as feminist insights (Izabela Kowalczyk calls them feminist interventions; however, the term does not fully indicate the specific actions to which it is applied[3]). I apply “feminist insights” above all to the art of Ewa Partum, Natalia LL, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, and also Alina Szapocznikow—art created before the cut-off date of 1977. Polish artists were however already at that time  invited to participate in feminist events abroad, and their art has been included by non-Polish researchers in studies on feminism.[4] It has to be added that around 1980, the first texts to help viewers understand issues of feminist art appeared in the Polish art press. And finally, the first feminist exhibitions appeared around this time—shows made by the artists who participated in them—“Three Women” in Poznań (1978), “Women’s Art” in Wrocław (1978), and the already-mentioned Poznań exhibition of the same title in 1980.

Two of the first three women’s art exhibitions were originated and curated by Izabella Gustowska, who continued this thematic in the cycle “Presence I-III.” (1987-92). In 1987 she invited not only artists from her generation, but also younger ones, to participate in the show. Feminism—if we define it through this exhibition—was considered as art created by women, as well as in “Presence III” from 1993, the biggest exhibition of the cycle, accompanied by a seminar and divided into three sections: the National Museum in Poznań showing the art of seventeen canonical figures active in Poland after 1945—women artists whose practice was not always inspired by feminist thought, but always circulated around ideas of feminine subjectivity—seven artists from Gustowska’s generation, and four novices.

Mira Schor wrote that the feminists of that generation—the feminist artists of the seventies—were the “living bridge” between the various waves of feminist thought.[5] This sentence certainly could also be applied to the Polish art world, where those who introduced the feminist threads in the ’70s were still active in the ’90s as artists, but also as animators of artistic life, supporting and promoting the art of younger colleagues—here Gustowska being the most significant example. Early feminist works—both before 1989 and in the ’90s—are centered around the feminine body and subjectivity, but shows with the idea “women choose women” and the collaboration of women artists are not as strong after 1989. At that point the profession of the curator appeared to be, the one who handles the ongoing art practices as well as organizes thematic shows—among others, the shows of women artists or feminist art. With the opening of the borders, including intellectual ones, feminist art found the opportunity to be more widely exhibited and analyzed. But in the Polish art context a feminist mass movement never appeared, and feminist collectives aimed at raising awareness based on self-affirming educational projects never developed.


On what is public

From the wide practices of the participants of “Women’s Art” (1980) I chose those that refer to the condition of the woman artist in the art world and gallery system, whose attitude can be called institutional critique; those that take art outside the art institution; and those that introduced art itself into the public space as a critical social strategy. These choices can expose particular strategies of defining what is public in the realm of a nondemocratic political system.

Hannah Arendt sees freedom and democracy in the public sphere as a prerequisite to prevent the superiority of one totalitarian ideology. Public space, according to her, is what is common and audible/visible to all.[6] According to her, the term “public” is understood much more broadly: as a world that we all have in common, but not in the sense of nature—only intangible goods, works of people. Arendt also writes that the public must be a timeless value and multigenerational investment, which must constantly be strengthened and built upon.

Regardless of whether we perceive the social sphere as a space for consensus, as Hanna Arendt or Jürgen Habermas do, or as a space of struggle and antagonism, as Chantal Mouffe sees it, thinking about the role of art in the social sphere during the People’s Republic of Poland, we must accept the fact of political subordination. Despite the limitation of the state, some artists tried to cross, criticize, or even evaluate those limited public conditions. One of the most referred-to performances in the urban space was made by Krzysztof Wodiczko. In 1972 in collaboration with Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, he constructed his first Vehicle, which he used on the streets of Warsaw. By the motion of a man walking on a platform (the form of a treadmill), the entire construction moved forward. However, since the distance was very limited between the two ends of the platform, one had to walk there and back—where moving forward symbolizes progress, and backwards symbolizes regression. Wodiczko was one of the few Polish artists of the time, who, deliberately reminiscent of utopian socialism, spoke about the connections between applied arts and politics, as well as one of the few artists who considered art in its social context.[7] Other attempts at criticality—following Irit Rogoff, being the position not only of criticizing but also of developing the criticized idea—are visible in practices of, for example, KwieKulik and other artists whose practices were called “soc-art” by Łukasz Ronduda: practices affirming the socialist utopia itself but criticizing the ways it was realized.[8] On the other side we have practices critical only of the political system in Poland, like those proposed at Gallery Repassage in Warsaw in 1977: the performances of Elżbieta and Emil Cieślar, Well and Stańczyk, which comment on the absurdity of Polish reality; and the contextual and anthropological practices of Jan Świdziński[9] and the artists cooperating with him, for example Anna Kutera. There are also practices affirming the system and partially blind to its limitations Such an event were the “Artistic Action Art and Work” organized by Stefan Papp in Kraków on 10th May 1975, which was about connecting workers’ everyday reality with art, and took place in the Stanisław Szadkowski Machine and Equipment Production Plant.[10] There were more similar outdoor events and workshops organized by the state or state-run companies in those times, like the recurrent Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elbląg, “plein airs” in Osieki, or the singular Symposium of the Artists and Scientists’ “Art in the Changing World” in Puławy (1966).

Janusz Bogucki wrote that through this kind of event, artists tried to search for new forms of public art and new territories for art, which corresponded to the growing decentralization of the country connected with establishing social stability after World War II.[11] It should be mentioned that state art institutions limited the avant-garde art that flourished during the plein airs and symposiums and that appeared in the 1970s in Bogucki’s small galleries. Bogucki created an idyllic vision of artists connecting with the local public through seminars, lectures, and mostly through the art pieces placed in the cities where the meetings were organized. He gave the example of the lecture cycle “Introduction to Knowledge on Art,” organized during the second and third plein airs in Koszalin (Osieki) to make the ideas less nebulous for an audience uneducated in contemporary art practices.[12] But the type of public space that emerges from his texts can be described as the city space itself that is the neutral, nonideological place and context in which art does not gain additional meanings.

Whereas Andrzej Turowski writes that in 1960s Poland, the issues of modernism were the most visible tendencies in art—expressed through the universalization of artistic attitudes and preserved through the formalism of abstract art.[13] In his iconic studies on “ideosis,” he defines this phenomenon as the space of thoughts and systems in which the individual’s choices always appear in the context of dominating political strategies, designated from the top down and limiting any freedom.[14] This condition seems not to have been the case for the plein-air artists, and events like Włodzimierz Borowski’s “Fourth Syncretic Show: Oblation of the Furnace” during the symposium in Puławy and the scandal it provoked only serve to justify Turowski’s observation even more. The audience gathered in one of the nitrogen factory’s production rooms with polished designs for ammonia synthesis. After a while, the artist came in an elegant outfit and climbed the stairs to the top choice. From there he delivered a speech granting the crew of the factory one of the furnaces, finding it to be a work of art. Then his speech began to take the form of singing—ballads of ammonia and urea—which led to rising tensions among the attendees. Then an actor—in a move that was not planned as part of Borowski’s performance, but only organized to cover the artist’s action— declaimed Polish Romantic period poetry by Norwid through a megaphone, which only increased the consternation of the audience. Luiza Nader places the action in the context of the game of appearances planned by the participants in such events. The action the reflects on environmental degradation, lack of compliance with safety and health of workers, and the ambiguous situation of artistic freedom.[15]

Piotr Piotrowski also writes about the political aspect of the seemingly “neutral” artistic activities, concluding that at those times artists were primarily interested in means of expression, not the spoken content.[16] Artists’ “neutrality” can be considered as a consequence of the strong politicization of socialist realism imposed from above, and after this period any form of social or critical potential was associated with this kind of politicization. While writing on the art of the 1960s and 1970s, Turowski proposed the thesis that the avant-garde art of those times appeared not only as a critique of formalism but also of its rationalized version, because of the field of influence—strictly drawn by the state—of the performances, happenings, and actions that took place during the plein airs, student clubs, and galleries of the times.[17] Allowing for the what-is-public analysis was performed only under supervision and limited to the purely artistic audience, what Piotrowski also underlines.[18] The question is interesting also because of the neo-avant-garde recalling of constructivism read as a strand of contemporary art based on the attitude of scientific, as opposed to expressionist, tendencies.[19] The narration on constructivism gained a political dimension—as, among others, Krzysztof Wodiczko says[20]—with the publication of W kręgu konstruktywizmu (1979) by Turowski, which strongly connects the aesthetic of the movement with the social and political change brought by the October Revolution.

When we go through the artists’ propositions and actions in this kind of mass event, we see the lack of social and political analysis mentioned on the ideological level of declaration and statements, invisible or neutralized through the universalization in the art itself. The authorities, unable to control the current avant-garde tendencies and their radicalization, proposed a form of social motivation that included patronage of industrial plants, which gave to those activities a recognized formula of “the aesthetic shaping of the environment.”[21] That was the reason the most desired avant-garde actions in and for the public were not those that commented on and rebuilt it, but the ones that aesthetized the space or were a kind of meta-art tautological commentary. The other definition of public art in Poland in those times comes from this specificity of conditions: art that is created for a determined space and that is characterized by its relation with the mass recipient, and the interaction with the space and spatial context in terms of aesthetics rather than politics; art seen in the net of the group interrelations between sponsors, local and state authorities, artists, artifacts, recipients, theirs needs and reactions.[22] Such a formula of the perception of most of the artifacts produced during the plein airs seems to be congruent to their functions and interests of the artists who were more concerned by material solutions and formal possibilities, and after the event donated their works to the city, or to the organizers of the event.[23] However, in this strictly rationed freedom, types of self-governed deviations appeared, which often surprised even their creators—a reason it is worth to see these particular realizations in their contexts.

The documentation of Anna Kutera’s video-performance Dialog (1973) shows the anonymity of the artist’s presence in the city sphere and a need to build art on the basis of simple contacts with others. Ewa Partum’s Legality of the Space (1971) imputes in the city sphere the presence of the citizen-supposed-to-be-conscious of her/his rights to freedom and its limitations, and her Emphatic Portraits (1978) bring to public attention the invisibility of women and their experiences in mainstream culture. In turn, Partum’s Hommage à Solidarity (1982) and Maria Pinińska-Bereś’s Only a Broom (1984) are gallery performances that show, from the woman’s position, the artist’s engagement in state politics. Pininska-Beres’s Prayer for the Rain (1977)—which can be compared with the similar intimate photo-performances by Teresa Murak, who lay down in a field in one of her cuckooflower dresses—is an intimate land-art narration on the position of a woman and her art in the field of culture. None of the chosen pieces (beside Emphatic Portraits) included a nonprofessional audience, and most of the artworks were related only to the artist’s position. Even Pinińska-Bereś’s performance Annexation of the Landscape (1980)—in which one artist temporarily divided a fragment of the landscape, marking it by using her trademark color pink and a fence—refers rather to the presence of art itself in a non-artistic environment, as well as to the time- and place-specificity of the media of performance and land-art intervention. The pieces presented perhaps do not manifest a lack of consciousness of their relation to the public, rather repression or lack of interest in this issue.

As Rosalyn Deutche writes, the way we define the public space is associated with concepts of the human, nature, and society, and the kind of political community we desire.[24] And it is worth to look at the so-called public practices of artists from those times by interrogating the desires sublimated into their pieces of art as well as the effects produced by their works.

On display and gallery space

The desire of the women artists chosen here were mostly focused around the category of presence: as a legitimate subject in the artistic environment represented here through the art histories and canons contemporary to them. How can we observe the examples of the national and international women’s art shows—and also the artist who is speaking from the subjective position as a citizen, a woman, and an active creator in the art world—from the position of power? The last issue seems to be visible in group manifestations as well as in individual ones. Let me mention that Maria Pinińska-Bereś was a co-curator and co-organizer of the “Sculpture of the Year” exhibition series in Krakow (1962–81), Izabella Gustowska and Krystyna Piotrowska ran the ON Gallery in Poznań (1979–94 and 1978–83, respectively), Ewa Partum ran her author’s gallery Address in Łódź (1971–77), Natalia LL co-created the PERMAFO group (1971–81), Teresa Tyszkiewicz co-created the movie production team Remont (1980–82), and Anna Kutera ran the Gallery of the Newest Art in Wrocław (1973–83) and co-curated meetings and artists’ plein airs. All of these spaces and projects were different. Address was an international mail-art gallery, four meters squared, associated with the Association of Polish Artists and Designers (ZPAP); after 1973 it was located in the artist’s Łódź apartment. PERMAFO did not have a permanent space and aimed more to promote and popularize the ideas of new media art based on Conceptualism. ON Gallery was associated with the Fine Arts Academy and promoted avant-garde artists, but not from the circle of orthodox Conceptualism—we can risk the assumption that the program was built in some opposition to Gallery Akumlatory 2 run by Jarosław Kozłowski. Remont was created by artists from Warsaw and related to neo-avant-garde poststructuralist cinema.  Gallery of the Newest Art, at its beginning, was associated with the Students’ Cultural Center; after, it was under the patronage of the Plastic Arts Workshops (the same as Foksal Gallery in Warsaw), the organization assigning visual artists to the preparation of decorations for state buildings, factories, national events, etc. All of these organizations worked in a net of neo-avant-garde art, which shows the fact underlined by Łukasz Ronduda after Jan Świdziński and his pragmatic definition of art, that art values are created by a specific group of people and a milieu rather than by institutions.[25]

The map of the gallery life and institutional or anti-institutional organizations of the Polish art world after 1945 is still not complete. In 1981 Bożenna Stokłosa wrote her unpublished PhD dissertation (in the archive of the Polish Institute of Science) on associations’ and artists’ galleries in Poland.[26] The same problematic was undertaken by Marcin Lachowski in his book.[27] The practice of Foksal Gallery was described and collected, but the first critical and at the same time close reading of chosen practices of Conceptual art in the context of institutionalization was undertaken by Luiza Nader with the examples of Under Mona Lisa Gallery in Wrocław, Akumlatory 2 Gallery in Poznań, and Foksal Gallery in Warsaw.[28] It has to be mentioned that these three centers and the people running them, like Jerzy Ludwiński,[29] Jarosław Kozłowski, and the Foksal team—Anka Ptaszkowska, Wiesław Borowski and Mariusz Tchorek, after Borowski and Andrzej Turowski—created the most coherent and significant concepts of institutional functions and models in the era of the People’s Republic of Poland. Łukasz Ronduda writes about neo-avant-garde institutional practices, some mentioned previously.[30]

From various possible propositions I chose the most significant ones linked to the relational aspects of Conceptual and feminist practices. Two of Anna Kutera’s art pieces show the position of the negotiations of the woman artist’s subjectivity through the medium, audience, technical equipment, and the significant other. Ewa Partum placed emphasis on the category of presence itself and how the gallery and display are configured by the meeting of the artist with the audience, including the time and space factors. The same values seem to be interesting for Natalia LL in her chorus performance from Belgrade. In the Dreaming cycle (1978), she additionally touched on the topic of revealing, viewing, and covering in art, particularly feminist art.

The art events selected indicate the characteristics of late Conceptual art of overcrossing institutions’ borders and redistributing the artistic in the social sphere. These activities are pursued from the position of the speaking subject and for the subject who is supposed to know the unfortunately limited artistic world, which provokes posing the question about artistic freedom once again, and the question about the autonomy of art and the artist. Regarding the perspective of the practices built on the different concepts of authorship and the artist’s role in the world, some of them, like Partum, seem to contribute to a romantic mythology, while others like Gustowska, on the other hand, are more positivist and pragmatic. Only some of the practices selected explore displaying art as publications. (We can mention here only the book by ewa with her lipstick marks, while noting that it was created as an artifact to be exhibited in a gallery space; or some post-exhibition publications by Natalia LL or Anna Kutera that seem to be more comprehensive than normal catalogs.) What makes my thesis stronger is the fact that the documentations of the events or lectures are very limited but some artists kept material pieces or traces of performances, which was visible at Ewa Partum’s exhibition “Legality of the Space” (2006) at Wyspa Art Institue in Gdansk.


The three topics—dealing with femininity, what is public, and exhibition/gallery space in 1970s—signalize the various artist activities in 1970s Poland. The fact that some of them are not widely known even in Polish art history points to the need of historical case studies first based on close analysis and archival research, and the need of giving these practices international visibility.

[1] The first, two-volume edition, translated by Gabriela Mycielska and Maria Lesniewska, was published in 1972. I do not cite here the run-of-the-mill publications understood as a quasi-feminist emancipation of women in public space, which was full time in the press PRL, focuses only on the work of diagnosing and analyzing the cultural position of women or feminine figures and thus the sociopolitical space. Another publication of a similar nature was published in Poland only in 1982—the anthology of translations and discussions by Polish authors Nikt nie rodzi się kobietą [Nobody is Born a Woman], edited by Teresa Hołówka.

[2] Stefan Morawski, “Neofeminizm w sztuce” [Neofeminism in Art], Sztuka, no. 4 (1977); Silvia Bovenschen, “Czy istnieje estetyka kobieca?” [Is there a Feminine Aesthetic?], trans. Ursula Niklas, in Zmierzch estetyki – rzekomy czy autentyczny?, Vol. I, ed. S. Morawski (Warsaw, 1987); Grzegorz Dziamski, “Sztuka feministyczna” [Feminist Art], Miesięcznik Literacki, no. 3–4 (1988).

[3] Izabela Kowalczyk,Od feministycznych interwencji do postfeminizmu,” in Biały mazur, (NBK and Bunkier Sztuki: Berlin and Kraków, 2003), exhibition catalog, n.p.

[4] See, for example, Natalia LL’s Post-Consumption Art on the cover of Heute Kunst 9 (1975).

[5] Mira Schor: Od wyzwolenia do braku, trasnl. Agnieszka Grzybek, “Biuletyn Ośka” 1999, no 3 (8), p. 57.

[6] H. Arendt, Kondycja ludzka, transl. A. Łagodzka, Warsaw 2000, pp. 57-58. [Human condition]

[7] Rozmowa z Krzysztofem Wodiczko. Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche i Ewa Lajer – Burchart, transl. K. Kopcińska, in: Krzysztof Wodiczko. Sztuka publiczna, ed. P. Rypson, Warsaw 1995, p. 61-64.

[8] Łukasz Ronduda, “Soc-art. Próba rewitalizacji strategii awangardowych w polskiej sztuce lat 70,” Piktogram 1 (2005): 108­–109.

[9] See Łukasz Rondud, “Elastyczność pozwala nam istnieć. Sztuka kontekstualna Jana Świdzińskiego,” Piktogram 3 (2006): 24.

[10] K. Siatka: “Wernisaż u Szadkowskiego – przyczynek do dyskusji, Fort Sztuki, 2006. no 1 (3), p 26.

[11] Janusz Bogucki, Sztuka Polski Ludowej (Warsaw 1983), 165–6.

[12] Janusz Bogucki, “Od I-go pleneru koszalińskiego do spotkania ‘Wrocław ’70,’” in Sympozjum Plastyczne Wrocław ’70, eds. D. Dziedzic and Z. Makarewicz (Wrocław 1983), 13.

[13] Andrzej Turowski, “Krzysztof Wodiczko: dekada lat 70.,” in Krzysztof Wodiczko. Sztuka publiczna, ed. P. Rypson (Warsaw 1995), 37.

[14] Andrzej Turowski, “Polska ideoza, in Sztuka polska po 1945 roku, ed. T. Hrankowska (Warsaw, 1987), 31.

[15] Luiza Nader, Monografia twórczości Włodzimierza Borowskiego w latach 1956–76 (Warsaw, 2001), MA thesis, not published, 70-71.

[16] Piotr Piotrowski, Dekada. O syndromie lat siedemdziesiątych, kulturze artystycznej, krytyce, sztuce – wybiórczo i subiektywnie (Poznań, 1991), 18.

[17] Turowski, “Krzysztof Wodiczko,” 39.

[18] Piotrowski, Dekada, 20.

[19] Andrzej Turowski, W kręgu konstruktywizmu (Warsaw, 1979), 5–6.

[20] Krzysztof Wodiczko, “Wstępem jest rozmowa,” in Krzysztof Wodiczko. Sztuka publiczna, ed. P. Rypson (Warsaw, 1995), 12–13.

[21] Andrzej Turowski, “Polska ideoza,” in Sztuka polska po 1945 roku, ed. T. Hrankowska (Warsaw, 1987), 34.

[22] H. Taborska, Współczesna sztuka publiczna, (Warsaw, 1996), 7ff.

[23] Examples of this type can still be seen in many Polish cities. See M. Woliński, “Zardzewiała utopia,” Piktogram 3 (2006): 72ff.

[24] R. Deutche, Agoraphobia, transl.. P. Leszkowicz, „Artium Questiones” 2002, no 13, p. 295.

[25] Łukasz Ronduda, “Elastyczność pozwala nam istnieć. Sztuka kontekstualna Jana Świdzińskiego,” in Sztuka polska lat 70. Awangarda (Warsaw, 2009), 204.

[26] Bożenna Stokłosa, Artystyczno-społeczna problematyka zrzeszeń plastyków w Polsce w latach 1946–76 [Artistic and social issues of plastics associations in Poland, 1946–76], (PhD dissertation, not published, IS PAN, Warsaw, 1981).

[27] Marcin Lachowski, Awangarda wobec instytucji. O sposobach prezentacji sztuki w PRL-u [Avant-garde towards institution: On the ways of presenting art in the People’s Republic of Poland] (Lublin, 2006).

[28] Luiza Nader, Konceptualizm w PRLu [Conceptual art in the People’s Republic of Poland] (Warsaw, 2009).

[29] On Ludwiński’s practices and concepts see: M. Ziółkowska, Muzeum Sztuki Aktualnej – dyskurs i wydarzenie [Museum of Current Art—discourse and event] (PhD dissertation, not published, IHS UW, Warsaw, 2012).

[30] Ronduda, “Elastyczność pozwala nam istnieć.”

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