Struggling with limited exhibition space the National Museum in Warsaw recently re-organised its 20th – 21st Century Galleries and opened a new temporary exhibition titled Visible Invisible. Dedicated to twentieth century painting by Polish artists from the museum’s vast collection the show includes many works rarely seen in public. Arranged according to themes rather than chronology, this is a brief but comprehensive overview of the most important themes and styles that defined the art of the previous century.
The National Museum’s 19th Century Gallery located on the same floor is filled with masterpieces of Polish art, familiar to generations of Poles from reproductions and school textbooks. The glorious tradition of nineteenth-century painting is best exemplified by large canvasses of famous battles and historical events from Poland’s past, such as Jan Matejko’s Battle of Grunwald, painted in 1878. The works gathered together for Visible Invisible could not be further from Matejko’s grand style.
Apart from a few well-known names, such as Zdzisław Beksiński, Tadeusz Makowski or Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, the average museum goer probably will not be familiar with the majority of painters presented in this new exhibition. However, this should not be a reason to skip it. On the contrary, it is a fantastic opportunity to learn about more recent Polish art and maybe even pick up some new favourites.
Arranged according to ten broad themes, Visible Invisible illustrates how certain ideas were reinterpreted over the years. The first room titled We Are… begins with subjects related to national identity. The first work on display is a fantastical folklore-inspired canvas by Zofia Stryjeńska The Seasons. January-February (Procession II with horses) (1925). Two more recent works in this room reinterpret the Flag of Poland, one by Jan Dobkowski titled Deadly Orifices (1984) where the ragged white-and-red flag appears as if torn by bullets, and another, painted by Włodzimierz Pawlak titled Poles Forming the National Flag (1989).
Stryjeńska’s cycle of colourful allegories of the months and seasons dates to the interwar period, just after Poland regained long-awaited independence in 1918. Her art evoked a sense of national pride at the point in time when the atmosphere in the country was hopeful. This relatively peaceful period did not last long. The art post-1945 was significantly influenced by the war experience and scenes from everyday life often depicted harsh reality.
The Collapse and Decay room contains several symbolic and catastrophic paintings, such as Bronisław Wojciech Linke’s Sea of Blood, from the series ‘War’ (1952), a raw metaphor of war and trauma and very dark Railway Accident (1932) by the same artist. Sky (1977), by Zbylut Grzywacz depicts unnaturally red sky above the grey street, framed by grey buildings and grey people. The grey people form queues leading to shops, a familiar landscape feature in cities, towns and villages in post-war Poland. In Grzywacz’s painting the sky is transformed into raw meat, one of the rationed products.
Throughout the past century realism was used in portraiture, still-life and genre scenes. Enigmatic and surrealistic paintings of Anna Güntner, such as Studying the Earth’s Crust (1962), resemble works of Magic Realism. Painted in the style of Socialist Realism everyday scenes can be seen today as documents of the past, for instance Józefa Wnukowa’s Milk Bar (1952) depicting a scene from a milk bar, a type of cheap restaurant often associated with the post-war period. Demons (1987) by Łukasz Korolkiewicz is a much more recent photorealistic and slightly ambiguous genre scene.
New ideas and art movements from abroad relatively quickly found their way into Polish art. Those artists who were able to travel abroad found inspiration in Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism or Futurism. Many contemporary Polish artists embraced Abstraction, Op-Art and Concept art. Experimenting with different styles was quite common. It might be difficult to believe that large anti-war Korean Mother (1951) painted in Socialist Realist style and E19 (1966) inspired by Opt-Art are both works of the same painter Wojciech Fangor. Władysław Hasior is perhaps better known for his sculpture and public monuments, in the exhibition we can see two of his textile-based assemblage works (King Herod, 1970 and Traditional Madwoman, 1974).
Some paintings on display may seem as heavily influenced by, or merely copying foreign styles. Władysław Strzemiński’s abstract After-image of the Sun (1948-49) may no longer appear fresh or revolutionary today, although the artist’s experiments in style cost him his post as a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź (the institution, it has to be added, was co-founded by the painter himself) as the artist was apparently opposed the state-approved Socialist Realist style. On the other hand, the exhibition features a large number of highly original and innovative works by talented artists who are largely unknown to the wider public. One of the most memorable paintings is a slightly worrying vision of mechanised and soulless future shown in Dispatcher (c.1972) painted by Benon Liberski.
Featuring 143 paintings Visible Invisible is filled with superb examples of what Polish contemporary art has to offer. Although the labelling of the individual artworks could do with more information about the artists and context, overall the exhibition is very well presented. Good to see that those well-hidden modern and contemporary treasures are now available to the new generations of museum visitors.
Visible Invisible. Showcase of 20th-century paintings from the Collection of National Museum in Warsaw.
Widoczne Niewidoczne. Pokaz malarstwa XX wieku ze zbiorów Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie.
The exhibition runs from 14.06.2019 until 01.12.2019.
 Visible Invisible. Exhibition catalogue, 2019 p. 54.
 R.J. Kluszczyński, Od Michałowskiego do Fangora. Nowoczesne Malarstwo Polskie. WBC, Kraków 2016, p. 394.
Link to the exhibition page on the National Museum’s website (in Polish): https://www.mnw.art.pl/wystawy/widoczne-niewidoczne-pokaz-malarstwa-xx-wieku-ze-zbiorow-muzeum-narodowego-w-warszawie,226.html