Warsaw

Gruppa

Zachęta National Gallery of Art

Formed in 1982, Gruppa (Ryszard Grzyb, Pawel Kowalewski, Jaroslaw Modzelewski, Wlodzimierz Pawlak, Marek Sobczyk, and Ryszard Wozniak) exhibited provocative paintings and drawings (including the collectively produced gigantic works on paper called papiery) staged numerous performances, and published its own bulletin. In 1989, Gruppa’s activity—strangely enough never based on a coherent program, came to an end with a work painted on a wooden billboard in front of an election center in Warsaw as an advertisement for Solidarity. Today, as the artists pursue their individual careers, the connections among them are only tenuous.

What originally distinguished the Gruppa members from other contemporary artists was not the style of their works, which was inspired by the German Neue Wilde and Italian transavanguardia and adopted by many young Polish artists; it was their overtly declared refusal to reduce the Solidarity-led struggle for freedom to yet another heroic episode in Poland’s ongoing effort to rid itself of foreign domination and establish democracy. Rather, they wanted to demythologize and examine the struggle using irony, pastiche, the language of aggressive signs, and the visual syntax of posters. For example, Ryszard Wozniak’s Zabieg (Medical operation, 1982) depicts a black eagle (the Polish coat of arms) wearing a military hat and casting a bloody shadow—in allusion to Poland’s rule by the country’s last communist leader. Wlodzimierz Pawlak’s red painting with three ghostly figures apparently drinking vodka, Skad przychodzimy, kim jestesmy, dokad idziemy, 1986, borrows its title from Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, 1897, and belongs to the artist’s series on the “war of images” that occured on the walls of Polish buildings during martial law.

Gruppa did not limit its works to political conflict. Many of the paintings were also concerned with social issues, such as Ryszard Grzyb’s Walka Jakuba z aniolem, rozowa (Jacob Wrestling the Angel, Pink, 1984), which depicts the famous scene as a struggle between a Native American and the devil, or Jaroslaw Modzelewski and Marek Sobczyk’s Die Einsamkeit (Loneliness, 1984), showing two men, one naked, one in a bathing suit, embracing each other in a swimming pool. But the commentary in these works remains deeply ambiguous. It is not clear whether gay men are depicted to attract attention to the lack of tolerance in predominantly homophobic Poland, or are employed only for their shock value. Similarly, it is uncertain if the depiction of Native Americans (a subject popular with Polish children) is supposed to evoke nostalgia for a lost childhood or to serve as a reminder of the brutal fate of a people.

The passionate discussion of the social and political situation in Poland, which preoccupied Gruppa during the ’80s, has been largely replaced in the ’90s by a contemplative and benign approach to contemporary issues. This part of the exhibit consisted of paintings by Grzyb, Modzelewski, Sobczyk, and Wozniak that are stylistically related to their earlier works but far less challenging. The formalism of Pawlak’s white abstractions and Kowalewski’s ornamental images (called “wall papers” and displayed in gold frames) contrasted with the rest of the show. Their presence apparently signals a new direction for Pawlak’s and Kowalewski’s art. But in transcending politics, are the artists also submitting to the pressure of the commercial art market and relinquishing those values forged in earlier, less remunerative years?

Marek Bartelik