“Warsaw-Moscow/Moscow-Warsaw, 1900–2000”

“Warsaw-Moscow/Moscow-Warsaw, 1900–2000” was an outgrowth of the pioneering exhibitions of similar character, “Paris-Moscow” and “Berlin-Moscow,” but its significance was quite different. While the two earlier blockbusters mainly celebrated, and validated, an art-historical division of Europe into “centers” and “peripheries” by the nations that have held claims to the highest achievements of modern art, the Warsaw exhibition, curated by Anda Rottenberg, matched two countries that most of the world hardly perceives as equal—politically, culturally, or artistically. Indirectly, this show reflected the presence of “blank spots” on the artistic map of Europe, which had often been justified in the past by the unfavorable geopolitical division of the old continent into East and West.

Providing a historical record of the development of arts in both countries by surveying works of some 250 artists, the exhibition included pieces by pioneering modernists such as Natalya Goncharova, Wassily Kandinsky, Katarzyna Kobro, and Wladyslaw Strzeminski but also socialist realist paintings by Alexander Gerasimov and Helena Krajewska. As far as contemporary art is concerned, the collapse of the Berlin Wall produced something of a neurotic reaction: Trained in making art with deceptive messages during the Communist era, some Eastern European artists quickly figured out how to plug into the network servicing the late-capitalist art market. The resulting strand of cynical postmodernism from both Poland and Russia, attuned to the latest trends in the West, was clearly visible in the pendant to the Zachęta show—a large exhibition of recent works from both countries called “Beyond the Red Horizon: Contemporary Art from Poland and Russia” and mounted at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle—which gathered a large group of younger artists, many of them recognized internationally, some for sound reasons.

By surveying artistic developments in Poland and Russia in the twentieth century, “Warsaw-Moscow/Moscow-Warsaw” was, however, mainly an internal affair between the Poles and the Russians. The exhibition, which traveled to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in a modified version, resulted in an artistic exchange on an unprecedented scale between two nations that historically perceive each other with suspicion, if not distrust. Despite geographical closeness and common Slavic origins, significant interaction between Polish and Russian artists was limited in the past, but some events did reach an important symbolic level. Often mentioned among these is the 1927 exhibition of the Suprematist works of Kazimir Malevich, organized in Warsaw before the show was presented in Berlin and attended by an elite group of Polish artists and writers. The specter of Malevich, a Russian artist with Polish roots, hovered over the Zache ̧ta not only in the form of his works but also in numerous “dialogues” with him by younger artists.

Focusing on Polishness and Russianness as historic distinctions, the show paid less attention to the multiethnic and multicul- tural aspects of either country, especially during the interwar period. The reason for such an “oversimplification” may well have been practical, for “Warsaw-Moscow/Moscow-Warsaw” was so ambitious in its attempt to map the artistic production from the entire twentieth century in Poland and Russia that it became crowded with works. By emphasizing the simultaneity of artistic trends in both countries, it proved the obvious: There is always an international lingua franca, usable by open-minded artists regardless of their nationality. But “Warsaw-Moscow/Moscow-Warsaw” spoke most poignantly when it dealt with art in a political context, touching the wounds of history and the lingering fears resulting from them, in both countries—for instance, the massacres of Polish officers by the Soviets during World War II, which was heavily emphasized in Warsaw. By doing so, the exhibition not only cast light on the complicated relationship between Poland and Russia during the twentieth century but also provided a superb panorama of works that, in a similar fashion, reacted to troubled times in two nations, ceaselessly caught in the political turmoil of their day.

Marek Bartelik