Bruges, Belgium

Pavel Büchler, Eclipse, 2009, mixed-media installation. From “The Reality of Lowest Rank.”

Pavel Büchler, Eclipse, 2009, mixed-media installation. From “The Reality of Lowest Rank.”

“The Reality of Lowest Rank”

Various Venues

Pavel Büchler, Eclipse, 2009, mixed-media installation. From “The Reality of Lowest Rank.”

Making Central Europe central—how’s that for a change? The focus of this exhibition, whose full title was “The Reality of Lowest Rank; Luc Tuymans: A Vision of Central Europe,” was art originating in Poland, expanding from there in widening geographical circles to other Central European countries (Lithuania, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) and the rest of the world (with works by the likes of Alex Katz and Takashi Murakami). The story was told by Luc Tuymans, who has for many years been traveling through these countries and is in touch with many artists in the region, and his fellow Belgian painter Tommy Simoens, with a section on animation selected by film curator Edwin Carels.

The show was divided among five sites in the historic center of Bruges and included work by forty-four artists. It began at Stadshallen on Markt with a pair of paintings by Andy Warhol showing his mother, and the Glückspfennig (Lucky Penny) from 1943 that German artist Andreas Slominski found in the concentration camp at Buchenwald in 1996. The portraits and the penny define the two poles—the banality of everyday life, and the Holocaust—about which the works of the other artists in the show are grouped.

In his encounters with the art of Central Europe, Tuymans was struck by the fact that everyday life was the most common motif. While in the United States after World War II artists were paying homage to exalted heroism of painting itself, here the main focus was on the quotidian and its Kafkaesque absurdities. Tuymans finds his observation confirmed by Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor, whose formulation “the reality of the lowest rank” he adapted for the title of the show, and he presents Warhol—whose mother was from Slovakia—as the one who imported the mundane back into the art of the West. That it was an artist of Eastern European descent who did this is no coincidence, Tuymans believes.

And indeed, the motif of the everyday was pervasive in the show, from the work of Zbigniew Libera of Poland and the Bosnian artist Zlatko Kopljar to that of Sigmar Polke, who, like many others, approaches it with a mixture of humor and irony. This humor is bitter and debunking, the irony paradoxically bearing witness to a profound human understanding. This paradox gives the artists of this region, in which history often looks like a senseless heap of absurdities, the strength to ward off paralysis. We see this, for example, when Polish artist Alina Szapocznikow creates beautiful lamps using casts of her own face, a reference to the Nazis’ use of human skin to make lamp shades, as she herself is a Holocaust survivor.

Which brings us to the second topic, the Holocaust. While the West believed, with Adorno, that no poetry could be written after Auschwitz, the artists of Eastern Europe started approaching this theme already in the 1950s. Their efforts were made all the more urgent by the fact that many of them continued to live under dictatorships. Not only Szapocznikow, Kantor, and Walerian Borowczyk, but also the Polish painter Andrzej Wróblewski, who witnessed his father’s death of a heart attack during a Gestapo raid, venture to show that images can be found even for the unimaginable.

The story told in this exhibition has the potential to explode the self-understanding of the art world. To a great degree, the artists Tuymans selected have, until recently, been ignored beyond their own homelands. When listened to, their voices will change how we see post–World War II art.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.