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09 of November '23

The column is from A&B issue 10|23

What does Matejko have to do with Polish murals? If he were alive, he himself would probably paint his informative bigots on the walls. However, all is not lost. More and more public murals are being created in a similar vein. The closer to flat and right coloring, the more admiration.

Seemingly, a person has some knowledge and views, but from what brainwashing. Once, just after a visit to the Warsaw Uprising Museum, I was sure that we had won by a whisker in the forty-fourth. For a while I even thought that after the victorious uprising, the Varsovians had conquered Berlin on the spur of the moment. The museum acted perfectly as a mental washing machine. I felt out of pride, like the Marshal's chestnut and Rudy 102 in one.

This summer I had a similar experience after an exhibition at the National Museum in Kraków. I left it as an instant Matejko enthusiast. What shame I felt that I had previously said ugly things about Matejko. How silly I felt that I still don't have a reproduction of the „Battle of Grunwald” above my bed. The same one, the form of which I've been calling a war bigot for years, or even the result of eating a bigot that has already had its day.

This is how the exhibition at the National works. It brainwashes already at twenty degrees. Because, let's face it: on a sultry August day it was the coolness of the air conditioning that was the main incentive to drop in to the exhibition „Matejko. Painter and History.” Well, and I fell in. Up to my ears. At the National is richly, much and accurately. The production is flawless: important paintings, including lesser-known ones, valuable artifacts, good scenery. And the fiendish idea to say much and nothing about Matejko using this wealth. And certainly nothing bad. It's enough to make you leave the museum with the feeling that, well, a giant this Matejko after all—and that's in spite of his slight stature. What a hard worker, what a detailer. And, above all, a patriot.

"There will be no exaggeration in stating that Matejko's work has shaped ideas about the most famous events in the history of the Polish nation," reads the exhibition description. Fact: there was an outpouring of Matejko from textbooks, albums and reproductions. And it was always more important what his illustrative overproduction depicted, not how he did it. And so Matejko influenced for himself without critical analysis the aesthetic tastes of generations. The exhibition is basically silent about these lamentable effects, even if a few words fall in passing that some people did not respect Matejko as an artist, said he didn't really know how to do this or that. Were they right? Maybe it was due to jealousy? Such professional analysis is lacking.

So one leaves the National, and only after a while does the freshly washed brain begin to stain with ketchups of doubt and grease of disappointment: that the Kraków exhibition is a missed opportunity to look at Matejko and his myth with fresh eyes; that there is so little confrontation with what was happening in parallel painting. That there is a lack of comparisons with other history-making greats. That there is almost nothing about continuators and imitators (or lack thereof), that—finally—zero attempts to confront Matejko with later works. Those that stand thematically and artistically in opposition to him, and those that harmonize or at least draw from him. And what does he draw from? For example, today's Polish murals—and not only those with similar themes, i.e. the most ridiculed patriotic bohomoses on the Internet.

Until a dozen or so years ago, I used to be a mural enthusiast, because the graphics were often created by high-profile artists, and the murals were witty, subversive, with a claw. There was also selection—works were created at annual festivals, competitions were held, curators did their job. Not so low again was the threshold for entering the public space, turning people's heads with your art. Today it is almost thresholdless. Murals are funded by local governments, local activist groups, schools, neighborhood councils, enthusiasts of this or that, developers and outdoor machers who have found another place to litter with advertising.

So every year there are more and more murals that are sweeter, more righteous, more illustrative. By more or less random graphic artists. Urban monids, from which oozes the spirit of Matejko: literalism, responding to a need, such talent and succumbing to horror vacui. When a mural is a showcase of a city or a neighborhood, it has to have everything on it. Heaven forbid that some legend, symbol or story should be missing, because this or that street will be offended.

Not that it fell like a bolt from the sky. Already eight years ago Sebastian Frąckiewicz titled his book on street art "To make it pretty," seeing what was coming. Murals today are a response to the common understanding of the word „pretty.” Just look at the reactions on the Internet. The closer the mural shown there is to a coloring book, the bigger the hail of hearts, likes and comments like „lovely, hello!” fly. Pure muralopolo.

Finally, murals are often instead of. Just as instead of real Poland there were instructive paintings by Matejko, so instead of trees there is a mural about trees, instead of a decent street—a wall illusion depicting it. Potemkin village and Matejko in one. Potemateism. And not just on the blind walls of tenements. If one already curses the designers of modernist housing estates for something, then for the windowless gable walls of blocks of flats. One, that such houses look like a sausage cut from a subway, and two, that these walls today make for a stretcher for murals.

Meanwhile, there is almost no control over the mural diarrhea. It was only a year ago that a team was established in Kraków to coordinate the creation of murals, their maintenance, location and so on. In Poznań, however, an interdisciplinary team for art in the city was ostensibly set up, but the murals were taken under the supervision of the deputy director of the Municipal Roads Management Board, who also serves (or did, a matter shrouded in a fog of official understatement) as the mayor's plenipotentiary for aesthetics. He took and failed to prevent the recent implementation of an infantile mural about Margaret Musierowicz's books.

It is therefore of no use trying to keep the elements in check. We deserve a total DEMURALIZATION. How to promote this slogan? The best way is in the form of murals. Let them be conceptual art for once.

Jakub Głaz

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