A New Beginning. Modernism in the Second Republic

16 of February '23

The exhibition "New Beginnings. Modernism in the Second Republic of Poland" at the National Museum in Krakow is the second exhibition in the "4 × Modernity" series designed to present four beginnings in 20th century Polish culture. The first exhibition in the series, "Polish National Styles 1890-1918," dedicated to the art of the early 20th century, was shown at the MNK in late 2021 and early 2022.

Andrzej SzczerskiAndrzej Szczerski - Critic and art historian, director of the National Museum in Krakow, vice-chairman of the Social Committee for Renovation of Krakow Monuments, lecturer and head of museum curatorial studies (2005-2011) at the Institute of Art History of the Jagiellonian University. He also taught at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main (2003) and the University of St. Andrews in the UK (2004). He has received scholarships from foreign universities and research institutes, including Oxford University, Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich, Universita per Stranieri in Perugia. He has also received fellowships from the Lanckoroński Foundation and the Foundation for Polish Science, as well as grants from the National Science Center and the National Program for the Development of the Humanities. He is the recipient of the Award of the City of Cracow (1996) and the Awards of the Rector of the Jagiellonian University. In 2018, he received the annual Prize of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage in the category of Protection of Cultural Heritage. Curator of the exhibition "Young Poland. An Arts and Crafts Movement" at the William Morris Gallery in London.

Photo: Joanna Pawłowska | Photographic Studio of the MNK

Michal Wisniewski:The idea of four modernities appeared in your 2015 book. Now we are witnessing a summary of this research through four cross-cutting exhibitions. Last year, the first one, dedicated to the art of the early 20th century and the first clash between Polish culture and modernity, was shown at the National Museum in Krakow. Now the time has come for that second beginning - modernism of the interwar period. Let's start by introducing the very idea of four modernities and four beginnings.

Andrzej Szczerski:This is the result of many years of my studies of modernization, the consequence of which was the conviction that it is impossible to establish a single modernist pattern in Poland. It is much more interesting to see different chapters or aspects of our history of modernity. Different time perspectives and references to specific places are needed here. The experience of Poland in the 20th and 21st centuries shows that the story of modernization is so complex that it needs to be divided into four stages, which correspond to the division resulting from our political, in part economic and cultural history. These cut-off dates are 1900, 1918, 1945, 1989. Only then can we appreciate the diversity and dynamics of change. However, in these four historical periods, despite their diversity, we see what remains constant and crucial, that is, the conviction that Polish culture should occupy a subjective place in the history of modernity, that we are able to create modernity with international inspiration, but on our own terms, originally, achieving the goals we set for ourselves.

Nowy początek. Modernizm w II RP

A new beginning. Modernism in the Second Republic


Michal: The exhibition description reads: "The exhibition brings a new picture of the first wave of modernism in Poland in the interwar period." Could you tell us what this image is? What are we actually seeing?

Andrzej: It is worth starting with the new beginning evoked in the title. In a sense, each of these periods is the beginning of a slightly different history and the development of a different model of modernization. The starting point for the construction of the exhibition under discussion is the memory of the tragic experience of World War I, but also the fear of the catastrophe brought about, according to artists of the time, by poorly managed modernization dating back to the 19th century. Its result was, for example, the dehumanization of the worker in a large factory or the militarization of Europe, and its consequence was later totalitarian systems using, for example, modern communication or management techniques. At the time, hopes for a better future were largely inspired by fears of what might happen if modern reality got out of control. Confirmation of the validity of this fear was the Great Depression. I think it's very important to understand that change was feared at the time not because it was reactionary, but, on the contrary, too progressive, building a new and unknown reality that could lead to destruction. All the more important was the prospect of a new world, an alternative one, in which modernization brings positive results, and such was of interest to artists.

The second important aspect of the exhibition was to emphasize that the scope of modernization projects had broadened, modernity was becoming an increasingly common experience, and not only avant-garde groups identified with it. We have a belief in the dominance of the avant-garde as almost the only promoter of modernization that has been well established in art history since the 1960s, at least. Meanwhile, a great many other entities that do not fit into this picture also advocated and actively promoted modernization, often on a scale not available to avant-garde artists. We are talking about organizations or activities between industry and art, between social and artistic organizations. There were also specific enclaves of modernization that we had previously underestimated, such as the whole social movement for promoting sports, health, modern dance or rhythmics. We recall new techniques and tools of communication, such as photomontage or cutting-edge cinema, important not only to the radical avant-garde, but also to state structures that reached for them for pragmatic reasons. Such attributes of modernity were part of everyday life, not an avant-garde enclave.

And finally, the exhibition shows the sources of modernity other than before. In addition to that which is rational, based on modern science, directed toward the future, we point out that history, or rather the search for the original sources of the rebirth of art, the regenerative myth, about which Piotr Juszkiewicz writes in the exhibition catalog, turned out to be equally fascinating. In this sense, it is impossible to understand modernization if we do not pay attention to the fascination with so-called primitive art, folklore, children's art or medieval religious art. This broader perspective better explains where the success of modernization came from. This is not a constructivist and externally imposed project, but a process rooted in a specific history and identity, multithreaded and polyphonic, certainly not just radically avant-garde.

przestrzenie ekspozycyjne

exhibition spaces

Photo: Mykyta Platonov

Michal: My attention was drawn to the poster and visuals relating to electrification, which did not appear on a large scale in the Polish cultural landscape until half a century later, during the reign of Edward Gierek. Why did you decide to use just electric poles to tell the story of modernism?

Andrew: It's an important question - the two are connected. Starting with Edward Gierek, in a sense we specifically took over this symbol of communist Poland to show that electrification has a much longer history and thus the iconography of modernity was developed long before 1945. In a way, this is a polemic against the myth, which still accompanies us today, that it was only in the People's Republic that large-scale modernization efforts began. The electric pole and its geometric construction is also an adequate visual metaphor for modernity. Besides, it was already becoming the subject of works of art at that time, at the exhibition you can see Rafal Malczewski's painting "The Dawn of Poland's Birth", the main motif of which is an electric pole. In addition, the motif of the pole also returns in the arrangement of the exhibition designed by LATALAdesign studio. For us, this is a very clear sign of the title "new beginning."

przestrzenie ekspozycyjne

exhibition spaces

Photo: Mykyta Platonov

Michal: The exhibition setting also features the body, we see a photo depicting runners taking off.

Andrew: This second motif is meant to show that the goal of modernization is, on the one hand, technical development, based on science and creating a frame in which life takes place, and on the other hand, precisely the "new man" and the new culture he creates. Runners are a great symbol of this.

Michal: Four years ago we celebrated the centennial of Polish independence. On that occasion, a multi-year program "Independence" was created, which resulted in a series of exhibitions and publications devoted to the art and culture of the Second Republic. Thus, there have already been several exhibitions that interpreted Polish modernity. I suppose that taking on this theme was an additional challenge - or perhaps, on the contrary, it became a mobilizing factor. What was it like for your curatorial team?

Andrzej: The point of reference was certainly the exhibitions that had been created even earlier that dealt with modernism and modernity, such as "Reaction to Modernism. The Architecture of Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz" (Architecture Institute Foundation, MNK, 2013) or the exhibition "The Future Will Be Different. Visions and Practices of Social Modernization after 1918" (Zachęta - National Gallery of Art, 2018), and going even further back "Expedition to the Twentieth Century" (National Museum in Warsaw, 2008). Of course, there have been many such initiatives, exhibitions, discussions, films or publications about modernism in recent years, but they did not offer what is central to our exhibition. Each of these events dealt with a fragment of the story of modernization or a detailed study of a specific case. "We planned "A New Beginning" as a synthetic account of the era, emphasizing the scale of modernization and appreciating in this context phenomena that have not been discussed in art exhibitions so far: on the one hand, education reform and the participation of designers and artists, i.e. large-scale activities, and on the other, elite enclaves of modernity, such as car rallies or balloon flight to the stratosphere. In addition to this broader perspective, we also highlight the polyphony of modernism. The issue of the aforementioned sources of modernity, which were supposed to give art its regenerative power, has not been exploited so far. We knew that, if only for this reason, our exhibition would be quite different.

uczennice Szkoły Gimnastyki Nowoczesnej Stanisławy Pohlówny we Lwowie, 1932

Students of the Stanisława Pohlówna School of Modern Gymnastics in Lviv, 1932

Photo: © National Digital Archive

Michal: The first part of the exhibition raises the question of the twilight of the West. I would like to focus on this thread, on fatalism and the belief that Europe is over. Our part of Europe then generated several constructions of the new man. In Serbia, a barbarous man was born, a man free from the ballast of civilization, who was to conquer and repair Europe. In Czechoslovakia, the robot was born, the answer to the challenges of mechanization and the tragedy of war. Has Polish culture also generated an equally powerful narrative about the new man? In addition to observing the twilight of Europe, did it have the intention to create its own modernizing construct as a counterpoint?

Andrzej: Certainly, in Poland, there was no escape from this problem, and there was no dominant belief that we were in the midst of ruins and could only observe the crisis of modernity. On the contrary, it was believed that in this situation we should just build it all up again, and the restoration of the independent state obviously strengthened this process. There are many such symbolic figures that Polish culture has created. I think a very important one in this context is the museologist artist Władysław Strzemiński, who led to the creation of one of the world's first museums of modern art. A second symbol of modernity in Poland could be an artist-cooperative working in or for a cooperative organization whose members jointly implement modernizing projects. An obvious example of such activities was, among others, the Warsaw Housing Cooperative and the architects who created projects of social housing estates for it. In the context of social activities, it is also worth appreciating the involvement of artists in educational activities and popularization of modernity. In Poland, an important peculiarity of modernization is its promotion, on the one hand by the Polish state and its agencies, and on the other by social, grassroots initiatives, for example, in workplaces, by NGOs, as well as art groups. This is also an example of modernization, which is part of the search for a solidarity-based model of society, which was important for the entire Polish culture of the 20th century. Solidarity, or national and social solidarity, is one of the most important achievements in recent Polish history, which manifests itself again and again, in very different contexts, for example, in structures that organize artistic life, support the development of handicrafts, or in educational initiatives.

medal nagrodowy Sportowych Klubów Wojskowych, szermierka, proj.: Józef Klukowski, 1938

award medal of the Sports Military Clubs, fencing, design: Jozef Klukowski, 1938

© MNK Digitization Workshop

Michal: I was surprised by the attitude towards the city as a tool for modernization. You showed the city with a certain distrust or reluctance. Polish national culture has its roots outside the city, in the 19th century the role of the manor was especially celebrated, cities were treated with distrust, you can see this well in literature. In the interwar period, this attitude to the city is changing. Your exhibition gives the impression that this distrust remained somewhere, however. Was the city really an untapped opportunity of Polish culture? The already mentioned Władysław Strzemiński, however, lived in Lodz.

Andrzej: But he hated the architecture of that Lodz, describing it as an example of capitalist exploitation of urban space. It must be admitted, however, that he was fascinated by its dynamics, treating it as a reality to be shaped anew. His whole project of "Functionalized Lodz" was conceived in counterpoint to the Lodz that existed. So I think this may not be a problem of the exhibition, but of the modernists themselves and how they treated the cities they found. Especially those radical modernists. Anyway, the problem of who was afraid of the city and why remains to be resolved. In Warsaw, which was experiencing accelerated development at the time, there is indeed hope for building a new metropolitan city, and this generates optimism, even at a time when the city is run by a commissioner rather than a democratically elected president. Enthusiasm for urban culture is well demonstrated by the example of Gdynia, which was being built under unfavorable circumstances anyway. Architects were not satisfied with the shape of the city under construction, believing that it lacked a rational plan or urban center. The whole discussion about Gdynia shows that they were concerned not so much about the city, but whether we were actually building it well. On the other hand, we say in the exhibition that new architecture was the hope for civilizing cities neglected during the partitions, in the modernist spirit. We end the whole story with such new symbols of urbanity as the Central Station in Warsaw and the Silesian Museum in Katowice. And actually their destruction is the symbolic end of this new beginning, which began in 1918. In this sense, in the exhibition the city is shown as a project yet to be realized, rather than a finished space that we accept and are fascinated by.

przestrzenie ekspozycyjne

exhibition spaces

Photo: Mykyta Platonov

Michal: You mentioned outstanding architectural realizations. What about urban planning? The theme of urban planning concepts emerging at that time in the exhibition faintly resonates. Surely this was also a conscious decision?

Andrzej:Urbanism appears in the exhibition in the example of plans for the future, such as "Functional Warsaw." But since we were more interested in what was actually realized, we talk less about such projected visions only. In the twentieth century, such plans often remained on paper, although cities had obviously changed a lot. Major urban developments were yet to come.

Michal: Art is also about politicalities. The exhibition shows how modernism became involved in the state-building process during the Second Republic. But what about the modernists who didn't necessarily have their way with the state? You show the monument to the emblem that Strzeminski erected in Koluszki, meanwhile, many people close to Strzeminski at the time looked to the East with confidence and hope. They didn't necessarily see in the Second Polish Republic those modernization processes you mention, or they saw them in a kind of distorted mirror, as some failed experiment. Weren't you tempted to somehow also address more broadly the criticism of this official art and this real modernism? Criticism articulated, for example, from the communist left?

Andrew: Since we were interested in real reality and not in utopian plans, the theme of criticism of the Second Republic from the Left appeared only in the first part, where we show the dangers brought by modernization, that is, for example, precisely the social or social problems, such as unemployment, which the Left fought against. The work of Bronislaw Linke, for example, talks about this. Later in the exhibition, we talk about the appreciation of modernization reforms, where other issues are more important, hence such a place given to the Left. Anyway, this is also a proposal to see the left not only as an isolated phenomenon using its own tools of agitation, but also part of a broader phenomenon of criticism of the modern world. Perhaps this will allow for a new reading of the meaning of the left in Poland and the reasons why it gained support.

rajd samochodowy kobiet na trasie Warszawa-Gdynia-Warszawa, 1937

Women's car rally on the Warsaw-Gdynia-Warsaw route, 1937

© National Digital Archive

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