Change Etched in Stone
19 May 1996

A new show depicts a radical evolution in Polish sculpture styles this century.

The National Museum in Warsaw is presenting the first retrospective of Polish sculpture in the 20th century, a time of immense change for the art form.

Polish sculpture entered this century carrying many conventions from the previous one, although these were more of a challenge than an obstacle to the best artists. The true beginning of the 20th century for sculpture came during World War I.

In 19th-century sculpture the differences between the first and last years of the age are discernible only to the experts, but in this century those differences are as obvious as they are immeasurable. Forms have changed as have techniques, materials and the way sculpture is perceived by artists and audiences alike. The recently opened exhibition looks at these changes through 100 objects from the National Museum's collection.

The principal change in 20th-century sculpture is the appearance of abstract art: breaking with the tradition of depicting nature in favor of creating autonomous shapes-creation instead of imitation. Sculpture also discovered space as an integral factor of form, then moved the point of reference from a specific work to the action of creating itself.

Early symbolism in Polish sculpture, unlike painting, is a romantic expression of soft, flowing forms, but shapes geometricized and simplified to the extreme are a concurrent trend (the work of Bolesław Biegas, for example). Both forms of expression served the same existential themes that also determined the art of Xawery Dunikowski (Tchnienie, or Breath of Life). After World War I, Polish independence became an equally important theme for Dunikowski (Tomb of King Bolesław Śmiały, 1917).

Expressionism, which its authors soon came to call formism, aimed at pure form through geometricization and removing details. Most of the formists were painters, but there were a few important sculptors, too, such as Zbigniew Pronaszko and August Zamoyski.

After independence in 1918, a new trend drew on formists' accomplishments and even more strongly dependent on folk traditions: decorative art, corresponding to the French Art Deco. The great success of Polish artists at the Paris Salon in 1925 made them wildly popular. These artists subsequently gave in to the return of classical tendencies in art.

The most characteristic work of the decorative art trend is the relief of the Nativity by Jan Szczepkowski. The classical tendencies had the greatest influence upon the art of Edward Wittig and Jadwiga Bohdanowicz, but most of all on Henryk Kuna, who searched for harmony and rhythm in ancient sculpture.

Avant-garde also developed during this time. This genre is underrepresented in the museum's collection, but it does have Katarzyna Kobro's cubistic (but not constructivist) works and Henryk Wiciński's sculptures, which attempt to create autonomous forms with an organic origin.

In the late 1930s, many artists still preserved the classical principles of sculptural compositions but dropped the harmony and decorative stylization of the 1920s. Wittig's works, not just the official monuments, become increasingly monumental and serious; Kuna's style freezes into gloomy compositions and realistic portraits.

The post-World War II years are dominated by social realism, endorsed by the communist authorities but with no masterpieces. A freer cultural policy after 1955 led to the explosion of abstract tendencies, understood synonymously with freedom of artistic expression. Although soon the state patron wanted to control art once again, a return to the previous state of affairs was impossible. The freedom to use one's own means of artistic expression accompanied the development of two basic trends resulting from artists' approach to reality: the emotional, subjective trend heir to all romantic ideology (Alina Szapocznikow, Barbara Zbrożyna) and the intellectual, objective look at reality through the work of art (Adam Potocki, Tadeusz Łodzina).

Since the 1970s, the abstract trend was paralleled by a return to figuralism and spatial compositions that explored the sculpted form in respect to its environment and other media. The introduction of new forms and all kinds of collages not only made the interdisciplinary character of art increasingly evident, but also gave sculpture a new breath, a new meaning. At the same time deconstruction and degradation of form proceeded in favor of installations, performances and concepts that approved of the actual physical shape of sculpture and its process of creation only to the degree that the two served the artist's intellectual message. A perverse turn is taken by the art trend that draws from rebellion against art's overly intellectual character; artists and their works restore the human figure to its former expression (Grzegorz Klaman) or recall the magic sense of its existence in space (Anna Bem-Borucka).

The museum is planning a separate pavilion for a permanent display of Polish sculpture from the 16th to the 20th century.

Krzysztof Janik

The article is based on a study of transformation in 20th-century Polish sculpture, written by Hanna Kotkowska-Bareja.

The National Museum, 3 Jerozolimskie Ave., tel 621-10-31, ext. 268. Open Tues., Wed. and Fri.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thurs. 12-7 p.m. Closed Mon.


The National Museum came by its 1,200 sculptures in varied historical circumstances, which had an effect on the collection's character. Between the two world wars, the museum was conservative with purchases. Most of the few works it bought were neo-classical, and in later years not all of the gaps in the collection were filled.

World War II wrought havoc on the collection. When it ended, the museum received deposits or gifts from artists' families (sculptures by Edward Wittig, Henryk Kuna and Stanisław Ostrowski) as well as the prewar collections of the Zachęta Society for Encouragement of the Fine Arts and the State Art Collections. Through the 1980s, the museum bought works specifically to complement its collection of 20th-century sculpture. Its other acquisition plan (all acquisitions had to be approved by Ministry of Culture and Art) was to buy works by living artists. Despite the gaps that this caused in the collection-certain trends, and works of art are missing, and Warsaw artists produced most of the works-the size of the collection warrants a major review of Polish 20th-century sculpture. The museum gained the freedom to buy whatever it wanted once communism died, but it lost much of its funding.

Some of the museum's pieces are being presented in the Royal Łazienki Sculpture Gallery. Sculptures are also an integral part of the 20th-century Polish art display at the museum's main branch. The museum's works at Królikarnia Palace are a comprehensive review of the work of Polish sculptor Xawery Dunikowski.

Reproduced with
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