Joanna and Krzysztof Madelski have been collecting contemporary art for over twenty years, and Polish postwar photography for four. The theme around which they have been building their photographic collection is femininity, understood in accordance with Judith Butler as a series of performative acts. Photographic nudes, underlying which there is no absolute gender identity, but which rely instead on a continual re/construction and reinforcement of multiplicity, the weakening (rather than expression) of identity. Butler’s Gender Trouble, which is generally well known, but too little read in Poland, provides the starting point for the collection’s premiere.
The exhibition’s title is a paraphrase of the Polish title of the book, which was published by Krytyka Polityczna. The Subjects of Gender and Desire exhibition will feature masterpieces of photographic art by classic contemporary female artists, such as Natalia LL, Ewa Partum, Zofia Kulik, Marta Deskur, Teresa Murak, Teresa Gierzyńska, and Katarzyna Gorna, Monika Mamzeta Zielinska, Zuzanna Janin, as well as works by representatives of the younger generation, including Aneta Grzeszykowska, Agata Michowska, and Martynka Wawrzyniak. The collection also includes pieces by prominent male artists who have taken up the subject of gender – from experimenters like Jerzy Lewczyński, to classic names in fine-art photography like Tadeusz Rolke, Edward Hartwig, and Paweł Pierściński.
The exhibition at the BWA Olsztyn is the second showing of the collection. It contrasted the way the artists view and analyze the construction of gender, with some more critical than others, but it also contributed to the discussion about the necessity for rewriting the history of photography in postwar Poland. The exhibition juxtaposes the renderings of conservative photographic artists who took part in exhibitions like the Venus International Salon of Art Photography, with the work of male and female artists interested in destabilizing – especially after the changes in 1989 – the exceptionally strong hetero-normative matrix that structures Poland’s culture, including its photography. The multiplicity of techniques employed – from those aimed at achieving elegance to avant-garde experiments, from classical barite prints to contemporary digital photography, installations, objects and video – means the exhibition also offers something interesting from the formal and technical side to those attending BWA Olsztyn.
The exhibition Subjects of Gender and Desire is not arranged chronologically, even though the eldest works by Anatol Węcławski are present at the very beginning of the show. The BWA Olsztyn has been devided into three separate rooms. The gallery’s arrangement provide an opportunity for visitors to become acquainted with the works of men and – predominantly – woman, to observe the process of emancipation and the achievement of self-awareness by female artists, who in the 1970s took the initiative and began to dominate photography, giving it completely new, previously unknown meanings, and using it to express new content. The exhibition begins with some major names in postwar photography such as Tadeusz Rolke, Zbigniew Dłubak, and Jerzy Lewczyński, but it also includes leading female artists, such as Zofia Rydet, Krystyna Łyczywek and Ewa Partum, Natialia LL, Teresa Murak, Teresa Gierzyńska, who move the viewer towards a more critical approach to the topic, going beyond mere affirmation and eroticization (although their classic works, retrospectively labelled “feminist art” somewhat against their will, are not free of this, either). The exhibition is not linear, but within it there are turning points, intervensions, and leaps that provoke questions about the contemporary interpretation of historical photography. It is not by coincidence that in the same room there are works by young generation artists like Sędzia Główny, Martynka Wawrzyniak, Agata Bogacka).
The exhibitions is divided into sequences of works displayed singly, or merely indicating the presence of a given artist in Joanna and Krzysztof Madelski’s collection, as well as whole bodies of work representative of the creative output of a particular artist. The second room consists of works exploring Marilyn Monroe iconography (Andrzej Dragan, Katarzyna Górna), religious iconography (Monika Mamzeta Zielinska, Katarzyna Górna, Elżbieta Jabłońska), as well as motifs from contemporary art (Aneta Grzeszykowska). Video by contemporary artists is an important part of the collection broadly presented for the first time in the show at BWA Olsztyn. Video projections are on display in the second and – specifically – in the third room. Films by Martynka Wawrzyniak, Agata Michowska, Zuzanna Janin, Dorota Nieznalska are already well established in Polish contemporary art history. In this sense, the Madelski’s collection uniquely rejoins photography and video pieces showing what is common between two mediums.
The exhibition can be seen as a salon exposition, as pastiche, and a further attempt to reworking the traditional Polish means of displaying photographs in “salon exhibitions”, but it can also be viewed as a collector’s study, an office used for studying, devoted to the contemplation of things that are not so much curiosities, as they are valuables.
Adam Mazur, Exhibition Curator