Joanna and Krzysztof Madelski have been collecting contemporary art for over twenty years, and Polish postwar photography for three. 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, Alicja Żebrowska, Marta Deskur, Jadwiga Sawicka, Barbara Konopka, Teresa Gierzyńska, and Katarzyna Gorna, as well as works by representatives of the younger generation, including Aneta Grzeszykowska, Agnieszka Polska, and Anna Senkara. The collection also includes pieces by prominent male artists who have taken up the subject of gender – from experimenters like Marek Piasecki, Zbigniew Libera, Jerzy Lewczyński, Łódź Kaliska, and Mauricy Gomulicki, to clas- sic names in fine-art photography like Tadeusz Rolke, Edward Hartwig, Paweł Pierściński, and Wojciech Prażmowski, and young artists such as Mateusz Sadowski, Maciej Osika, and Jan Dziaczkowski.
An exhibition at the Łódź Municipal Museum was the premiere 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 the Łódź Fotofestiwal.
The exhibition Subjects of Gender and Desire is arranged chronologically. The narrative begins in the years before the Second World War, with works by Anatol Węcławski, Józef Rosner, and Benedykt Dorys that are beautifully made, elegant and sensual. The elegance of their technique goes hand-in-hand with the bourgeois conservatism of the treatment of their subject. The postwar period brings a shift, first in the guise of socialist realism, which was for a period of time forced upon Polish photographers, and later by the continued development of classic themes in a form that is more modern, yet which at times is expressed coyly, in a bourgeois manner. The exhibition is constructed linearly, but within it there are turning points, interventions and leaps that provoke questions about the contemporary interpretation of historical photography. The gallery’s two floors provide an opportunity for visitors to become acquainted with the works of both men and women, to observe the process of emancipation and the achievement of self-awareness by fe- male 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 in the gallery on the ground floor 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 Krystyna Łyczywek and Ewa Partum, who move the viewer towards a more critical approach to the topic, going beyond mere affirmation and eroticization (although their classic works, retrospectively la- belled“feminist art”somewhat against their will, are not free of this, either).
The exhibition 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. Among the more broadly represented artists are relative unknowns, such as Michał Sowiński, controversial figures, like Paul Pierściński, and artists prized by the contemporary art world, such as Jerzy Lewczyński. Similarly, the narrative exhibition, organized on the second floor, where in addition to selected works by Monika Zielińska, Maciej Osika, Aneta Grzeszykowska, Marta Deskur, and Jadwiga Sawicka, one can see sketches – an exhibition within an exhibition – allowing one to delve deeper into the work of the Katarzyna Górna, Teresa Gierzyńska and Natalia LL. On the ground floor, photography from the past dominates, treating the subject of the nude (“the fairer sex”) relatively conservatively; on the upper floor however, we encounter the efforts that have been carried on with intensity since the 1990s to deconstruct and demolish existing oppressive and stereotypical models of femininity. The androgynous heroes of the photographs of Zbigniew Libera, Maciej Osika, and Barbara Konopka reveal subjects that have previously been excluded or absent – difference, otherness, conventionality – challenging the existing binary order (previously the only transgression was that women sometimes took photographs). Women artists associated with body art and critical art, such as Katarzyna Haute, Alicja Żebrowska and Monika Zielińska (Mamzeta), critically address femininity in its patriarchal understanding.
The exhibition can be seen as a salon exposition, as pastiche, and a further attempt at 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