25 Years of the Polish People's Republic in Photography
19.09 – 09.10.1969 25 Years of the Polish People's Republic in Photography
organiser: Central Bureau of Art Exhibitions
commissioner: Zygmunt Szargut
exhibition design: Andrzej Strumiłło
poster design: Jerzy Treutler
number of exhibits: 220
number of artists: 81
attendance: 8,525 (Rocznik CBWA [CBWA Annual])
In the 1960s, photo exhibitions at the Zachęta CBWA became more and more frequent.[i] Interest in photography stemmed not only from an increasing artistic emancipation of this ‘new’ medium, which began to occupy an important place in the modernist artistic practice and reflection on the visual arts,[ii] but also its educational and propaganda potential. Small size of works, possibility of duplication and easy transport made this medium extremely practical.
The 25 Years of the Polish People’s Republic in Photography exhibition, shown at the CBWA in September 1969, was described in the press as ‘an image of the country in which we live, which we build, improve and beautify’.[iii] It consisted of 220 pictures taken by 81 artists,[iv] in the major part presenting reportage and documentary photographs, for example by such top photojournalists as Marek Holzman or Wiesław Prażuch. Many works, such as Żelazowa Wola — Winter by Adam Kaczkowski, or Tatra Mountains — Hala Strążyska by Paweł Mystkowski, followed the pictorial formula, drawing on the inter-war aesthetic programme of ‘native photography’ developed by Jan Bułhak. The final result was a photographic ‘mosaic’— ‘Poland’s landscape’, which comprised ‘large construction sites with rows of high chimneys and a dense web of high-voltage lines, and in the centre of a rural panorama — tractors and harvesters’.[v]
The exhibition was presumably disseminated outside Warsaw. Alternative or analogous photo material was used to put together the touring exhibition entitled Photography Exhibition on the 25th Anniversary of the Polish People’s Republic. Two sets, marked as ‘Set A’ and ‘Set B’, were created in June and July 1969, and visited such venues as the Club of International Press and Book (Klub Międzynarodowej Prasy i Książki, KMPIK) in Lublin, the Sugar Factory Workers’ Hostel in Przeworsk or the Citizens’ Militia Academy in Szczytno. They were also displayed in January 1971.
The exhibition of Leonard Sempoliński’s photo documentation portraying the capital city in ruins (Warsaw 1945 in the Photography of Leonard Sempoliński), staged simultaneously at the CBWA, offered a particularly important context for the exhibition. The pictures were meant to provide an evocative point of reference for the anniversary exposition, a symbolic ‘zero moment’ of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). ‘When we proceed to the next Room in Zachęta, we have an impression as if we left the night and went out into the sun’, the press wrote, signalling that the latter exhibition was clearly intended to honour the achievements of the socialist country after the tragedy of war.[vi]
Both exhibitions, in a slightly reduced form, were later hosted outside of Warsaw, in the Katowice Youth Palace, in December of the same year.[vii] While the exhibition of the photos by Sempoliński attracted great interest of critics and received positive press reviews (owing to, among others, its moving arrangement designed by Stanisław Zamecznik), the 25 Years of the Polish People’s Republic in Photography show did not meet expectations.
What brought disapproval was the imitative nature of the design, both as regards the quality of the presented works and their arrangement. In Wojciech Kiciński’s opinion, ‘Many photographs were assembled which, although of markedly different quality, had the advantage of nicely fitting under the headings of monuments, politics, industry, agriculture, culture, sport, youth, etc. As a result, we can see a collection of bulletin board newsletters, rather dull in respect of their artistic value, distorting the illustrated topics by their poor content.’[viii] Zbigniew Lubawski wrote in a similar vein, with a touch of irony, that ‘the exhibition organisers did not decide to include artistic photograms or reportage photos; therefore, the exhibition is a medley of the Central Photographic Agency (Centralna Agencja Fotograficzna, CAF) news and sophisticated works of the members of the Association of Polish Art Photographers (Związek Polskich Artystów Fotografików, ZPAF)’.[ix] According to the reporter from Życie Warszawy, the arrangement of the show additionally reinforced the impression of a ‘quite mixed-up mosaic’[x] of subjects and styles, because the photographs were treated as a ‘decorative element’ — they were grouped on large surfaces, suspended high under the ceiling’, which resulted in ‘the exhibition’s incomprehensibility’.[xi] Lubawski further wrote, ‘as a result, the exhibition loses its informative character; on top of that, the small captions disappear against the background of big boards or when hung higher up’.[xii]
The critics probably felt dissatisfied due to the dissonance between the intended aim of the exhibition (it should be remembered that the event was co-organised by the Ministry of Culture and Art)— that is, an informative presentation of the country on the 25th anniversary of its liberation, and the perceptible aspiration of both the curator, Zygmunt Szargut, a journalist, photographer and author of the exhibition design, and Andrzej Strumiłło, a painter, photographer and designer connected with the Polish Chamber of Commerce, to modernise and refresh the propaganda message. Undoubtedly, the conservative selection of photographic material meant that the arrangement, employing various sizes of the photos, their visual combinations, as well as spatial and graphic elements integrated into narrative sequences — which in other circumstances could have been deemed interesting — failed to achieve the desired effect.
The design followed the model of the so-called thematic exhibition which gained popularity in Polish photography on the tide of the American exhibition The Family of Man, held at the turn of 1959 and 1960 (among other venues, in the Sale Redutowe of the National Theatre in Warsaw). More than 500 pictures shown at that event, mainly reportage (from such photographic agencies as Magnum and archives of glossy magazines, primarily Life) and documentary ones, were grouped by the themes of basic human activities (love, death, work, spirituality, etc.). The prints had different sizes (ranging from a dozen or so centimetres to several meters), unconventional way of display (at great heights, on spatial racks) and succinct captions (limited only to the name and surname of the author and the place of taking the picture).[xiii] In the light of such a format of a photo exhibition, called a theme show or teaching-machine in the United States, and promoted by Polish critics as an innovative model reviving the art of photo exhibition, the designer’s inspiration seems clear.[xiv] What is essential in this context is also the fact that the model of a thematic exhibition was especially recommended for didactic, information and review purposes, so the 25 Years of the Polish People’s Republic in Photography show provided an excellent opportunity to use it.
This type of exhibitions, characteristic of Polish modernism, arranged in an up-to-date manner, drawing on the experiences of the constructivist avant-garde with visual propaganda, became so popular in the post-war period that the boundary between the political and the artistic blurred. Therefore, they could be perceived as an aesthetically autonomous space in which, however, the relations of power still manifested themselves, even if obliquely.[xv] The propaganda dimension of the exhibitions was neutralised in a distinctive way, contending that the predetermined topic only accentuated the social role which contemporary photography could fulfil. ‘Let me make an assumption that . . . exhibitions arranged without a well-thought-out scenario will become obsolete in the near future. This is due to the fact that experienced and sensitive photographers who systematically pursue their occupation can provide too much interesting material, too broad knowledge of the world to disperse their work, observations and reflections in heterogeneous, chaotic and formalist exhibitions, in which “everyone talks about something else”. . . nevertheless, I suspect that the type of the “scenario” or “thematic” exhibition is growing in popularity’, Urszula Czartoryska wrote.[xvi] Nonetheless, in the case of the anniversary 25 Years of the Polish People’s Republic in Photography exhibition, the ideological context seemed very overt and critics did not feel disposed to justify it. Their silence was probably equally telling — the Fotografia monthly, the only periodical dedicated to artistic photography, did not publish any text about the event.
It appears, however, that critics’ reservations about the exhibition were not limited to their disappointment over the lack of ‘works of a high order’, ‘provoking reflection, even controversial’,[xvii] or an ill-conceived combination of the photos. Their suspicions also had other reasons — in various manners, they expressed doubts about the appropriateness of some photos for the social reality. For example, Kiciński noted, ‘Nobody has verified these sets [of photographs — KL] with the real achievements of industry, agriculture, and culture or youth problems.’[xviii] Lubawski, on the other hand, added, ‘the country, as the organisers see it, means . . . either a pastoral landscape with patches, or a tractor against a background of endless cornfields. Actually, such scenes represent the exception at the exhibition because there are more pictures here from the Sopot International Song Festival and beautiful faces taken during big-beat afternoon dancing [this can be a reference to Girls from ‘Stodoła’, a photograph by Zbigniew Wojewódzki, one of the members of the qualification committee — KL] than an honest illustration of, say, rural life’.[xix] In such a situation artistic criticism about the quality of the gathered works and their ordering in terms of the subject matter could be understood as centred on the propaganda objective of the undertaking.
The prizes of the Minister of Culture and Art awarded the participants provided a glaring evidence of the political sense of the exhibition — their recipients included: Zdzisław Holouk for the photo Turoszów Power Station (as a matter of fact, this plant was the protagonist of some other photographs on display, for example, one by Stefan Arczyński) and Witold Chromiński for the work MS ‘Ziemia Gdańska’ on the Indian Ocean. Both pictures were interesting because of the topics they dealt with, which stressed the advantages of the developing country, rather than their superior artistic qualities. The images reproduced in the press, on the occasion of discussing the exhibition or alluding to it, only emphasised the persuasive dimension of the exhibition. Apart from the above-mentioned rewarded photos, there was a piece by Marian Sokołowski, The Host, featuring Władysław Gomułka cutting bread during a harvest festival. The propaganda purpose of the exhibition was, therefore, quite ostentatiously demonstrated. A substantial number of photographs of industrial plants and state celebrations overshadowed more ambitious and ambiguous pictures, such as the reportage photos by Marek Holzman (The New and the Old, In Mazovia and Elsewhere), attempts of social document by Anna Chojnacka (A Miner’s Family) or the photos by Zofia Rydet, maintained in the optimistic poetics of humanistic photography (Boys’ Colliery Band), as well as intimate ‘black documents’ by Natalia Lach-Lachowicz (Maternity) and innovative landscape pictures by Paweł Pierściński (Żerań — Polish Scenery).
The critics’ scepticism about the exhibition had probably one more crucial context — changing views on the function and essence of photography. These ideas were enunciated in the detached and sometimes euphemistic text for the exhibition catalogue written by Zbigniew Dłubak, a central figure of the photographic milieu of that time (editor-in-chief of the Fotografia magazine). ‘The method of observing true events brought about many precious documents from the life of our country. However, the need for greater generalisations and a new artistic expression has recently arisen, the need to enter regions where mere reporting is not sufficient, where journalistic comments cannot convey all meanings of life. Photography is seeking new forms and such a way of portraying the reality that the image will become a sign which expresses the broadest sense of what is happening around us’, he wrote.[xx]
That ‘search for new forms’ clearly proves that the 25 Years of the Polish People’s Republic in Photography show was held at a critical and symbolical moment between two landmark photo exhibitions in Poland, co-organised by Zbigniew Dłubak, namely the 1968 Subjective Photography (first hosted at the Krzysztofory Gallery in Kraków and later at Współczesna Gallery in Warsaw) and the 1971 Photographers-Seekers (Współczesna Gallery in Warsaw). Both events provided an opportunity for experiments both with the medium, made subject to analytical considerations, and the exhibition space in which photography could turn out attractive not because of its narrative character, following a top-down scenario (as in thematic exhibitions), but as material — thus the presence of photo-objects, arrangement of the images in space at various heights, establishment of physical contact with the spectator and the place.[xxi] At the Subjective Photography exhibition, Dłubak himself presented one of his watershed works, the Iconosphere II environmental installation (in the previous year he showed Iconosphere I at Współczesna Gallery). Some photographers who participated in the 25 Years of the Polish People’s Republic in Photography show, displayed their works at the above-mentioned exhibitions, too. These were, among others: Marian Gadzalski, Edward Hartwig, Jerzy Lewczyński, Paweł Pierściński, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Wojciech Plewiński, and Zofia Rydet. Humanistic photojournalism and the model of thematic exhibitions had already become anachronistic — conceptualism was looming into view on the horizon of Polish photography.
Institute of Art History of the University of Warsaw
This compilation was prepared as part of the National Programme for the Development of Humanities of the Polish Minister of Science and Higher Education — research project The History of Exhibitions at Zachęta — Central Bureau of Art Exhibitions in 1949–1970 (no. 0086/NPRH3/H11/82/2016) conducted by the Institute of Art History of the University of Warsaw in collaboration with Zachęta — National Gallery of Art.
- XXV lat PRL w fotografice, introduction: Zbigniew Dłubak. Warsaw: Ministerstwo Kultury i Sztuki, Związek Polskich Artystów Fotografików, Centralne Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych, 1969
- (haes). ‘25 lat PRL w fotografice’. Słowo Powszechne, no. 234, 1969
- Kiciński, Wojciech. ‘Dwie wystawy fotograficzne w „Zachęcie”’. Trybuna Ludu, no. 273, 1969
- Lubawski, Zbigniew. ‘Fotograficzne niekonsekwencje’. Tygodnik Kulturalny, no. 41, 1969
- (oe). ‘Obejrzyjcie te wystawy’. Dziennik Ludowy, no. 232, 1969
- Press mentions:
- Dziennik Ludowy, no. 166, 1969
- Dziennik Zachodni, no. 290, 1969
- Express Wieczorny, no. 227, 1969
- Gazeta Robotnicza, no. 275, 1969
- Głos Pracy, no. 234, 1969
- Słowo Powszechne, no. 228, 1969
- Tygodnik Morski, no. 52, 1969
- Życie Warszawy, no. 233, 1969
Stefan Arczyński, Aleksander Balicki, Barbara Bałukowa, Henryk Bietkowski, Anna Chojnacka, Jerzy Chojnacki, Edward Grochowicz, Bolesław Malmurowicz, Leonard Chrapek, Witold Chromiński, Mieczysław Cieślak, Edward Czapliński, Stanisław Dukiewicz, Lucjan Fogiel, Marian Gadzalski, Olgierd Gałdyński, Antonina Garnuszewska, Edward Grochowicz, Edward Hartwig, Ewa Hartwig-Fijałkowska, Henryk Hermanowicz, Karol Holeksa, Marek Holzman, Leonard Idziak, Maksymilian Jankowski, Konstanty Jarochowski, Ludwik Jura, Róża Jura, Adam Kaczkowski, Zbigniew Kamykowski, Wacław Kapusto, Kazimierz Komorowski, Janusz Korpal, Tadeusz Kowalski, Józef Krzywdziński, Waleria Krzyżanowska, Edmund Kupiecki, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Kazimierz Lelewicz, Tadeusz Lewandowski, Zbigniew Lewandowski, Jerzy Lewczyński, Tadeusz Link, Krzysztof Majchert, Henryk Makarewicz, Bolesław Malmurowicz, Grzegorz Matysiak, Jan Michlewski, Adam Mottl, Tercjan Multaniak, Marian Murman, Paweł Mystkowski, Franciszek Myszkowski, Kazimierz Najdenow, Antoni Nowosielski, Paweł Pierściński, Wojciech Plewiński, Wiesław Prażuch, Władysław Rut, Stanisław Rybak, Zofia Rydet, Zbyszko Siemaszko, Jan Siudowski, Stanisław Skoczeń, Marian Sokołowski, Jarosław Staniszewski, Zbigniew Staszyszyn, Jan Styczyński, Tadeusz Sumiński, Stanisław Syndomian, Zygmunt Szargut, Adam Śmietański, Lucjan Święcki, Tadeusz Trepanowski, Janusz Uklejewski, Antoni Ulikowski, Tadeusz Wasilewski, Roman Wesołowski, Jan Weselik, Andrzej Wiernicki, Zbigniew Wojewódzki, Zbigniew Zugaj, Feliks Zwierzchowski
[i] Between 1968 and 1970, 44 out of the 143 exhibitions were dedicated to photography. For comparison, from 1965 to 1967, there were 22 photo exhibitions out of the 166 shows. The Regional Branch of the CBWA organised especially numerous photographic exhibitions: in 1968, when it mounted 21 shows altogether, 8 of them featured photographs; in 1969, on the other hand, the Regional Branch of the CBWA held in total 3 exhibitions, including 2 devoted to photos.
[ii] The book by Urszula Czartoryska, Przygody plastyczne fotografii [Artistic Adventures of Photography], published in 1965, best testifies to this interest.
[iii] (oe), ‘Obejrzyjcie te wystawy’, Dziennik Ludowy, no. 232, 1969.
[iv] The following artists took part in the exhibition: Stefan Arczyński, Aleksander Balicki, Barbara Bałukowa, Henryk Bietkowski, Anna Chojnacka, Jerzy Chojnacki, Edward Grochowicz, Bolesław Malmurowicz, Leonard Chrapek, Witold Chromiński, Mieczysław Cieślak, Edward Czapliński, Stanisław Dukiewicz, Lucjan Fogiel, Marian Gadzalski, Olgierd Gałdyński, Antonina Garnuszewska, Edward Grochowicz, Edward Hartwig, Ewa Hartwig-Fijałkowska, Henryk Hermanowicz, Karol Holeksa, Marek Holzman, Leonard Idziak, Maksymilian Jankowski, Konstanty Jarochowski, Ludwik Jura, Róża Jura, Adam Kaczkowski, Zbigniew Kamykowski, Wacław Kapusto, Kazimierz Komorowski, Janusz Korpal, Tadeusz Kowalski, Józef Krzywdziński, Waleria Krzyżanowska, Edmund Kupiecki, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Kazimierz Lelewicz, Tadeusz Lewandowski, Zbigniew Lewandowski, Jerzy Lewczyński, Tadeusz Link, Krzysztof Majchert, Henryk Makarewicz, Bolesław Malmurowicz, Grzegorz Matysiak, Jan Michlewski, Adam Mottl, Tercjan Multaniak, Marian Murman, Paweł Mystkowski, Franciszek Myszkowski, Kazimierz Najdenow, Antoni Nowosielski, Paweł Pierściński, Wojciech Plewiński, Wiesław Prażuch, Władysław Rut, Stanisław Rybak, Zofia Rydet, Zbyszko Siemaszko, Jan Siudowski, Stanisław Skoczeń, Marian Sokołowski, Jarosław Staniszewski, Zbigniew Staszyszyn, Jan Styczyński, Tadeusz Sumiński, Stanisław Syndomian, Zygmunt Szargut, Adam Śmietański, Lucjan Święcki, Tadeusz Trepanowski, Janusz Uklejewski, Antoni Ulikowski, Tadeusz Wasilewski, Roman Wesołowski, Jan Weselik, Andrzej Wiernicki, Zbigniew Wojewódzki, Zbigniew Zugaj, Feliks Zwierzchowski.
[v] (oe), ‘Obejrzyjcie te wystawy’.
[vi] Express Wieczorny, no. 227, 3 October 1969.
[vii] The 25 Years of the Polish People’s Republic in Photography exhibition comprised 160 photos instead of 220, and the Warsaw 1945 in the Photography by Leonard Sempoliński exhibition — 123 photos instead of 135. Cf. Rocznik CBWA 1968–1969–1970, ed. Maria Matusińska, Barbara Mitschein, Ada Potocka, Helena Szustakowska, Warsaw: Centralne Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych, , pp. 34–35.
[viii] Wojciech Kiciński, ‘Dwie wystawy fotograficzne w „Zachęcie”’, Trybuna Ludu, no. 273, 1969.
[ix] Zbigniew Lubawski, ‘Fotograficzne niekonsekwencje’, Tygodnik Kulturalny, no. 41, 1969.
[xi] Życie Warszawy, no. 233, 1969.
[xiii] Cf. among others: Stefania Wojtkiewicz, ‘Sztuka, która głosi prawdę’, Fotografia, no. 4, 1956, pp. 8–11; Urszula Czartoryska, ‘Biologia i sentymenty’, Fotografia, no. 11, 1959, pp. 540–541.
[xiv] Zbigniew Łagocki wrote, ‘I get the impression that nowadays only thematic and solo exhibitions with a coherent concept deserve to be called a contemporary mode of expression for today’s photographers, both artisans and artists’. Cf. Zbigniew Łagocki, ‘Nowoczesność — problem stale aktualny (uwagi o wystawach)’, Fotografia, no. 3, 1960, p. 76.
[xv] Cf. among others: Benjamin H. D. Buchloch, ‘From ‘‘Faktura’’ to Factography’, October, no. 30, 1984, pp. 82–119; Douglas Crimp, On the Museum’s Ruins, Cambridge, MA, 1993; Jorge Ribalta, ‘Introduction’, in Public Photographic Spaces. Exhibitions of Propaganda from ‘Pressa’ to ‘The Family of Man’ 1928–55, ed. Jorge Ribalta, Anna Jiménez Jorquera, Barcelona, 2009, p. 14.
[xvi] Urszula Czartoryska, ‘Polska w fotografii artystycznej’, Fotografia, no. 11, 1960, p. 367.
[xvii] Kiciński, ‘Dwie wystawy fotograficzne w „Zachęcie”’.
[xix] Lubawski , ‘Fotograficzne niekonsekwencje’.
[xx] Zbigniew Dłubak, [introduction], in XXV lat PRL w fotografice, exh. cat., Warsaw: Ministerstwo Kultury i Sztuki, Związek Polskich Artystów Fotografików, Centralne Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych, 1969, n.pag.
[xxi] Cf. among others: Urszula Czartoryska, ‘Bardzo ważna wystawa’, Fotografia, no. 11, 1968, pp. 244–246; eadem, ‘Czego fotografowie poszukują?’, Fotografia, no. 6, 1971, p. 139; Wiesław Hudon, ‘Wariaci i egzaltowani’, Fotografia, no. 12, 1968, pp. 267–276.