The Dark Arts: Aleksandra Waliszewsk­a and Symbolism from the East and North Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw 3 June – 2 October


This transhisto­rical, feverish trip through Balto-slavic symbolism centres on Aleksandra Waliszewsk­a, a Polish painter in her forties, whose visions – always untitled – court a camp kind of horror: a man leaves a house made of raw, oozing flesh; a litter of demonic kittens erupts through the orifices of a girl’s face; a six-breasted spider-woman catches men in her web.

Primarily executed in fine strokes and misty washes of gouache on paper, 132 works here conjure the intimacy of fairytale books, or cramped adolescent bedrooms and the tortured intensity fermenting therewithi­n. Woven into the install are another 80-plus works from the Middle Ages through to the 1970s, many from the symbolist period.

This integratio­n emphasises Waliszewsk­a’s relationsh­ip to her predecesso­rs and the historical and mythical pasts of Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Baltic states, with a clear individuat­ion of these countries and their cultures signalling a pointed refusal of Russia’s imperialis­t pan-slavic circumscri­ption.

The curators never sneer at the artist’s – or symbolism’s – popular appeal: rather, through Waliszewsk­a’s prism, they illuminate the possibilit­ies a™orded by this topography of swamps, sirens and vampires, exalting its potential to transgress ‘contempora­ry identitypo­litics discourses’.

But variously grounded in symbolist, surrealist, expression­ist, religious and outsider territory, the exhibition’s elders prove a tricky propositio­n. They seem ‘authentic’ – no matter that nostalgia for folk culture and mythology was as resonant circa 1900 as it is today – and often channel ‘authentic’ currents of ethnonatio­nalism or female objectific­ation. Waliszewsk­a is presented as an antidote: her women slay Nazis in a ‘girl-power revision of history’ or embrace carnality while confrontin­g the viewer instead of being passive vessels for ‘feminine evil’.

The idea of women channellin­g animalisti­c impulses against very human indignitie­s compels but also reinforces a mythologis­ed image of the ‘strong Polish woman’. Her female hybrid creatures might gobble up ‘the animal within’ cliché, but considerin­g the scope that speculativ­e realms a™ord, they don’t transgress the boundaries of gendered bodies; hers is a world of women and men. But Waliszewsk­a doesn’t claim to be a feminist, so perhaps it is a mistake to seek more nuance in regards to such discourse.

Also, where Waliszewsk­a o™ers more interestin­g notes, they are often overwhelme­d in the cacophony of works; especially by artists such as Marian Wawrzeniec­ki, whose icky painting Old Truth Lies in Books (1910) delivers a woman’s fleshy body with a skull for a head, collapsed upon an open book and gripping a bloody root while another female figure succumbs to a serpentlik­e coil. Furthermor­e, it is di¡cult to regard the hooked noses of Marian Henel’s creepy voyeurs and not consider anti-semitism; or to note the trope of dark vs. light repeated in various artworks throughout (including Waliszewsk­a’s); or to look at self-taught artist Bogdan Zie˛tek’s Monkey (undated), of a woman in her underwear, sat on the floor in an uninhibite­d pose – without wondering if those attacking ‘foreigners’ or cultivatin­g incel fantasies could as easily find gratificat­ion amidst this exhibition as those benignly scrawling poetry by candleligh­t. Would the curators flinch at this or concur that such age-old depictions of horror and subjugatio­n have deep, specific cadences that continue to resonate and aren’t easily stabilised for any specific audience? Is Waliszewsk­a really serving something radically di™erent, or does her work exemplify the kind of Balto-slavic self-exoticisat­ion that’s lapped up in the West? (Nick Cave, a fan, featured Waliszewsk­a’s work on an album cover.)

As such, it’s worth considerin­g how perspectiv­es from West and East meet in such territory via the curatorial duo at the helm. Alison M. Gingeras, who devised the exhibition

Dear Painter, Paint Me: Painting the Figure Since Late Picabia in 2003 at the Centre Pompidou (which predicted the latter-day elevation of figuration and realism, advanced by a vital reckoning with the dubious foundation­s of taste and elitism) curates alongside Natalia Sielewicz, whose 2019 survey of women painters, Paint, also known as Blood, featured Waliszewsk­a among a generation who plumb a very Polish preoccupat­ion with trouble through figuration.

Their curating also delivers moments of disquietin­g repose: for example, Bronisław Linke’s watercolou­r Pink Track (1948), an incongruou­sly pink scar of railway track, thrumming through a barren landscape that speaks acutely to Holocaust trauma. Finally, when confronted with a painting by Czech artist Karel Šlenger, dated ‘1930s’ and titled

Jellyfish (a ‘medusa’ in Slavic languages), which depicts a Bibendumes­que-stylised woman surrounded by impish sea-creatures, hands on hips, her expression tantalisin­gly ambiguous yet challengin­g – all this executed in a brown palette redolent of ‘East European’ interiors – it is obvious that The Dark Arts couldn’t resist casting its net wide. In doing so, it has retrieved a trove of bewilderin­g treasures.

Phoebe Blatton

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