Interview with Izabela Kowalczyk on her research in Poland

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?

When we talk about the role of tradition in Poland we must consider the special function of the Catholic Church. It symbolized many people’s aspirations for political freedom, stood in opposition to the communist system, and consolidated the opposition. These spheres of influence were also charged with the memories of insurrections throughout Polish history, in which women occupied a special role. Traditionally women were represented as the “pathetic” figure of the Polish mother who looked after the Polish home and was the guardian of national values. The Polish mother is a tragic figure. The cultural myth of the Polish mother is connected with the country’s struggle for independence. When Poland lost its independence in 1795, Polish women faced a considerable challenge. Raising children became a political imperative. The Polish mother was responsible for the continuity of faith, language, and culture. Her participation in the national community consisted, most of all, in giving birth to sons and raising them in a patriotic way. Even in the late twentieth century women were depicted in this traditional and national context as Polonia, Polish mothers, and mourning women.

1989 marked the turn toward capitalism and consumer culture. The consumerist model of society imposed new models of identity on women such as the businesswoman, the independent woman, the single woman, and the career woman. However, the old models of woman as the Polish mother, a domestic woman, and housewife are still present in our culture and in the rhetoric of right-wing politicians. Political parties have created a situation in which the real problems of women do not exist or are only mentioned as the marginal ones. New problems and restrictions have appeared since 1989 such as and similar to the 1993 ban on abortion.

As a response to these new issues, graphic images of naked bodies or female sexuality can be interpreted as strategies of resistance, as deconstructions of gender oppression, and attempts to regain freedom, as in the installations and videos by Alicja Żebrowska The Original Sin and The Mystery is Looking (1994). Also worth mentioning is the Madonnas series by Katarzyna Górna (1995-2001).

Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects of local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies, or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?

The main issue I encountered was the incompatibility between Western feminist theories and the interpretation of works created in the Eastern Block. Transferring these theories to the context of East-Central Europe simplifies the situation and perhaps even omits certain key issues. If “used” in order to interpret particular works, these works are usually modeled on Western tendencies. An example of such art is the feminist art of the 1970s in Poland that was based on Western standards rather than issues specific to the Polish context.

After the 1950s, alongside the more common modernist tendencies in Polish art, one can trace a different attitude-art practices that comment on and uncover the resistance to ideologies: religious, communist, or consumer value systems (Wojciech Fangor, Zbigniew Libera, Zofia Kulik, Ewa Partum, Natalia LL, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, and more recently Katarzyna Kozyra, or Dorota Nieznalska). This approach reveals the engagement and sensitivity of the artist towards community-based and social issues and a variety of critical tools for achieving this end. Would you list the art practices of the different decades that show this critical and discursive approach?

In Poland under communism, art operated primarily outside of social reality. The legacy of socialist realism, and the ostensibly apolitical art that appeared immediately after it, evoked an aversion to socially engaged art in any form among artists and resulted in an absence of critical art. The art of this period avoided social issues altogether, which were considered banal and unbefitting the concept of universal art.

However, other artistic strategies also emerged that abandoned such a universal conception of art. Some of these portrayed the field of privacy as a field of freedom. As Piotr Piotrowski wrote, during the socialist period in Poland privacy was forbidden. However, some artists took up this problem and presented the sphere of privacy as a field of freedom. According to Piotrowski Alina Szapocznikow’s Difficult Age (1954) is a revolutionary work in the context of art of that time. We can also trace the search for freedom in the field of privacy and sexuality in works by Maja Berezowska, Barbara Falender, and Ewa Kuryluk.

In the 1970s, we can find some feminist interventions in art. During this period, feminism as an official movement and critical attitude was absent in Poland, however, certain artists still entertained feminist questions in their works. For instance, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Natalia LL, and Ewa Partum focused the public’s attention on the objectification of the woman-revealing how women are portrayed as objects of consumption, or how their bodies are fetishized-in their attacks on the perspective of the “male viewer.” Evident in the art of Natalia LL, Izabella Gustowska, Ewa Kuryluk, and Krystyna Piotrowska are questions related to defining one’s own image without superfluous embellishments and masks. The artists disclosed the image of a woman who remained at odds with established notions of female beauty and the drama of the aging process. However, their criticism of patriarchal culture failed to intersect with the social sphere.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, feminism began to develop a more self-conscious program. Defining one’s identity, questions of body and sexuality, and analyzing ways of disciplining the body are the main questions driving the art of the 1990s. There are, among others, some feminist artists, like Zofia Kulik, Katarzyna Kozyra, or Alicja Zebrowska who deal with the body as a sphere for social and cultural critique.

Critical threads are also evident in the works of younger artists such as Dorota Nieznalska, Anna Baumgart, Monika Zielińska, Elżbieta Jabłońska and others.


Izabela Kowalczyk, Research Poland

An art historian, art critique, curator, Izabela Kowalczyk was born in 1971. She studied Art History at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland (1990-1995), Gender Studies at CEU in Budapest, Hungary (1998) and attended the Summer Institute in Art History and Visual Studies of the University of Rochester, USA in 1999. In 2001 Izabela Kowalczyk defended her doctoral dissertation entitled Body and Power in Contemporary Polish Art at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, and is currently teaching at the High School of Humanities and Journalism in Poznań. She is the founder and co-editor of the net magazine on feminism and visual culture Artmix (since 2006 in cooperation with Obieg, Her publications include The Dangerous Liaisons of Art and Body (2002), and Body and Power in Polish Critical Art (2002), as well as numerous essays and art reviews. She co-edited the books Women, Feminism and Media (2005), The Looking for the Little Girl (2003) and Women in Popular Culture (2002) with Edyta Zierkiewicz.