Surrealist Tropes
in Polish Photography
after 1945
18th january 2011
to 4th march 2011

A careful analysis of selected elements of Polish photography of the second half of the 20th century will discover images whose technique, strategies, motifs and mood evoke the visual universe of surrealist poetics. Surrealism, initiated by Breton and his circle, never produced a specific artistic programme in Poland either before the war or after 1945. Paradoxically, the only meeting between the co-author of The Magnetic Fields and the Polish art community took place in 1959, during the Phases post-surrealist exhibition at Cracow’s Krzysztofory gallery, where a text read out by Breton himself was played back from tape. The message from surrealist writers and artists to Polish intellectuals began so: ‘What has always seemed unthinkable and hopeless in our bourgeois democracies, you have achieved and you are able to achieve it again; in 1956 the regime wavered and retreated before spirit, your spirit. You opposed the reality of the regime with a reality of the spirit; we here oppose it only within its own rhetoric’. Even if Breton and the letter’s other signatories paid a tribute to the Polish fighting spirit, they abstained from precisely qualifying its nature. In the perspective of interest to us here, the letter can serve as a faint ‘Ariadne’s thread’ that we will follow and which can help us to identify surrealist tropes in Polish photography after 1945. The above quotation reminds us that surrealism was in fact a revolutionary art, that the value it awarded to the inner experience, through the ways of the subconscious, automatism, dreaming, eroticism or chance, was always determined by the imperative of political activism. The various methods developed by Breton and his circle, meant to lead towards an ultimate liberation of the spirit, were not aimed at creating a new vision of the world but rather at providing the individual with the means of fighting against the repressive apparatus of logic, morality, order and society, and thus transforming the daily reality.

In the ideological context of post-war Poland, with its ubiquitous indoctrination of citizens, searching for the ‘actual functioning of thought’ advocated by the surrealists seems to have remained a valid postulate. The photographers featured in this exhibition – Zdzisław Beksiński, Zbigniew Dłubak, Jerzy Lewczyński, Marek Piasecki, Bronisław Schlabs, Zofia Rydet, Krzysztof Vorbrodt – never identified themselves as surrealists. Yet all showed evidence of surrealist work, where the surrealist poetics served (at various points of their respective artistic careers) as a theoretical and practical horizon that allowed them to defy the social and aesthetic norms enforced by the state. The macro photographs of ordinary objects that Dłubak makes in the late 1940s and provides with mysterious-sounding titles are not just a way of making photography more modern (by freeing it from the pictorialist convention, then dominant in Poland), but also a means of transforming the perception of the outside world. The staged photographs that Lewczyński creates in 1957, at the end of the socialist realism period, are a sort of visual puzzles whose meaning is vague and which signal a desire to develop a new language, where the viewer would be not just a passive receiver of the slogans broadcast by the regime but an active doer autonomously interpreting what he sees. In Marek Piasecki’s photographs from the 1960s, dolls (the artist’s favourite models, cared for like living persons) become counter-models illustrating how the regime treats the people.

The works presented in the show date back to a period from right after the Second World War to the late 1970s. Thus they are situated in various political and artistic contexts. In order to follow the ‘Ariadne’s thread’ more easily, the exhibition has been divided into chapters, the titles of which, borrowed from the basic vocabulary of surrealism, are meant here as ‘initiation rites’ in artistic practice: Discovery, The Trip, The Inner Model, Eroticism, Automatic Writing, Bleak Humour… Surrealist Tropes in Polish Photography after 1945 is, therefore, an attempt to interpret Polish photography of the second half of the 20th century in a novel way. By adopting the interpretation presented, the exhibition aims to inscribe Polish photography in the broader context of world photography and by confronting the works of different authors within the same chapter, it sheds new light on their work. Surrealist Tropes in Polish Photography after 1945 is a continuation of the exhibition organised by Galeria Asymetria at Galerie Baudoin Lebon during the Paris Month of Photography 2010.


14.02.2011 17:27:45

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Marek Piasecki