A month ago I met Magdalena Ziółkowska and Wojciech Grzybała who have curated ‘Andrzej Wróblewski. Waiting Room’ at Moderna galerija in Ljubljana. This meticulously designed exhibition many years in the making showcases over 120 artworks by Andrzej Wróblewski. Worth mentioning is the novel point of view on the practice of one of the greatest modern Polish artists, as well the dialogue of each room with the prominent artists of 1950s Yugoslavia. The location and themes of the show allow us metaphorically to follow in the footsteps of Wróblewski, who came to Yugoslavia in autumn 1956 accompanied by the critic Barbara Majewska. Magdalena Ziółkowska, co-founder of the Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation, will be our guide on this journey.
Dobromiła Błaszczyk: The history of the Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation, which dates back to the year 2010, is closely connected with the exhibition ‘Andrzej Wróblewski. Waiting Room.’ Could you please tell me more about the beginnings of your ‘journey’?
Magdalena Ziółkowska: The show ‘Andrzej Wróblewski. To the Margin and Back’ in the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven marked the beginning of our foundation (April, 2010). It was the first presentation of this artist’s works abroad and the first project that Wojciech Grzybała and I worked on together, prior to the official establishment of the Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation in 2012.
As part of the third edition of the project ‘Play Van Abbe: Time Machines,’ the pieces by Wróblewski were put on display for an international audience in the context of the art of Western Europe. The eponymous journey ‘to the margins and back’ signifies the 1946 trip by students of the Warsaw and Krakow fine arts academies to the Netherlands, through Germany and Denmark, as well as countless, almost continuous, excursions by Wróblewski to the Tatra Mountains. The margin refers not only to outskirts of the freedom of artistic expression, but also to the metaphorical inner borders of fears and the sense of belonging; the latter raises the issue of the lack of ‘roots,’ of one’s own place in the world, and the search for them conducted by the artist himself on different levels. The terribly intense yet brief creative output of Wróblewski, filled with glaring antithesis, oscillating between the two opposite poles of abstraction and realism, bears testimony to the emergence of his unique point of view as an artist. We wanted to draw everyone’s attention to this contract and happened to come up with the idea of examining another impactful journey by the artist. The year was 1956, late autumn. Andrzej Wróblewski and Barbara Majewska, a young critic for Przegląd Kulturalny [Cultural Review] were sent on the official visit to former Yugoslavia.
The idea had already come to us in 2010 — alongside Zdenka Badovinac, the director of Moderna galerija in Ljubljana, and Marko Jenko, curator of the Moderna galerija, we decided that this journey to Yugoslavia should be the centerpiece of the exhibition, since it was a driving force and point of departure for the subsequent presentation of Andrzej Wróblewski’s art in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Ljubljana was our dream spot, while Moderna galerija, with its collection from the countries of the former Eastern Bloc built up from the 1950s onwards, seemed like the perfect institution in which to showcase the diversity of Wróblewski’s late work.
‘Waiting Room I, The Queue Continues’ / ‘Poczekalnia I, Kolejka trwa,’ exhibition view: ‘Andrzej Wróblewski. Waiting Room,’ Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, 2020, photo: courtesy Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation
‘Boy against a Yellow Background’ / ‘Chłopak na żółtym tle, Model, (Chłopczyk) Model, (A Boy),’ exhibition view: ‘Andrzej Wróblewski. Waiting Room,’ Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, 2020, photo: courtesy Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation
DB: Meeting here in Ljubljana, we are all following in Wróblewski’s footsteps. What’s important, though, is the fact that he took this trip as a critic, like Barbara Majewska, not as an artist. What was going on behind the scenes of this visit to the former Yugoslavia? What was the goal of the trip?
MZ: Barbara Majewska and Andrzej Wróblewski were the delegates of the Foreign Relations Commission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In autumn 1956, they were sent to Yugoslavia as representatives of the Polish ‘thaw’ tasked with investigating the national art scene — that’s why they stopped by the most important academic and cultural centers, such as Zagreb, Belgrade and Ljubljana — and laying the foundations for a future exhibition project which the Commission planned to host the next year in these three cities and Skopje. The exhibition was to be this monumental survey of the latest tendencies in the Polish modern art that would travel to the four main capital cities of the former Yugoslavia.
It’s worth mentioning that the idea of displaying art in the Yugoslavian scene was born initially in Dubrovnik a year earlier, in 1955, when Mieczysław Porębski and Juliusz Starzyński attended the large Congress of the AICA. They gave Yugoslavian art rave reviews and I believe they were the first people in charge who pursued this idea. Officially, the cultural exchange project was launched within the framework of the Gomułka-Tito Agreement (1956) on intensified exchange in the sphere of culture: music groups, organization of concerts and visual art events. Interestingly enough, Majewska and Wróblewski arrived in Yugoslavia as art critics, and as such they participated in meetings with prominent artists, critics and directors of cultural institutions. In Ljubljana, these included Zoran Kržišnik (associated at that time with the Biennale of Graphic Arts, subsequently director of Moderna galerija) and Božena Plevnik (a director of the Municipal Museum [Mestna Galeria]). They also went on the tour of the Predjama castle accompanied by the artist Riko Debenjak.
DB: Did Wróblewski push his own art practice into the background during this journey?
MZ: Not entirely, Wróblewski never abandoned his role as an artist. We know that he brought reproductions of his works with him, such as the gouache piece Woman and Birds (Birds) [Kobieta i Ptaki, (Ptaki)] which was then published in the NIN newspaper, Waiting Room 1, The Queue Continues [Poczekalnia I, Kolejka trwa] and the now lost Everything Bends Toward the Sun [Wszystko pnie się ku słońcu]. Upon landing in Belgrade, one of the first meetings was for an interview he gave to their peer Miodag Bulatovic, a journalist who later became a very famous writer. What an intriguing conversation. Wróblewski was hailed as ‘one of the leading critics and [an] acclaimed painter.’ In an answer to Bulatovic’s question about the atmosphere around their arrival, their interests and expectations, Majewska makes a very bold statement by saying out loud that social realism is finished in Poland, that ‘outdated forms’ and ‘everything that [is] imposed on us from above’ are over, and that this represents a thawed perspective. She emphasizes the fact that in this new era Polish artists want to create and work in a completely different manner, pursue new form of realism, attempt to translate reality into their own personal language, so that the past will stay in the past. Wróblewski on the other hand stresses his interest in the modern painters’ relationship to folklore, as well as the reputation preceding Yugoslavian art, which he has heard so much about because, as he claims, ‘you guys are way ahead of us, that’s for sure. Fortunately, you bid farewell to the so called social realism a long time ago.’
DB: Why was he designated as one of the delegates?
MZ: Wróblewski had already presented the painting Mothers, Anti-Fascists [Matki, Antyfaszystki], breaking away from the tradition of socialist realism, at the exhibition in the Arsenal in 1955. The painting was largely overlooked. I suppose the decision was influenced by the show at ‘Po Prostu’ Salon in Warsaw that introduced the iconography depicting ‘chaired’ people and ‘queues’ on monumental canvases. Women drilled to their seats, lethargic in their existence, waiting timelessly — these were the new heroes of social reality. We suspect it might have been Marek Oberländer, ‘perpetrator’ of the Arsenal and ‘Po Prostu’ Salon and Wróblewski’s friend, who contributed to his designation as one of the delegates.
DB: The situation in Ljubljana and Yugoslavia in general differed immensely from the one in Poland. What climate did they find themselves in? What kind of art was there?
MZ: Majewska and Wróblewski were selected as delegates — embodiments of the thaw, arriving in a country that had experienced nothing of the sort. In autumn 1956, Yugoslavia was much more open than Poland, thus observing a completely different trajectory of artistic development. Strong fascination with the pre-war modernism and abstraction of the 1920s and 30s was clearly evident from the foundation of such collectives as EXAT 51, whose members included, for instance, Ivan Picelj, Vlado Kristl, Aleksandar Srnec and the architect Vjenceslaw Richter. On the other hand, the tendency to re-evaluate and rewrite the medieval tradition of the ‘old’ Kingdom of Yugoslavia also enjoyed great popularity. An essay written by Ivana Bago [published in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition — editor’s note] attributes this interest to Mirosław Krleža, an esteemed historian of that period]. Krleža was one of the authors and writers tasked with rebuilding the collective Yugoslavian identity by reclaiming the country’s heritage of the Middle Ages, especially the tombstones attributed to the Christian heretic sect originating from Bosna — the Bogomils. Bogomilism was a neo-gnostic sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire in the tenth century in an act of defiance against the Bulgarian nation and the Catholic Church. Stećci were presented as one of the most important pieces of the exhibition ‘L’art Médiéval Yougoslave’ in Palais de Chaillot in Paris (1950); they represented the sect’s opposition to the Church. At one point, Krleža drew a direct correlation between the the Bogomils
’ revolt and Yugoslavians in his portrayal of the Yugoslavian President Josip Broza Tito. Interest in the Middle Ages and the folklore of ‘old’ Yugoslavia drove a wedge between a great number of artists, such as Lazar Vozarević, whose painting titled Horseman [Jeździec] is featured in our exhibition, and the Zemla group of artists (including Krsto Hegedušić) which was established in 1929 and often referred to primitive art. The group members were captivated by rural scenery, the life and work of peasants and the primordial.
Exhibition view: Petar Lubarda, ‘Oriental Rhapsody,’ 1953, oil on canvas, at ‘Andrzej Wróblewski. Waiting Room,’ Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, 2020, photo: courtesy Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation
Marjan Dovjak, ‘Waiting Room I,’ 1958, oil on canvas, 53.5 x 68 cm, private collection, Slovenia, photo: courtesy Moderna galerija, Ljubljana
DB: What were the results of this survey of the Yugoslavian art scene which they had taken upon themselves?
MZ: It wasn’t until late November 1956 when Majewska and Wróblewski returned to Poland. The Yugoslavian exhibition of Polish art opened late in March the next year under the auspices of Commissioner Roman Artymowski. This travelling exhibition was put together in the blink of an eye and included pieces by Barbara Zbrożyna, Stefan Gierowski and Jan Lebenstein, among others. No room for Wróblewski, though. Later in the same year, 1957, the exhibition ‘Yugoslavian Contemporary Art. Painting, Sculpture’ opened in the Warsaw-based Zachęta Gallery. Almost every artist Wróblewski met in person or mentioned in his journal participated in this show: Gabrijel Stupica, Miodrag Protić, Petar Lubarda, Oton Gliha, Milo Milunovi, to name just a few.
In order to fully answer your question, we need to circle back to our curatorial concept for the exhibition ‘Andrzej Wróblewski. Waiting Room.’ On multiple occasions, Marko Jenko, a curator from Moderna galerija, has emphasized that this show provides a fresh perspective on the post-war artistic landscape of Yugoslavia, in his personal and Slovenian context, and in the eyes of the critics from behind the Iron Curtain. The articles published by Wróblewski and Majewska in Przegląd Artystyczny and Przegląd Kulturalny, respectively, offered attempts at facing the experience of a distinct art scene head-on, describing the utilized languages, forms and styles and referring them to Polish art, in which they were both well-versed. Our show is not dedicated solely to this journey — on the contrary, the journey acts as our starting point and source of inspiration for multi-threaded ruminations on Wróblewski’s late works , meaning the pieces from the years 1954 to 1957. The exhibition opens with the date 10th of May, 1954. This was the day when Andrzej’s first son was born and a seminal moment in the history of his creative oeuvre which takes a departure from landscape paintings such as Waganowice and Road [Droga], and instead focuses on very intimate depictions of breastfeeding, motherhood, home life, art studio and close environment.
DB: What sort of Yugoslavian accents can we expect to see in the exhibition?
MZ: We applied the principle of ‘punctum’ to mark the presence of artists from Yugoslavia, pointing out their close creative affinity and connection. There we have, for instance, Lazar Vujaklija and his composition portraying his trademark folklore themes and the motif of a man with his hands raised, (which by the way Wróblewski sketched out in his notebook from the journey). Then there are Lazar Vozarević’s references to the Middle Ages and tombstones mentioned above, Peter Lubarda’s famous depiction of a battle, and finally Marjan Dovjak, one of the most fascinating artists whom Wróblewski never met and never even mentioned. Around time, Dovjak paints waiting areas at train stations, people sitting at tables in restaurants or libraries: the despondence of Slovenian mundanity, to put it in a nutshell.
DB: Where does this similarity come from in your opinion?
MZ: In one of his essays, Marko Jenko writes about the ‘infectious phantasm of a waiting room,’ a term which appeals to me personally. He poses the question of the origin of this figure — does it derive from the pervasive waiting of the socialist system, its various iterations: clerical, administrative, systemic, mental, economic etc. I highly recommend reading this essay yourself since the author conducts an in-depth analysis of a political climate in the post-war Yugoslavia and the influence of the West on the country’s relations with the USSR, against the backdrop of the art practice of Dovjak, a third-grade painter in poverty.
DB: How did this journey shape Wróblewski’s art? The exhibition in Ljubljana comprises 121 works of art created in a variety of techniques, including ones that have never been seen before. We view a different and unexpected side of Wróblewski removed from the by-gone days of ‘executions,’ war trauma, ‘chaired’ and ‘queuing’ images, waiting for something in limbo amidst grey everyday reality.
MW: Not only did the artist actively participate in the artistic and cultural life of Yugoslavia during his journey, but he also observed acutely the surrounding nature and landscapes. He and Majewska visited tourist attractions and strolled along the scenic routes and streets, sightseeing and acquainting themselves with architecture. These influences flourished in the artworks he created in the last months before his death. When he returns from Yugoslavia, he turns out to be this deeply ironic and vibrant artist teeming with life. This journey seems to have tapped into some previously hidden side of him he’d never revealed before. Wróblewski opts for bright colors, humor, erotic undertones. He’s fascinated with a woman’s body and breasts, which he inserts into the tomb’s form. He deconstructs, cuts around and across it, decapitates, portrays women in their underwear, naked, doing sports, fantasizes about women walking on the streets in transparent garments looking as if they were traversing the city almost naked. There’s this virtual flurry of emotions. It seems as if this journey was much more than a political affair at a momentous time in history (revolution in Hungary, thaw in Poland). Wróblewski visited the country where weather, colors and fragrances were so diametrically different that he was never going to be the same. According to Barbara Majewska, they might as well have travelled to another dimension. This journey temporarily liberated the artist from his everyday life, poverty, routine hardships and academic circles. He felt trapped, now could finally be free.
DB: Did he leave behind any works of art in Ljubljana?
MZ: We found no mention of his works that could’ve been deposited in museums or private collections, except little snippets of information in newspapers. Wróblewski however did collect some pieces from the fellow artists he met over there, Lojze Spacal’s graphics, for example.
DB: The dispersion of Wróblewski’s works also seems fascinating. His works are stored in museums, as well as in private collections in Poland and abroad. I find this aspect quite enthralling. Could you share with us how they ended up in the hands of their owners?
MZ: Krystyna Wróblewska, his mother, started regularly selling Wróblewski’s works shortly after he died, already in 1958. She wished for his most important paintings, e.g. Executions [Rozstrzelania], to be placed in museum collections. Therefore, the National Museum in Krakow bought ten paintings by Wróblewski in May 1958 (one of the largest museum purchases), while Execution [Rozstrzelanie] ended up in the Polish Army Museum and two paintings were delivered to the National Museum in Warsaw in 1960. This premeditated sale policy was also aimed at private collectors based in the United States, for instance. We’re incapable of tracing and identifying all transactions conducted by the artist’s mother until the day she died. Wróblewski’s friends also preserved his memory. He entered the canon of the so-called travelling artists of the post-war period in no time. His works were exhibited in all major exhibitions of Polish modern art organized abroad by the Commissioners, such as Ryszard Stanisławski. There were even plans for an exhibition in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale which never came to fruition. We try to follow these international trails whose directions are connected strongly with the emigration of Polish citizens to the United States and Western Europe. Although we managed to reach multiple owners, some pieces are still almost impossible to locate.
DB: The two publications you have issued so far are these astonishing monographic volumes on the art practice of Andrzej Wróblewski. Is there a catalogue raisonné in the pipeline?
MZ: Catalogue raisonné is the great challenge we have been trying to tackle for a while, because we’re dealing with the incredibly prolific artist [he created approximately 1400 works before he died at the age of 29 — editor’s note] whose numerous works are irretrievably lost or scattered around the world. We hope that within the next six months, two years tops, our catalogue raisonné will finally see the light of day. We’re finalizing the design right at this moment.
DB: I will keep my fingers crossed for your work and hope we will meet again soon to discuss this newly published catalogue of yours.