polish photography now roma piotrowska calvert 22

Is Polish Family Nuclear? Family Values. Polish Photography Now at Calvert 22.

Review by Roma Piotrowska

You don’t have to go to Warsaw or Kraków to learn more about Polish photography. You can now see some of it in London, thanks to the Polish season at Calvert 22, involving an exhibition and events. The season is centred around Family Values. Polish Photography Now exhibition devoted to themes of identity, home and family in the context of social and political change.

Based in Shoreditch, Calvert 22 is a non-profit space dedicated to contemporary culture in the so-called ‘New East’, meaning eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia. Calvert is a very pleasant, elegant space, decorated with plants, housing three modest gallery spaces, a bookshop and a cafe.

The title of the Polish photography show may suggest a comprehensive survey when in fact this exhibition doesn’t try to represent the condition of Polish photography now, but instead it feeds into its institutional mission of showing the cultural and societal change in the New East through photography. The exhibition explores how individual freedoms are found within the confines of home, and how the domestic serves as a trope for the artistic exploration of different, darker questions concerning identity.

Family Values shows works by two prominent artists of the communist era, Zofia Rydet (1911-1997) and Józef Robakowski (b. 1939), alongside four contemporary artists.

Zofia Rydet is an extraordinary figure in Polish art. She started taking photographs at the age of 67 and documented thousands of people in cities, towns and villages; inside and outside of their homes, creating a unique document of society in its critical moment of decaying communism. When visiting villages, she simply knocked at random people’s door, who obediently sat under the stove, at the table, on bed looking straight into the camera[1]. At Calvert 22 we can see single rows of photographs displayed in thematic groups – a row showing women, another one with men, and another one with married couples, children and whole families. People are surrounded by their everyday, domestic environment indicating their profession, religion and hobbies. No surprise that Rydet called the whole project the Sociological Record. She set herself a goal to photograph every person living in Poland and she stuck to this idea for 12 years, until health problems stopped her in 1990. Incidentally, it was also the year when communism ended in Poland and the country started transforming into a neoliberal socio-political system. Józef Robakowski grasped that transformation in a video From My Window (1978 – 2000), also exhibited at Calvert 22, documenting the view from his tower block window over the period of over 20 years. The camera, in a voyeuristic style, recorded daily routines of the inhabitants of the estate, at the same time documenting changing technology and fashion. The film finishes with the view being covered by the wall of a new hotel. Robakowski couldn’t have dreamt of a better, symbolic end to his film. A contemporary director and cinematographer Adam Palenta gives another insight into communist Poland. He composed a voyeuristic documentary entitled House on its Head, comprising of home movies from the 1950s and 1960s by an architect, photographer and graphic designer Wojciech Zamecznik. The video allows us to observe Zamecznik’s family life, especially his devotion to and desire for his wife Hala.

Rydet’s exhibition takes up the largest space at Calvert 22, whilst more contemporary work is exhibited in the two smaller galleries. Photographs from Aneta Grzeszykowska’s Negative Book portray the artist herself cooking dinner with her child, on holiday with her husband or posing for a bigger family photo. The photographs were made in a traditional black and white, analogue technique and are displayed as negatives, except that the only person represented in positive is the artist, with her white skin, dark hair and dark lips. The photographs are accompanied by an eerie video showing Grzeszykowska covering herself almost fully in black paint. Grzeszykowska experiments with the medium of photography and through painting herself black, she achieves the positive representation of herself in the photograph, whilst everything else stays negative. Through this procedure she aims to ask existential questions about alienation, presence and absence.

Another slightly disturbing series of photos is displayed on the opposite wall. Aneta Bartos’ Family Portrait, set in pastoral Polish landscapes and interiors portrays a young woman with an older man, seemingly on holiday together. They are semi naked, not interested in each other too much, but also not ashamed of each other’s nakedness. On the one hand, he seems to be more interested in himself and his bodybuilder’s physique, and she on the other hand charges the photographs sexually by having her legs spread, pouting and directly gazing into the camera. The experience becomes uneasy when we find out that these are photographs of the artist with her father. Kate Bush, the curator of the show writes in the exhibition catalogues that ‘Bartos increases the sexual charge – and the inference of guilt – by the choice of scenes, such as eating ice cream or praying in church.’[2] This kind of photography is not often found in family albums and probably for the better, as the artist touches Freudian taboo subjects, which are rejected from the mainstream way of thinking about family.

Less controversial are Weronika Gęsicka’s collages of found footage from American stock photography from 1950s and 1960s. American representations of domestic life are idealised and commercialized, showing happy families living their American Dream. Gęsicka’s versions distort these propaganda visions of reality. A happy family, eating turkey ends up  ‘trapped’ behind a curtain, leaving the mother on the other side; a family doing puzzles becomes a jigsaw themselves. Gęsicka dissects and critiques these too-beautiful-to-be-true images by introducing absurd elements through the collage technique.

Family Values. Polish Photography Now is not a comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Polish photography, nor is it a show representing a variety of family values, but it does showcase some of the best Polish artists in a very elegant and accessible way. There have been a few exhibitions of important Polish artists of the 20th century recently in the UK (Andrzej Wróblewski, Alina Szapocznikow, Zbigniew Krasiński) and Zofia Rydet’s exhibition at Calvert 22 fits into this trend perfectly, rising her profile outside of Poland. The title of the show alludes to the current situation in Poland where the conservative government promotes traditional family values and a conservative family structure, consisting of two parents and their children, in contrast to a single-parent family, a family with more than two parents or same gender parents. Family Values. Polish Photography Now does not argue with those policies too much. Works on display comply with traditional family values, representing more often than not a nuclear family. What seems to be missing is the representation of different family models. The exhibition is taking place in London where thousands of Polish gay couples found their new home and got married because they can’t do it in Poland. There are many Polish artists and photographers making works around this subject, including Marta Kochanek with her fantastic series We Love We Make We Exist portraying members of LGBT families including their children[3] and Katarzyna Perlak who staged the first lesbian wedding in Poland in her work Polish Wedding Without Censorship[4]. An alternative vision of a family in Polish photography would have completed this otherwise beautiful show.

Edited by Contemporary Lynx

[1] http://magazyn.o.pl/2015/dorota-groyecka-historia-jednego-obrazu-zofia-rydet-balsamowanie-czasu/#/
[2] Kate Bush, Family Values. Polish Photography Now [in:] Family Values. Polish Photography Now, exhibition catalogue, London, 2018, p. 6.
[3] http://www.martakochanek.com/welovewemakeweexist
[4] https://vimeo.com/256868603

Want to know more about Zofia Rydet? 

Click here to read our article about her photography

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