"Jasmina Cibic. The Palace" exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by HaWa
review

Jasmina Cibic. The PalaceGiving Presents is Not an Easy Thing

The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw (PKiN) can now be viewed in a former trader’s palace in Łódź as an element of scenography for the film “The Gift” by Jasmina Cibic screened during her latest exhibit. In her practice, the artist studies how political ideas are implemented through art and architecture. Her films, sculptures, installations, and performances are based on pre-existing objects and their histories. The exhibition at Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź explores the subjects formerly tackled by artist, now also firmly rooted in the local context.

"Jasmina Cibic. The Palace" exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by HaWa
“Jasmina Cibic. The Palace” exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by HaWa

Everyone probably knows what it’s like to receive an unwanted gift. One of such gifts seems to be the Palace of Culture and Science, though it wasn’t necessarily perceived as such while still under construction. A metal structure by Cibic bears the inscription: “The star on our journey to transform a guiding,” a quote about the PKiN building by the architect Szymon Syrkus. The modernist architect’s exaltation over the architectural poster child of socialist realism might come as a surprise. However, Syrkus considered the gift from Stalin in terms of the ideas, not aesthetics. His impression of the Palace was that it was a shining star showing people the way towards socialist realism. The building itself was to transform the capital from the city of kings and gentry into the city of workers. Instead of a king’s residence, the Palace of Culture and Science, where workers could spend their time after hours, stood tall and proud at the city centre. Though now viewed as an unwanted gift, the Palace was the beacon of hope for a better future in the eyes of Syrkus. After Warsaw had been demolished during the War, the modernists wanted to rebuild the city in a brand-new fashion. Tenement houses with narrow squares and dark basements were going to be replaced with flat blocks surrounded by greenery. Everyone was meant to live in a flat with an equal amount of light and air. In retrospect, we’re well aware of the fact that living in a block has many downsides, and residential areas with numerous almost identical blocks of flats are far from ideal locations for living.

Revolutionary Artists 

In the interwar period, before the Palace of Culture of Science had even been built, Szymon Syrkus used to be a member of the avant-garde group of architects called Praesens. The group gathered the advocates of functionalism and constructivism. The architects saw the opportunity for shaping societies through the conscious creation of architectural forms. The artistic vision of the Praesens’ members evolved in close relation to the political left. At that time, the chief purpose of architecture was to influence society.

Other members of the Praesens group included also Henryk Stażewski, Władysław Strzemiński, and Katarzyna Kobro, whose different views on art caused the group’s fracture in 1929. The artists went on to establish their artistic formation called a.r. along with Julian Przyboś and Jan Brzękowski. Apart from numerous art works they created, the a.r. group achieved something really special – they amassed the collection of modernist works and gifted them to the Museum of History and Art in Łódź. 

"Jasmina Cibic. The Palace" exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by Contemporary Lynx
“Jasmina Cibic. The Palace” exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by Contemporary Lynx

The collection of the a.r. group was the gift to the nation given by its fellow members. Was it mired in politics? I suppose the benefactors were guided by their selfless desire to disseminate works of avant-garde art and make them available to a wider audience possible. However, both the benefactors and the pieces included in the collection were not politically neutral. Like Praesens, the a.r. group leant strongly to the left. Władysław Strzemiński took advantage of the interest in art by then socialist authorities of Łódź and proposed handing over the collection to the museum as a deposit in 1929. The collection was opened to the public in 1931. It was the second-largest collection of modernist art in the world. The acceptance of this gift shouldn’t have been taken for granted because public institutions didn’t always recognize avant-garde modernist art.

The series of photographs by Jasmina Cibic titled “Revolutionary Artists” refers to the abovementioned art collection. The series depicts the reverse side of paintings included in the collection. The objects are photographed against a black backdrop and adorned with moths and other insects. As such, they bring to mind the vanitas still lifes. Owing to their brief lifespans, moths, flies, and other insects symbolize transience. In the 18th-century Dutch painting, they are often portrayed alongside flowers and sumptuous feasts. The presence of insects indicate the ephemerality of earthly possessions, especially those associated with luxury. Although the paintings themselves could be subsumed under the category of luxury, their value never dwindles. Flowers wilt away; food goes bad. Works of art are timeless. When gifted to a public museum, they are owned by a nation, so their owner will always keep them, and they will always keep their owner. In a sense, the gesture of gifting becomes an act of resistance against ephemerality. What is more, labels, which allow a viewer to retrace their history and the exhibition history of the periodically reorganized institution of the museum, adhere to the backs of paintings featured in photographs. With each exhibit, works of art become more and more recognizable and thus valuable.

Architecture as a Propaganda Tool

After the Second World War, the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź was granted its new seat, namely one of the palaces of the Poznański family at 36 Więckowskiego Street. The museum’s director commissioned Strzemiński to design a room that would hold the a.r. group’s collection. The artist acceded eagerly to the proposal, believing that art was capable of shaping society.

"Jasmina Cibic. The Palace" exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by HaWa
“Jasmina Cibic. The Palace” exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by HaWa

The commissioners of other buildings featured in the aforementioned film by Jasmina Cibic seem to have been guided by a similar belief. The film’s plot focuses on three finalists of the competition for the best gift to be bestowed upon a divided nation – an Architect, a Diplomat, and an Artist. Each of them proposes a different manner of forging relations and restoring communication between the feuding factions. The Architect puts forward the idea for a building that would provide a common space for citizens; the Diplomat opts for an immaterial gift, while the Artist makes a speech proclaiming that their objection to using art for a political agenda. The events unfold against the background of four buildings gifted to respective nations: the Palace of the Nations, the construction of which was funded by the members of the League of Nations; the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, Stalin’s gift to Poland; the headquarters of the French Communist Party erected pro bono by the architect Oskar Niemeyer; and the Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party at the top of the Buzludzha Mountain in Bulgaria. Compared to other art disciplines, architecture is the most permanent tool for propaganda.

Although the buildings portrayed in the film were entangled in politics, they can still serve as case studies to investigate the emergence of national aesthetics.

Built in the 1930s, the Palace of the Nations is a modern yet classic example of architecture. The monumental structure, symmetry and juxtaposition of the horizontal pilasters against vertical lines of cornices are reminiscent of the architecture from ancient Rome or 19th-century classicism. However, the forms are very austere and minimalistic. The building refers to the tradition and style of architecture associated with power while retaining a modern character. At that time, this form was typical for a number of public and government buildings, such as museums, ministries, and even train stations.

Also, the Palace of Culture and Science was conceived as a modern and still traditional monument. In this case, references can be traced back not only to classicism but also to the national tradition. Finishings were modelled partially after the 16th and 17th-century attics of the Polish tenements. The shape of a building emulates the seat of the Moscow University, while its height alludes to the American skyscrapers. The Palace was built shortly after the style of socialist realism penetrated art. The historic national forms were combined with brand-new socialist content – here expressed by, for instance, sculptures of various professionals inserted into the façade.

"Jasmina Cibic. The Palace" exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by HaWa
“Jasmina Cibic. The Palace” exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by HaWa

Oskar Niemeyer was an active political ally of the left and a member of the Brazilian Communist Party. He was born in Brazil and moved to France around 1965. His utterly modernist design of the French Communist Party headquarters, albeit referential to the principles of architecture developed by Le Corbusier, boasts more rounded and sensual lines. The communist party had the support of only twenty per cent of the public when the building’s construction commenced in 1965. New headquarters would project its growing power and embody rejuvenation. Simple forms and modern materials, such as glass and concrete, as well as the construction reminiscent of a flat block, meant to signal that it was the seat for workers and the symbol of a modern socialist society. As opposed to the Palace of Culture and Science, there are neither any references to tradition nor expensive details. The power lies in simplicity.

The Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party represents a similar approach. Completed in 1981 and designed by Georgi Stoilov, the monument was erected almost simultaneously with Niemeyer’s own creation. The building’s location was far from coincidental – a secret meeting of Bulgarian socialists was held in the area in 1891. On top of that, it was a battleground of the fight for the country’s independence, which occurred over a hundred years prior. In the mind of government authorities, the building would bring together the communist ideals and the founding myth of an independent Bulgarian nation. The building itself is certainly modern, even futuristic. The austere concrete form brings to mind a spaceship and a wreath with a flag inserted next to it.

The buildings in the film bear testimony to the cross-national alliances. However, architecture fulfils certain functions, not just ideas. To this day, the Palace of Culture and Science accommodates a cinema, theatre and museum. On the other hand, the Buzludzha Monument is now completely abandoned, slipping into ruin after the fall of communism in 1989. Despite ongoing efforts to prevent further damages, the building’s future remains uncertain. It turns out that grandiose ideas should be underpinned by a practical utility. 

The Art of Giving

Presents, especially those worth quite a bit of money, such as buildings and art collections, tend to carry some sort of agenda. In her work, Jasmina Cibic shows the influence of the gesture of gifting on international relations and national identities in 20th-century Europe.

During her research on the Palace of Culture and other potential institutions she could collaborate with, Cibic stumbled upon the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. The artist has continuously addressed subjects similar to those tackled in her current solo show, including the national aesthetics and the concept of soft power. In her art practice, Jasmina develops extensive and multilayered stories instead of making exhibits on the most trendy buzzword at a given time. She notices and emphasizes a correlation between the art of governance and scenic production. The artist found these motifs also in the art and history of Poland. The solo show of Jasmina Cibic can be viewed as a theatre play staged in the museum that allows viewers to create their own stories about the consequences of giving and accepting gifts.

"Jasmina Cibic. The Palace" exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by Contemporary Lynx
“Jasmina Cibic. The Palace” exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź, photo by Contemporary Lynx

Jasmina Cibic. The Palace

May 21 – August 29, 2021

ms1, 

36 Więckowskiego St, Łódź (entrance from 43 Gdańska St, 1st floor)

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About The Author

Małgorzata
Marszałł

Art historian. Currently, she works in the Education Department at the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, where she creates educational programmes and workshop scenarios. Interested in architecture, artistic fabrics, and issues related to ecology.

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