I like Warsaw, I really do. It’s such a lively city! Some people (especially those born and raised in Cracow) consider it ugly, but I would never, ever say that. Everytime I hear someone complaining about the aesthetics of Warsaw, its architectonic chaos and eclecticism, I remind him what did this city came through during (and after) WW2. In 1945 it was an enormous pile of ashes, miserable and heart-breaking ruins of one of the most charming metropolises of central Europe. And however the great act of reconstructing the city began shortly after the end of the war, it turned out very quickly that many elegant modernist housing estates are to be replaced with architecture of socialist realism. Moreover, at the very heart of the city a huge edifice was erected, “a gift from the Soviet People to the Polish People”: the Palace of Culture and Science. The Soviet regime was defeated in 1989, but the way it affected the architecture of many Polish cities, including Warsaw, will remain for a long time, if not forever. That’s why I am always amazed how Warsaw is still able to impress, making a good use of its own eclecticism. It became famous for a huge diversity of restaurants, cafes, bookshops, galleries, and museums. It has probably the biggest number of institutions dedicated to contemporary art among other Polish cities, only to mention Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Centre For Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, or the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, with a superb bookshop called Bookoff.
Every time I have a chance to be in Warsaw — usually for professional reasons — I try to squeeze as much as possible out of every hour I spend there. When I was booking a flight back to Barcelona (we came to celebrate Easter with our family), it turned out that the best connection is from the Warsaw Chopin airport. As we decided to arrive in Warsaw one day before the flight to spend some time with our friends, I quickly checked the opening hours of a few museums, hoping to find an hour or two to see current exhibitions. After a quick research I picked two temporary exhibitions, one in Zacheta, and one in the National Museum — both of them created especially for kids.
The first, highly interactive exhibition, I read here. Contemporary Polish Illustration for Children (20/02—8/05/16), seems more like an installation than a classic exhibition. Each of the three rooms invites to a different kind of interaction. At the entrance, there is a long blackboard encircling the whole room, and inviting visitors to draw and doodle. The second room is full of separate installations, that resemble huge toy bricks, each of them referring to another book. There is a brilliant interactive installation presenting the whole ensemble of a symphonic orchestra, based on a book illustrated by Marta Ignerska. There is a mysterious object with little eye-shaped holes to peep through, referring to the beautiful and lyrical book written and illustrated by Iwona Chmielewska. There are magnetic bugs to arrange, windows to open, stories to listen to, blackboards to doodle on, nooks and crannies to crawl into. Everything adjusted to the youngest visitors — colorful, entertaining, placed low to suit a small observer.
Although the exhibition is made in a very attractive way, and its educational value cannot be overestimated, the presented image of contemporary Polish illustration for children is somehow incomplete. Artists participating in the display itself represent few particular collectives, while others made it only to the reading room. I wouldn’t consider it as a weakness if only the title of the exhibition were more precise. I think that some of the cultural institutions in Poland have a certain trouble with how the title of an exhibition is relevant to its idea, and final result. Not long ago, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow (MOCAK) organised an exhibition entitled Artists from Krakow: The Generation 1980—1990, which was dedicated almost exclusively to painting. Obviously, there are dozens of artists representing other disciplines living and creating in Krakow, and even if curators of the exhibition decided to focus on some particular phenomenon, it should have been described properly.
I’m a huge enthusiast of book illustration, maybe because the first exhibition I co-curated was an exhibition of Grzegorz Rosinski, famous i.a. for illustrating the comic book series Thorgal. I know contemporary Polish illustration pretty well, and I was quite surprised when I realised that there are so many important figures missing. I was looking unsuccessfully for works by Jan Bajtlik, Aleksandra & Daniel Mizielinski, and other illustrators associated with Dwie Siostry publishing house. I would be also very happy to encounter those artists who are still to gain wider commercial recognition, such as Marta Ruszkowska, or Urszula Palusinska.
I definitely don’t like this post to end with grumble. As I mentioned above, the exhibition I read here has a very important educational mission to realise, and realises it very well. I was there on Friday afternoon, and Zacheta was full of kids and their parents. The exhibition is already slightly “used” — the blackboards are covered with doodles, there are some elements missing, and the walls are dirty enough to prove the I read here project successful. Personally, I believe that there is no better compliment for creators of an exhibition than all those marks of the visitors’ presence. I loved the concept and design of a small excercise booklet than can be purchased either at the cash desk or in the museum bookstore for as little as 2 PLN (it’s less than € 0.50!). It’s a real treat for every curious visitor, not necessarily young.
If you’re in Warsaw, don’t miss this exhibition. I hope that despite its slightly narrow scope it will encourage visitors, especially foreign ones, to get to know better how fascinating Polish illustration is.
I read here. Contemporary Polish Illustration for Children (until May 8)
Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Pl. Malachowskiego 3, 00-916 Warsaw, Poland
admission hours: Tuesday — Sunday 12:00—20:00
adult | 15 PL
concession | 10 PLN
children / students under 26 | 1 PLN
children under 7 | free entrance
free admission every Thursday
(for more info on the admission fees visit the official website)