20th Century Art at Kraków’s National Gallery

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I’ve walked into a Pinterest board. A cloud of companions orbits around each picture, pattern-matched by some superficial algorithm. I can’t keep my gaze constant; I follow all the hyperlinks, until I click through to the other side of the gallery.

The round artworks grouped together — then the brown ones — the mosaicked — the dappled — the depthless. The portraits held only by the fame of their authors: Witkacy’s fanged, alluring monstrosity jostling for attention with Boznańska’s hastily confident self-portrait. Three small rooms, a hundred paintings — look at me and at me and at me!

I can’t stand it; I sit down. I curse under my breath in art-historese. How postmodern. How post-museum, post-art. Post-image, post something — on Facebook or on Instagram.

“This one is cool,” a well-dressed woman sums up a photo-realistic mailbox against a peeling wall. I hear the ch-CH! of her camera. She will soon post this photo of a painting of a photo of a postbox on a wall… on her Facebook wall.

This is what I came here to escape. The image-saturated digital world. The world of phrases like “image-saturated.” I want a small canvas on a spacious wall to cradle me into transcendence. Instead, the paintings point at each other and at my camera, hurrying me along, repelling.

Slogans adorn the walls — artworld equivalents of the inspirational quotes with which teenagers plaster their Tumblrs.

Does the museum turn a work into an object or an object into a work?

It’s both, of course, but this particular museum leans terrifyingly objectificationist. Next to a series of paintings thematizing roundness (as an art historian would put it), an otherwise masterful landscape turns to mere pattern, a shard of glass in the service of the kaleidoscope.

The exhibition (“The Situation has Changed,” at Kraków’s National Museum) aims to showcase the bewildering variety of artistic styles which sprung up during the twentieth century. And so it does — but at what cost?

The paintings become exhibits — in a prosecution. Damning evidence against the twentieth century. A hundred artworks, each one marching towards progress — only to find itself back where it started. Only to find that it’s no different from its neighbor: nothing but paint on a canvas.

More than variety, its uniformity that I see here. I’m blind to everything but the one feature all these paintings have in common: paintinghood. Every last one is a colored rectangle — a vain striving.

There is no artwork in sight — only objects. Except, I suddenly realize, a single twisted masterpiece. A gluttonous, ruthless creature, flattening (painted) houses and breaking up families (of artworks) to feed its bloated vision: the exhibition itself.

I am almost impressed. Then, I hear a teenager’s earnest voice. “I love to paint, I really do. But art — art does nothing for me.”

I need this young woman to keep painting. I need her to know: the only art that matters is her own. And if she needs to throw out all the world’s masterpieces to make it — that is her God-given right. One day, I hope, she will proudly proclaim: art is the thing I love making!

And I — I have to get out of here. My eyes are craving something green and growing. I make a beeline for the park; trees don’t disappoint.

But parks do. I soon sense that I’m being watched. I turn around — and find myself face to face… with a dead man.

I keep walking — but there’s another one. And another. The avenues are lined with them. Stiff, menacing, and ancient: busts of national heroes.

There must be a hundred of them, give or take a few.¹ They stare me down with their ugly, identical faces. I hate them; I can’t look away. They block out all the trees. Every last one portrays the same person: the Great Polish Man.

They were individuals, once. They dreamed of immortality. Then they died, and their country took their bodies.

Ruthlessly, mercilessly, it arranged and rearranged them, polishing away their individuality, until it composed a paean — to its own greatness.

[1] In fact, there were 54, including 4 of women.

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Staff writer at Rabbit Hole Magazine. Harvard PhD. Want to video chat about one of my articles? Pick a slot at calendly.com/evebigaj

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