A Poisoned Source. Polish Contemporary Art in a Post-Romantic Landscape – this exhibition looks at the profound influence of 19th century Romantic tradition on the collective Polish imagination; how it has shaped ethnic mythology and national identity and how, even today, Romanticism continues to affect the ways in which Poles view themselves, the world and their place in it.

While Romanticism left an indelible stamp on European culture, the impression was deepest in Poland – a country that disappeared from the map at the end of the 18th century and for more than 100 years was a nation only in the hearts and minds and shared history of its people. Given this loss of sovereignty, the reception of Romantic ideals was as exceptional as it was enthusiastic.

The language and culture that bound ethnic Poles became the foundation on which the rebirth of the Polish state was to take place. As such, literature played a fundamental and formative role, with the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki and Zygmunt Krasiński among others giving voice to the aspirations of the nationalist movement.

Rarely before and seldom since has literature exerted such a strong influence on political decisions and events – let alone on the shaping of an entire culture. Romanticism’s unprecedented effects inspired some significant historical missteps and summary cultural consequences. These included a series of unsuccessful attempts at liberation from the Russian, Prussian and Austrian powers that partitioned the country, the ambivalent assessments of which even now lead to erroneous judgments  about the legacy of Romantic ideals in modern-day Poland.

An exploration of the Romantic tradition’s effects on the country and its people is the primary interpretive theme on which A Poisoned Source is centered. The exhibition draws its title from A Poisoned Well, a cycle of paintings by Jacek Malczewski, who, along with Jan Matejko, Stanisław Wyspiański and Artur Grottger, introduced the motifs of 19th century Polish Romantic poetry into the nation’s iconography more than one hundred years ago

As seen by Malczewski, A Poisoned Well possessed a dual and ambivalent nature. Its pejorative connotations are in direct counterpoint to the suggestiveness of the myth of living water. Similarly, the critical analysis offered by A Poisoned Source serves less to repudiate “sacred Polish things” and more to inspire discussion about the mechanisms of Romanticism’s cultural influence and the phenomenon of its relentless effects in shaping Polish reality over the course of more than two centuries..  

In this sense,  A Poisoned Source can be considered as yet another mirrored tile in the mosaic of reflection on Poland’s difficult Romantic heritage, following in the literary tradition of  20th century writers Stanisław Wyspiański, Witkacy, Witold Gombrowicz and Czesław Miłosz.

The Romantic paradigm rests on four pillars – those of history, imagination, nature and love. In the case of 19th century Poland – a country divided, dissolved and awaiting rebirth – these elements combined into a heroic myth, based on historiosophic ideas, that set a standard of behavior in Polish culture and created role models for succeeding generations.

With the circumstance of partition as its catalyst and literature as its medium, this heroic myth evolved into a messianic doctrine that viewed Poland as a Christ among nations, with its population of innocents bearing a ceaseless succession of sacrifices – including the country’s very existence – in order to save its European brethren from the despotic rule of their monarchs.

Of course, such struggles are not without patriots. And the failed bids for independence in the uprisings of 1830 and 1863 provided fodder for the writers of both periods to conjure Romantic heroes from the common clay. Best exemplified by so-called “tyrtejska poetry,” the literary call for willingness among the masses to make the supreme sacrifice for the sake of nationhood informs the concept, the model and the rhetoric of Polish patriotism to the present day.

Part and parcel of this heroic perception was the creation of gender stereotypes. The male is portrayed as the Polish patriot – a devout Roman Catholic endlessly struggling for the liberation of his and other nations. The female is idealized as the so-called “Polish Mother,” a  priestess of hearth and home who endures without complaint while raising the next generation of freedom fighters and domestic goddesses.

In the context of history, the mythology surrounding these stereotypes equates man with nation as victims victorious -- a martyr that may be destroyed, but who, like the idea of Polish statehood, remains indomitable. Meanwhile, purified by her selflessness, the Polish woman is elevated to heroine and placed, like a statue, upon a virtuous pedestal. As with all myths,  it was not important whether the stories matched reality. However, the idealization was so absolute that it became an irrefutable interpretation of Polish history and continues to form the basis of the self-perceived obligations of every ethnic Pole.

For 200 years, the Polish nation was taken hostage by this Romantic myth. Witold Gombrowicz, a prominent critic of the so-called Polish style, often pointed out this fact. Writing in his Diary, he declares:

“In my mind, Polish literature should turn and change its direction. Instead of binding a Pole with Poland, it should strive to work out some distance between us and our Homeland. We must first be emotionally and intellectually separated from Poland in order to gain more freedom of action, to be able to create it."

Transmuting Gombrowicz’s thoughts on literature into the domain of visual arts, the artists grouped in A Poisoned Source pose similar challenges to the Polish cultural cannon in order to gain the freedom necessary to create and transform it. Their insightful analysis combines a number of elements, including a dramatic revision of cultural clichés, ironic play with tradition, brilliant pastiche and civil disobedience.

The artists show the difficulties of squaring freedom with obligation (Łódź Kaliska Freiheit nein Danke [Freedom No Thank You], 1998; Natalia LL Ptaki wolności [Birds of Freedom], 2001) and the process of internalizing stereotypical role models (Zofia Kulik Gotyk międzynarodowy II [International Gothic II], 1990; Anna Baumgart Dostałam to od mamy [I Got It from My Mum], 2002; Katarzyna Górna Madonny [Madonnas], 1996-2001; Elżbieta Jabłońska Supermatka [A Supermother], 2002; Roman Lipski Autoportret [Self-Portrait], 2005).

They initiate a critical dialogue with notions inherited from Romantic tradition, notions connected with comprehending Polish national identity, which quite often can be seen in the country’s official symbols (Grzegorz Klaman Flaga dla Trzeciej Rzeczpospolitej[A Flag for the Third Republic of Poland], 2001; Kuba Bąkowski Flaga [A Flag], 2001; Janek Simon Odlot [A Take Off], 2003), in the reverential view of Polish military history (Jerzy Kosałka Bitwa pod Kłobuckiem [A Battle of Klobuck], 1993), in fatalistic power of post-Romantic paradigms (Oskar Dawicki Bagnet na broń [Fix Bayonets], 2005), and in mingling patriotism with religion (Robert Rumas Weki [Pots with Preserves], 1994).

The artists also show how unproductive the burden of Polish tradition can be (Jadwiga Sawicka Dawno i nieprawda {Long Time Ago and All Lies], 2004). And they question the image of Poland as an ethnically and religiously tolerant country (Tomasz Kozak Polacy! Jeszcze jeden wysiłek! [Poles! Just One More Effort!], 2004).

A Poisoned Source is, without doubt, an exhibition of Polish voices speaking to Polish matters. But its overriding meaning is universal. Ethnic stereotypes and the myths that grow up around them can be found in all nations. A Poisoned Source draws attention to those critical moments when both the values and conduct conditioned by myth become axioms, and when those axioms enter the realm of taboo. Such absolutism should not dissuade a frank discussion on how these myths perpetuate and function in culture. As  A Poisoned Source evinces, contemporary art provides an avenue making such discussions possible.