It is always a pleasure to return to Krakow, which is probably my favorite city, but this time it was always going to feel different. I was last there in 2009, for the openings of the main exhibitions of the Krakow Triennial, and as it turned out the final Triennale openings to be seen by Witold Skulicz, the visionary and mercurial leader of the exhibition organisers for many years. He died, suddenly, in late December 2009 and the tributes from around the world proved conclusively that he was widely admired and greatly missed. Now, three years later, the first Triennial since his death has opened and there is the opportunity to see just how the organisation has adapted to the changed circumstances.
I wrote at the time of the death of Witold Skulicz that his would be a very hard act to follow – perhaps rather self-evidently in any situation in which the event is so closely linked to the main personality behind it. Nevertheless, while his absence could be felt in many places, the Triennial has opened, the main set of exhibitions have been available to view and many opinions have been heard, mostly good. There is of course a problem in that this first post-Skulicz Triennial can be likened to the publication of a first novel – hailed or slated by critics, the subject of keen discussion by the public, and open to all sorts of claims. In a way this is both inevitable and acceptable – there is not really any other way in which it can be seen. As is so often said, the real test for the writer comes with the publication of the second novel, and upon that his or her real success will be measured. So, perhaps, with the Krakow Triennale – the next edition in 2015 will show the extent to which the loss of Witold Skulicz has been overcome, and the degree to which the Triennale Board and organisers have been able to move on and give new life and vitality to his legacy. So, what conclusions have I reached so far? They are based on my close experience of the event for a number of years, and in particular on the three editions of the Triennial from 2003 to 2009 for which I was honoured to be the Chairman of the Stage 2 selection and Awards juries. And, before anyone jumps to the conclusion that my criticisms are bound to be adversely critical because of that experience, I assert that I have taken as objective a view as possible, not the least of reasons for which is the inevitable fact that each successive edition is bound to be different, as time moves on, the graphic arts develop rapidly, and different artists submit work for the competition.
The programme for the 2012 Triennial is as broad and ambitious as ever, with a number of exhibitions within Poland and further exhibitions in Vienna (Austria), Oldenburg (Germany), Falun (Sweden) and this year also for the first time in Istanbul (Turkey), all staged by members of the International Print Network set up in Krakow to promote the wider spread of exhibitions generated by the Triennale. Among those exhibitions the first major opening was that of the retrospective and memorial exhibition of prints by Witold Skulicz, held in the lower gallery of the International Cultural Centre on the Market Square in the heart of Krakow. The gallery itself provides something of a challenge as it was converted from a series of cellar rooms with vaulted brick ceilings, but as with other exhibitions that I have seen in this space the works looked very good. The prints selected for showing date from 1960 to 1989, beginning with works in traditional lithography and ending with works in mixed techniques, with one digital print. Arranged chronologically they show very well how Skulicz approached his art and how it evolved over the course of a time in which, it has to be borne in mind, Poland was a Communist country. The works shown, particularly those towards the end of the 1980s, demonstrate just how free it was possible to be from the diktats of official art. They also show that the ability of the Triennial, and before that the Biennial, exhibitions to attract works from beyond the Iron Curtain, and the extent to which these had an effect on the arts in Krakow. Among the works shown are such as the ‘Attempt’ series, three large (100cm x 70cm) silkscreen prints with dynamic white gestural marks on a black background, dating from 1986 and expressing well the growing frustration felt in Poland as the powers of Communism began to fade and the indomitable will of the Polish people that had survived the period of Martial Law asserted itself through the political changes led by Solidarność. The later prints have more colour, verging on the lyrical, and yet remaining defiant and dynamic. The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue, in the form of a hard-bound book, that also includes illustrations of his work in graphic design and public art, and which was edited by Monika Wanura-Kurosad, the exhibition Curator. The well laid out exhibition provides a clear demonstration of the aspect of Skulicz that was little known except to his close friends and associates and which yet played such an important part in his life, and the catalogue is both a fitting tribute to an extraordinary character and a valuable addition to the history of printmaking in Krakow.
The main Triennale exhibition is staged, as usual, in the challenging spaces of Bunkier Sztuki (‘the Art Bunker’) a concrete building over three floors that opened in 1965 and that typifies the style of totalitarian contemporary architecture at that time. It was designed for a different form of art in a different era and is not, it must be said, anything like as sympathetic space as contemporary printmaking deserves. The additional problem of the drainage from the toilets in the building caused another problem, that of unpleasant smells that pervaded the building, particularly the upper floor, compromising calm viewing and consideration of the works displayed there, and the subject of many unfavourable comments that I heard. This is a problem for the management of Bunkier Sztuki and needs to be sorted out as a matter of urgency. That said, there is as always some excellent work in the exhibition and, as ever, some that causes puzzlement. The constraints of the building aside, the Triennale has for many years had the problem of its growing popularity, as more and more artists submit their work for the first (electronic) selection stage. This year over 5,700 works were sent in for the first stage, reduced by the Stage 1 jury that viewed the works as digital images to around 3,000 to be assessed in real form for selection by the Stage 2 jury, this year chaired by Professor Endi Posković from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, an experienced artist, teacher and selector. His jury had the task of choosing which prints should be shown in the exhibition, in the end just over 300, from amongst which the separate Awards Jury (also chaired by Professor Posković) would choose the artists to be granted awards. It no doubt was, as it was during the editions for which the task of chairing the Jury fell to me, a strenuous and daunting task. Just how can a group of experts choose which 10% of the prints they select? The dynamics and possibilities of such a process would require much more space than this article allows, but suffice it to say it is a complex and emotive task and that many hard decisions have to be made. This also applies to the work of the Awards jury to whom fell the task of selecting just 17 artists to receive the prestigious awards. As a general point, another jury, or indeed the same jury working at a different time, would probably have reached different conclusions: such is the nature of any decision process that involves the subjective opinion and objective experience, of a very mixed group of people.
The Grand Prix d’Honneur was awarded to Izabella Gustowska, a major figure in the Polish art world for many years, and a worthy recipient. The Grand Prix Award – always subject to vigorous discussion by the Jury – went to Joanna Janowska-Augustyn, a young Polish artist, and the Award of the Mayor of the City of Krakow went to Jacek Joostberens, also from Poland. Other awards went to artists from the United Kingdom (Marcelle Hanselaar, Jo Ganter), Austria (Stefanie Holler), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Taida Jasarević), Canada (Davida Kidd), Latvia (Paulis Liepa), Germany (Kirsten Borchert), Poland (Joanna Leszczynska and Mirosłav Pawłowski), South Korea Nam Kyung Bae), Japan (Naoki Tajima), Slovakia (Marko Blažo), Bulgaria (Darina Peeva) and the USA (Art Werger). For the record, seven of the awards went to digital prints, including the three top prizes, nine awards went to prints in traditional techniques, and one award to a mixed media, three dimensional, construction.
Separate and complementary juries worked at the same time as the main jury to select works to be shown in the forthcoming exhibitions in Vienna, Oldenburg, Falun and Istanbul, and also the exhibition, MTG PrintArt Krakow-Katowice, that is being held simultaneously with the main exhibition. A complex programme of juries, then, and a logistical task of great complexity, as some prints were selected for more than one of the exhibitions. That this can be achieved with what is essentially a small staff within the Krakow Triennale offices is a tribute to their dedication and experience.
So, what are my overall observations of this major exhibition at Bunkier Sztuki? The installation, by the respected Curator, Katarzyna Wojtyga, made the best use possible of the difficult space and the excessively large number of selected prints, by supplementing the hard walls with a series of metallic grid screens across the galleries, but in the end the prints were crowded far too close together to allow sufficient breathing space between them and making clear viewing difficult in many cases. For this edition there seemed to be no clear pattern by which the hanging of prints was undertaken, and instead appeared to be down to the personal aesthetic evaluations of the curator, which is an alternative, and in this case inevitable, decision due to the large number and great diversity of prints that were selected by the jury. As with all major print exhibitions that I have seen over a long period of time there was also the problem of framing many of the works behind glass, rendering some difficult to see due to the inadequacy of the lighting that is available in the galleries. The fact is that the space cannot hold around 300 prints without there being problems with the display, but this reflects on the number of works selected by the Jury, rather than on the work of the Curator. That said, as I know from experience, making even deeper cuts in the numbers creates an almost impossible task, but one that has to be faced in future editions of this major international exhibition of contemporary printmaking, if indeed they are to be staged in Bunkier Sztuki.
At the same time, and at the risk of being controversial, I have to draw attention to the fact that a total of 20 prints were shown (albeit non-competitively) by artists who are Board Members, or Jury Members for the exhibitions in Krakow and the other cities in the International Print Network. The additional inclusion of four prints by invited artists, including two huge prints by one of them, raises the crucial question as to whether either addition can be justified in a competitive exhibition for which so many prints are submitted, and among which there are inevitably so many truly worthy contenders for selection. There is a strong argument that such inclusions within the main exhibition should not be made in future editions, but that a separate exhibition in another gallery space of works by jurors and organisers and invited artists should be considered. That way, at least there would be a slightly increased possibility for international artists submitting prints by the usual route to have their work selected and thus eligible for consideration for an award.
In previous editions the main Triennial exhibition has been followed by the Grand Prix of Young Polish Print exhibition. This year, in a welcome innovation, the two exhibitions are being shown simultaneously, with the introduction of what is certainly Krakow’s newest gallery space. In Plac Szczepanski, adjacent to Bunkier Sztuki and also to Palac Sztuki (the ‘Palace of Art’) and the Stary Theatr (the ‘Old Theatre’), a series of shipping containers have been installed, linked together to create an exhibition space that is highly appropriate for the work shown there, being by artists under the age of 36. The interior appears to be larger than the exterior, the walls are industrial imitation wood panels and the lighting is by fluorescent strip lights, with the details of the works written on the walls against them in marker pen – far from the usual gallery conditions but curiously effective. An added touch of levity comes fro the two hard hats and the pair of work boots placed beside the door. Within this original space is a small but excellent exhibition of work that both demonstrates the innovative approaches taken by young Polish artists and also their ability to continue and build upon the traditions that have served Polish print so well for so long. The Grand Prix for the 2012 exhibition was awarded to Marta Kubiak for a very large and highly original silkscreen print derived from images such as are found in comic books. This innovative gallery and its placement in the heart of Krakow’s cultural quarter is bold and, in my view, highly successful: not all of the older generation of Krakow might agree.
Among the other exhibitions being shown in Krakow as part of the Triennial, special mention must be made of the special exhibition at the International Cultural Centre on the Rynek Glowny of works by the Grand Prix award winner at the 2009 Krakow Triennial, Joanna Piech. While that award caused a degree of controversy at the time, even the most sceptical of critics would have to admit that this exhibition is a triumph. Working exclusively in linocut, and using traditional techniques, Joanna Piech has created a succession of works that demonstrate not only her superlative skill but also the depth and sincerity of her approach to the subject matter – essentially that of the human condition – depicted figuratively and suggested metaphorically. I recall that, at the time of the jury discussion in 2009 there was great discussion as to whether the award should go to an abstract or a figurative work. In the end, as this exhibition demonstrates, I believe that the right choice was made.
There were two small but notable exhibitions of prints from countries far distant from Poland, South Korea and Japan. ‘Jin-Gyeoung: the True Landscape’ is at the National Museum in Krakow, a fascinating survey of some of the work being done by a number of South Korean artists who are extending the notion of printmaking. Of these some use traditional techniques, while others are exploring the techniques by which the methods of making contemporary art can be reinterpreted in a country in which tradition is held to be important. Of equal important is the exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Woodcuts at the Pryzmat Gallery. This careful selection provides a clear range of alternative methods of using woodcut techniques to explore the limits of the medium. Some of the artists featured are from the older generation and others are younger artists. Collectively, they prove that the essentially straightforward, but difficult to execute, techniques of woodcut can be used to produce a remarkable range of works. Complementing this is a small but wonderful exhibition of woodcuts by the renowned Japanese artist, Akira Kurosaki, in the ESTA Contemporary Art Gallery in the small town of Gliwice, near Katowice. This exhibition demonstrates the mastery of this artist who honours the techniques of carving wood blocks to make superlative prints, but also explores the use of water-based inks and a range of delicate papers, including hand made paper from South Korea.
Two other regular exhibition are staged each three years in Katowice, to coincide with the weekend of the major Krakow openings. At the Rondo Sztuki (‘Art Roundabout’) gallery is ‘Horyzont’ (Horizon), the 2012 edition of the MTG PrintArt Krakow-Katowice exhibition, showing a separate selection of prints submitted for the main Krakow event. The installation in this gallery is as equally contentious as that in Bunkier Sztuki, and the galleries have their own idiosyncratic characteristics, necessitating the hanging of prints from the roof structure to supplement the spaces on the walls. While this increases the number of prints that can be shown – surely a good thing – the potential for the hanging prints to be damaged does raise a problem. The decision to paint the wall surfaces black is certainly a bold one, but in this case, given the crowded nature of the installation, the difficulties of the lighting, and the hanging prints, it did make for difficult viewing and worked against the possibility of gaining a longer comparative view through which a clearer assessment might have been possible. In the end it was, sadly, a difficult exhibition to comprehend. Opened the same evening in the BWA Contemporary Art Gallery of Katowice, the 8th Triennial of Polish Graphics provided an occasion for the Polish Graphics world to celebrate its undoubted success. The exhibition spaces are certainly more clearly defined that those at Rondo Sztuki, and as a result the works can be more clearly viewed and comprehension is more possible. The overall quality of the prints selected for this exhibition is high and there are a good number of works that are excellent. The exhibition also serves to provide a bench mark against which the international offerings in the other exhibitions may be assessed. Despite my stated misgivings about the major exhibitions of the Triennial I can state that, without doubt, a high proportion of the international works are of equal merit as the best of Polish printmaking.
There is a full programme of other exhibitions that can be found on the Krakow Triennial website at www.triennial.cracow.pl and this website also contains useful links to other aspects of the work of this internationally important organisation. As to the future, the Krakow Print Triennial Society has overcome the potential risks that were present after the death of Witold Skulicz and, despite the financial constraints placed on the society, as on all arts ventures in Europe, has once again proved beyond question that Krakow can put on a triennial series of world class exhibitions of contemporary printmaking that achieve much success. For anyone wishing to gain a detailed overview of what this can mean, a visit to the historic and delightful city of Krakow will provide much food for thought. As to the future – well, that remains to be seen, but despite the problems that best all such organisations, there is a clear determination to work towards the 2015 Triennial with renewed vigour and determination. The challenges are considerable, and bearing in mind the problems that affect both world and European contemporary arts scenes and the need for continued funding, may at times appear to be insuperable, but it is to be hoped that the next edition will demonstrate, once again, that the International Print Triennial Krakow of 2015 will prove to be an even greater triumph than largely successful and admirable series of exhibitions and events of 2012.
20th September 2012
(Richard Noyce is an artist, writer and art critic, a regular member of international printmaking competition juries, and travels widely to speak at conferences and lecture. He has a long standing involvement with the Polish contemporary art scene that dates back to 1972. He lives in a small village in Wales, and is currently working on his fifth book, ‘Printmaking Off the Beaten Track’, for publication by Bloomsbury in September 2013)