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A Polish museum turns to the right, and artists turn away
Piotr Bernatowicz, the new director of the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, Poland on Dec. 20, 2019. Bernatowicz wants to reshape a leading Warsaw art space to show conservative works and challenge left-wing positions. Anna Liminowicz/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall

WARSAW (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Piotr Bernatowicz is one of the most talked about figures in Poland’s art world this winter, for one reason: Many artists say he’s about to destroy a leading Warsaw art museum.

On Jan. 1, Bernatowicz, 46, became director of the Ujazdowski Castle Center for Contemporary Art, a reconstructed palace in the city center. For the past 30 years, the museum has put on shows by Poland’s leading experimental artists and hosted work by international stars like Barbara Kruger, Nan Goldin and Kara Walker.

Its exhibitions have often had a political dimension. One current show, for instance — a retrospective of work by Karol Radziszewski (through March 29) — addresses the experiences of gay men in Eastern Europe.

But, in interviews, artists and curators here said they felt the new director’s vision for the Ujazdowski doesn’t fit with the institution’s background.

Bernatowicz is interested in politics, but those politics are different from many in the art world, which he said in an email interview was “dominated by a left-wing, precisely neo-Marxist ideology.” (He declined to be interviewed in person.)

Artists are expected to make work about fighting climate change and fascism, or promoting gay rights, he added. “Artists who do not adopt this ideology are marginalized,” he said.

Bernatowicz wants to change that and promote artists who have other views: conservative, patriotic, pro-family. His plans are transforming the museum into the latest battleground in Poland’s culture wars, which pit liberals against the governing populist Law and Justice Party, as well as other conservative groups.

Piotr Rypson, chair of the Polish branch of the International Council for Museums, said that, for 30 years, the Ujazdowski had been “a real freedom center in the middle of Warsaw.”

“To put this man on top is like putting a cork in the bottle,” he added.

A petition against the appointment of Bernatowicz was signed by Olga Tokarczuk, the Polish novelist who was awarded the delayed 2018 Nobel Prize in literature, along with a Who’s Who of the Polish art world. He would “go down in history as the gravedigger of this institution,” wrote a commentator in Krytyka Polityczna, a highbrow left-wing magazine.

Bernatowicz said he was aware of the criticism but was undaunted. “Why shouldn’t I try?” he said.

The Law and Justice Party has tried to orientate Poland’s cultural institutions in a nationalist-populist direction since it was elected in 2015. Piotr Glinski, Poland’s culture minister, who appointed Bernatowicz at the Ujazdowski, said in an emailed statement that the government was “restoring the right balance and building a fair system, in which every artist, regardless of his/her views, can count on the support of the state.”

Other government-appointed art administrators have caused controversy, too. In April, Jerzy Miziolek, director of the National Museum in Warsaw, removed three contemporary artworks, all by women, from its walls after he received an email from a visitor who said her child had been left traumatized by them.

The works included a photo series by Natalia L.L., a feminist artist whose career began in Poland under communism, that showed a woman seductively licking and sucking a banana. Demonstrators ate bananas outside the museum in protest at its removal. (Miziolek resigned in December after a series of labor disputes at the museum.)

The culture ministry’s appointment of Bernatowicz at the Ujazdowski has caused concern because it is for a term of seven years — far longer than normal — and was made without a competition.

The museum director’s politics weren’t always on the right. At university he studied art history, writing his dissertation on Picasso’s reception behind the Iron Curtain. After graduation, he ran a monthly art magazine and taught at a university in Poznan, a city in the west of the country. He was seen as a typical member of that city’s art scene, according to Radziszewski, the artist whose retrospective is on display at the Ujazdowski.

“We were friends — he was in my films,” Radziszewski said. “And he’s just become crazy.”

Bernatowicz said he had once been a liberal, but his worldview changed in 2010 after Poland’s president and dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders died in a plane crash in Russia. He became concerned about Russian interference in Poland and Poland’s position in the world, he said.

Around the same time, he said, he came to feel “extreme identity movements” had overtaken the art world and that accusations of “hate speech” were being used to censor work that went against their ideology. It reminded him of Communist rule, he added, when artists had to do as they were told.

In 2014, Bernatowicz became director of Arsenal, an art museum in Poznan, and reflected his new outlook in some shows. He curated several exhibitions of local painters but also a group show — “Strategies of Dissent” — that included posters by Wojciech Korkuc, a designer whose work many found offensive. One poster, addressed to gay men, included the slogan “don’t homosexualize minors.” Another told feminists to “use your brain before intercourse.”

“I was accused of presenting offensive artworks in a public gallery, but what about freedom of speech and tolerance?” Bernatowicz said. He was not homophobic or anti-feminist, he added.

Bernatowicz pointed out that a prestigious theater in Poland had recently put on a play, “The Curse,” that had offended people in the Roman Catholic Church. (It features a scene in which a woman performs fellatio on a sex toy attached to a statue of Pope John Paul II.)

“According to them, Catholics should be more tolerant and open to art,” Bernatowicz said. “My exhibitions reveal the hypocrisy of the art world.”

Bernatowicz has yet to reveal any exhibitions for the Ujazdowski. But a manifesto, published in November, named four “important artists” Bernatowicz said were not getting the attention they deserved. They included Korkuc, the poster designer, and three artists who were key figures in Polish art world in the 1980s, when opposition to communist rule was growing.

One of those, Jaroslaw Modzelewski, a painter who teaches at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, said in an email that he didn’t feel excluded from Poland’s art scene. “My art is involved in human questions,” rather than political concerns, he said.

Bernatowicz was an “interesting curator” whose attitude differed from the “one-way thinking art society in Poland,” Modzelewski added. But, he said, Bernatowicz must make sure his programming at the Ujazdowski doesn’t divide people. “This is the main condition of success,” he said.

Bernatowicz said that was not his plan. “I don’t intend to turn the center into a kind of ideological ghetto for conservative ideas and artists,” he said. “In my opinion, most of contemporary art galleries look like left-wing ideological ghettos. This is what I want to change.”

But some art world figures said it will be difficult to find enough right-wing works to show. “I don’t know what a conservative artist is,” Malgorzata Ludwisiak, the Ujazdowski’s previous director, said. “If it means painting like in the 19th century — a lady on a horse — well, it’s not contemporary art.”

Bernatowicz seemed to realize he might have a struggle on his hands. “If you ask, ‘How many conservative avant-garde artists are there now?’ My response is: five in Poland and maybe one in Belarus,” he said, riffing on a famous remark by Marcel Duchamp.

But, he added, “I hope within the next seven years, the situation will change.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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