THE DARK ARTS
Aleksandra Waliszewska and Symbolism from the East and NorthCurators: Alison M. Gingeras, Natalia Sielewicz
The Dark Arts explores the wide ranging, fantastical visual universe of Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska.
Bringing together over 200 works by 42 artists from Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, this exhibition unpacks Waliszewska’s unusual, intensive dialogue with the fin-de-siècle Symbolist movement—particularly focusing on the culturally-specific subjects she shares with her Eastern and Northern predecessors. Like her Symbolist forbears, Waliszewska’s art is invested in the metaphorical meanings behind her visual narratives—allowing her to dissect the complexities of the human condition. The exhibition’s transhistorical dialogue aims to give deeper context to Waliszewska’s preoccupation with mythological tropes, apocalyptic scenarios, and charged Balto-Slavic landscapes.
As the most exhaustive presentation of Waliszewska’s prolific oeuvre to date, exhibition curators Alison M. Gingeras and Natalia Sielewicz have envisioned this exhibition as an unconventional monograph, inspired by the predominately pre-modern art historical canon that has scaffolded Waliszewska’s artistic imaginary. The Dark Arts has been conceived as a visual family tree that juxtaposes Waliszewska’s haunting iconographies with a speculative historical genealogy. The Dark Arts focuses on her shared affinity with the Symbolists’ drive to escape pictorial realism and naturalism. This curatorial deep dive into Symbolism emerges as ‘an exhibition within an exhibition,’ arguing for a more inclusive revision of the Symbolist movement by focusing on Baltic and Eastern European artists.
As a socio-political response to fin-de-siècle upheaval and transition in European society, Symbolism emerged as an artistic response “to the feeling of belonging to a sinking world, to the last generation in a long sequence of pasts” and a decadent response to the imminent collapse of the old-world order. This rather dark worldview resonates with our own alarmist era, in which Waliszewska offers a twenty-first century reincarnation of these ideas. Her fantastical figures, pagan deities, mythological creatures, and hybrid animal-monsters act as vehicles to explore primal emotions such as love, fear, anxiety, desire, and death. In this age of mega-change and global instability, Waliszewska’s unique revisitation of Symbolism provides her with an aesthetic and conceptual language to address deeper human concerns.
Echoing her predecessors, Waliszewska’s oeuvre seems governed by the logic of dreams. Reoccurring tropes in her oeuvre include physical and sexual conflict, inter-species relationships, vampiric behaviors, bodily wounds, and the hybridity of the body. She consistently probes the psychedelic and Gothic atmosphere of various topographies: the stuffy provinces, lost highways, deserted suburbs, and gloomy housing estates. Within this oneiric landscape, the artist inserts scenes of disintegration and violence. These ‘genre scenes’ represent a ghastly reality that obliterates our ideas about progress and linear continuity.
Artists such as Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (Lithuanian, 1875–1911), Jaroslav Panuška (Czech, 1872–1958), Kristjan Raud (Estonian, 1865–1943), and Teodors Ūders (Latvian, 1868–1915) have been included to highlight how, in resonance with Waliszewska, their iconographies are rooted in rural settings, draw upon indigenous literary references, mythologies and customs. Their works blend realism with an ethereal atmosphere, as well as proposing a flow of images, forms, and feelings in their oeuvres.
In terms of Polish Symbolism, Waliszewska rejects the contemporary view that these artists are retrograde, overly figurative, and decorative. Instead, she embraces artists such as Bolesław Biegas (1877–1954), Mieczysław Jakimowicz (1881–1917), Edward Okuń (1872–1945), Jan Rembowski (1879–1923), Marian Wawrzeniecki (1863–1943) and Witold Wojtkiewicz (1879–1909) as key forebears who deserve art historical reevaluation.
Aleksandra Waliszewska (born in Warsaw in 1976) graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Raised in Warsaw, Waliszewska was born into an exceptionally artistic family comprised of four generations of women artists. Her great grandmother, Kazimiera Dębska was a published writer, known particularly for her fairytales. Her grandmother was the famous postwar sculptor Anna Dębska, known for her whimsical menagerie of animal imagery. The artist’s mother Joanna Waliszewska is also a trained artist. Given her unusual matriarchal lineage, Waliszewska was from an early age steeped in various methods of storytelling through images. These successive generations of creative women have certainly left an indelible mark on Waliszewska—and examples of all their works are exhibited together publicly for the first time in this exhibition.
Situating herself outside of the discursive field of contemporary art, she creates bold, atmospheric paintings that have attracted a diverse following that extends beyond traditional art audiences to underground and pop cultural spheres. From her studio in Warsaw, Waliszewska connects to a vast international audience who are beguiled by the narratives contained with her figurative art. Thanks to this large digital footprint, her work has ‘crossed over’ into pop culture, finding its way onto album covers–musicians have sought her work out precisely because it offers an improbable lure into another world. The enchanting anachronism of Waliszewska’s visual universe that has made her a cult hero, giving her work a popular reach that transcends the elite high cultural references from which she has drawn her inspiration.
MORTALITY, DISEASE & MOURNING
Death is an omnipresent theme in Waliszewska’s oeuvre. The traditional emblems of human mortality make regular appearances in her paintings–skeletons, flayed open flesh, exposed organs, oozing wounds, festering corpses, faces with exposed skulls, coffins, open graves, gallows, and of course the Grim Reaper’s scythe. Reaching back to the Middle Ages, the allegorical representation of human fragility has been a mainstay of artistic production, from the Danses Macabres in 1400s woodcuts, to the skull-strewn Vanitas pictures of the Dutch Golden Age, to medieval Christian illuminated manuscripts. In Waliszewska’s work, the surmounting of the fear of mortality and disease can be traced to the strategies deployed by the Polish Symbolists, masters of the Młoda Polska (Young Poland) movement—Witold Wojtkiewicz, Mieczysław Jakimowicz, Jan Rembowski, Marian Wawrzeniecki—who, in the existential fight against their own fatal illnesses, combined irony with tragedy, self-deprecation with dandy-like self-styling.
Waliszewska’s own brand of the macabre frequently draws from these Symbolists’ mise-en-scenes, she counterbalances gratuitous pathos with her irreverent sense of humor. One of her favorite subversion strategies is to insert punks and gothic drunkards into the center of these Młoda Polska-esque mourning narratives. Yet the sense of vanitas and perishability underlies many of her subversive images, perhaps since numerous works by Młoda Polska painters were lost or destroyed during World War II—thus inspiring her drive to recreate these iconic scenes.
THE FIGURE OF THE UPIÓR: SLAVIC FIGURE OF THE LIVING DEAD
The uniquely Slavic history of the upiór (the Polish term for vampire) has become a founding source for Waliszewska’s own exploration of this world of the living dead. Drawing from a wide range of visual source material, from medieval manuscripts to the nineteenth century Symbolist works that dealt with the dark figure of the upiór in Polish, Czech, and Baltic artists’ works, The Dark Arts further enriched this cultural trope bringing it into the twenty-first century consciousness. By analogy, in his provocative study on upiorism, medieval scholar Łukasz Kozak argues that upiórs, knows also as strzygońs or wieszcze, depending on their geographical specificity, embodied a memory of real-life events, anxieties, and actions, and stand for people who fell victim to exclusion and persecution during their lifetime, and hence were haunted after death. Some protagonists of Waliszewska’s paintings - as if they themselves were upiórs - exercise various forms of agency, while remaining on the fringe of societal norms and ordinary human relations.
CATMANIA & ANIMALIA
If there is one signature subject in Waliszewska’s two decades of work, it is her obsession with cats. Hers are no ordinary house cats. Her cat protagonists lounge lazily in Młoda Polska-style interiors, smoke cigarettes absorbed in discussion with one other, participate in battles, or perform bloodthirsty rituals. Cats are ambiguous witnesses to tragedy and despair that regularly occur on her canvases. Cats can be monsters, too. However, their monstrosity is as enchanting as it is disruptive, it lures the viewer into a terrain between the living and the dead, the human and animal. For women, and others who have been historically oppressed, the identification with animals opens a possibility of reclaiming the subversive potential of the ‘animal in me.’
Waliszewska was born into an exceptionally artistic family, comprised of four generations of women artists—all of whom adored and depicted animals. Her great grandmother, Kazimiera Dębska was a published writer, known for her fairytales. Her grandmother was the famous postwar sculptor Anna Dębska, known for her fantastical menagerie of animal imagery. The artist’s mother Joanna Waliszewska is also a trained artist, producing paintings and sculptures. These successive generations of creative women have left an indelible mark on Waliszewska—examples of their works are being exhibited together publicly for the first time in this exhibition.
ENCHANTED LANDSCAPES: FOREST & SWAMP
Sirens, skeletons, reptilian femme fatales, zombies, and other lost souls: the swamp and forest in Waliszewska’s oeuvre is a tense, enigmatic space, inhabited by a supernatural bestiary, and where unusual encounters between life and death occur.
In Balto-Slavic Symbolist work, as in Waliszewska’s oeuvre, the muddy slime is where desires can be fulfilled. Trzęsawisko—one of the terms in the Polish language for a swamp—derives its root from the word trząść (to tremble), pointing thus towards the dangerous liaisons between the sensation of sinking and the affective impact of fear and ecstasy felt in the proximity of losing one's ground and falling into an abyss.
MATRIARCHY, MADONNAS, MERMAIDS & MAIDENS
Deploying her signature subversion of her deep art historical knowledge base, Waliszewska frequently revisits classical themes featuring female protagonists: Christian Madonnas, the medieval trope of the Maiden, the pagan priestess or witch, and the folk theme of the Mermaid. In each retelling of these timeworn subjects, Waliszewska makes these archetypes her own. She injects them with her macabre sensibility, while keeping female agency as the central force of her visual narratives. Rarely are her women passive victims, her female iconography projects empowered agencies and reversals of the male gaze. In many of Waliszewska’s paintings, women exist among their own kind in a single-sex dystopia.
When Waliszewska appropriates pre-existing Symbolist tropes in her depictions of women, there seems to be a corrective agenda. Whereas some of her favorite Symbolist artists depicted generic women, without individuation, as a vehicle to explore ‘feminine evil,’ Waliszewska’s maidens are devoid of moral judgement, while they are also hyper-specifically individuated, often based on likenesses of her friends or celebrities. Her entire oeuvre depicting women refutes the allegorical conventions of past art that portrays woman as the embodiment of societal ills, anxiety about sex and sin. Waliszewska knowingly upends this historical convention, as if liberating each female protagonist, casting her story in an amoral light. Her women get up to some pretty sinister deeds in some works—her girls might be vampires, cannibals, murderesses—yet, they are not empty vessels for male, moral judgements. Instead, Waliszewska’s women carry the full agency of their actions, no matter how nefarious or lascivious.
Maria Anto, Bolesław Biegas, Wanda Bibrowicz, Erna von Brinckmann, Bernhard Borchert, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Frans Crabbe van Espleghem, Anna Dębska, Kazimiera Dębska, Emīlija Gruzīte, Marian Henel, Mieczysław Jakimowicz, Marcė Katiliūtė, Theodor Kittelsen, Erich Kügelgen, Konstanty Laszczka, Bronisław Linke, Mykola Murashko, Teofil Ociepka, Edward Okuń, Jaroslav Panuška, Juozas Pjaulokas, Aleksander Promet, Yevmen Pschechenko, Kristjan Raud, Vaclovas Ratas-Rataiskis, Jan Rembowski, Hugo Simberg, Gustavs Šķilters, Karel Šlenger, Nikolai Triik, Teodors Ūders, Vitkauskas, Joanna Waliszewska, Marian Wawrzeniecki, Witold Wojtkiewicz, Andrzej Wróblewski, Rihards Zariņš, Bogdan Ziętek, Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, Stefan Żechowski
CuratorsAlison M. Gingeras, Natalia Sielewicz
ProductionMaja Łagocka, Aleksandra Nasiorowska, Maria Nowakowska
Exhibition architectureTomasz Chmielewski, Magdalena Romanowska
Key visualAnna Goszczyńska
OKI OKI Studio
Additional researchŁukasz Kozak, Jacek Staniszewski
Managing editorAleksandra Urbańska
CommunicationsMarta Bartkowska, Józefina Bartyzel, Aleksandra Długołęcka, Anna Szałas, Aleksandra Urbańska, Iga Winczakiewicz
TranslationsEwa Kanigowska Giedroyć