Slavs and Tatars report from Zakopane

Slavs and Tatars

For our at the show with the artist section artist duo Slavs and Tatars write about Zakopane, a Tatra mountains’ artistic epiphany.

Few Poles need an excuse to go to Zakopane, a village in the Tatra mountains used as a base for skiing, hiking, mountain climbing. The near mythical status of the place is secured by more than a century of artists and writers calling it home, if not by the extensive offerings of oscypek, the smoked sheep’s milk cheese renowned in the region. In this Santa Fe, or Marfa, of the Polish intelligentsia, the actors accrued a cult currency all the more valuable when national identity is under real or imagined assault, courtesy of the Prussians, Germans, Russians or Poles themselves. The faces adorning these bills? Stanisław Witkiewicz, père, Zofia Stryjeńska, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, fils, Witold Gombrowicz, among others.

Interiors, Dom Pod Jedlami, Zakopane, Poland. “We experience a real frisson when we see a kilim, a rug traditionally destined in Iran for the floor, used as a table-cloth. The blasphemy is all the more delectable for its generous curves: by definition thick, meaning literally ‘to spread roughly’, the kilim softens the edges of the already forgiving walnut table”.
Villa Oksza, Zakopane, Poland.

If we begrudge something alchemical to art, then surely the same must be said of its care-taking. We were invited in early December to Zakopane, the second such trip this year, to reassess 20th century Polish artist Władysław Hasior (1928-1999), another adopted Zakopane native. The closest thing to a celebrity artist, the Damien Hirst of the Polish People’s Republic, Hasior’s prominence in the waning decades of communist Poland have only further blemished his status today. The perch of 21st century Poland can sometimes be a vertiginous, vindictive one: even in a country whose recent economic and cultural record of relative prosperity bring to mind Cool Polonia, the return of the real is sometimes, well, all too real.

Interiors, Dom Pod Jedlami, Zakopane, Poland.

If not the transmutation of a base metal into a noble one, the organizers behind the Tatra Conference – Kola Sliwinska, Open Art Projects and Kasia Redzisz, the newly appointed Senior Curator at Tate Liverpool – certainly managed a feat of circuity. Instead of an art historical focus on the individual or work, Hasior served as a satellite to a constellation of other related pleasures and investigations: a two-day symposium on topics including the exoticization of Górale folklore, fictitious Slavdom, Zakopane’s demonism and diabolical women, and the art of dreck; an exhibition of contemporary artists (Modest Muses) within the Villa Oksza, one of the seven branches of the Tatra Museum; and a cabaret to boot.

Villa Oksza, Zakopane, Poland.

The highlander culture of Zakopane provided the romantic Play-Doh Polish intellectuals shaped into a compelling, modern national identity. Like their counterparts in western Europe, they idealized in the remote mountain peoples and folklore a culture unblemished by outside influence, whether friendly or foe. The most notable example is Witkiewicz’s Zakopane style–a synthesis of the Tatra mountain’s vernacular architecture, Art Nouveau cues, and upwardly mobile needs. Today, Witkiewicz would be accused of being a neo-liberal, a traitor, for trying to demonstrate that folk architecture could be comfortable, spacious even. Sure, the region’s original constructions were exclusively small, single floor homes, not the pumped up, double, sometimes, triple-decked homes Witkiewicz built for his clients and friends. But a century on, the Zakopane style’s success is undeniable, from the exquisitely preserved and still-occupied Dom Pod Jedlami to the numerous McMansions offering a tectonic if symbolic nod.

It’s not often our taste in exhibitions coincides with that of the sardonic, though no less serious, bastion of liberalism also known as The Economist. Thanks to a shout out in the British weekly, we capped the long weekend with a visit to the International Cultural Center in Krakow to see “The Myth of Galicia”, a sprawling look at the curious region that today straddles eastern Poland and western Ukraine. Baptized the Kingdom of Gaicia and Lodomeria by the Hapsburg Empress Maria-Theresea in 1772. A quick survey of the Galicia’s nicknames provides plenty of parlor-game fodder if not insight as to why a landmass that officially existed for less than 150 years continues to enchant a disparate bunch of historians, marketeers, immigrants, and intellectuals.

Ignacy Witkiewicz (aka Witkacy) was the real bad-boy of early 20th century Polish art, going so far as to include the chemical formulas of the narcotics he was ingesting on his paintings and portraits. Which makes this PG-rated Portrait of Krystyna and Ludwig Fischer (1925), recently acquired by the Tatra Museum, all the more special. Witkacy rarely if ever depicted kids: here the children of Zakopane-based doctor Louis Fischer.

Some dubbed it Golicija i Głodomeria (a pun on the original name, with goły meaning ‘naked’ and głodny ‘hungry’); Karl Emi Franzos called it semi-Asia; Joseph Roth Zwischenreich, an ‘in-between empire.’ This ‘rich land of the poor people’ represented an internal colony, with extensive natural resources: who knew Galicia was the third largest producer of oil in the late 19th century, behind the United States and Russia? It was touted as a melting pot of Austrians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews not to mention Hungarians, Armenians and Czechs, with no shortage of the accompanying tensions between not to mention within communities.

Wladyslaw Hasior (1928-1999).

The sophisticated Jews of Vienna looked to their poor Galician brethren, who immigrated to the capital of the Empire in large numbers, with a sense of shame: still devout, still mystical, more emotional, a stark reminder of origins unwanted by an integrated cosmopolitan population. But Galicia as dreamscape became all the more palpable the further its diaspora children traveled, in space or time. Thankfully, the sizable historical displays do not take away from this focus on the imaginal, that very real imprint and impact left by memory and fancy. Galicia’s status is no more resolved today than at any point during the past couple centuries: recent events in the Ukraine only further emphasize how little the rest of the world appreciates the complexities of the region. Perhaps we would do well to revisit an old saying: Nous sommes tous des Galitzäner.

November 21, 2022