Dynamic art from Poland

Ian CollinsTwenty years on from the fall of the Iron Curtain, two new exhibitions at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich are celebrating the vibrancy of the Polish art scene.Ian Collins

Soon after the Berlin Wall came down - 20 years ago in November - I made a series of journeys across central and eastern Europe, into what resembled a documentary film set from the 1940s.

Traumatic history was so vivid, as if newly-evicted Communism had just been squatting in the ruins of the recent past.

On one trip I searched for Elizabeth and her German Garden - guided by an evergreen tome charting a late 19th century love affair between Countess Elizabeth von Arnim and her Pomeranian estate then deep in northern Germany.

Finally I found a flight of stone steps in a tangle of undergrowth and a silent wood where a mansion and its grounds, and then a battlefield, had been. This ghostly wasteland was now in Poland.

I'd grown up with some of the Polish diaspora in East Anglia, but so many were exiled in their own country which was shifted westwards and Sovietised from 1945 - after a calamitous conflict which killed six million Poles (half of them Jewish).

Small wonder that, even in the first flush of liberation, the post-Communist state still seemed paralysed by past oppression. But this European giant - now with a population of nearly 40 million - was very soon up and running.

Most Read

In 2004 Whitehall estimated that our open labour market would draw 13,000 job-seekers from all the eastern European entrants to the EU combined.

The Poles then led the biggest mass migration Britain has ever seen, with an estimated 350,000 arriving within two years (a figure now probably doubled).

Soon I was stepping over young Poles sleeping in doorways around Victoria Coach Station. Now everyone seems to have a Polish builder. Ealing could easily elect Polish MPs.

How humanity comes to terms with horrific history and rapid social transformation can be revealed most powerfully in art. And in Poland it's literally all over the place, and bursting out in new directions - even reaching galleries and studios very near you.

A show of Polish symbolism is already on view in Tate Britain, and later this month an amazing story is told in our capital of how the last king of Poland commissioned two London art dealers to build him a Royal collection.

But, in 1795, before they could complete the deal, Poland was partitioned by Catherine the Great of Russia and the king was forced into exile. As acts of revenge by former lovers go, that one takes the biscuit.

Unable to sell the pictures, the dealers then bequeathed them to what became Dulwich Picture Gallery - where the saga is about to be related, with artworks old and new.

London-based Polish artist in colour, light and line Antoni Malinowski - best-known for the scintillating Vermilion Wall in the Royal Court Theatre - has created a new work to connect the Dulwich gallery and Warsaw's Royal Castle.

And the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich is joining the Polish party with two exhibitions - featuring the work of 14 contemporary artists and one multi-talented modern master - which will run until August 30.

Tadeusz Kantor used virtually every art form to communicate his creative and very subversive ideas. Since he was born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and died just after the Berlin Wall's fall, having lived through autocracy, fascism and communism, while staying very close to home, his take on reality was inevitably somewhere between the odd and the unhinged.

His creative outlook was coloured by Dadaism and Surrealism. His comedy was of the darkest.

The Sainsbury Centre's An Impossible Journey: The Art and Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor attempts to encompass the breadth and depth of this titanic talent, and should certainly refire interest in a man who amazed audiences in London and Edinburgh and who remains a legend in Poland.

He was a writer, painter, draughtsman, assemblage artist, creator of happenings, actor, set designer, theatre director, lecturer, Curator and theoretician. He was a nominal Catholic deeply immersed in Jewish culture.

During the Nazi occupation he was part of an underground theatre company which performed in private homes and, in 1955, he rebelled against the institutionalising of the avant-garde by the Communists to form a new theatre ensemble called Cricot 2. Although he was sacked as a university tutor and branded a 'corrupter of youth', his celebrity kept censors and jailers at bay and even brought tours abroad.

The Norwich tribute features a range of theatrical objects and drawings, alongside archival films, photographs, stage designs and paintings in recreating two key Kantor productions - most importantly, Dead Class from 1975.

In this staged drama Kantor played a teacher presiding over a class of seemingly-dead characters who are confronted by mannequins representing their younger selves and the futility of attempts to resurrect memories of the past.

Alongside the Kantor celebration, Take A Look At Me Now: Contemporary Art from Poland focuses on artists working today all over the country, with national or international reputations in painting, ceramic, sculpture, photography and video. The works aim by turns at being thoughtful, provocative, humorous and beautiful.

Nicolas Gospierre appears at first glance to have painted beautiful geometric abstractions. Then you blink and realise that these are close-up photos of the fa�ades of brutalist tower blocks.

And lensman Szymon Roginski began looking at the American landscape (and, I'd guess, at Edward Hopper paintings), before heading home and driving at night with his camera out of Warsaw and across deserted townscapes to snap a sinister, neon-lit Surrealism.

There's a link with the 'contemporary historic' paintings of Adam Adach, based on - but also far removed from - discarded photos of people and places known and unknown, and on illustrations from books and magazines.

And there is an even stronger bond with the bizarre billboards of Galeria Rusz, which have appeared on a particular hoarding in the town of Torun for the past decade. These anti-adverts challenge assumptions and prejudice with slogans such as 'Rudeness - We are so good at it that we should export it.' One is being made in Norfolk and visitors can watch.

Nothing here is more surreal, however, than Summertale, the latest episode from an In Art Dreams Come True video project by Katarzyna Kozyra, in which our heroine, accompanied by Berlin transvestite Gloria Viagra and her singing instructor, the Maestro, find themselves in a paradise darkened by fear and violence in homage to the dark tales of the Brothers Grimm.

That world of colour and menace contrasts with contained and constrained paintings by Rafal Bujnowski commissioned for the Sainsbury Centre show. They are based on views through a Venetian blind.

t The two Polish exhibitions at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts from June 2 until August 30 as part of Contemporary Art Norwich 09 and the Polish government's current cultural programme in the UK Polska! Year. Combined admission �4, concessions �2. The centre is open Tuesdays to Sundays 10am-5pm, and untill 8pm on Wednesdays.

t There are more than 100 associated events, from films, talks and tutorials to drop-in art activities during the school holidays. Phone 01603 593199, e-mail: scva@uea.ac.uk, or visit the website: www.scva.ac.uk for a free brochure.