VENICE, ITALY - JUNE 04: General view of Poland Pavilion at Giardini during the opening of The 14th International Architecture Exhibition on June 4, 2014 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Barbara Zanon/Getty Images)


Politics trumps art: Tusk Government drops ‘anti-European’ Venice Biennale paintings for refugee film

'It's censorship' says cancelled curator as Tusk government replaces Poland's submission to the world cultural exhibition, which was selected under former prime minister Morawiecki


Poland’s newly-installed culture minister is “censoring art”, the curator behind the cancelled Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale has told Brussels Signal.

One of the first decisions by Donald Tusk’s Government has been to replace Poland’s submission at the prominent world cultural exhibition, which was selected under his predecessor and former prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

In place of the initial pavilion, with 35 paintings and sculptures by artist Ignacy Czwartos, Poland will be represented by a video performance featuring Ukrainian refugees filmed in Lviv for the 60th iteration of the world’s largest contemporary art event, which opens on 20 April.

“We perceive it as an act of censorship,” said Piotr Bernatowicz, curator of the cancelled exhibition.

“On December 29, I received the information that the new Minister of Culture, Bartlomiej Sienkiewicz, had stopped the project,” he said.

“No reasons were given to justify the decision; and what is more, this decision is contrary to the regulations in force.”

A competition jury selected Czwartos’ work for the Polish entry after an open competition, which “took place in accordance with legal procedures”, said Bernatowicz, adding there was also a contract.

“The contract between the artist and curators and Zacheta National Gallery of Art, the institution responsible for the realisation of the exhibition, was signed on December 6.”

Even by the current art world’s standards, the affair appears a case study in the mixing of politics and art.

Sienkiewicz, who on December 13 became the culture minister in Tusk’s administration, is also a former interior minister and a former lieutenant colonel in Poland’s secret service.

Both Czwartos and the Ukrainian Open Group collective, which will now represent Poland, draw heavily on inspirations from current politics.

Bernatowicz said Czwartos’ paintings are “warnings for Europe” showing Poland in the “clash between two totalitarianisms: Soviet Communism and German National Socialism” and “the present day, above all Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine”.

The artworks also draw heavily on the iconography of Catholicism: Polish soldiers are depicted amid the descent from the Cross in one painting. Another soldier holds his head in his hands, suggesting depictions of martyrs.

Bernatowicz rejected criticism from some that the artworks are anti-European.

“It is not an anti-European project at all, on the contrary, it points out the forces that had destroyed Europe in the past,” he said.

“Since Putin has brutally attacked Ukraine, we’ve got to know that the history of aggressive totalitarianisms did not stop.”

Ukraine is, perhaps ironically, also at the centre of the new installation.

Called Repeat After Me, it shows Ukrainian refugees narrating their experiences through sounds.

Then, in what has been described as “artistic karaoke”, the installation encourages visitors to also imitate sounds of air-raid sirens, explosions and gunfire.

Agnieszka Kolek, a Brussels-based Polish artist and head of cultural engagement at MCC Brussels, said: “Knowing the political alignment of Tusk’s Government, I would not be surprised that politics play a bigger part than the quality of art.

“We can easily get lost in technicalities, but what stands out to me is that the new minister is very eager to make sure international audiences do not see Czwartos’ paintings and make up their own minds on the subject matter and artistic quality of his works,” she added.

The issue does not appear likely to be the last word in the mixing of politics and art at the Venice Biennale.

Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, a 60-year-old Sicilian journalist recently nominated as the Biennale’s next president, was a youth-wing leader of the Italian Social Movement formed after the Second World War by supporters of Mussolini.

While Buttafuoco’s nomination has won praise from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, the fact that he also is a convert to Islam, which he views as a central component of Sicily’s history, makes him an unusual right-wing cultural star.

Showing, perhaps, that even in the brave new world of 2024, the art world can still confound expectations.