Sztuka Współczesna - Modern Art in Krakow
Krakow is, without a doubt, one of the most charming of cities, both in Poland and Europe as a whole. The main draws for many visitors are the wedding cake buildings of the Old Town (in particular the main square, or Rynek Główny as it is known), the majestically imposing bulk that is Wawel Castle and the bohemian eccentricity of the Kazimierz district. I first visited in 2008, and this second visit nine years later has revealed some differences - both good and bad - and some things reassuringly the same.
On the positive side, the infrastructure has been noticeably improved as the country’s economy has prospered even when most were laid low by the global recession that kicked off later in 2008, and the government launched a massive improvement programme to cater for the influx of foreign visitors as the nation co-hosted Euro 2012 with Ukraine. The airport has been remodelled with a high-tech, metallic sheen, and the old Communist-era train from there to the city centre has been replaced with an ultra-modern alternative that takes us into the vast Galeria Krakowska mall. Some of the formerly crumbling historic architecture that was seen in areas peripheral to the Old Town has now been renovated (although a lot of work still needs to be done). Excavations of the Rynek Główny have resulted in an attraction known as Rynek Underground being opened in 2010, an experience which combines subterranean wanderings with slick audio-visual installations.
On the other hand, there has been a noticeable increase in the kind of obnoxious touting which was only at a nascent stage a decade ago, and has long blighted other tourist hot spots such as Prague or Barcelona, as various hawkers attempt to beckon the unwary into spending their złoty on various overpriced bus tours, restaurants and strip bars. Luckily, once you head away from the heavily-beaten tourist path, the city has retained its traditional spirit. Much of the local vibe comes from its burgeoning legacy of academia and artistry, with a young population of cash-strapped artists and students making it easy to eat and drink for prices that are, by Western European standards, almost scarily cheap. It’s well worth trying some of the local dishes such as the omnipresent pierogi, a variety of folded dumpling stuffed with a savoury or sweet filling.
The example below has a plum-based centre.
More to the point, Krakow is steeped in the fruits of the legacies of its creative people. Cultural and artistic endeavours of all kinds are ubiquitous, and the modern art scene is particularly vibrant. Moreover, any sign of appreciation for the local culture is generally responded to with a sense of positive surprise by the residents.
One of the most rewarding and cost-free ways to experience art in Krakow is to simply wander around. In Planty Park, a green ring surrounding all but the southernmost edge of the Old Town, at the end nearest to Wawel Castle we can see a stone sculpture known as Owls created by Bronislaw Chromy in 1961 (a former student and now professor at Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts). It’s an endearingly simple but characterful depiction of three of the titular birds, evoking a sense of familial warmth amid the forest-like setting.
Venturing south into Kazimierz and across the Vistula River to the Podgórze District also yields plentiful street art rewards. The Mayamural at Józefińska 24 was created in December 2012 by Michał Pałasz and Aleksandra Toborowicz, shortly before the mooted Mayan Apocalypse. Featuring the slogan “Game Over?” its witty design is formed out of multicoloured blocks of Mayan-style insignia clumped together in a manner that resembles the classic video game Tetris.
Nearby at Piwna 3A is Ding Dong Dumb, created by Italian street artist Blu in 2011. Intended as a commentary on a Polish populace that is spoonfed the country’s Catholic establishment, its symbolism of a church bell cum megaphone being spoken into by a godlike figure, pointed down at a mass of identical white figures emphasises sheer impact over subtlety.
Head back across the bridge into Kazimierz and it’s ideal to pop into Kładka Cafe at Mostowa 12. The murals in this bohemian/hipster haunt consist of an array of intertwined, doodle-like, pastel-coloured creatures that have seemingly emerged from the subconscious of someone who read too many children’s picture books one day while on a heady mushroom trip. I mean that in a good way.
The district’s Jewish heritage is tackled in a number of its street art works, including this beautifully sombre piece at Bawół Square created by the Broken Fingaz collective from Israel. It is dedicated to the Bosak Family who lived in the building until WWII.
Across the street at 2 Bartosza is this abstract but lively piece of blue art imbued with a distinctive eye motif that lends it the appearance of some prowling carnivalesque creature. It’s currently hard to ascertain who is behind this unexpectedly (literally) eye-catching diversion, nor whether they are also behind the motley range of small objects that appear at the wall corner beside it.
Poland’s spring weather is unpredictable; it may be sunny and over 20 degrees celsius outside, or it may be an ordeal of cold, rain, hail and snow. Luckily Krakow has its share of indoor art spaces where escape from the elements is possible. The brutalist Bunkier Sztuki on the edge of the Old Town (plac Szczepański 3A) was designed by Krystyna Tołłoczko-Różyska. It was opened in 1965 and remains controversial as its architectural style (albeit partially concealed by the arboreal grace of Planty Park) is often considered incongruous with the surrounding classical buildings. Nonetheless it remains one of the city’s finest venues for challenging modern art. The best of the exhibitions I saw was one by Indian artists Prabhakar Pachpute and PupaLi Patil who look at the industrialised world’s exploitation of natural resources to the detriment of the environment and humankind. One of their most memorable works on display is this Last Supper pastiche, an infernally red scene depicting a selection of industrial machinery dining on piled plates of various non-renewables. It’s a striking look at our own unquestioning worship of a modern way of living that’s currently pulling us towards certain damnation.
Across on the other side of the Old Town is the Galeria Plakatu (Poster Art Gallery) founded by Krzysztof Dydo in 1985. Situated at Ul. Stolarska 8/10, it provides a revealing insight into the nation’s distinctive Art Nouveau/Art Deco-influenced style of poster advertising. Most items on display are for sale.
Now, we take a trip back over the Vistula to Lipowa 4, the erstwhile location for Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory, part of which is now the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art. The building’s vast spaces host a number of breathtaking installations, one of which is a tribute to Andy Warhol’s Factory. Another notable piece is Między by Stanisław Dróżdż, an enterable cube with a stark white interior covered with Slavic letters.
Elena by Julian Opie is a piece of electronic art that’s simultaneously charming and bizarre. It is a facial representation of Opie’s daughter, featuring her eyes swivelling to look in a variety of directions. It’s a piece that grows on the viewer after some time as each shift of eye position renders her in a different light, displaying an unusual level of psychological complexity.