Paweł Kowalewski (born 1958, Warsaw)
He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw from 1978 to 1983, when he received a diploma with distinction from the studio of Stefan Gierowski. Since 1985 he has been a lecturer at the Department of Design of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. Currently he holds the academic title Doctor with “habilitation”. He was a founder member of Gruppa, the most famous artistic grouping in Poland in the 1980s, together with Ryszard Grzyb, Jaroslaw Modzelewski, Włodzimierz Pawlak, Marek Sobczyk and Ryszard Woźniak. Gruppa’s works can be summarised as being a rebellion against an overly academic approach to art and a taking of a post avantgarde position, as well as being a protest against the censorship and repression meted out by the communist state during the time of martial law which had been introduced in 1981 throughout Poland.
The reality of this difficult period in the history of the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) was felt by Kowalewski primarily in terms of the absurd and grotesque. From 1984 to 1989, in Gruppa’s short-lived journal “Oj dobrze już (Oh, it’s good now)” amongst verses, commentaries, sketches and drawings, Kowalewski wrote humorous texts using the pseudonym of an imaginary American journalist Sharm Yarn. He wanted in this way to show up the lack of confidence in traditional Polish art criticism, comment on the lack of engagement with the unique phenomena which were happening in Poland during this time as well as make fun of attempts to set forced directions for culture based on political paradigms set from above.
Kowalewski’s work comes from the post conceptual tradition, where the idea of the artist mixes with his work using the form of written commentaries and the poetic often complex titles of the works which are placed on sashes made of material. Together with the other members of Gruppa, he organised radical happenings with joint painting and recitals, based on poetic absurdity, in, amongst other places the cult studio “Dziekanka” at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts (e.g. recital in 1987,” A cold deer in jam” about Lenin in Poronin. Kowalewski’s art can be described as being expressionist, autobiographical, inspired by personal experience and literary context. As an artist he created his own communicative language. More important than form or medium for him was the message. Remembering this time, he says that “Without words we didn’t exist”.
In Poland during the 1980s there was a characteristic meeting of social and artistic paths, which were taken by artists who were researching that reality while examining moral and ideological values. The work of Kowalewski and Gruppa was created in parallel with and perhaps even earlier than some of the trends which were then happening in German art, such as Neue Wilde. Rebellion and a search for identity determined the approach of artists then in both countries.
Concept of personal art
From the first years of his artistic career Paweł Kowalewski developed the concept of “personal art, that is private”. Artistic inspiration therefore was closely connected to the artist’s own life, while also at the same time it also referred to problems which were of a more universal nature. This basic oscillation between the individual experience and universality has accompanied Kowalewski’s work up till today and reflects a consistent theme.
Around 1986 the first of Kowalewski’s sculptures came into being. Small objects, which the artist closed in glass cases, as if they were relicts from the past. “Prawe ucho sługi najwyższego Kaplan/The right ear serves the high priest” and “Kamień, który stał się chlebem/The stone which became bread” were critical commentaries on the hostile everyday aesthetic of the time. In a similarly brutal, expressive and nonchalant tone Kowalewski created his paintings which were even the subject of censorship interventions from the Catholic Church. The artist’s work in the 1980s was treated by the authorities of what was then a totalitarian state as art which must stay outside official circulation. The series “Psalmy/Psalms” which was inspired by the Psalm of David as translated by Czesław Miłosz, was subjectively accused of blasphemy. Each of these works by Kowalewski referred to specific quotations from this book of psalms and reflected the dilemmas of a young artist: Should I leave or stay in my country? What is right? Is there justice…?
The crowning moment of this period was the artist’s participation in Documenta 8. in Kassel in 1987, where works by amongst others Barbara Kruger and Joseph Beuys were exhibited. Kowalewski together with Gruppa organised a joint painting happening on a large size canvas called “Kuda Gierman”.
After many exhibitions both nationally and abroad some of Kowalewski’s works became in later times icons of 1980s art, e.g. “Mon cheri Bolscheviq” (a painting exhibited in amongst other places the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow), the sculpture “Tragiczna nieprzezroczystość konieczności/A tragic opaque necessity”(a hermetically sealed aquarium with a piece of beef kidney submerged in water) or “Do widzenia moi kochani/Goodbye my beloved ones” (a painting which is part of the private collection of the well-regarded art critic Anda Rottenberg).
A key transformative moment in Kowalewski’s work came in 1989, when the artist together with other members of Gruppa initiated a joint painting happening in front of the capital city’s Solidarity polling station. This happening, called „ Głos przyrody na Solidarność/Voice of nature on Solidarity” was a symbolic closing moment of the group’s career. The artists had started in the 1980s as novices, and they now finished the decade as classics. Thanks to their many artistic successes, in 1992 in the Zachęta, National Art Gallery there was a large retrospective exhibition which showed a significant cross-section of Gruppa’s work.
The country’s systemic transformation and also the end of the Gruppa’s existence, affected Kowalewski’s work by changing its means of communication. At the beginning of the 90s he started to create analytical and structural canvasses. In his paintings from this period the artist’s work portrayed a clash of nineteenth century wall paper patterns with black and white stripes – a sarcastic vision of the future. After exhibiting his latest series called „Fin de siècle” in the Warsaw gallery Appendix in 1992, Paweł Kowalewski was taken on by the gallery of Isy Brachot, as the only Pole apart from Roman Opałka. His work was then shown in the Brachot gallery in Brussels, together with a retrospective of one of Belgium’s most famous artists, the surrealist Paul Delvaux.
Kowalewski concluded his artistic work in the medium of painting with the „Fin de siècle” series. From this moment he concentrated on inter-disciplinary and performance art. During this period the artist created his most characteristically socially engaged work as an artist.
The sign “Europeans only”, seen in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg in 2010 initiated the series “Forbidden/NIE WOLNO” which took the form of a documentation of all the bans and orders which the artist registered during his travels all over the world. Reproductions of the “NIE WOLNO” series in the form of postcards appeared during Kowalewski’s artistic performances during the Biennale in Venice in 2011. The artist visited souvenir stands and added his cards with the regulatory orders of both democratic and totalitarian systems to the standard tourist ones which were normally displayed. “NIE WOLNO” also functioned as a series of light boxes which accompanied the installation “Totalitarianism Simulator” in Propaganda Gallery in 2012. In this technical machine built by the artist, the world of oppression and drastic images of the crimes committed during totalitarian times, were presented next to scenes from a normal everyday life (e.g. barman competition in Italy, a family out for a walk in Milan, a classical music concert). The viewer on entering the simulator became a participant in the tragic events, because his photo which was registered on entry to the cabin, was randomly placed on the projected filmed frames of horror. The materials used to produce the “Totalitarianism simulator”, the smell of rubber, smelly tar, the darkness and isolation, brought the viewer closer to a situation associated with oppression, so that each individual could become aware of his reactions and behaviour during the simulation of a moment of danger. As the artist explained: “Art must hurt, it can’t calm, it should talk about what is unsolvable”.
The 2000s for Kowalewski brought a turn towards the ethos of memory or the personal process of forgetting and erasing. In 2015 in Tel Aviv the artist presented the series „Strength and Beauty” in which he concentrated on issues connected to subjective memory in the context of group experience.
The concept was inspired by a very personal history of the artist and became a pretext to tell the stories of an extraordinary generation of women. A series of large format portraits which disappeared, presented so called “Polish Mothers” who had been affected by the trauma of war and totalitarianism. Thanks to a special printing technique, the women’s portraits after some time were barely visible, just as their images fade in our memories. Kowalewski while working on the series “Strength and Beauty” conduced an artistic dialogue with the well-known Israeli artist Dan Reisinger.
In 2017 Paweł Kowalewski had his own solo exhibition in the prestigious Jerke Museum, the first foreign institution in Germany which is mainly dedicated to Polish avant-garde art. The “Zeitgeist” project was made up of sculptures and the best-known paintings from the 1980s, amongst others “Ja zastrzelony przez Indian/Me, shot by the Indians”. As a part of the exhibition, at the same time in St Peter’s church in Recklinghausen, Kowalewski’s large format works were exhibited, so the Psalms of David, which even today have retained their universal character, as they deal with issues related to how to shape individual autonomy when faced with higher powers.
Collections and Exhibitions
Paweł Kowalewski’s works are to be found in the biggest Polish museums, but also in the Paris Centre Pompidou, as well as many Polish and foreign private collections. His work has been bought for the National Museum of Warsaw collection, the National Museum of Kraków, Zachęta – National Art Gallery, Museum Jerke, the Regional Museum in Bydgoszcz, the Museum of Upper Silesia in Bytom, the collection of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and also the ING Polish Art Foundation, the Benetton Foundation and the Egit Foundation. They are also to be found in the private collections of Andrzej Bonarski, Donald Pirie, Cartier, Jan Zylber and the Paszkowski Estate Norblin.
Paweł Kowalewski’s work has also been exhibited in amongst other places the Jerke Museum in Germany, Artist’s House in Tel Aviv, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the Isy Brachot gallery in Brussels, in Dorotheum in Vienna, Sotheby’s in London, the Zachęta – National Art Gallery in Warsaw, the Museum of the History of Photography in Kraków, MOCAK, the Warsaw Gallery Propaganda (formerly Appendix) as well as at art fairs in Vienna, Brussels and Stockholm.
The artist has also taken part in important retrospective exhibitions summarising the time of the Polish transformation and political relations in Poland up to and after 1989, e.g. “Banana Revolution”, “Moscow – Warsaw”, “Irregalia” and “the Fatherland in Art”.
In 1991 he set up his own advertising agency “Communication Unlimited”.
Why is there nothing more than something, Miejski Ośrodek Sztuki, Gorzów Wielkopolski, Poland
Zeitgeist, Museum Jerke, Recklinghausen, Germany
These Things Now, Propaganda, Warsaw, Poland
Strength and Beauty, Artist’s House, Tel Aviv, Israel, (2017) Museum of History of Photography, Cracow, Poland
Totalitarianism Simulator, Propaganda, Warsaw, MCSW „Elektrownia”, Radom, Poland
FORBIDDEN!, 2 Biennale Mediations, Poznań, (2016) FORBIDDEN!, Galeria Gazety Wyborczej, Warsaw, Poland
I, Shot by the Indians for the Second Time, Appendix2 Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Stockholm Art Fair, Propaganda Gallery, Stockholm, Sweden
Brussels Art Fair, Isy Brachot Gallery, Brussels, Belgium
Painting, Office of Artistic Exhibitions, Sandomierz, Poland
Isy Brachot Gallery, Brussels, Belgium
Fin de Siècle (End of the Century), Gallery Appendix, Warsaw, Poland
Ready-made Pictures, Polish Cultural Institute, Prague, Czech Republic
Ariadne Gallery, Vienna, Austria
Everything and Immediately, SARP pavilion, Warsaw, Poland
Paweł Sosnowski Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Mandala Theatre, Cracow, Poland
Recital, The Dean’s Studio, Warsaw, Poland
Satan’s Day, Gallery in Ostrowie, Wrocław, Poland
Crazy Hammer, Dean’s Workshop, Warsaw, Poland
Bad Omen, Small ZPAF Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Woe, A. M. Sobczyk Studio, Warsaw, Poland
Magmatism Pic-Nic, Chiesa dei Santi Cosma e Damiano, Venice, Italy
Collections, Zachęta – National Art Gallery and Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, National Forum of Music in Wrocław, Poland
Place of the artist, Kordegarda Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Homeland in art, Museum of Modern Art , Cracow, Poland
Dziekanka, Salon Akademii Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Collections, Zachęta – National Art Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
À la Flamande, Propaganda, Warsaw, Poland
Viennacontemporary, Propaganda Gallery, Marx-Halle, Vienna, Austria
In Between Seasons, Propaganda, Warsaw, Poland
Small is BIg, Propaganda, Warsaw, Poland
Blue, the Most Beautiful Colour in the World, Propaganda, Warsaw, Poland
Generation ’80 – Political Protest? Artistic Rebellion. Exhibition of Independent art Debuting 1980-1989, Regional Museum, Rzeszów, Poland
Preview, Galeria Propaganda, Warsaw, Poland
Special Exhibition, Propaganda, Warsaw, BWA Art Gallery, Olsztyn, Poland
Thymos. Art of Anger 1900-2011, Centre for Contemporary Art “Sign of the Times”, Toruń, Poland
Big Boys Games, Galeria Appendix 2, Warsaw, Poland
Generation of 1980s. Independent Young Art of the Years 1980-1989, National Museum, Krakow, Poland
18. The Battle That Changed the Fate of the World, Plac Defilad, Warsaw, Poland
Like a Rolling Stone 2, Galeria Appendix 2, Warsaw, Poland
Like a Rolling Stone, Centre for Polish sculpture, Orońsko, Poland
Banana Republic, Expression of the 80s, Łaźnia, Centre for Contemporary Art, Gdańsk, Wozownia Art Gallery, Toruń, Museum of Contemporary Art, Szczecin, City Gallery, Arsenal, Poznań, Art Gallery BWA, Książ Castle, Wałbrzych, Modern Art Gallery, Opole, Poland, MODEM, Centre of Modern and Contemporary Art, Debrecen, Hungary
Poisoned Source. Polish Contemporary Art in a Post-Romantic Landscape, National Museum, Szczecin, Poland, Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga, Latvia
Image of Life, Museum of the Beginnings of the Polish State, Gniezno, Poland
Jokes and the Power of Planting (Asteizm in Poland), CSW “Łaźnia”, Gdańsk, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Palace, Warsaw, Poland
In Poland, That is Where?, Centre for Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Palace, Warsaw, Poland
Duty and Rebellion. Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw 1994-2004, Zachęta – National Art Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Warsaw – Moscow / Moscow – Warsaw 1900-2000, Zachęta – National Art Gallery, Warsaw, Poland, Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow, Russia
Children, Artists, Harlots and Businessmen, Program Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Irreligia, Atelier 340 Museum, Brussels, Belgium
Run of the Red People, Zderzak Gallery, Cracow, Poland
Polonia Polonia, Zachęta – National Art Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Artistic Confrontation, Old Town Hall, Toruń, Poland
What Comes After Artists in Bad Times, Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, National Museum, Cracow, Poland
Sketch for a Gallery of Contemporary Art, National Museum, Warsaw, Poland
Kunst des 20 Jahrhunderts aus Mittel und Osteuropa, Dorotheum, Vienna, Austria
Summer Salon, National Museum in Cracow, Poland
Artists for the Republic, Studio Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Pole. German. Russian, Old Norblin Factory, Warsaw, Poland
Feelings, Dean’s Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
On the Picture and Other Such Things. New Religious Expression. Old Norblin Factory, Warsaw, Poland
Bruno Schulz, SARP pavilion, Warsaw, Poland
What’s up?, Old Norblin Factory, Warsaw, Poland
II Biennale of Young “The Path and Truth”, Church Holy Cross, Wrocław, Poland
Mystery of the Passion and Resurection of Jesus Christ, Museum of the Archdiocese of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland
Group Testimony, Museum of the Archdiocese of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland
Polish Piety, churches in Poznań and Wrocław, Poland
80s Expression., BWA, Sopot, Poland
Records 2, BWA, Lublin, Poland
1. Biennale of New Art, Zielona Góra, Poland
A Time of Sadness, a Time of Hope, Church of the Virgin Mary, Poznań, Poland
I Biennale of Young “Path and Truth”, Church of the Holy Cross, Wrocław, Poland
Presence, Parish of God’s Mercy, Warsaw, Poland
Against Evil, Against Violence, Churches in Mistrzejowice, Podkowa Leśna and Zielonka, Poland
Reckoning, Galeria Forma, Warsaw, Poland
Chaos, Man, the Absolute, Church of the Visitation of the Holy Virgin Mary, Warsaw, Poland
Gruppa – Solidarity Myth, ESTA gallery, Gliwice, Poland
Oh, It’s All Right Now, Propaganda, Warsaw, Poland
Wonder-worker and his five friends, Milano Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
We Admit Our Guilt; We Ask For Forgiveness, We Promise To Do Better, Program Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Gruppa 1982-1991, Zachęta – National Art Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Gruppa – 6 good mistakes, Dean’s Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Woyzeck. (Why Do We Need Buddha? We Already Have Buddhas), Studio Theatre, Łódź, Poland
Dungeons of Manhattan, Art in Different Media Forms. Installation Exhibition, Dungeons of Manhattan, Łódź, Poland
Gruppa – Documents, Pokaz Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Ars Aura Prior, DESA Gallery “Old Town Square”, Poznań, Poland
Painting Cathedral (V action), Dean’s Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Disturbing Animals as They Spit Things Out, DESA Gallery “Nowy Świat”, Warsaw, Poland
Artist in a Temple of Words About Art, Gallery in Ostrowie, Wrocław, Poland
Drawing in its Place, Galeria Obraz, Poznań, Poland
Avanguardia Polacca. Esposizione dell’arte Indipendente Polacca, Centro Direzionale Colleoni, Agrate Brianza, Italy
Gruppa Gruppen, Galeria Atrium, Stockholm, Sweden
A Sluggish Youth Sings, Stiffly Spinning, (IV action), Dean’s Workshop, Warsaw, Poland
Your Hero Rabble is Boredom Which Brings Unhappiness, Wielka 19 Gallery, Poznań, Poland
The land of the Polish Republic’s Song and Dance Group, (III action), Dean’s Workshop, Warsaw, Poland
Golden Economy, Incense Art, Bitter Myrrh of Politics, Parish of God’s Mercy, Warsaw, Poland
Who Conducts this Conductive Ray, Wieża Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Rypajamawłoszard Grzykomopasoźniak. Contribution to a Lecture vel Go, Count, (II action), Dean’s Workshop, Warsaw, Poland
Only this Evening Darling, BWA, Lublin, Poland
How to Help Kryszkowski?, Workshop “Strych”, Lódź, Poland
The Art of Admiration, SHS Gallery, Warsaw, Poland
Raising the Hem Which Hides the Secrets of Art’s Craft, (I action), Dean’s Workshop, Warsaw, Poland
A Woman Escapes with Butter, Dean’s Workshop, Warsaw, Poland
Premiere’s Mother, Kameralny Theatre, Warsaw, Poland
Forest, Mountains, and Cloud Above the Mountains, Dean’s Workshop, Warsaw, BWA Lublin, Poland