Paweł Kowalewski

Exhibition “Materializing. Contemporary Art and the Shoah in Poland” at NS-Dokumentationszentrum in Munich


The German museum is opening an exhibition titled “Materializing. Contemporary Art and the Shoah in Poland,” which will tell the story of how contemporary Polish artists are addressing the Holocaust. Among the works on display will be six “vanishing” portraits of women of Jewish descent by Paweł Kowalewski.


The works presented at the exhibition by Paweł Kowalewski are a series of works created in 2015, titled “Strength and Beauty. A Very Subjective History of Polish Mothers”. The portraits were previously shown at The Artists House gallery in Tel Aviv in 2015 and at the Museum of the History of Photography in Krakow in 2017. 


The large-format portraits, which were based on archival photographs from the first half of the 20th century, depict women of Jewish descent living during World War II. Among them is also a portrait of the artist’s mother, Zofia Jastrzębska-Kowalewska, who took part in the Warsaw Uprising.


From the works straight into our eyes these beautiful women look, slightly smiling. At the time their pictures were taken, they were young and full of joy. They had dreams and plans for the future, which were destroyed by the war and the rise of two totalitarianisms. They went through traumas that stayed with them for life.


– This is a project about women and the strength of these women, thanks to whom the world survived. Raped, abused, wounded, mutilated, they had many reasons to pass the pain of remembrance on, yet they nurtured an element of kindness and love within themselves. Despite their traumatic experiences, they became tender, good mothers, wives, lovers. Some were heroines from the barricades, and others were heroines of everyday life who survived and returned to everyday normality,” says Paweł Kowalewski.


The works were created using a special paint that will fade over time, turning the portraits into abstract shadows. All that will remain are these traces and the stories from the wartime fate of the heroines that accompany the photos. This is the artist’s commentary on the human tendency to forget, disrespect or even despise history, which the artist sees as extremely dangerous. However, anyone who owns a portrait, be it a museum or a private individual, decides for themselves when to stop the process by applying anti-UV glass to the work.

– Works of art do not disappear completely. They become ghosts of memory that remain in us,” comments Kowalewski.


The NS – Dokumentationszentrum in Munich will also feature works by Zuzanna Hertzberg, Elżbieta Janicka, Wojciech Wilczyk, Paweł Kowalewski, Agnieszka Mastalerz, Natalia Romik, Wilhelm Sasnal, Zofia Waślicka and Artur Żmijewski.


The subject of a photographic and video installation by Artur Żmijewski and Zofia Waślicka-Żmijewska are objects excavated from the ground in the Warsaw Ghetto during archaeological work carried out at the construction site of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Numerous everyday objects were found, for whose owners the world as they knew it suddenly ended. In a poignant project, the artists transfer them into contemporary contexts and give them a second life.  


The materialized, aching emptiness after the Holocaust can be experienced by viewing the objects of Natalia Romik, who researched and recorded the hiding places of the Jews, and, materializing them in the form of sculptures, transferred them to the present. The work on display is part of a large series entitled “Hideouts. Architecture of Survival” (2022) – the result of a long research into the various hideouts where Jews took refuge during World War II in Poland and Ukraine. The artist searched for these places, visited and documented them, coming into physical contact with the former, often frighteningly microscopic spaces of concealment.


In the more traditional medium of painting, Wilhelm Sasnal will show a series of paintings that refer to the Holocaust either directly or more allusively – as is often the case in the artist’s work when he evokes images embedded in collective visual memory. The largest painting, measuring 200 x 280 cm, is from a sequence of works based on photographs taken from a car passing by the Auschwitz concentration camp memorial museum. The artist took these sobering photos while returning with his wife from a New Year’s party in another city. 


Although the media and ways in which the artists address the exhibition’s theme will be varied, according to Piotr Rypson, an art historian and critic, literary scholar, and one of the exhibition’s curators, “What they have in common, however, is the artists’ method of working, in which shaping the structure and giving form to the work is preceded by a careful study of the subject. It can be said that the artists enters the field of work of a historian or archaeologist, but for the publication of results they use quite a different instrumentarium, characterized by a high degree of causality. Most of the works operate precisely the title function of materialization. Instead of symbolizing or using metaphors, they refer to concretizations of various types.” The exhibition is a unique opportunity to get acquainted with these attempts at materialization and the art of outstanding Polish artists, but also to cultivate memory, because “when words are not enough, we reach for attempts at materialization. So that the memory doesn’t completely fade away.” – Rypson adds.


Symbolic is also the location of the NS museum – Dokumentationszentrum, which is located on the site of the former Nazi party headquarters, which played an important role during the rise of the party and the implementation of Nazism.


The exhibition will run from October 20, 2023 to February 25, 2024, curated by Piotr Rypson, Anna Straetmans and Mirjam Zadoff.