Can the rise of contemporary authoritarian nationalisms across the globe be described as a return to fascism? According to commentators such as Judith Butler, Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley this is indeed the case: we are faced with the emergence of far-right movements whose political agenda – based on social hatred, violent practices of exclusion, an us vs. them rhetoric and the propensity to break the law in the name of the ‘will of the people’ – starkly resembles that of the historical fascist movements in Europe. However, as philosopher Alberto Toscano rightly points out in his recent essay ‘Notes on Late Fascism’, such analogical thinking has its limits. In fact, by focussing on similarities we run the risk of overseeing significant differences between the two historical movements. Such considerations mark the starting point for the exhibition Never Again. Art Against War and Fascism in the 20th and 21st Centuries at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. 01 The curators’ main goal was to enquire whether the historical experience of anti-fascism could provide valid tools and strategies today. What are the traditions and legacies of the post-war resistance movement and can they be tapped into in order to deal with our modern-day situation?
While interrogating these broader questions, the exhibition is first of all a direct response to the ongoing social and political changes that have occurred in Poland since 2015. With the electoral victory of the nationalistic party ‘Law and Justice’, the country has witnessed a rapid degradation of both the public and political spheres, increasingly marked by violent outbursts, racist attacks and a rhetoric based on ‘national purity’. These events have clearly demonstrated a need to re-think the dynamics of fascism in the country from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Therefore, while the show presents a wide number of historical works, it is not intended as an archival exercise, but as a means to enquire about the possibility of anti-fascism today. In fact, as the curators rightly point out in the catalogue, anti-fascism offered the foundation for several broad political coalitions in the past, such as the French and Spanish Popular Fronts in the 1930s and the post-war alliances of communist countries based on class and anti-imperialist struggles. Is a contemporary Popular Front possible nowadays? Can anti-fascism become a pillar for such a movement? And what role could art play in this context?
The exhibition follows a chronological order, three chapters corresponding to different historical moments: the interwar period, the 1950s as the apogee of the communist ideology in Poland and the contemporary era. This linear narration has the advantage of structuring a coherent, but also nuanced, presentation which traces different configurations of fascism and anti-fascism in Poland. Furthermore, the multiplicity of threads included in the show fully highlights the diversity of possible artistic stances with regard to anti-fascism while not shying away from ambiguities at the same time.
The first chapter of the exhibition focusses on the 1920s and 1930s. In Poland, that era saw the dramatic escalation of a political conflict between nationalistic and socialist factions. During that decade, the country incessantly balanced on the edge of an open civil war and anti-Semitic pogroms. The symbolic culmination of that conflict came with the assassination of the socialist president Gabriel Narutowicz by a far-right terrorist. That turbulent time is fully reflected in the works of the avant-garde Krakow Group founded in 1932 by left-leaning students of the Academy of Fine Arts, including Henryk Wiciński, Maria Jarema, Leopold Lewicki and Stanisław Osostowicz. The group members actively participated in the political upheaval by organising protests, lectures and grassroots learning groups as well as designing visual identification for anti-fascist initiatives and workers’ strikes. Works by Osostowicz are particularly noteworthy: his dynamic sketches convey a stark contrast between the two conflicted sides represented by black and red colour. Furthermore, his pieces clearly show how widespread fascism became in interwar Poland and how deeply rooted in local politics it was. This closely echoes the conclusions reached by historian Paweł Bryczyński in his book Primed for Violence. Murder, Antisemitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland (2016) which describes the rise of the violent, anti-Semitic right, which soon gained immense support in the country. 02
The next section of the exhibition is dedicated to the 1950s, when anti-fascism was one of the political and ideological pillars of the post-war communist government in Poland. The centrepiece is Wojciech Fangor’s 1955 copy of Picasso’s Guernica. Only slightly smaller than the original, the painting was commissioned for the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students held in Warsaw in August 1955. The festival was conceived by the government as a mass propaganda event aimed to foster friendship among various communist countries united in their struggle against imperialism and capitalism. Fangor’s replica was exhibited among the ruins of Poland’s war-torn capital. That backdrop was clearly meant to reinforce Guernica’s message as a symbolic icon of the suffering inflicted on civilians by fascism. However, Fangor’s own biography lends the painting a more ambiguous meaning. In the late 1950s, when Socialist Realism came to an end, the artist quite abruptly abandoned figurative, politically-engaged painting and turned towards installations and abstract paintings, in which he explored optical illusions. Those later artistic choices prompt new questions concerning his copy of Guernica: was it really an expression of the artist’s convictions? Or should we perhaps see it as an example of political conformism? 03
Works from the 1950s presented at the exhibition also include a little-known painting by Andrzej Wróblewski Attention! It’s Coming! (Air Raid, Alarm) from 1955, which – similarly to Guernica – focusses on the civilian victims of the war. The centre of the painting features a young mother lying on a bed with her two small children. She turns her face towards the window: the night sky is illuminated by enemy searchlights – a clear prelude to bombings. The horror of war stands in brutal contrast to the intimacy of the domestic scene. The presence of Wróblewski’s work in the show is particularly significant as the painter – who died prematurely in 1957 – was one of the most politically engaged post-war Polish artists. He incessantly strove to develop a new artistic language that would be able to reflect the communist revolution of the 1950s. Moreover, his engagement went beyond artmaking: Wróblewski was also active as a curator and made several attempts to reform the art education system in the country. From today’s perspective, his stance appears as one of the most consistent examples of political engagement pursued through art.
Addressing the post-war legacies of antifascism in Poland inevitably confronts us with the question of the memory of the Holocaust. While officially adopting an anti-fascist stance, the communist state completely ignored this topic as it stood in the way of its efforts to transform Poland into an ethnically homogeneous country. The party chose to ignore the country’s Jewish minority, refusing to address their war experience and contemporary situation in the country. This context lends a pivotal dimension to the Arsenal exhibition in 1955, which included several works that directly confronted the nightmare of the Holocaust, such as the paintings Branded (1955) by Marek Oberländer and Ghetto (1955) by Izaak Celnikier. Both works were a far cry from the official and heroic narrative about war and anti-fascism imposed by the communist state. Oberländer’s painting features three Jews standing with their eyes fixed to the ground, red stars cut on their foreheads. Celnikier’s piece concerns the liquidation of the ghetto in Białystok, where the artist lived during the war. Both paintings are characterised by the brutal asceticism of their artistic means and a simplification of the human figure degraded by war violence. Their style can be perhaps best described as expressive realism – far-removed from both Socialist Realism and post-war abstraction.
While the Holocaust remains a fundamental point of reference for any discussion about Polish politics after the war, this perspective also entails the risk of narrowing down our understanding of fascism. In fact, it would be very restrictive to identify this multifaceted ideology only with Nazism and the extermination of Jews. This is why I attribute particular relevance to those artworks included in the exhibition that refer to a more global, non-Western take on what fascism is and how it operates in the worldwide context. This understanding aims to question the strictly Eurocentric perspective from which fascism has traditionally been considered by exploring and highlighting the intersections between this ideology and both colonialism and neo-colonialism. Such intersections have recently been described by Nick Aikens, Jyoti Mistry and Corina Oprea – editors of the volume Living with Ghosts. Legacies of Fascism and Colonialism (2019) – as the ‘colonialism-nationalism-fascism’ triad. 04 Such approach is particularly relevant as it underlines the continuity of certain phenomena as well as their worldwide ramifications.
Seen from this perspective, a work of special relevance for the entire exhibition is the little-known painting by Mexican artist Xavier Guerrero The Capital and Semicolonies from the 1950s. Guerrero was one of the pioneers of Mexican muralism – today slightly overshadowed by his more famous colleagues such as Jose Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera. Apart from working as an artist, he was also a prolific journalist with an active political engagement in the country’s communist movement. The painting chosen by the curators has an interesting exhibition history: it was first shown in Warsaw during the show of Mexican politically-engaged art at the Zachęta, National Gallery of Art, in 1955, and later donated to the National Museum in Warsaw. Guerrero’s enigmatic work – which oscillates between political engagement and symbolism – depicts a country dominated by obscure machines, lopsided skyscrapers and overscaled mechanical devices such as gigantic gearwheels, mechanic saws and pairs of pincers. Amid this mechanical inferno stands a girl with the Mexican flag, her gaze oriented somewhere beyond the frame. Although the painting’s exact meaning remains unclear, we can assume that it alludes to the ongoing struggle of peripheral countries against the racialised machinery of capitalism, which exploits both people and land. In this light, fascism is seen as the underlying ideology of the whole colonial project with its practices of forced labour, segregation and extermination polices. Regrettably, this perspective receives little attention in the exhibition: Guerrero’s work is basically the only one to refer to reality beyond the Western world.
The exhibition’s last chapter focusses on the contemporary era, represented by works by Forensic Architecture, Nikita Kadan, Hito Steyerl and Wolfgang Tillmans, among others. The central question of this section seems to concern art itself: what role can it play within a changing political landscape? What tools does it offer? Significantly, the artists chosen for the exhibition give very different answers. The investigative projects carried out by the Forensic Architecture collective demonstrate that art has the potential to create new research methodologies for the sake of enforcing human rights. Their practice explores the potential of the intersections between art and technology – a remarkable claim in a time dominated by a rampant distrust of new media. Wolfgang Tillman’s pro-EU/anti-Brexit posters represent a very different artistic strategy based on what might be called ‘affirmative propaganda’. His posters aim to stir a strong emotional response with statements such as ‘What is lost is lost forever’ inscribed against the background of a blue and violet image of the Earth seen from above. However, it is hard not to notice that, when compared to the anti-fascist and communist posters from the 30s, Tillman’s works are nothing more than an attempt to salvage the status quo without offering any alternative – which is exactly, one can claim, a reflection of the situation we are in.
The curators state: ‘The moment we can unanimously claim that something is indeed fascism, it will already be too late’. This statement aptly summarises the general atmosphere permeating the show, which slowly morphs from the militant engagement of the anti-fascist groups of the 1920s and 1930s to what the historian Enzo Traverso called the ‘left-wing melancholia’ of the later decades and of the contemporary moment. According to Traverso, during the second half of the 20th century, we have moved from a ‘horizon of hope’ to a ‘horizon of experience’. 05 The past, he writes, ‘has ceased to appear as an immense reservoir of experiences from which human beings could draw moral and political lessons’ and has instead become a traumatic landscape strewn with ruins. 06 Indeed, a sense of powerless and petrified horror seem to pervade some of the most recent works in the exhibition, such as Hito Steyerl’s video Babenhausen (1997), which documents how persistent anti-Semitic persecution in the 1990s drove out of the country the last Jew living in the German town of Babenhausen. Alongside the artist, we are catapulted into the position of horrified witnesses to an imploding catastrophe, endlessly looped. Steyerl’s work seems to imply that it is always ‘too late’: instead of the anti-fascist rally cry ‘never again’, we are stuck ‘on repeat’.
What I especially appreciate is how the exhibition in Warsaw strives to avoid falling into such sense of utter despair. Instead, it aims to revive some of the passion and energy of the anti-fascist movements in Poland during the interwar period and the early post-war era. Underlying the entire show is whether anti-fascism might be an important idea to revive right now. This question can perhaps also be rephrased: today, what are the chances of a universal project capable of encompassing people from very different backgrounds, races, classes and genders? The exhibition clearly shows that anti-fascism embodied this very idea in the past: a rally cry able to mobilise and unify different political parties and groups. But is something like that possible today, in the era of monologues, when difference seems to be the ultimate horizon of most political projects? While the answer remains open, the question itself should be asked ‘again and again’. If history is indeed stuck in a repetition mode, let this mode also concern our stubborn refusal to give up on a universal idea.
Alberto Toscano, ‘Notes on Late Fascism, historical materialism [blog], available at http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/notes-late-fascism (last accessed 03 December 2019).
‘Never Again. Art Against War and Fascism in the 20th and 21st Centuries’, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 30 August–17 November 2019.
Paweł Bryczyński, Primed for Violence. Murder, Antisemitism, and Democratic Politics in Interwar Poland, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2016.
While the question of conformism is an important one to ask in the context of the relationship between artists and the communist party in 1950s in Poland, a different reading of Fangor’s artistic practice is also possible. In fact, his research into the problems of optical illusion could be interpreted as a mode of political engagement at a different level – that of perception and of the ways bodies move in space. Furthermore, to make things even more complex and frustrate any notion of linear development, in the 1970s, Fangor returned to figurative painting in order to criticise the consumerist culture in the United States, where he had spent over 30 years.
Nick Aikens, Jyoti Mistry and Corina Oprea (ed.), Living with Ghosts. Legacies of Fascism and Colonialism [eBook], available at https://www.internationaleonline.org/media/files/internationaleonline-livingwithghosts-2019.pdf (last accessed 11 December 2019).
Enzo Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia. Marxism, History and Memory, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Ibid., p. 17