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“I think Poland was the freest country of the East bloc,” says Aneta Prasal, one of the four curators of “In Between: Art From Poland, 1945-2000,” which opens Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center and is billed as America’s first comprehensive survey of Polish art created since World War II. “Hundreds of Hungarian intellectuals would visit Warsaw or Krakow during the 70s and 80s. When we went to Hungary, we were surprised to find Hungarian artists who had learned Polish just to travel there and read Polish art magazines.”

In the Soviet Union avant-gardists were murdered by Stalin’s thugs, and in other Soviet bloc nations artists were prevented from working at all. But art in communist Poland was comparatively free. During the Stalinist years abstractionists lost teaching jobs and sometimes went hungry, yet acclaimed theater director Tadeusz Kantor was organizing shows of avant-garde art as early as the late 40s in Krakow–though by 1959 curators had to live with a regulation that limited abstract art to 15 percent of an exhibit. While the “official” art was often socialist realist, it was less prominent than in the rest of the Soviet bloc, and many artists exhibited in private shows publicized by word of mouth.

Prasal, who lives in Warsaw, remembers an unofficial show she saw in a church in the early 1980s, when Poland was under martial law. “There was a monumental stone sculpture by Krzysztof Bednarski of a hand making a victory sign, but with the tops of the two fingers cut off. Victory costs a lot, results from suffering.” The work had a political meaning, but “it was too intelligent to be just a simple protest.”

The Cultural Center exhibit began to take shape four years ago, when Chicago critic and curator Susan Snodgrass visited Poland on a Department of Cultural Affairs fellowship. She then went to Hungary, where there was a “huge citywide celebration of Polish art in a number of locations in Budapest. It was one of the most impressive exhibitions that I have ever seen. I thought a presentation like this would really be quite interesting for Chicago.” Returning home, she found that curator Bohdan Gorczynski, who’d moved here in 1991, was planning to mount a survey of Polish sculpture, and they combined their efforts. Anda Rottenberg, the chief organizer of the Budapest event, soon came on board as their head curator.

There’s little socialist realism in the present show; Prasal says the curators excluded such work due to its “lack of artistic value,” though some artists successfully straddled the avant-garde and government-sanctioned worlds. Andrzej Wroblewski, for example, couldn’t show works such as his grotesque World War II-inspired Child With the Dead Mother (1949) in public, yet he also did socialist realist work. “You had this clash of avant-garde utopians with the communist utopians,” says Gorczynski. “It was tragedy.”

Snodgrass notes one clear difference between Polish and Western art, which she says springs from the lack of a significant market for artists in Poland. “While officially approved artists had access to good studios and materials, avant-garde artists worked less in traditional media,” she says. “Most weren’t making art to be bought and sold. The result is something with a real conceptual rigor, but very honest and refreshing.”

The exhibit does include a range of work, though Prasal says, “I think there are two very strong trends in Polish art. One is a painterly tradition focused on color and texture and painting itself, and the other one is more conceptual. Even today, when you watch the art of very young artists, you often see they are either closer to one or the other.”

In cooperation with the show’s organizers, many other Chicago cultural institutions are mounting their own Polish art exhibits, and there will also be many lectures and performances; see the listings in Section Two for details. “In Between: Art From Poland, 1945-2000” runs from January 20 through March 25 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington. It’s free; call 312-744-6630 for more.

–Fred Camper