Zacheta National Gallery is our next stop while exploring Warsaw, Poland. We have been there quite a few times now and we are happy to see that Warsaw museum scene is so versatile and has something for everyone! Zacheta National Art Gallery is the oldest art gallery in the city and its history reaches back to the second half of the 19th century. We have explored Zacheta’s past and managed to see two great exhibitions that are currently installed there. Tag along, we’ll take you on a little journey!
Zacheta means “encouragement” in Polish. The name comes from a society that was set up in 1860 by artists and painters (like Wojciech Gerson) called the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. At that time, the nation of Poland didn’t really exist, and the land was divided between three aggressors: Russia, Prussia and Austria (which at that time was the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Warsaw was in the Russian annexation and the Society became the first institution to take care of exhibiting and collecting Polish artwork. Their main goal was not only to spread the word about Polish art, but also to give support and encouragement to young people graduating from Warsaw’s art schools. The Society quickly became a crucial institution of Polish cultural life at the time; however, they had to face the constant trouble of not having their own premises, and there was no permanent location with enough space for the exhibitions. At the end of 19th century, there were two competitions conducted which resulted in the famous architect Stefan Szyller being placed in charge of designing the gallery for the Zacheta Society. The sculptural decoration, created by Zygmunt Otto, says in Latin: ARTIBUS (to the arts). From the very beginning, Zacheta was an initiative with a huge influence on both the society and nation of Poland. A building such as this one, typical for a 19th century metropolis, would have never been completed without the support of various donors. For example, the lot at Malachowski Square was given by the famous activist Ludwika Gorecka. The new premises opened to the public on December 15, 1900. Soon after, the main permanent exhibition opened and featuring the work „Grunwald Battle” by Jan Matejko. The Society’s efforts gave the citizens of Warsaw a place to admire the works of Xawery Dunikowski, Jacek Malczewski, Jozef Mehoffer and Edwarda Wittiga. Visiting Zacheta became a weekly ritual for the whole city.
Soon after Poland gained its independence back, the premises of Zacheta Gallery became a dark symbol of a national tragedy. During the opening of an exhibition, the first president of the free country, Gabriel Narutowicz, was assassinated. He was shot by the publicist and painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski. During the Second World War, the Society was disbanded after nearly eighty years of activity. The building was taken over by the Germans and converted into the House of German Culture. During the pullback, the occupiers tried to burn the building down. The Office of Capital Restoration started some reconstruction work, but the Society was never reactivated. After 1949, the beautiful building became the headquarters of the Central Office of Artistic Exhibitions, which monitored artistic activities concordantly to communistic tenets. In 1991, the Society was finally brought back to life and it has been operating actively as the Society of Art Enthusiasts.
Zacheta Art Gallery is a buoyant institution, regularly presenting the most important phenomena from 20th and 21st century art. We were lucky enough to see two very interesting ones. The first one, which was all set on the ground floor (due to the renovation works the entrance is through the basement), was called „Tats” by Maurice Gomulicki. This exhibition featured a series of photographs exploring the motif of very basic, and often very brutal, tattoos and body decoration, present places such as prison communities. The choice of presented tattoos is extremely interesting and the primitive body-drawings are displayed with a specific beauty to them. The vulgarity becomes a value here and it’s turned into something quite lyrical.
Going up the first floor there is another extremely interesting display titled „Tango on 16 Square Meters”. The foundations for this collective work is the short animation „Tango” by Zbigniew Rybczynski, which was the very first Polish film that won an Oscar. The exhibition is all about exploring the living space and hanging up on the reality of Poland’s past.. Rybczyński’s „Tango” connects mathematic precision with an exquisite artistic concept and that’s what the interiors in the PRL (Polish People’s Republic) times were all about. The exhibition included the following: Jakub Certowicz, Hugo Corbett, Alessandra Covini and Francesco Apostoli, Juan Camilo Gonzalez, OMMX, Jurren Pen, Studio Making & Bey, Tomasz Szerszen and Wojciech Wozniak.
Zacheta connects the past and the present of Polish Art world. The beautiful premises the exhibitions are constantly changing, and everyone is waiting to see what is going to appear next in the spacious lounges of this real art palace at Malachowski Square. They also have one of the biggest archive departments in the country, which documents the artistic life of Poland after 1945; there is a huge library to explore as well.
Zacheta Art Gallery also includes a wide range of educational offerings. Art students can complete internships there along with attending lectures for each displayed exhibition. There are also workshops prepared for kindergarteners, primary schools, high schools and adults. Most of all, you can become a member or the Society! It’s a very prestigious membership as it’s all about carrying on the mission set back in 19th century and it helps to keep the gallery constantly evolving.
The exhibitions keep changing every few months, but it’s guaranteed that what is displayed at Zacheta is at the highest level. It’s a place full of history and an important stop on the map of Warsaw, plus you can enter for free on Thursdays! Pay it a visit, even if you’re not that passionate about art!