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The experience of disease

Is it possible that something as damaging to the body and mind as disease has a positive effect? Curator Agnieszka Skalska argues that medical conditions can and do inspire art. The exhibition Choroba jako źródło sztuki (Illness as a Source of Art) is on view at the National Museum of Poznań until 11 August.

photo of Jacek Malczewski "Autoportret w czapce jakuckiej" ("Self-Portrait in a Yakut Cap"), photograph from the press
Jacek Malczewski "Autoportret w czapce jakuckiej" ("Self-Portrait in a Yakut Cap"), photograph from the press

What inspires the creation of art? Some get inspired by the work of their favourite directors or musicians. Others derive inspiration from the experience of nature or the desire to protect it. The artists whose work will go on display at the National Museum have drawn their creative powers from one of the most intimate human conditions - disease. The very condition that people tend to hide from strangers, if not from their loved ones. The artists drew strength from their infirmity, dysfunction, and the disintegration of their bodies and minds.

People's strategies for coping with disease come in all shapes and sizes. So do relationships between works of art and the maladies that afflict their creators. Can the two ever be separated? One approach, examplified by Maksymilian Gierymski and Artur Grottger, is to create in spite of disease and carry on as if it were not there. Grottger, who suffered from tuberculosis, managed to finish his Wojna (War) series before passing away. Maria Konopnicka later referred to this work in her writings. Another approach is to turn disease into art, as was the case for Katarzyna Kozyra. Her Olimpia (Olympia) series centres on cancer, which remains taboo in Poland. By displaying her post-chemo body in photographs that directly allude to the paintings of Manet Kozyra, she seeks to break the spell of "invisibility" of the ill who, once they contract their conditions, find themselves shunned by society.

Agnieszka Skalska uses "illness" as a criterion for selecting works of art and as a common thread that connects styles, forms of art and historic periods. It links Gierymski, Grottger and Kozyra with such names as Władysław Strzemiński, Stanisław Wyspiański, Władysław Podkowiński, Maria Jarema, Alina Szapocznikow, Magda Hueckel, Andrzej Okińczyc and Emilia Kachnicz in a single exhibition. If there is any universal experience that is shared by the performer and poet Zuzanna Bartoszek, b. 1993, and the painter Ludomir Benedyktowicz, b. 1844, it must be disease.

Illness as a Source of Art provides a great opportunity to ponder anew the works of Poland's most prominent artists. Jacek Malczewski's self-portraits are likely to appear in a new light now that they are displayed in the company of other works that are also inspired by disease.

Adam Jastrzębowski

translation: Krzysztof Kotkowski

© Wydawnictwo Miejskie Posnania 2019