Pawel Leszkowicz, Poland: Queering the National Museum of Poland

"If it was possible in Poland...there are no limits, and it must be eventually possible to queer the collections of the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan and  finally the Vatican." 
Poster of the exhibition Ars Homo Erotica
In this paper, Pawel Leszkowicz discusses his exhibition about homoeroticism in art at the National Museum in Warsaw, entitled "Ars Homo Erotica" His discussion explores the implications of 'queer curatorial practices' and in particular the erotic potential of these practices. His paper points to a future of a Europe in which other national collections can be 'queered'.

What do you think? Are museums created for the 'pleasure of looking' as well as for art? Is it desirable to create museums, archives, special collections and libraries that are not about national heritage but rather national subversion?

Click 'read more' to read all of Pawel Leszkowicz's paper and comment on his insights

 Paweł Leszkowicz

Queering the National Museum of Poland

The Context of “Ars Homo Erotica”

Currently, queer exhibitions are on the rise internationally, casting light on new and very old LGBTQ art and developing innovative perspectives on sexual and social dimensions of curating and the function of the  museum .

The purpose of this text is to explore the political, cultural, artistic  and psychoanalytical implications of queer curatorial practices, using the example of the exhibition “Ars Homo Erotica” that I curated in 2010..  

In the poster for the exhibition, the Latin title signifying “homoerotic art”  is placed against the background of a photo with a fragment of a male torso of a classical sculpture from the collections of the Museum. This poster designed by the Museum’s PR division,  was also displayed in other urban centres of Warsaw to advertise the show. The poster adorned the façade of the museum built in the 1930s, in the significantly monumental, all-too-grand national, almost totalitarian style of the interwar period.        

The exhibition ARS HOMO EROTICA at Warsaw’s National Museum in the summer of 2010 presented around 300 artworks from Antiquity to the twenty-first century. In order to systematise the multitude of representations and metaphors, the exhibition was divided into 10 thematic sections - Time of Struggle, Male Nude and Mythological Male Couples, Film Archive, Transgender, Lesbian Imaginarium, Homoerotic Classicism, and Saint Sebastian. Each section juxtaposed historical and contemporary works of art. 
The curatorial concept involved queering the entire collection of the museum and featuring the contemporary young LGBTQ art from Central/Eastern Europe. This approach combined the cultural history and contemporary sexual politics of the region.  It was a transnational and queer project at the national museum.

 The exhibition took the centre stage of the museum – almost half of its entire exhibiting space , the lobby and the entrance. The Museum itself is in the heart of Warsaw. The exhibition  received much national and international coverage; journalists were surprised how it was possible to have a major “homosexual” exhibition at the National Museum of a country stereotypically associated in Europe with homophobia and art censorship.  How was it possible then?

‘It’s a miracle’, but not without some precedents. In fact Poland has a rich history of 20th-century and contemporary queer art and exhibitions  organized in private galleries or alternative  art centre both before and after 1989, but taking the centre stage of the National Museum is something completely different.  It happened because  as a curator responsible for previous queer art exhibitions and publications I was commissioned by its new director  to put on a LGBTQ show at the National temple.

The exhibition was possible because it was struggled  for  by the new director – Prof. Piotr Piotrowski, a prominent Polish contemporary  art historian, with a social and political perspective on art, and his vice director Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius of Birkbeck College in London. The exhibition was a first stage of their aim to reinvent the National Museum and to turn it into an active agent  of cultural and political debates and changes in the region. It was a vision of the national museum that grapples with burning social issues – such as culture wars around queer rights as human rights in new post-communist  democracies.  Where the strong tendency  of queer art has unleashed in the last 15 years and with the power of the image –the visual representation -  it functions at the very center of social and political struggle for democratic rights, and the  freedom of expression. 

I was invited to this exhibition artists from the part of CEE where sexual/amorous pluralism sparks cultural tensions, political conflicts or acts of censorship and violence.  Systemic transition  since the 90s has given rise to new dissidence of love and erotics, against the legacy of the totalitarian systems, religious fundamentalisms, and the  right wing governments.  It was my ambition to show this trend and to place it in the context of the history of art presented thought the works from the National Museum collection. In my view, Central/Eastern Europe, especially the new EU countries,  are at the forefront of the queer movement  in Europe, and do not constitute  examples of a homophobic collapse but rather new wave of queer revolt and joy.  This is  the place where the action is happening right now, and the future looks promising, and the exhibition is a sign of this development.

“Ars Homo Erotica” was  directly engaged in the current politics of queer rights in Central and Eastern Europe. That is why it was supported by the new directors with a strongly social model of the museum, not as an institution of national heritage but national subversion (and queerness is ‘something’ that perfectly subverts the modern national narration constructed in the 19th and 20th century). Piotr Piotrowski calls this concept of the museum : critical and even self-critical museum. His recent book is entitled The Critical Museum; it was published in 2011 after he was forced to resign from his post, under the pressure of the curatorial staff of the institution that did not share his radical model of museological reform.

Under the precarious protection of  the “critical museum concept”  I had a golden opportunity to queer the national museum of Poland.  The show opposed the marginalisation of queer-themed  art in the museum display. The selection of works according to lesbian and gay homoerotic iconography  allowed me to reach into the unconscious of the museum. It involved the discovery  of many forgotten objects, which were considered to be of minor importance, or the emphasis on homoerotic pieces that were silenced in the permanent display. I was working mainly with art objects from the storages of the museum, delving into its repressed material.

It was a chance to rethink the  authoritarian concept of the museum and the collection. What is in, what is out, bringing outside what is hidden, suppressed, breaking the heteronormative filter imposed on the cultural institution but also on the concepts of personal and national  identity.  That is why the image of  “Ars Homo Erotica” poster on the façade of the National Museum of a strongly heteronormative country that still opposes queer rights,  encapsulates one aspect of my  approach to queer curating.
It is  the  political  impact of queer curating, art and representation as opposition against dominant narratives, especially the straightjacketed national constructions of identity and visuality based on exclusions. One might see here the transformative social dimension of the  return of the sexually repressed from the national collection of identity embedded in tradition symbolised by the museum culture.

A museum has a  powerful symbolism related to nationalism, tradition and high culture of the so-called highest values. Queering museums not only subverts this conservative canon of museology and opens and diversifies museums but also  places traditionally debased queerness on a symbolic pedestal of important values. It is a double endeavour  of creatively subverting museum, dealing with its repressions  and socially uplifting queerness and freeing it from oppression.  But to realise this powerful double project one has to have access to the national museums, which is  in many national contexts, globally speaking,  almost an impossible task.   
And it was not easy to organize the exhibition in Poland. Internally, the staff of the museum was against this idea on many grounds, and that gave additional strength  to the external adversaries.  

When in the Autumn of 2009 the Museum announced its plans to stage a show on art and homosexuality, the nationalist conservative politicians, intellectuals and media protested ferociously.  For months  the  exhibition was debated in  the parliament  and in the media.   But finally the Minister of Culture said that it is up to the Museum director to decide about the program , and he was not going to act as a censor.  The positive effect of those early debates was an excellent free p.r. campaign . The negative outcome  was the withdrawal of all the usual commercial/corporate sponsors of the museum. That is why “Ars Homo Erotica” was financed mainly from public money that the museum gets in its yearly budget, with some additional  sources from  Slovakian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Lithuanian  Institutes of Culture.    

One of the most notorious, vicious and often repeated  line of  criticism directed against the exhibition,  before it opened, was that the show would bring  TOILET to the museum.  This remark reveals the abject, the filth, the disgust -  that has been  often traditionally  associated with the embodiment of homosexuality or queerness, and that constantly appears  in  homophobic hate speech in many cultural and geographic contexts, now as then. 

And here we come to my second approach to queer curating and museums. Alongside politically and socially advocating and visualising    LGBTQ rights, creativities  and identities, queer art and curating might play a psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic role.   Queer curating in museums performs the healing act of sublimation of homoeroticism, or queer erotics. That is why I insisted on the contested erotic title of the exhibition, to use the sublimating, uplifting potential of museums, and to free non heterosexual eroticism from the debasing homophobic  associations, through the higher cultural power of the museum.  So far many contemporary artists and theorists have sought the transgressive power of the abjection, to confront the oppressive cultural and social norms. The wallowing in the abjection as a strategy of  subversion  became almost a new queer norm.   But there is also another way – the political and therapeutic power of sublimation,  and it is exactly what  the combination of queerness and museums might offer, more effectively than other cultural platforms. The exchange and reversal of values happens,  because of the clash of the high status that museums have in our culture, and the low key, repulsive and often censored status that the queer eroticism still holds, even in societies where LGBT rights have been acknowledged and fully legalised.       

When the exhibition opened as planned in June it was received peacefully, without protests or attacks. In its peaceful three month run the exhibition was seen by 40 thousands visitors In their entire history Poland’s museums have never had such an international attention. Journalists flocked to it as a local curiosity expecting major scandals and bloodshed. But nothing violent happened, the museum functioned as a safe haven for queer erotica.  The local  bishops  tried to put pressure on the director of the museum to censor some works that dealt with lesbianism  and Catholicism, but even the secretive intervention of the Minister of Culture, couldn’t force Piotr Piotrowski to act as a censor.  The adversaries of the exhibition just gave up when they understood that they could do nothing.

For three months the National  Museum became, - to use the queer theory critical phase  - “embarrassingly” and “wonderfully”  homonormative, hosting non only homo-art and art history but also major political debates and lectures about LGBT rights in Europe and Poland.        

I would like to return to the exhibition poster – based on a textual affirmation of the homoerotica as art, but also on the traditional beauty of the Greek  male nude.  I was against this poster because it put too much emphasis on the classical tradition, instead of contemporary queer art and current political situation. Yet I had to resign my curatorial power,  the PR office of the museum prevailed in promoting their vision and defending the image associated with  the canon that is at the centre of every western museum and homosexual history. It was argued that this classical  association is familiar to the general audience, and would not put off the potential non-queer viewers. But in fact in the construction of the show the historical and contemporary material was equal, as well as the participation of male and female artists. The selection criteria were not the artists’ orientation, but the theme, the subject  or context of the work.

The National Museums with their extensive historical collections are a perfect place for an exhibition about the historic continuity and differences of homoerotic imagery. On the other hand the Museums central cultural status  gives them a power of visibility in public debates and politics. If it was possible in Poland, (and then at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington –in the US –another county of culture wars over queer rights and art censorship) there are no limits, and it must be eventually possible to queer the collections of the Louvre, the National Gallery, the Metropolitan and  finally the Vatican. These institutions COULD BECOME MUSEUMS WITHOUT NATIONALISMS and homophobia, and ultimately exhibit all the hot transnational queer masterpieces in a real exhibiting  space. These art works  have been featured and discussed for the last 50 years mainly in the textual space in many outstanding  books about art history and homosexuality.  Queer exhibitionism must follow the advances of queer art history, and go beyond it, to create its own splash, and social and political impact.      

                                        The Overview of the Exhibition

The show  proposed a homoerotic  perspective on  the collection of the Museum, and the art of Central and Eastern Europe. Works from the collection of the National Museum  as well as works of specially invited contemporary artists survey the cultural history and current sexual politics, from the point of view of  homoerotic male and female imagination.  The homoerotic was understood as an aesthetic and erotic quality present in visual - figurative representation. The selection criteria were not the artists orientation, but the theme, the subject  or context of the work.

The exhibition begins in the main lobby of the museum. In the first section the Time of Struggle  we enter the world of turbulent contemporary sexual politics in Central and Eastern Europe and art that deals with  queer rights. Systemic transition in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989 has given rise to new dissidence of love and  erotics. The heteronormative status quo is a legacy of the totalitarian system, hostile to individual rights, religious fundamentalisms, the popularity of  the nationalist right wing parties, limitations of women’s rights, and no sexual revolution. However, there is also development  thanks to the success of emancipatory movements in politics and, especially, culture. Each country undergoes a different type of transformation and no simple summary will suffice. We have invited to this exhibition artists from the part of Europe where sexual pluralism sparks cultural tensions. Homosexual themes have become important and topical. This has inspired many artists to open expression.  The time of struggle  has inspired the freedom of expression and creation.

In this section: the two central  works David Cerny’s Polish Entropa and the banner with the destroyed ancient copies of Tyrranicides  give an artistic and social frames of the entire exhibition, where homoerotic history meets the queer present, and where in a parallel way - historical art is juxtaposed  with contemporary pieces. The 5th  century B.C sculpture Tyrranicides commemorates two lovers who, according to legend toppled the tyranny and founded democracy in Athens. This poses the question of the museum as a social  place for democracy and for love expression.      

DAVID CERNY Entropa, 2008/9; installation/sculpture brings the contemporary dimension. The Czech artist David Černý’s installation Entropa satirises negative stereotypes of EU countries. The work was exhibited in the European Council building in Brussels in 2009. Entropa was conceived to imply that the freedom of speech is absolute in the European Union while national stereotypes can be overcome. Yet the work caused diplomatic outrage. The panel devoted to Poland featured figures of Catholic priests raising a rainbow flag. It symbolised two opposites. The Catholic Church, which strongly opposes the rights of gays and lesbians, has a decisive role in maintaining the traditional prejudice.  Entropa was commissioned by the Czech government to celebrate its EU Presidency. Originally, the monumental installation was to have been comprised of works by 27 different artists, each of whom was to create a work of art on his/her EU member state. However, it was in fact David Černý with his associates who designed all the panels basing them on stereotypes. Additionally, Černý created fictitious artists and their websites.  The installation has been widely discussed in European diplomatic circles.

Another crucial work in this section was Igor  Grubic’s photograph   Monument and Flowers (2008) The photographs commemorate a location in a park in downtown Zagreb where skinheads killed a gay man in a hate crime. The murder took place next to a monument to heroes of World War II killed in fight with the Nazis. The artist places flowers on the crime scene and on the lap of a war hero, and photographs the location.

Blue Noses Kissing policemen (An epoch of clemency) (2005) is another powerful photograph. Moscow Pride Parades are banned by the mayor, criticised by Orthodox priests, and attacked by nationalistic guerrillas and militia. This satirical photo by the Blue Noses collective depicts two young Russian policemen kissing in the Siberian forest. It can be interpreted as an ironic comment on the status quo. The photo has been censored by Russian authorities. In Russia, as in Poland, both homophobia and art censorship have been on the rise in the last decade.

The “Time of Struggle” section of the  exhibition presents artistic/social projects engaged in lesbian and gay rights across Central/Eastern Europe. The examples of visual and performative representations from different regions of the continent form a European survey of the question of equality and diversity which inspires social organizations and artists alike.              

Karolina Breguła and the Campaign Against Homophobia organized  Let Us Be Seen (2003) a lesbian and gay visibility campaign in Poland In 2003 a woman artist Karolina Breguła, supported by the Campaign Against Homophobia, authored a pioneer artistic/social action which championed the rights of lesbians and gays in Poland. Thirty real same-sex couples were depicted by the artist in the shared act of coming out. Presented on billboards, the portraits of couples holding hands were censored or destroyed in the streets. But they traveled across Poland as a popular exhibition, shown in artistic institutions, which initiated debates. Following the success of Let Us Be Seen, more visual campaigns for gay and lesbian rights have been organized in Poland.   Partially publicly founded by the Governmental Office for the Equal Status of Women and men –an agency set up under the EU requirement.   

In Croatia a lesbian organization LORI launched a visual campaign Love Is Love in 2002. A photograph of two hugging young women was placed on billboards with a caption “Love Is Love”.  A real couple of lesbians-activists of LORI sat for the photo. The images were displayed for a year in the streets while passers-by inscribed comments about same-sex unions on them.

 The next section of the show entitled “Homoerotic Classicism” was a gallery of Classical and Classicist sculptures of male nudes and portraits depicting Greek  and Roman  gods and heroes of homosexual myths,  stories and ideals. It is the centre of western museum culture and at the same time  of homosexual history. The next sections resulting from this:  Male Couples and Ganymede accentuate the romantic and erotic iconography of male couples and sex  in the mythological and coded early modern art . The historical part focused on a mythology of the relationships between  Hyacinth and Apollo, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Goliath, Zeus and Ganymede. This sections also showcased the presence of homoerotic  mythology  in contemporary art.
The homoerotic dimension  of Christian iconography was  depicted  in the section about “Saint Sebastian” – a gay icon himself.  Sebastian was one of the main pretexts for artists to engage with  study of a passive, passionate and penetrated sensual  male body. The exhibition presented Baroque  masterpieces from the collection put together with visions of the martyr by contemporary gay artists.

The next part was entitled “Transgender/Androgyny” and explored this form of subjectivity and its representation : from mythical androgyny, through masquerades and cabarets, to contemporary identities and body politics.

The more documentary part of the show entitled  “Archive” presented Polish posters advertising  works of celebrated lesbian and gay film and theatre directors, playwrights, and artists. In the middle of this gallery was Tomek Kitlinski’s installation Queer Bibliotherapy with  hundred books of LGBTQ publications in Polish. The books were exhibited in an interactive installation so visitors could freely browse and read,  sit down and rest.

The entire floor of the museum was devoted to the section “Lesbian Imagination”.  Historical and mythical female homoerotic themes, subtexts and icons, such as  Sappho, goddess Diana, nymphs, queen Cristina of Sweden, the early modern culture of female romantic friendships, Greta Garbo  were presented through the works of art from the collection.   The historical pieces functioned as a point of reference for contemporary feminist and lesbian art.  The vase with the representation of Sappho which is in the collection of the museum is considered the oldest preserved depiction of the poetess in any museum in the world, and what is more executed in a very  unique technique. . It is dated to 510 BC.

This section poses also a methodological problem in queer curating. The history of culture offers us a wide and rich variety of representations of feminocentric identity and experience.  Love between women has long been an  element of imagination – of both male and female artists. “Ars Homo Erotica” focuses on lesbian works and symbolism created by women. However, it also includes the fantasies of men expressed in early modern  art and classical  mythology, as only the two sides combined can express the totality and complexity of the nature of lesbian iconography  and of its forms.

                                    The Erotic Concept of the Museum

“Ars Homo Erotica” coincided serendipitously with the Euro Pride that was organised that year in Warsaw. The National Museum in its new civic (and erotic) function became an important element of this festival, with thousands of not only Polish but also international lesbians and gays wandering through it’s usually grim corridors queerly coloured for this occasion. And in this way the National Museum became a place of major  cruising to the surprise, shock and sometimes amusement  of the women that work there as wardens. In fact  the National Museum had always been a crucial point in the gay geography of Warsaw. But not because of art.  There is a park behind it that has been the most popular  cruising ground since the Museum was build in the 1930s. Finally, the ghosts of the gay sex haunted the interior of the official building behind which sex acts were always hidden, and erupted from the inside.  One of the most famous vicious  lines of  criticism directed against the exhibition, even before it opened, was that the show would bring  TOILET to the museum. Referring to the practice of cottaging, and equating  homoeroticism with it.  This homophobic remark brought back the abject vision of the male body that was always traditionally  associated with homosexuality.  That is why I created a significant section of the show devoted to the suppressed subject of the frontal “Male Nude”.    

The Male Nude section  was a  display of sensuous studies of the academic male nude. From the Renaissance until the 19th century the drawing of human anatomy was taught in academies almost exclusively  on the basis of the male nude. The art training was for ages a homosocial institution with a homoerotic lining. Only men were allowed to study, and they had to study male body – in the academy. It was the core of academic training. This academic studies are secret erotic treasures often ignored by museums but kept by them. All the European museums have thousands of examples in the storages, particularly from the XIX century, yet that are rarely put on display. In fact these drawings contain traces of desire and put forth the frontal realistic male nude, banished from official genre of painting and visual culture. For contemporary gaze they are not related to homosexual identity but to homoerotic and homosocial aesthetics. I decided to take them out of the closet and display  massively . Their selection was not based on the sexuality of the artist but on the erotic quality of the drawing. They are  incredible testimonies of the male gaze sensually inspecting the male body, and not the usual story of the male gaze subjecting the female body. Because it was the National Museum in Poland on the show were works by 19th century Polish artists, some forgotten, some very well know national heroes.   In the same section contemporary openly gay male nudes  have been shown next to academic paintings and drawings. They were all presented on black walls in a darker space suggesting some kind of darkroom atmosphere. 

This curatorial  homoerotic display (appropriation) of supposedly neutral academic studies inspired the strongest  critical controversy among museum professionals.  But it was a statement about the realistic  male nude and the naked male body  as strongly erotically and politically charged, and suppressed – a phenomenon that is connected with the suppression of homosexuality in modern culture.    Where the full male nude was still a taboo, much stronger that female nudity.  The exhibition reversed the traditional patriarchal visual order and presented the nude male body as the aesthetic object of gaze and desire for men and women! Now that the homoerotic potential of the male nude has been revealed, one sees the work of men looking at other men and rendering their attractive, sensuous bodies in art. This process goes also to the core of the concept of  sex in the museum – that is based on  gaze and the exchange of gazes. 

Museums are created not only for art  – they are created for the pleasure of looking! Museums are ideal voyeuristic training fields because they are institutions created for the purpose of practicing our observation skills. In the museum the act of looking is on the loose and either wanders freely or concentrates on a chosen object. That is why museums are ideal spaces for seduction and building sexual tension – visually ! The erotic model of artistic reception in museum interiors proposed here suggests that the foundation of our visual and aesthetic experience is desire.  A look travels from an artwork to a chosen person, as we can look at them pretending, for example, that we are looking at a sculpture standing in the background. Visiting a museum we look  not only at artworks but also at other viewers, every one of us might for a moment become an object of desire in a museum, this focal point where looks meet and exchange, crusing between objects and people.

The queer erotic exhibition gives all of this process a particularly amusing, confusing, political and personal  twist. When covering the exhibition “Ars Homo Erotica” the liberal printed media quite often published photographs of visitors in the spaces of the show, especially focusing on the same sex couples  and the interactions between them. In retrospect, as a curator, I can get satisfaction  that two or more people might actually  meet or flirt in the spaces of my exhibition, to pursue  love adventure which started in the museum and its queer archive.       


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