26 September 2011
National museums staging major exhibitions on LGBT themes are still a rarity, and Poland is among the more conservative countries in Europe in approaching the subject. So, at least in the gay press, it was international news when last year the National Museum in Warsaw put on a major exhibition, uncompromisingly titled Ars Homo Erotica.
The exhibition coupled material from the National Museum's own collections with modern painting and photographic work on LGBT issues. The 'erotica' is very much in evidence here, although there is also an element of the social and political issues which dominate the LGBT collections in the permanent galleries of our own Museum of London.
Though we have not seen the exhibition and cannot give a review, we think these photos of the crowds and exhibits at the National Museum capture an interesting moment in Polish and LGBT history. They show a boldness unmatched by any UK national in placing the subject firmly centre stage, all the more surprising since the museum says 'this is the first show of the queer art of Central and Eastern Europe'.
The museum adds 'since the fall of communism there has been a growing trend for lesbian and gay art. It sits at the very centre of the social and political struggle for lgbtq rights, freedom of expression and democracy'.
Male nudes as politics
There has been a hiatus in the portrayal of the male nude in Poland: under communism it was restricted and regarded as pornography - particularly because the naked male body was identified with homosexuality in the eyes of the censors. It is only since the 1990s that the male nude has fully returned.
There are a number of pictures of St Sebastian in the National Museum's collections. Often regarded as a 'gay saint' his martyrdom, pierced by arrows, has often been used as a metaphor for ecstatic gay fulfillment, as well as alluding to gay persecution. Works by contemporary artists were commissioned for the exhibition to complement the museum's own St Sebastian images.
The museums took historical and mythical art with lesbian motifs (Sappho, Diana, Nymphs) and juxtaposed them with contemporary lesbian photography and video. The two icons of lesbian culture, Sappho and Greta Garbo were linked with lesbian/feminist graffiti from the streets of Buenos Aires and with the found footage video of women’s/homoerotic themes in the painting of art history. Nineteenth-century portraits of friendship between women and lesbian scenes-copies sat side by side with contemporary art from Central Europe by Anna Daucikova and others.
Beyond the borders of gender
The exhibition included subjects and works going beyond the borders of genders and also exploring androgyny in myth and modern social experience.
Protest and struggle
Even the right to march for LGBT rights is a strongly contested in many Central and Eastern European countries. The museum brought together examples of visual social campaigns and video installations which documented the Pride parades still so often banned and attacked in the region
The curator of the exhibition was Pawel Leszkowicz, until recently a lecturer at the Department of Art History, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland.