In Krakow, Printmaking Persists With Tradition and Experimentation


By Katarzyna Haber | Earlier this year, along the walls of a long corridor of a gallery in Krakow, Poland, nearly 2,000 fine art prints were lined onto white cardboard boxes. Five designated individuals walked among them to decide which of the works sent in by 589 artists from all around the world would qualify for the Main Exhibition of the International Print Triennial Krakow 2015. Of the final selection, the works of two featured artists, Agnieszka Cieslinska and Wojciech Tylbor-Kubrakiewicz, exemplify not only the well-established reputation of Polish printmaking but also the unclear position of contemporary print; with shifting boundaries of its autonomy as a traditional medium, printmaking today also represents numerous opportunities for experimental growth.

Image: Agnieszka Cieslinska, Figure XV, 2013, intaglio relief, 27 1/2 x 39 3/8 inches (70 x 100 cm), edition of 10, photograph by Sylwester Puchala.

The International Print Triennial Krakow is one of the foremost European initiatives as far as the presentation of contemporary printmaking is concerned. Originated in 1966 as a biennial (and changed into a triennial in 1991), the event has presented an array of experimental works, as well as many created by traditional techniques. The inaugural 1966 exhibition included artists such as David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi, Hans Hartung, Victor Vasarely and Zao Wou-Ki. Throughout the 1970s, the Krakow exhibition featured the works of Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella.

This year, the selection process was very strict. According to the regulations, only new works that were not previously presented could be considered. After the entries arrived in Krakow, the jurors surveyed the prints and labeled them with different color-coded cards to mark their judgment. Their decisions were not always unanimous. They discussed the size of the artworks, arguing whether or not it would be appropriate to introduce dimensional limitations since some artists clearly enlarged their works in order to be noticed. The jurors also debated over whether photography that was unmodified with printmaking techniques should be classified as fine art prints. As always, achieving a compromise among subjective opinions is no easy feat. The jurors eventually nominated 170 works by 104 artists for the Main Exhibition. The 2015 jury was comprised of international experts in the printmaking field. Chairperson Alicia Candiani, a renowned printmaker, was joined by Vladimiro Elvieri, the master of traditional techniques, along with the expert in color and digital print Carinna Parraman, woodcut specialist Endi Poskovic and finally, museologist and art historian Dorota Folga-Januszewska. For the first time in the exhibition’s 49-year history, the jury did not include artists from Poland—a decision made for purposes of avoiding bias in the selection process.

In the previous years, the Krakow exhibition represented a thorough international review organized with the consideration of both the artistic and technical perspectives. However, critics frequently called the Triennial archaic and accused its jurors of relying on an exhausted formula to judge prints. Newer Polish printmaking events arose over time, such as the Imprint Triennial in Warsaw and exhibitions in Katowice, causing competition for Krakow’s Triennial. These factors influenced the Krakow organizers to introduce some changes, including the transition away from traditional cross-section presentations to curated exhibitions.

Large-scale, cross-section printmaking exhibitions are organized less frequently in Europe today than in the past. A preference for curated shows prevails, although this approach limits the number of works included and often imposes specific themes. Determining printmaking’s position in the ever-changing landscape of contemporary art is another question. In addition, European print exhibitions are more often interdisciplinary; light, image, space and three-dimensional works are tempting components for both curators and viewers. At a time when the boundaries between art media become increasingly blurred, the question concerning the autonomy of the print and printmaking seems to be of key importance.

Does printmaking manage to retain its independence amidst the ongoing development of experimental forms that extend far beyond the classical formula of the matrix and the print? Transcending the traditional practices and perceptions of printmaking is an opportunity many artists choose to take. By exploring this experimental route, artists have the freedom to perform activities in the format of an exercise or concept.

They may exploit the technical aspects of printmaking through non-conventional approaches, for instance, rolling bowling balls with cut-out patterns onto paper that sits on the floor. One contemporary artist who is acknowledged for his innovative and conceptual techniques, Oscar Munoz, experimented with screen printing with charcoal pigment on the water. Bodo Korsig utilized an industrial road roller to create a large-scale woodcut print.

The emphasis on technical aspects in printmaking may be of limited interest. However, it has become more frequent for curators to initiate discussions on how effective certain technical aspects are in communicating a message, along with what these methods contribute to visual art culture.

In Krakow, a number of the works selected for this year’s Triennial were indicative of the evolution towards curated exhibitions. When the selected prints of the Main Exhibition were installed onto the walls of the Bunkier Sztuki, a local contemporary art gallery, there was an evident attempt made to show the dialogue among the works of selected artists, both in the technical and the semantic aspects.

The works of Agnieszka Cieslinska and Wojciech Tylbor-Kubrakiewicz, the two aforementioned Polish artists whose prints were placed in the Main Exhibition, show the synthesis of several innovations and traditions in the current printmaking field. Both are lecturers from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Their art embraces the subjectivity of printmaking, but is still respectful of traditional techniques—intaglio is used by Cieslinska and linocut is practiced by Tylbor-Kubrakiewicz...

[This article appears in full in the print and digital edition of CELEBRATING PRINT, Volume 1, Number 1.]

Image: Wojciech Tylbor-Kubrakiewicz, Dam I, 2013, linocut with UV print, 27 1/2 x 39 3/8 inches (70 x 100 cm), edition of 10, photograph by Paulina Mirowska.

A full version of this article In Krakow, Printmaking Persists With Tradition and Experimentation by Katarzyna Haber appeared in print edition of Celebrating Print, Vol. 1 No. 1, published in October 2015.

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KATARZYNA HABER is an art critic, academic lecturer and curator at Gallery Apteka Sztuki in Warsaw. She graduated with a degree in art history from the University of Warsaw (1999) and also received the ICOMOS-IFLA scholarship at the University of York, U.K. She specializes in modern Polish art, the history of garden design, interior design and modern architecture. She is especially interested in Masonic and hermetic symbolism. Haber has written numerous curatorial texts for art exhibitions. She has published an array of articles on art, interior design and the history of gardens in magazines such as Gardens, High Heels and University News.

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