The Dark Arts: Aleksandra Waliszewska and Symbolism from the East and North

The Dark Arts: Aleksandra Waliszewska and Symbolism from the East and North

Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw invites you to the opening of the exhibition 'The Dark Arts: Aleksandra Waliszewska and Symbolism from the East and North' on the 3rd of June to the Museum on the Vistula.

The Dark Arts explores the wide ranging, fantastical visual universe of Polish artist Aleksandra Waliszewska. Bringing together over 200 works by 42 artists from Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, this exhibition unpacks Waliszewska’s unusual, intensive dialogue with the fin-de-siècle Symbolist movement—particularly focusing on the culturally-specific subjects she shares with her Eastern and Northern predecessors. Like her Symbolist forbears, Waliszewska’s art is invested in the metaphorical meanings behind her visual narratives—allowing her to dissect the complexities of the human condition. The exhibition’s transhistorical dialogue aims to give deeper context to Waliszewska’s preoccupation with mythological tropes, apocalyptic scenarios, and charged Balto-Slavic landscapes.

As the most exhaustive presentation of Waliszewska’s prolific oeuvre to date, exhibition curators Alison M. Gingeras and Natalia Sielewicz have envisioned this exhibition as an unconventional monograph, inspired by the predominately pre-modern art historical canon that has scaffolded Waliszewska’s artistic imaginary. The Dark Arts has been conceived as a visual family tree that juxtaposes Waliszewska’s haunting iconographies with a speculative historical genealogy. The Dark Arts focuses on her shared affinity with the Symbolists’ drive to escape pictorial realism and naturalism. This curatorial deep dive into Symbolism emerges as ‘an exhibition within an exhibition,’ arguing for a more inclusive revision of the Symbolist movement by focusing on Baltic and Eastern European artists.

As a socio-political response to fin-de-siècle upheaval and transition in European society, Symbolism emerged as an artistic response “to the feeling of belonging to a sinking world, to the last generation in a long sequence of pasts” and a decadent response to the imminent collapse of the old-world order. This rather dark worldview resonates with our own alarmist era, in which Waliszewska offers a twenty-first century reincarnation of these ideas. Her fantastical figures, pagan deities, mythological creatures, and hybrid animal-monsters act as vehicles to explore primal emotions such as love, fear, anxiety, desire, and death. In this age of mega-change and global instability, Waliszewska’s unique revisitation of Symbolism provides her with an aesthetic and conceptual language to address deeper human concerns.

Echoing her predecessors, Waliszewska’s oeuvre seems governed by the logic of dreams. Reoccurring tropes in her oeuvre include physical and sexual conflict, inter-species relationships, vampiric behaviors, bodily wounds, and the hybridity of the body. She consistently probes the psychedelic and Gothic atmosphere of various topographies: the stuffy provinces, lost highways, deserted suburbs, and gloomy housing estates. Within this oneiric landscape, the artist inserts scenes of disintegration and violence. These ‘genre scenes’ represent a ghastly reality that obliterates our ideas about progress and linear continuity.

Artists such as Mikalojus Čiurlionis (Lithuanian, 1875–1911), Jaroslav Panuška (Czech, 1872–1958), Kristjan Raud (Estonian, 1865–1943), and Teodors Ūders (Latvian, 1868–1915) have been included to highlight how, in resonance with Waliszewska, their iconographies are rooted in rural settings, draw upon indigenous literary references, mythologies and customs. Their works blend realism with an ethereal atmosphere, as well as proposing a flow of images, forms, and feelings in their oeuvres. In terms of Polish Symbolism, Waliszewska rejects the contemporary view that these artists are retrograde, overly figurative, and decorative. Instead, she embraces artists such as Bolesław Biegas (1877–1954), Mieczysław Jakimowicz (1881–1917), Edward Okuń (1872–1945), Jan Rembowski (1879–1923), Marian Wawrzeniecki (1863–1943) and Witold Wojtkiewicz (1879–1909) as key forebears who deserve art historical reevaluation.

Aleksandra Waliszewska (born in Warsaw in 1976) graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Raised in Warsaw, Waliszewska was born into an exceptionally artistic family comprised of four generations of women artists. Her great grandmother, Kazimiera Dębska was a published writer, known particularly for her fairytales. Her grandmother was the famous postwar sculptor Anna Dębska, known for her whimsical menagerie of animal imagery. The artist’s mother Joanna Waliszewska is also a trained artist. Given her unusual matriarchal lineage, Waliszewska was from an early age steeped in various methods of storytelling through images. These successive generations of creative women have certainly left an indelible mark on Waliszewska—and examples of all their works are exhibited together publicly for the first time in this exhibition.

Situating herself outside of the discursive field of contemporary art, she creates bold, atmospheric paintings that have attracted a diverse following that extends beyond traditional art audiences to underground and pop cultural spheres. From her studio in Warsaw, Waliszewska connects to a vast international audience who are beguiled by the narratives contained with her figurative art. Thanks to this large digital footprint, her work has ‘crossed over’ into pop culture, finding its way onto album covers–musicians have sought her work out precisely because it offers an improbable lure into another world. The enchanting anachronism of Waliszewska’s visual universe that has made her a cult hero, giving her work a popular reach that transcends the elite high cultural references from which she has drawn her inspiration.

Exhibited Artists

Aleksandra Waliszewska
Maria Anto, Bolesław Biegas, Wanda Bibrowicz, Erna von Brinckmann, Bernhard Borchert, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Frans Crabbe van Espleghem, Anna Dębska, Kazimiera Dębska, Emīlija Gruzīte, Marian Henel, Mieczysław Jakimowicz, Marcė Katiliūtė, Theodor Kittelsen, Erich Kügelgen, Konstanty Laszczka, Bronisław Linke, Mykola Murashko, Teofil Ociepka, Edward Okuń, Jaroslav Panuška, Juozas Pjaulokas, Aleksander Promet, Yevmen Pschechenko, Kristjan Raud, Vaclovas Ratas-Rataiskis, Jan Rembowski, Hugo Simberg, Gustavs Šķilters, Karel Šlenger, Nikolai Triik, Teodors Ūders, Vitkauskas, Joanna Waliszewska, Marian Wawrzeniecki, Witold Wojtkiewicz, Andrzej Wróblewski, Rihards Zariņš, Bogdan Ziętek, Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, Stefan Żechowski

Alison M. Gingeras, Natalia Sielewicz

Maja Łagocka, Aleksandra Nasiorowska, Maria Nowakowska

Exhibition architecture
Tomasz Chmielewski, Magdalena Romanowska

Key visual
Anna Goszczyńska
OKI OKI Studio

Łukasz Kozak, Jacek Staniszewski

Managing editor
Aleksandra Urbańska

Marta Bartkowska, Józefina Bartyzel, Aleksandra Długołęcka, Anna Szałas, Aleksandra Urbańska, Iga Winczakiewicz

Mariya Redkva

Graham Crawford

Public program coordinator
Paweł Nowożycki

Educational program
Dominika Jagiełło, Marta Przybył, Petra Skarupsky, Aniela Trojanowska, Katarzyna Benda, Bernard Wnuk, Cezary Wierzbicki, kolektyw Blyzkist

Artist's bios
Wiktoria Orzechowska

Accessible Museum
Marta Przasnek

Joanna Dziewanowska-Stefańczyk, Julia Kłosińska, Michał Kożurno

Zespół realizacji wystaw MSN

Exhibition guide

Graphic design
OKI OKI Studio


Michał Bachta, Agata Górska-Campagno, Meagan Down, Agnieszka Jędrzejczyk, Maciej Janicki, Artur Jeziorek, Kamil Jóźwik, Andrzej Kowalski, Maciej Kropiwnicki, Anna Nagadowska, Jarosław Paruch, Sylwia Radzikowska, Anna Ragan, Dagmara Rykalska, Eliza Sasak-Maciejczyk, Marcin Smyk, Katarzyna Szotkowska, Olga Szeluga, Agnieszka Tarasiuk-Sutryk

Tomasz Bardamu, Artur Grucela, Ania Goszczyńska, Joanna Tabor (Katedra Językoznawstwa Ogólnego, Migowego i Bałtystyki Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego)

We would like to thank Helena Czernecka for the financial support of the public program.