Paintings, sculpture and spatial objects, drawings, graphics, photography and visual arts.
The primary value of the collection, for the most part experimental, is its attitude of constant openness to contemporary times, which are a derivative of the tradition of the past. This tradition is also the source of the idea to ignore boundaries between different art domains, an idea to integrate all forms of art into one “living” art organism.
The heart of the collection, setting its historical and aesthetic roots, is the International Collection of Modern Art of the “a.r.” group. It is a phenomenon on a global scale as it was initiated and called to life by the artists themselves; it assumed its shape as a result of solidary effort to act above and against boundaries.
The core of the collection was shown to the public for the first time in February 1931 in the first seat of the Museum, in the Town Hall at Plac Wolności 1, in the Hall of Modern Art. The collection of the “a.r.” group was put together between 1929 and 1932 and supplemented until 1938, both in Poland and abroad. The initiator and driving force of the movement was Władysław Strzemiński, a painter and art theorist, with active support from the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro, the painter Henryk Stażewski, and the poets – Jan Brzękowski and Julian Przyboś. The Collection in its ideological construct reflects the artistic preferences of Władysław Strzemiński, although it is a resultant of many people’s efforts, Stażewski, Brzękowski, Hans Arp and Michel Seuphor to name a few. It is a cross-section of the avant-garde trends and tendencies of the late 1920’s, with a unique presentation of abstractionists such as Hans Art and Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Theo van Doesburg, Jean Gorin, Jean Helion, Vilmos Huszar, Henryk Stażewski or Georges Vantongerloo. However, it also exhibits Cubism (Fernand Léger, Louis Marcoussis), Futurism (Enrico Prampolini), Dadaism (Kurt Schwitters), Surrealism (Max Ernst, Kurt Seligmann), Formism (Leon Chwistek, Tytus Czyżewski), “Pure Form” (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz), Constructivism (Aleksander Rafałowski, Andrzej Pronaszka) or Unism (Władysław Strzemiński). By 1939 the Collection had at least 112 works of art, mainly paintings, but also sculptures (works of Aleksander Calder, Katarzyna Kobro) and a novelty at that time – photomontage (works of Mieczysław Szczuka).
Appointing in 1935 dr Marian Minich to the position of Museum Director, which he held until 1965 (with the exception of the war years), resulted in the first period with an expansion of the Collection with works that complemented the picture of the Polish Modern art of the time, namely the Polish Formists, Artes – a group of Lwow surrealists as well as some representative works of Jankiel Adler and Karol Hiller. Noteworthy events just after the war were the acquisition of Aleksiej Jawleński’s paintings and taking into perpetual deposit the works of Emil Nolde.
Priceless additions to the Collection were Strzemiński’s and Kobro’s donations, who in 1945 handed over their most important works that hand survived the war. In 1946 Hiller donated a collection of negatives and prints of his Heliographic Compositions, which marked the starting point of systematic collection of new media works – photographs and visual arts.
The launch of the De Stijl Room (Sala Neoplastyczna, designed by Strzemiński), devised in 1948 on the occasion of moving the Museum into the former Poznanski Palace, turned out to be an act integrating the modern art collection with the formula of a museum exhibition. The idea to exhibit De Stijl and geometric abstract paintings from the Collection of “a.r.” group along with Kobro’s Spatial Compositions yielded an imperishable value.
Intended as the continuation of the “a.r.” group’s collection, Marian Minich with the help of the painter Jerzy Kujawski made efforts to build up a set of post-war international abstract art. They did not manage to match the rank of the original Collection, however, the Museum was donated works from artists such as Serge Charchoune (represented in the “a.r.” Collection), Jerzy Kujawski, Roberto Matta, Richard Mortensen or Victor Vasarely.
Bold and unprecedented growth of the international exhibition of modern art the Museum is the result of efforts of its second director, Ryszard Stanisławski, who managed the institution in the years 1966-1991. The idea of “the museum as an instrument of critisicm”, applied as a guiding light in selection of works, led him to concentrate on phenomena perceived as open, creative and authentic. Such attitude enabled him to obtain the first (and subsequent) works from the numbered series by Roman Opałka, early works of Krzysztof Wodiczko, Mirosław Bałka and a set of works by Czech artists (such as Jiří Kolář), bought at the end of Prague Spring. During this period classic avant-garde works of the first part of the century were also purchased or otherwise obtained. Buying the works of Andre Masson and a painting by Leger was an unparalleled event in Polish conditions at the time. The permanent exhibition was continuously expanded with paintings (Lyonel Feininger), paper works (Marc Chagall, Paul Klee) and numerous experimental artists’ works (in the realm of new techniques, photomontage and photography), such as Henryk Berlewi, Janusz Maria Brzeski, Florence Henri, Aleksander Krzywobłocki, Stefan Themerson, Kazimierz Podsadecki, Wacław Szpakowski or Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. As the photographic collection grew, it gave the basis to document the beginnings (from 19th century) as well as first occurrences of artistic photography (ex. Jan Bułhak) and pictorial photography.
Sets of works of significant artists grew. Particular attention was turned to the senior of Polish avant-garde, the co-founder of “a.r.” group’s Collection, Henryk Stażewski. His output is particularly well represented within the trend of geometric abstract art (also represented by Joseph Albert, Max Bill, Zbigniew Gostomski, Ryszard Winiarski). Dozens of works from the 1948 1st Exhibition of Modern Art in Krakow were acquired; large sets of works from its participants became part of the Museum’s collection, such as those from Tadeusz Brzozowski, Zbigniew Dłubak, Tadeusz Kantor or Jonasz Stern. The Museum collected pop-art (Władysław Hasior, Alina Szapocznikow), neoavant-garde (Wojciech Fangor, Edward Krasiński), conceptualism (Zdzisław Jurkiewicz) and new media (Józef Robakowski) works.
At that time the Museum was endowed with entire collections with very strong traits of style and idealism. Mateusz Grabowski, an avant-garde gallery owner in London donated works representing British pop-art (Derek Boshier, Bridget Riley, Pauline Boty). Similarly American artists (Sam Francis, Lawrence Weiner, Barbara Kasten, Chris Burden) donated their works in exchange for their Polish counterparts’ works. A set of works (by Peter Downsbrough, Dan Graham, Richard Nonas) donated by “Solidarity” from the first edition of “Construction in Process” expanded the Museum’s minimal art collection. In an act of symbolic solidarity Joseph Beuys donated Polentransport 1981 – hundreds of works from his vast archive.
Of the many voices and attitudes represented in the Museum some trends stand out – those stressing the formal issues (Tomasz Ciecierski and Arkadiusz Sylvestrowicz, among others) as well as “the involved” (represented by Marta Deskur and Zbigniew Libera), picking up on trends already present in the collection (thanks to works from Jerzy Bereś, Grzegorz Kowalski, Ewa Partum, Natalia LL). For many artists the development of visual technologies is an exciting challenge. Research in this realm first surfaced with the early video works (recordings of Gunther Uecker’s and Douglas Davis’s performances) and was then extended with film collections (from Łódź Kaliska, Józef Robakowski and others).