Polish painting from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day

A look inside the exhibition in the Folkwang Museum 1962, including the Fantastic Composition by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939), 1915-1920 (2. r.)
A look inside the exhibition in the Folkwang Museum 1962, including the Fantastic Composition by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939), 1915-1920 (2. r.)


Polish painting from the start of the nineteenth century to the present day. The first “official” exhibition of Polish art in the Federal Republic of Germany 1962/63.

In the past numerous publications, exhibitions and conferences have drawn our attention to the fact that the Iron Curtain was porous, the so-called Ostblock was not a monolithic block, and there was a type of art that existed beyond socialist realism.

All the same there are still huge gaps in research, above all concerning cultural exchanges between East and West. From time to time it seems that one form of blindness has been replaced by another: (self-) criticism of Western arrogance and ignorance has led people to overlook or dismiss as trivial the contacts and attempts and exchanges that actually occurred in the Cold War period. This is as true for the so-called “Polish wave” – now for the most part forgotten – which took hold of West German cultural institutions at the beginning of the 1960s and manifested itself not only in theatre, concert and radio programmes, but also in a veritable boom in exhibitions of Polish contemporary art. Very little research has been done on these factors to date.

At that time one of the high points was an exhibition entitled “Polish Painting from the Start of the Nineteenth Century to the Present Day”, presented in the Folkwang Museum, Essen between 15th December 1962 and 3rd February 1963 (ill. 1–3). The exhibition was compiled by the National Museum in Warsaw and was only presented in Essen as a result of the initiative of the general manager of the Krupp firm, Berthold Beitz, and his close adviser and PR head, Carl Hundhausen. It was subsequently shown in Stuttgart (Württembergischer Kunstverein), Karlsruhe (Badischer Kunstverein) and Bremen (Galerie Die Böttcherstraße).



True, this was not the first presentation of Polish art in the Federal Republic by a long way. Following a few solitary exhibitions at the start of the 1950s (e.g. “Polish Poster Art”, Frankfurt a. M. 1950), they became much more frequent after 1956 as a result of the political thaw in Poland (these included e.g. “New Art from Poland”, a travelling exhibition through eleven West German cities 1958/59, and “Tadeusz Kantor“, Düsseldorf 1959). Alongside the exhibition in the Folkwang Museum, alone in 1962 there is evidence for no less than eight other exhibition openings featuring Polish art (incl. Munich, Hamburg and Rheinhausen). That said, the Folkwang exhibition has a particular significance. It featured eighty-one paintings and seventy-five drawings and was thus the largest survey of Polish modern art to date. Above all it was generally acknowledged to be the first “official” exhibition (Albert Schulze Vellinghausen, Polish Malerei. Ausstellung im Folkwangmuseum Essen, F.A.Z, 31.12.1962). True it was not a result of an official invitation from the West German government, a thing that was politically inconceivable at the time (diplomatic relationships were only taken up once more in 1972 and a cultural agreement only made in 1976). All the same this was a guest show from the Warsaw National Museum and the hosts and organisers on the German side – alongside the Folkwang Museum these were the Krupp firm and the city of Essen which jointly financed the exhibition – did their utmost to give the event an official stamp: beginning with rows of flags in Polish, West German and Essen colours in front of the museum, via the official opening celebrations, all the way to the ambitious programme arranged for the visiting representatives from the Warsaw National Museum.

Information on all this can be obtained from the exhibition record no. 2356 in the archive of the National Museum in Warsaw (AMNW), a record of the exhibition (no author is given) in the archive of the Folkwang Museum (AMF), and records from the Carl Hundhausen inventory (bes. WA 125/2) in the Krupp Historic Archive (HAK) in Essen. Whereas the exhibition and the catalogue have been occasionally mentioned in subsequent literature, these documents have not been evaluated to date. Nor is there any mention of the exhibition in the relevant publications on Berthold Beitz.

The archive material not only contains a chronology of the preparations for the exhibition, but also highlights the atmosphere in West Germany at the time with regard to relations between Poland and West Germany. In the final analysis this was all about using cultural means to cultivate an image. In this connection, the most important documents include the minutely detailed travel accounts in the AMNW by Stanisław Lorentz, the Director of the Warsaw National Museum, and his curator Stefan Kozakiewicz, both of whom visited West Germany for two weeks on the invitation of the city of Essen and the Krupp firm. 


In 1960 the framework conditions for cultural contacts between both countries were simultaneously favourable and unfavourable. On the one hand attempts to build closer political connections with Poland during the Adenauer era were full of cul-de-sacs, missed opportunities and resentment on both sides; the Hallstein Doctrine and the refusal to recognise the Oder Neisse border worked against the adoption of diplomatic relationships and were scarcely suited to improve what where anyway deeply strained relationships. On the other hand the quasi-diplomatic missions to Poland by Berthold Beitz, and Gerhard Schröder’s (CDU) appointment to the foreign office after the elections in autumn 1961 marked the start of a “policy of small steps” leading to the normalisation of relationships. Then again, thanks to the post-Stalinist era in the second half of the 1950s, the arts in Poland began to flourish in a lively, multifarious and highly “Western” manner that nourished sympathy and curiosity amongst the general public in West Germany, even after Poland’s cultural policies turned frostier a few years later. Poland “is all the rage here” wrote an amazed Stanisław Lorentz on a visit to West Germany in February 1963 (Lorentz report, AMNW). And in the end cultural relationships profited precisely from the difficult political relationships because the latter encouraged many individuals in West Germany to increase their efforts to improve matters between the two countries.

The fact that cultural rapprochement could serve as a pacemaker for political rapprochement was keenly invoked at the time: indeed it was even a part of the official agenda in Bonn for a brief period in 1961. Alongside an economic agreement and the exchange of consulates, a cultural agreement was intended to pave the way for the resumption of diplomatic relationships. Accompanied by Hundhausen, Beitz put forward these proposals on behalf of Adenauer to Poland’s Prime Minister Józef Cyrankiewicz on 23rd January 1961 (documented in: Mieczysław Tomala, Deutschland – von Polen gesehen. Zu den deutsch-polnischen Beziehungen 1945–1990, Marburg 2000, 199–209). Nonetheless the exploratory discussions failed because of the mistrust amongst Polish government officials who suspected that these were no more than stalling tactics on behalf of the West German government. The Poles refused to be bought off with substitute proposals and it was not until 1963, after many delays, that the two countries were able to sign an economic agreement.

With regard to the Folkwang exhibition the political fiasco in January 1961 is all the more remarkable because it provides the perfect example of the frequent proximity of failed official contacts and successful informal contacts between Poland and West Germany. The Folkwang exhibition was agreed at precisely the same time and with precisely the same personal constellation (Beitz, Hundhausen, Cyrankiewicz). It is very possible that precisely the failure of official consultations between the participants strengthened their personal convictions. Whatever the case, Beitz’s and Hundhausen’s close relationships with the Polish government and the preparations for the Folkwang exhibition did no harm Beitz’s reputation as an amateur diplomat. Following several discussions between Beitz, Hundhausen, Cyrankiewicz and the Polish cultural minister Tadeusz Galiński, Cyrankiewicz gave his official consent in summer 1961: and on 12th August Hundhausen and Beitz were able to announce triumphantly that “the exhibition in the Folkwang Museum is guaranteed in every aspect.” (HAK, WA 125/2)

Preparations were helped by several favourable circumstances. On the one hand Beitz and Hundhausen, who had taken charge of the planning, were extremely active, influential personalities with a good network of communications; and this was further helped by the fact that they had good business contacts with Poland. On the other hand, this was not the first cooperative project between the Krupp firm and the National Museum in Warsaw. Its director Stanisław Lorentz had already agreed to loan works to major exhibitions presented in the Villa Hügel (here we are referring to the exhibitions of Egyptian and Persian art in summer 1961 and spring 1962 respectively), whose managing director was Hundhausen. In addition Beitz and Hundhausen could fall back on firmly established partnerships with the city of Essen and the Folkwang Museum. And last not least there was a clear change in atmosphere in the Foreign Office. Up until then it had been notorious for its blockade policy but, at the latest, from the time Schröder took office in autumn 1961 a more flexible attitude towards the eastern bloc states began to prevail. Furthermore, at least at an informal level, the foreign office was increasingly active in the area of Polish/West German cultural exchanges. Officials there realised “that cultural exchanges could be extremely important, when political and business relationships were not functioning as well as they should”, as formulated by the head of the cultural department of the Foreign Office, Dieter Sattler (according to the Krupp representative Günter Lück to Beitz, 6.2.1963, AMNW). There had been hints of this as early as summer 1961 when the Foreign Office cultural department announced that it had “no reservations whatsoever” against the planned exhibition and that it was “at the present time […] even highly desirable” (Hundhausen to Beitz, 20.6.1961, AMF). However the situation remained intricate, as illustrated by an anecdote related by Hundhausen about a visit to Sattler with Lorentz in February 1963: “Herr Lorentz and Herr Sattler had a detailed discussion, the contents of which were clearly of great satisfaction to Herr Sattler, for his final remark was: ‘When I think about it we shouldn’t really be talking to each other at all’”. (Hundhausen to Beitz, 14.2.1963, AMNW)


Documents on the exhibition in Essen are not only revealing from the point of view of contemporary history, they also question art-historiographical platitudes. In the catalogue on the 1994 Europa, Europa exhibition in the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, Christoph Brockhaus asked: “In the past decades what have we in the West witnessed of modern art from the East?”, to which he gave the following answer: “As a rule, and at their best, works weighed down with state support have left behind a bitter aftertaste rather than awakening our curiosity”, not forgetting exhibitions “that were presented more as a result of political and economic mediation than from expert justification” (vol. 1, p. 27). If this was the rule, then West German exhibitions of Polish contemporary art were constant exceptions. The Folkwang exhibition also demonstrated that state-sponsored art was not automatically state art, as Brockhaus suggests; and furthermore that “political and business mediation” and “expert justification” were not mutually exclusive. It was not only the stylistic diversity in the presentation of Polish contemporary art in Essen that challenged current perceptions of art from socialist countries, this was also the case with the genesis of the Essen exhibition, as is clear from the exhibition files in Warsaw and Essen. The show was jointly conceived by the Folkwang Museum and the National Museum in Warsaw; and the person chiefly responsible for compiling the exhibits was the Folkwang director, Heinz Köhn. This was not only the case with the overall concept but also with the selection of individual artists and works. Thus the exhibition can hardly be described as a propaganda show of the best achievements from the Polish state. Hence, in 1963 when the art critic Anna Klapheck wrote in her review that the exhibition was “sent on tour by official bodies” and showed Polish art “as these bodies would like to have it viewed in the West” (Freie Kunst aus Polen. „Polish Malerei“ im Essener Folkwangmuseum, Rheinische Post, 4.2.1963), this is at least only half the truth.

Heinz Köhn travelled on two occasions to Warsaw, in August 1961 and June 1962, in order to prepare the exhibition. From both stays he returned “with deep impressions and great delight” as he wrote to Lorentz on 29th June 1962 (AMNW). His letter summed up the results of his conversations with the curator Stefan Kozakiewicz and once again laid the foundations for his exhibition concept. The list of the works Köhn selected there has not survived but his suggestions with regard to the artists are quoted in a report in the AMNW. The comparison of these suggestions with the catalogue confirms that the exhibition was, as agreed, conceived in accordance with Köhn’s ideas. It was also Köhn’s wish not only to present an exhibition of contemporary art, as originally planned, but also works from the turn of the century and the classical Modern. Since Polish painting was “not sufficiently well-known” in the Federal Republic visitors would hence be able to get “a fuller and typical idea of the Polish painting in the 20th century” (ibid.).

The exhibition was mainly composed of works from the National Museum and correspondingly attempted to be a representative cross-section of the main waves in modern Polish art: from the postimpressionist style of someone like Olga Boznańska, via Władysław Strzemiński’s 1930s constructivism, all the way to a broad spectrum of abstract and figurative tendencies in contemporary art ranging from surrealism to the informal; there was even room for so-called “Socrealism”. Contemporary art was particularly represented by members of the re-founded “Grupa Krakowska” like Maria Jarema, Tadeusz Kantor, Alfred Lenica, Jerzy Nowosielski and Jonasz Stern, who already counted amongst the canon of Polish post-war avant-garde artists and were to become the embodiment of the cultural thaw. Some of them were already well known to an international audience as participants and prize-winners at the documenta and Venice Biennale, as well as being presented repeatedly at exhibitions in the Federal Republic in the early 1960s.

True, Köhn’s wish list had to be approved by several departments in the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art (MKS), but all in all the authorities seemed less interested in the contents of the exhibition as in the question of who would be responsible for the costs. The ministry would allow Lorentz and Kozakiewicz to travel to the Federal Republic (and also to the exhibition in other cities) provided that – alongside the guarantee that the works would be transported under the best possible conditions to ensure their preservation – the costs would be completely met by the German side (Lorentz to MKS, 6.11.1962, ANMW; MKS to Lorentz, 3.12.1962, ANMW). Köhn did not live to witness the exhibition himself. He fell ill in autumn 1962 and died two days after the opening. His representative and later successor, Paul Vogt, took care of the last stage of the preparations for the exhibition.


If the exhibition was a propaganda show then it was less one staged by the Polish Ministry of culture as by the Krupp company and the Essen city fathers. At a time in which support was gradually fading for the barely constructive Polish policies of the Federal government, initiatives like the Folkswang exhibition offered a welcome opportunity to present oneself demonstratively as a pioneer of close relationships between Poland and West Germany. Thus the show was not only a personal triumph for Berthold Beitz and a PR success for the Krupp company, but was also recognised as a platform for political self display. And even if there is some doubt as to whether culture can ever be an effective means for closer political ties, it can certainly be used as an excellent political means. This does not apply so much to the exhibition as to the visits by the curator Stefan Kozakiewicz (6.–21.12.1962) and the director Stanislav Lorentz (2.–17.2.1963) to West Germany.

It was quite clear to Kozakiewicz that the exhibition and his trip “were to be used” by Krupp and the city of Essen “to demonstrate” their commitment to closer ties between Germany and Poland. (Kozakiewicz report, AMNW; revealingly he used the pejorative verb „wyzyskać“, “exploit”). Indeed Beitz, Hundhausen and the city of Essen had left nothing to chance and organised a tight programme of visits that became a truly breathless succession of press conferences and meetings with West German personalities from the worlds of culture, business and politics (the programme can still be seen in the AMF). This is how Kozakiewicz described it in his report: “The programme foresaw a visit to the Lord Mayor of Essen in the town hall, […] a reception after the opening of the exhibition, a visit to the Bavarian Ministry of Culture and the city council in Munich, a reception given by the Hamburg city council, the Bremen city council, and visits to Cologne, Bonn and Stuttgart. The plans to visit the city councils in Munich and Bremen were struck off the programme in favour of lunch at the private home of Herr Beitz and tea in the Villa Hügel with the doyen of the Krupp family, Tilo von Wilmowsky, as well as visits to the homes of the Württemberg Minister of Culture and the former president of West Germany Theodor Heuss in Stuttgart. I also visited Herr Hundhausen’s private home on two occasions. From several conversations I know that Herr Beitz was mainly responsible for encouraging people to adopt this programme (this is definitely the case with regard to the visit to Prof. Heuss), in close collaboration with the city of Essen.” (ibid, from the translation by RW)

The official opening of the exhibition on 15th December – there were 500 guests including high-ranking personalities from the city and region – “was very solemn” and included speeches, a string quartet and enormous red-and-white bouquets of flowers on the podium (ibid.). Forty journalists turned up for the press conference, which was followed by further newspaper, radio and television interviews for numerous print media and broadcasting stations.

Beitz and Hundhausen, along with the city of Essen, were clearly extremely keen to pursue their persuasive efforts with regard to Poland, to demonstrate that the majority of their fellow citizens viewed closer relationships between West Germany and Poland in a positive manner, and to show that any existing revisionist tones were in no way representative. Whereas, according to Kozakiewicz’ report, Beitz refrained from expressing clear political views on this occasion, Hundhausen’s comments were all the more forthright. At the reception in the Essen town hall he declared that “without beating about the bush and with the agreement of the two highest representatives of the city, [i. e. the Lord Mayor, Wilhelm Nieswandt and the chief municipal director Friedrich Wolff, both SPD], it is good that a city like Essen can conduct its own “foreign policy” similar to that of the policies of the Krupp company. This policy with regard to Poland quite correctly contradicts the policies of the Bonn government. We must finally put an end to the ghost of the Hallstein doctrine, take up diplomatic relationships with Poland and recognise the Oder-Neisse borders. He was of the opinion that the extension of cultural exchanges would provide a helpful foundation for such policies; he was sure that the current shake-up in the Federal Government was favourable in this respect, but that further positive developments could follow after Adenauer’s resignation, which in his opinion would not be long.” (ibid.)

Carl Hundhausen, who was commissioned by the Krupp company to repair the damaged reputation of the firm after the Second World War, made no bones about using his charm to successfully influence Kozakiewicz. Whatever the case he left the impression with his guests that he was “a sincere friend of Poland and a faithful advocate of closer relationships between West Germany and Poland”. Incidentally Hundhausen also confided to him privately that he was not so sure whether the capitalist economic system was better than the communist. (ibid).

Political standpoints were not everywhere as clear as they were during the reception in the Essen town hall. In his report Kozakiewicz carefully noted where people talked about closer “political“ ties and where they only referred to “cultural” ties, and observed, amongst others, that in contrast to Essen, Hamburg and Stuttgart „the representatives from the city of Munich and the state of Bavaria refrained from uttering any expressions of a political nature (ibid.).

Following an express request from Stanisław Lorentz, the main emphasis of his visit to Germany in February 1963 should be less on official receptions as on meetings with colleagues from the art world in order to revive all contacts and make new ones. The interest aroused from his travels through ten West German cities was immense. In the AMNW the list of names Lorentz met comprises 40 persons alongside another 160 further unnamed people, and reads like a Who’s Who of the German museum landscape: from the general director of the Bavarian State Painting Collections, Kurt Martin all the way to the head of the Ruhrfestspiele and director of the Recklinghausen museums, Thomas Grochowiak. Lorentz was inundated with offers of cooperation for exhibitions, lectures and publication projects. People also asked for his help in their search for art dealers to represent Polish artists in the Federal Republic. The descriptions in Lorentz’ report are confirmed by the letters in the AMNW.

True, not all the envisaged projects were turned into reality; a projected exhibition in the Haus der Kunst in Munich in 1964 with a corresponding exhibition of German art in Warsaw remained no more than idea. Nonetheless, cultural contacts between Poland and West Germany became noticeably closer after the exhibition and Lorentz’ tour of Germany. In 1964 and 1965 an exhibition of contemporary Polish art opened almost every month in cities throughout the whole of West Germany, some of which were clearly encouraged by the Folkwang exhibition. They were mostly promoted by committed gallery owners, museum directors, local politicians and private persons who, in a mixture of pioneering spirit, moral impetus and political idealism were committed to closer ties between Poland and West Germany, and who knew how to exploit the impetus provided by the Folkwang exhibition. Thanks also to Krupp’s patronage, relationships between Essen and Warsaw continued in the form of exhibitions, lecture tours and guest residences by Polish artists and academics. An exhibition entitled “Polish Art Today” in the Bochum Municipal Art Museum in winter 1964/65 was the next major review of contemporary Polish sculpture. That said, the hope that closer cultural ties would lead to a normalisation of political relationships remained unfulfilled.

The Folkwang exhibition, its genesis and accompanying events symbolise, not only an exciting political phase but also a fruitful cultural phase in relationships between Poland and West Germany, in which many things were set in motion and official policies increasingly drifted away from informal efforts. They simultaneously illustrate the insecurities and ambivalences that accompanied this dynamic. This is particularly clear from the shilly-shallying on the part of political officials with regard to the relationship between culture and politics. On the one hand culture helped to encourage closer political ties and repair any damage to relationships made by politicians and others; it was also clear that cultural exchanges were as politically explosive as anything else related to German-Polish relations. On the other hand people were often meticulous in separating political from cultural matters, at least nominally, and this really underlined the explosive political nature of events in cultural areas. It remains undisputed that the allegedly harmless terrain of art and culture considerably promoted the general openness and willingness to engage in a dialogue with the guests from Warsaw in winter 1962/63. But it is undeniable that political pitfalls were also lurking here: one of Lorentz’s book projects about the reconstruction in Poland almost fell through because of its title: the publisher indicated that the time was sadly not yet ripe to launch a book on the West German market containing treatises on Breslau and Stettin with the title “… in Poland“ (Lorentz report, AMNW).

Regina Wenninger

This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Art published by the Central Institute for Art History in Munich under the title: “Kunst, Politik, PR. Die erste „offiziöse“ Ausstellung polnischer Kunst in der Bundesrepublik 1962/63“. 

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A look inside the exhibition, including works by Maria Jarema (1908-1958) and Jerzy Nowosielski (1923-2011). (l to r.: Jarema, Filter XIII, 1954; Nowosielski, Female Swimmer, 1959 and Synthetic Landscape, 1961.
A look inside the exhibition, including works by Maria Jarema
A look inside the exhibition, including works by Maria Jarema (1908-1958) and Jerzy Nowosielski (1923-2011). (l to r.: Jarema, Filter XIII, 1954; Nowosielski, Female Swimmer, 1959 and Synthetic Landscape, 1961.
A look inside the exhibition with works by Tadeusz Makowski (1882-1932).(l. to r. Self Portrait, 1930; Miser, 1932; Four Children with a Trombone, 1929.
A look inside the exhibition with works by Tadeusz Makowski
A look inside the exhibition with works by Tadeusz Makowski (1882-1932).(l. to r. Self Portrait, 1930; Miser, 1932; Four Children with a Trombone, 1929.