The Center of Polish Sculpture in Oronsko, located 120 kilometers south of Warsaw, is a singular institution devoted entirely to the creation, exhibition, and documentation of Polish sculpture. Its broad mandate encompasses a wide range of programs, including artists’ studios, galleries, a museum, and a 12-hectare sculpture park. Situated close to the Warsaw-Kraków highway, the center is visited annually by large numbers of artists and art-lovers.
The charm and beauty of the 19th-century manor house and extensive park, which constitute the essential elements of the historical part of the center, contribute to its popularity. The estate’s tradition of preserving arts and culture, maintained by successive private, civic, and state owners, has strongly connected the present with the past. In the 19th century, when it was owned by noble families, lavish support was given to science, art, and culture. At the turn of the century, an informal Independent Academy was formed by artists, who gathered in Oronsko for open-air workshops.
In 1965, the Polish Artists’ Union sought to have a Center for Sculptors’ Creative Work established in Oronsko. During this period, public sculptures were introduced into the growing cityscapes of Poland. The time was fruitful for open-air workshops and diverse artistic activities supported by state industry and state administration aiming to cultivate the socialist policy of “cultural activation” of society. Oronsko (close to natural resources such as marble, sandstone, and limestone) had great potential as the sculpting center of the region. The Union’s proposal was accepted all the more easily given that the estate had been completely neglected by its postwar owners.
In the early stages of its existence, the institution’s activities were limited to summer sculpture workshops and open-air exhibitions in the park. “For many years, Oronsko had only been a workshop. There was no conception as to where and how to store all the sculptures that had been created [here],” writes its director, Tomasz Palacz, in one of the catalogues. The outdoor exhibitions “served as casual artistic manifestations and short-lived shows, after which the more valuable works found their place in the hands of new owners.”
When, in 1981, the Ministry of Culture and Art took over, Oronsko was converted into a unique national center for Polish sculpture. Unfortunately, martial law was imposed in Poland several months later. The whole range of artistic activities was forced underground to avoid official control and restrictions. Hence, while the center was being formed, its external activities were limited. However, during this period, the dilapidated manorial buildings were reconstructed: a museum of the 19th-century interiors was opened in the manor house, and a nearby hothouse and chapel were converted to galleries, both of which now house temporary exhibitions.
One of the center’s primary objectives was to properly equip its artists’ studios. It now contains eight specialist sculpting studios, including ceramics, mechanical metalworking, woodworking, casting, and stone, as well as six artists’ studios with accommodation. Additionally, the Center provides open-air sculpting stands throughout the grounds. A comfortable hotel located in an old granary is open to both artists and visitors.
The surrounding park has been gradually renovated, though it was impossible to restore its former flavor, shaped by mythological and sepulchral sculptures. Instead, a permanent open-air exhibition of sculptural works was established, reflecting the global interest in outdoor sculpture collections. Works of art were introduced into the romantically landscaped park to interact with its nature-oriented character rather than interfere with it.
At present, 80 sculptures are displayed among the gravel paving, trees, and water elements. Stone dominates (sandstone, marble, and granite), but other materials are also present—iron, bronze, steel, wood, earth, and water. Installations and environmental works are found next to traditional statuary sculptures. Some works, such as Tomasz Brejdak’s cardboard Architextures (1989), are temporary. Vulnerable to weather conditions, through time they lose their rigid architectonic features and slowly devolve into masses of hardened paper. One of the most recent sculptures is a site-specific work by Teresa Murak, The Sun Rises from the Earth (1995). Situated in a courtyard, it is a semi-hill built of basalt blocks and earth with grass sown on it. It constitutes a perfectly natural, yet very poetic intervention in the landscape.
At the end of the 1980s, after the collapse of the totalitarian regime, the center finally became “free to organize the artist stays…without any political or union pressures whatsoever.” More importantly, in 1992, the Museum of Contemporary Sculpture opened in a newly erected building with 700 square meters of exhibition space. The inaugural exhibition, “Modern Polish Sculpture 1955–1992,” was followed by shows focusing on Polish sculpture of the 1960s to the 1980s. Other projects explored the representation of the human figure, the art of the young generation, and presentations of individual artists such as Józef Szajna, Edward ´Lazikowska, and Józef ´Lukomski. Magdalena Abakanowicz’s individual exhibition was organized in 1995, and one of her War Games is permanently sited in the Coach House Gallery.
The Oronsko collection was also substantially enlarged; it now owns more than 500 sculptures—representative examples of Polish sculpture since the crucial 1955 exhibition at the Warsaw “Arsenal,” which broke with social realism. Some pieces, though, belong to the earlier avant-garde period of the 1920s and 1930s (including works by Katarzyna Kobro and Maria Jarema) and mark the origins of contemporary art. Generally, the collection emphasizes figurative and expressionist tendencies (i.e., works of Miros´law Ba´lka or Grzegorz Klaman), though more formal and conceptual approaches toward sculpture are also represented (Jan Berdyszak, Maciej Sza´nkowski, Edward Krasi´nski). Moreover, the center’s activities and interests focus not only on representational tendencies but also on innovative approaches toward sculpture such as processual art and installation.
The center offers artists a broad range of individual stays and group workshops. It publishes books, catalogues, and a quarterly journal and organizes various symposia, seminars, and conferences. A computer database and a library of publications and visual material (videos, photographs, slides) document contemporary art. In 1986, the important annual publication Polish Sculpture started to appear. This journal has become a unique forum for researchers, critics, art historians, and artists themselves concerned with issues in contemporary Polish art.
Joanna Christian is an art historian living in Kraków, Poland.