Martyna Nowicka

Kraków: Salons and the Avantgarde

Reading time: approx. 9 minutes

Is it possible to sketch the history of visual arts in Kraków? Surely not! The city’s historic architecture served as a backdrop for artists of the Young Poland movement, the artistic avantgarde circles of the times of modernism gathered in the city’s coffee shops in the 1920s. After the war, the next generation worked among the same walls. Today, our attention is captivated by exhibitions of contemporary art and some of Poland’s most impressive historic collections.

Old Kraków and Young Poland

It’s difficult to say when Kraków started playing such an important role in the history of Polish art. Almost all potential beginnings – even if we just stick to contemporary art – have roots in previous generations. Let’s take Tadeusz Kantor – how can we even begin to talk about him without mentioning the original Cricot Theatre, Maria Jarema or Henryk Wiciński? And what about them? Then again, would have the First Kraków Group been founded without heated discussions on modernism held in bustling cafés, as opposed the fossilised atmosphere of the Academy of Fine Arts? What about Stanisław Wyspiański? Would he have become successful were it not for the support he received from Jan Matejko?


Kraków was home to Poland’s first national art institutions: the country’s first Academy of Fine Arts was founded here in 1818 at the Faculty of Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University (as the School of Drawing and Painting). Founded in 1854, the Kraków Society of Friends of Fine Arts was a private organisation aiming to disseminate knowledge about art throughout Poland’s three partitions and provide financial support for artists. Poland’s first National Museum was also founded in Kraków in 1879; originally located in the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice, still a branch of the museum), today it is the largest institution of its kind in Poland. The first item in its collection was Henryk Siemiradzki’s “Nero’s Torches”, donated by the artist.

So can we make a working assumption that the 19th century was the decisive point in Kraków’s significance in Polish culture? No, because it would be plain wrong: when historians launched a campaign to protect antique artworks and monuments during the second half of the 19th century, they had their work cut out for them.

The Basilica of St. Mary with the dazzling altar designed and built by Veit Stoss, the Renaissance architecture of Wawel Hill, Gothic and Baroque churches, preserved fortifications and urban layout all reveal that the city’s importance goes back centuries.


The contemporary appearance of Cracovian architecture is undoubtedly shaped by restoration work conducted in the mid-19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century on the Basilica of St. Mary and the Cloth Hall and Wawel Castle. Many renovations were overseen by Jan Matejko. Educated in Munich, the artist’s works were admired throughout Europe; however, he decided to move back to his native Kraków and take up the post of Director of the School (now Adacemy) of Fine Arts. From 1873 until his passing in 1893, his work shaped the city itself and influenced countless students working in myriad trends and styles. They included Jacek Malczewski, symbolist painter reaching for inspiration in Polish folklore, Julian Fałat specialising in watercolour landscapes, Leon Wyczółkowski representing Polish Realism, Józef Mehoffer exploring the Art Nouveau aesthetic, and the versatile painter, poet and dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański.

The latter made perhaps the greatest impact on Polish art at the turn of the 20th century: during his short life he created paintings, sketches, stained-glass windows and polychromes such as those decorating the walls of the Franciscan Church, intertwining religious and natural motifs. Kraków held a special place in Wyspiański’s work by providing a space for exploration of Polish history and traditions, on both factual and mythical levels. Skałka and Wawel, city dwellers and residents of nearby villages, the still treeless Planty Garden Ring and views over the Kościuszko Mound all had an influence on his work.


Where can we see Matejko and Malczewski’s paintings, Wyspiański’s pastels and Mehoffer’s designs and stained-glass windows? The National Museum in Krakow is a great starting point, in particular the Matejko House and Mehoffer House branches. They showcase the artists’ work and the realities of their lives; the secluded garden at Mehoffer House is the perfect spot for a coffee. A selection of historic paintings and works by artists of the Young Poland movement are on permanent display at the Gallery of the 19th-century Polish Art in the Cloth Hall, while works by Wyspiański, Wyczółkowski and Fałat are held in Kraków’s museum collections and are frequently presented at temporary exhibitions.

Two Kraków Groups

These artists – Symbolists and heirs of Impressionism – were soon succeeded by the next generation. Much had changed in the newly independent Poland: women gained the right to vote in 1918, and new hierarchies and sensitivities arose affecting all spheres of life including art. In the late 1920s, left-wing students at the Academy of Fine Arts dreamt of a just world and modern art. Although their works show a fascination with geometric forms, they were not aiming to develop a common aesthetic; they all worked on their own, gathering in the evenings to discuss the future over tea.


This was the beginning of the Kraków Group, whose members included Aleksander (Sasza) Blonder (AKA André Blondel), Blima (Berta) Grünberg, Maria Jarema, Franciszek Jaźwiecki, Leopold Lewicki, Adam Marczyński, Stanisław Osostowicz, Szymon Piasecki, Mojżesz Schwanenfeld, Bolesław Stawiński, Jonasz Stern, Eugeniusz Waniek, Henryk Wiciński and Aleksander Winnicki. The students were detested by the establishment, and their art – bold, thoroughly modern, bearing resemblance to that being created in Paris and London – had ambitions to change the world. In contrast to previous generations, they were more interested in international avantgarde trends than Polish traditions.


The Group’s artistic expression wasn’t limited to painting and sculpture; they wrote satirical scripts and those involved with Józef Jarema’s Cricot Theatre also designed and made costumed and set designs and appeared on stage. The young artists gathered at the Artists’ House at Łobzowska Street – home of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers, founded in Kraków in 1911. The Modernist building is still the organisation’s headquarters, and the ground floor continues to operate as a coffee shop.

The Art Café became the most important point on the artistic map of wartime Kraków: it provided employment for artists and hosted cultural events, concerts and performances for kids.

Tadeusz Kantor also founded his first theatre during the Second World War; spectacles by the Underground Independent Theatre, prepared by Cracovian artists, were held in private apartments. Avantgarde shone brightly once again in 1948 at the 1st Exhibition of Contemporary Art presenting works by members of the Kraków Group and younger artists including Kantor, Jerzy Nowosielski and Andrzej Wróblewski. Yet, soon after, Poland was inundated by social realism.


The death of Stalin brought relief and a new opportunity to organise, with the Second Kraków Group founded in 1957 recalling pre-war traditions. Maria Jarema and Jonasz Stern (members of the original Kraków Group) were joined by young artists, and the new association set up home in the cellar of the Krzysztofory Palace, which also held an exhibition space (used as a theatre hall) and a café. It would be difficult to find a common denominator of artworks presented in the gloomy interiors of Krzysztofory; they ranged from works by Tadeusz Brzozowski, Erna Rosenstein and Jerzy Nowosielski alongside the artificial beach illuminated with quartz light, as proposed by the Second Group collective.

If you’d like to learn more about both Kraków Groups, start by heading to the Cricoteka Centre for the Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor. The institution founded by the director himself is now located at a new venue on the banks of the Vistula, hosting a permanent exhibition and temporary presentations. A notable event is the annual Living Statues, held on 8 December on the anniversary of Kantor’s passing. Commemorating the event, actors Wiesław and Lesław Janicki and Jan Książek stand frozen still for several minutes at Kanonicza Street in front of the historic site of Cricot 2 Theatre. Exhibitions of artworks by artists from the Second Kraków Group are also held at the Starmach Gallery, one of Kraków’s oldest private exhibition spaces specialising in avantgarde art.

Contemporary art scene

Although since 1989 the majority of Poland’s commercial galleries with international ambitions have set up home in Warsaw, Kraków is undoubtedly filled with fascinating art galleries and phenomena. The spirit of self-organisation, rooted in the thinking of members of both Kraków Groups, continues to inspire Cracovian artists, curators and critics. Over the last three decades, the city has seen the rise and fall of numerous independent spaces focusing on contemporary art with artists of all generations presenting their latest works. Of the dozens of Cracovian galleries, Zderzak has been operating for the longest (since the 1980s); the F.A.I.T. Gallery is now at its fifth site, while some of the finest latest initiatives include the Shefter Gallery, the Potencha Gallery ran by an artists’ collective, and the Elementarz Dla Mieszkańców Miast operating from an attic at Asnyka Street.


The Academy of Fine Arts continues to play an important role in educating artists acclaimed at home and abroad. They include members of the Ładnie Group Rafał Bujnowski, Marcin Maciejowski and Wilhelm Sasnal.

Published in 2014, the album 100 Painters of Tomorrow features three graduates from the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków: Kinga Nowak, Łukasz Stokłosa and Jakub Julian Ziółkowski. Other notable graduates include the visual artist and winner of Preis der Nationalgalerie Agnieszka Polska and the sound artist Zorka Wollny.


The disperse artistic circles are brought together by two major events. Held in spring, the KRAKERS Cracow Art Week involves myriad local art galleries and ephemeral formations created especially for the occasion. Far more egalitarian than the Warsaw Gallery Weekend, KRAKERS focuses on grassroots initiatives to give audiences an insight into art being created in the city right now. Autumn brings the Krakow Art Salon – a review of the latest works by Cracovian artists shortlisted by a professional jury. The format of the International Print Triennial has been shaped over five decades; always open to the latest movements and trends, today it explores the worlds of computer graphics and state-of-the-art technologies.

Kraków is also home to two major institutions focusing on modern art: the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow in Zabłocie, and the Bunkier Sztuki in the heart of the Old Town. MOCAK is the first Polish contemporary art museum launched since 1989 to have its own venue, designed by Claudio Nardi on the site of the former Oskar Schindler factory. The museum presents thematic reviews and exhibitions of artworks from its own collections. Bunkier Sztuki holds individual exhibitions of artworks by acclaimed artists such as Ines Doujak and Richard Mosse as well as those by up-and-coming artists. The museum and gallery showcase works by artists from Poland and abroad.


Photography plays a major role in Kraków’s artistic landscape, with the Photomonth Festival serving as a focal point every May. Each edition is curated by specially invited artists, and the festival itself – running for almost twenty years – is regarded as one of the most important events of its kind in Europe. The Museum of Photography in Kraków, Poland’s longest running such institution, has vast collections including photos and historic equipment. The museum is currently expanding its exhibition space beyond its main site at a former armoury to three new locations.

Martyna Nowicka

Historian, art critic and curator. She has worked with the “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily, the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly and the “Szum” and “HA!art” quarterlies. Together with Leona Jacewska and Arkadiusz Półtorak she runs the “Elementarz dla mieszkańców miast” (‘Lexicon for Urbanites’) project space in Kraków.

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