In 1974, during the performance entitled Change at the Adres Gallery in Łódź, you wrote on the floor: “The [male] artist has no biography. Because the [female] artist – unlike the [male] artist – has a biography. For a [female] artist, it is important whether she is young or old” Why is age so important?
Let’s start with the situation on the art market. Gallerists usually prefer to collaborate with young female artists. Of course, this is a general trend, because there are also some – a few – who have the courage to act differently. For a female artist, age is a burden. With time, she becomes less attractive as a person – there are no more opportunities and potential to fantasise about. Imagine entering a gallery, and seeing an old woman talking about her works – it does not sound particularly enticing. Wouldn’t it be different if it were Gerhard Richter instead?
The ageing male artist fits into the cultural figure of the “master”, but what about his female peers?
A female artist has to put a lot of effort into fighting and convincing others that her work is worth something. If her work is not secured in museums or private collections, the situation can become difficult. Old artists are forgotten artists. This is at the heart of the problem of seeing women in terms of their age – they are either too young to speak out on a subject, or too old to attract interest. Let me give you an example: in 1978, I carried out an action on the streets of Warsaw, with a poster that read “My problem is the problem of a woman”, with half of my face made up to look “old” by a makeup artist. Critic Andrzej Osęka had a harsh comment about my work: “A woman, and I would call her beautiful, worried about her wrinkles. How can one, in such a brazen way, interest the whole of Warsaw in such a trivial melodramatic situation?” I was 34 years old at the time, but soon after I was forgotten for a long time. However, I was lucky that I was “rediscovered” again later, as a mature woman. I became well known outside of Poland, which changed my situation in Poland as well.
How did it happen?
It started with a retrospective exhibition, organized in 2001 at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, curated by its director, Angelika Stepken. On this occasion, a monograph was published. Then, Polish curators Aneta Szyłak at Wyspa Art Institute in Gdańsk and Dorota Monkiewicz at the National Museum of Warsaw showed this exhibition in 2006. As a result, a second monograph was published. In 2014, I had a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Art in Łódź. Thanks to the curator Maria Morzuch and director Jarosław Suchan, several of my works were acquired for the collection a few years earlier, for example Self-identification or Change. Curators from MOMA, visiting Poland at the time, saw that exhibition and took a closer interest in my work. What was also certainly important was that Stuart Comer – who later started working at MOMA – exhibited my work in 2006 at Tate Modern, and earlier in the Turbine Hall Catherine Wood presented my installation based on James Joyce’s Ulysses. I think that these links were important. Shortly after the MOMA curators’ visit, two of my works were acquired for the collection, including a banner with the inscription “Ewa Partum”, which is on permanent display there. There have been some lucky coincidences. However, not all female artists working at the same time as me managed to achieve their goals – sometimes, as they age, interest in their work decreases.
When does that occur?
This can happen very quickly – even at the age of 40, although now it [happens] closer to menopause. The problem is also that patriarchal relationships often sustain women in the art world.
Commenting on one’s body, the themes that women should deal with and what they can achieve. Recently a curator I know who in the past commented on the way I look, said: “You are just an artist who people can recognise. Your appearance almost doesn’t change.” Why does it matter? Obviously as we all get older, our bodies change. Another problem is that women have a lot of jealousy in them. One female artist, who is my age, said in an interview that I owe my career to my ex-husband [Andrzej Partum]. It was absurd. Women are not believed to be capable of anything. It seemed to me that feminism would change that; that artists would understand that it is them who are important, not their partners; that they have the right to decide for themselves and fight for their rights. There tends to be a lot of scheming in the art world and certain ideas take a long time to come into play.
This is the paradox of the art world. On the one hand, feminist ideas have been and are in the vanguard, and on the other hand men occupy most of the top positions in academies and institutions.
When I started doing art, feminism was an artistic idea. I am very happy that now feminism is in the streets – that is what we fought for! In the film that Tate Modern made about me, I said that it is every woman’s duty to be a feminist and I uphold my position. But going back to the situation in the art market, where this is particularly visible: feminist ideas do not translate into the sales of artworks by female artists, especially those of a certain age, mature women. You can see this reflected in the prices and collectors’ interest. In Poland, the works of female artists of the older generation are slowly beginning to appear at Desa Unicum — I mean works by Isabella Gustowska or Natalia LL, and a few of mine have also appeared. But still, there aren’t that many of these. It should be emphasised that, in Poland, older art tends to sell best –collectors are reluctant to buy conceptual art, let alone conceptual art created by women.
Is conceptual art created by the men of your generation perceived differently?
Generally, it is believed that the avant-garde was masculine – Foksal Gallery, which at that time mainly exhibited male artists, has in a way contributed to this state of affairs. As a result, pieces by Winiarski or Opałka are sold at incomparably higher prices. However, this is not just a Polish problem. I had an offer from an important foreign art institution – they wanted to acquire one of my installations. My daughter and I suggested a price. They respond that it was exorbitant – for an artist from Eastern Europe, and a female artist at that. Sponsors are reluctant to finance such purchases. I still cannot believe this…
You said that you had been forgotten for a while. When was it, and how long did it last?
When I was 39 I went to Berlin, I physically disappeared from Poland. But even before that, I have been reluctant to take part in exhibitions and festivals. There were also political issues — I was labelled “negative” on the list of the Ministry of Culture and Arts. For thirty years, there was not a single mention of Self-identification or The Legality of Space, a 1971 installation in Plac Wolnosci [Freedom Square] in Łódź — and these were high-profile works. But the next generation of art historians began to discover the work of avant-garde female artists on their own – even though their predecessors considered our work to be unworthy of attention.
What was the immediate reason for your departure?
In a nutshell, it was family turmoil: my mother moved away, there was lack of communication caused by martial law, and most of my Adres Gallery archive was destroyed. I needed to relax, take a breath, get a new perspective – I wanted to leave for a while, and didn’t think I would emigrate. I was invited to a festival in West Berlin, and with my eight-year-old daughter and several works under my arm, I boarded a train to Berlin on 26 November, 1982. When I arrived, Wolf Vostell of Fluxus said, “You’re not going to go back with a kid, are you? With Jaruzelski and all that. There’s no baby milk.” And so I stayed.
How did you cope in Berlin?
First, I managed to sell a few pieces, including to Wolf Vostell or the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie collection (Hommage àSolidarność). Berlin feminists supported me in official matters: I received social assistance – which Poles were entitled to at the time because of martial law – and they helped me sort out my Anmeldung so that Berenika could start going to school there. Later, I met my ex-husband, Rolf Werner.
What was your source of income back then?
Besides social assistance for housing and food, I mainly lived off the sale of my work, although this was a bit up and down. I managed to sell some pieces to the Nationalgalerie (from the Poems by Ewa series) and private collections, and Werner also earned some money. Other exiled women worked hard, for example cleaning, but I did not have such experiences. I tried to keep working as an artist for as long as possible. For a while I was employed in a theatre in Neukölln – I was responsible for graphic design there. I happened to work as a secretary in a friend’s architectural office. But there wasn’t much of that kind of work.
Pension systems aren’t great for people without a history of permanent employment, let alone artists. What’s it like for you?
You can forget about artistic pensions! In Poland, for about 15 years, I voluntarily paid part of my earnings into a retirement fund for artists. After deciding to stay in Berlin, I signed up for the Künstlersozialkasse. Now, unsurprisingly, I am entitled to the lowest possible pension in Poland — PLN1250 (EUR275), and a similar pension from Germany. In reality, I have always lived and continue to live from the sale of my work, and I submit tax returns in two countries. It seems to me that due to my biography, my retirement situation is unusual, so it is difficult for me to say what it’s like for other artists of a similar age. People don’t talk about it too much.
We met at a house in Lubuskie province. How did you get the idea of returning to Poland?
In the early 1990s, I was looking for a studio space. In Berlin, Ateliers are very expensive – and because the earnings from the sale of work are unpredictable, I decided that I prefer to invest in a place that will be mine. It was 1993 – a friend from Berlin told me about an old house and land for sale near Krosno Odrzańskie, back then it was within my budget. The owners wanted to make a quick sale. I remember carrying Deutsche Marks and dollars across the border. Fortunately, I got a scholarship in Berlin at that time, and I was able to afford the renovation work, which I carried out for several years with the help of a local team. Today, I tend to spend half a year here and the other half in Berlin. This is my second home and workplace. Here, together with my daughter Berenika Partum and Dr. Karolina Majewska, we work on our foundation, ARTUM.
What are you working on right now?
Several projects simultaneously, for example the fragrance installation for Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, which engages with the theme of women’s strike – the exhibition is planned for September. I also continue work on the project realised in 2019 in Warsaw, in Galeria Studio, Ewa Partum. My gallery is an idea – now in cooperation with the Stowarzyszenie Nowa Kultura and Education, cooperating with Fabryka Sztuki in Łódź. From time to time, I also send works to charity auctions. The most important project for me, however, is the ARTUM Foundation ewa partum museum, whose headquarters are being built in one of the buildings here. There will be an archive, a library, an exhibition space of 177m2, as well as guest rooms for artists – we plan to organise a festival here once a year. We have a finished project and a building permit. There is a lot of work, so it is definitely a long-term project, and a financially-demanding action as well. The project covers the earnings from the sale of my works or the donations of collectors, but we do not get rid of the entire collection. We need artworks to show in the museum, so we’ll hold on to anything important. I am also investing in renewable energy sources to cover part of the institution’s maintenance costs. We hope that the project will be a success.
Ewa Partum is one of Poland’s most prominent conceptual artists from the turn of the 1960s and 70s, and was a forerunner of feminist art in Poland. In 1963-65 she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź and in 1965-70 at the Faculty of Painting of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. In 1972-77 she ran her own gallery in Łódź, Galeria Adres, where she exhibited conceptual art. In her artistic practice she undertakes activities in the field of linguistic art, institutional criticism and feminist art. She is the Founder and President of the ARTUM Foundation.
Zofia Małkowicz-Daszkowska studied Art Education and Sculpture and Spatial Activities at the University of Arts in Poznań, and Interactive Media and Performance and Sociology at the Adam Mickiewicz University (UAM). She is currently working on a PhD in sociology (AMU), focusing on the relationship between art and social sciences and interdisciplinarity. Zofia writes about art, culture, everyday life and that, which does not fit the conventional order (she has published, among others, in Czas Kultury). She talks with artists and sometimes takes their photos, and teaches at UAP, AMU and other cultural institutions. She explores artistic and research methods, including as a member of the Trio ¿Czy badania artystyczne?.