Temporary exhibitions

The 1920 War: a Photographic Account

14 August – 13 December 2020
Photography has accompanied war almost since the medium’s inception. It also dominates in the iconography of the Polish-Bolshevik war (1919–1921). In no other medium, except commercial graphics, did images of that war prove so emphatic. Paradoxically, although many – amateurs and professionals, artists and soldiers – took pictures, photographic records of those years are not commonly known and constitute a recognizable point of reference for a small fraction of the public only.
Among photographic accounts of the conflict we find propaganda pictures, taken for the deliberate and explicit purpose of being  published in the press, and private ones, originally not meant to be viewed outside the photographer’s circle of family members and friends. Examples of the former are on show in unusually high numbers, for we are presenting an extensive selection from the Warsaw Photographic Agency’s collection of photographs documenting the events of 1920, acquired by the National Museum in Warsaw as early as May 1921.
Film footage, both staged and documentary, features importantly in the exhibition scenario. We are showing excerpts from various 1920s movies, including the recently restored full-length documentary, Polonia Restituta (1928).
All these accounts comprise a catalogue of familiar themes of war photography: portraits of soldiers, both men and women (who for the first time were formally allowed to fight), scenes of recruitment, exercises, marches and regroupings, lulls and daily life on the front, and finally the consequences of war – wreckage, prisoners, the wounded, the dead, but also scenes of welcoming, of medal-awarding and commemoration ceremonies.
Our exhibition seeks to go beyond the illustrative function of photography, which has been so heavily exploited in the historical discourse. We ask who the authors may have been, even if we do not know their names. Why did they take pictures? Of whom and what? It seems that precisely such a perspective will allow the contemporary viewer to gain a more in-depth understanding of the events in question. We are showing what are almost exclusively period prints, exposed and developed almost as long ago as the events they represent occurred. Their condition and format bear witness to the technological advancement of the era’s photography. For the first time in an exhibition space we are also presenting photo-books in their original form.
The exhibition “The 1920 War: a Photographic Account” is an attempt to reinstate a photographic image of the 1919–1921 war not only in general history and the history of photography, but also, and above all, in our memory.
Curator: Karolina Puchała-Rojek
Assistance: Ewa Skolimowska
Co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland as part of the Multi-annual programme NIEPODLEGŁA 2017–2022
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