The Benton is the cultural crown jewel of the University of Connecticut, and it only strengthened its case last night with the opening of “DEMOKRACJA GRAFIKA: The Democracy of Print.” The exhibit showcased UConn Professor Emeritus of Printmaking Gus Mazzocca’s collection of Polish prints, all handcrafted by Cold War-era artists. Mazzocca’s collection was hung on every inch of the Benton’s gallery space, and dozens of UConn faculty, students and local residents came out to celebrate the history at our doorstep.
Mazzocca’s connection with Poland was birthed when the central European country was starting to tug on their socialist-influenced chains in the mid-1980s. He established an exchange program with the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, a large city in the south of Poland, at a time when the Iron Curtain made East/West contact next to impossible. The title of the exhibition, “DEMOKRACJA GRAFIKA: The Democracy of Print,” shows how artwork can transcend political narratives and structures to connect those from vastly different parts of the world.
Like all Benton openings, the night began with a classy spread of hors d’oeuvres. The museum always shows out in the catering department, but last night it really strutted its stuff with a smoked meats platter, grilled vegetables and even pierogies and sour cream to commemorate the Polish evening. Not long after, a number of speakers addressed the gathered crowd, including familiar faces like Nancy Stula, executive director of the Benton, and special guests like Mazzocca himself.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Mazzocca beforehand, bonding with him over our shared experiences in central Europe. (I spent this past semester studying politics in Prague, Czech Republic — just next door to Poland.) He talked at length about his six weeks in Cold War-era Krakow, mirroring it with my weekend there earlier this year. Although much is the same, such as the deep Jewish history of the city, we both noted the change in atmosphere of Krakow, having gone through monumental changes during the fall of the Soviet Union.
Attending students were intrigued by both exhibits. “I found it interesting how Polish art developed more in isolation,” Maria Mandoiu, a fifth-semester anthropology and music history major, said. “The art coming from Poland is going to be different from work from surrounding areas — I found that very interesting. I love how the Benton is a teaching museum. I didn’t think about it until they spoke about that [earlier in the evening]. It was a great experience for our class.”
Some were attracted not just to the art itself, but to the spirit it represents.
“I’m really drawn to how striking some of the prints are, since a lot of them are combined with different forms of art within them,” said Katharine Morris, a seventh-semester anthropology and cognitive science major, said. “It’s an almost exclusively Polish exhibit, but there’s a lot of prints that have different methods, like, there’s a Japanese woodblock print in here too that’s cool. Also, one of the openers spoke on the piece being called ‘The Democracy of Print.’ He drew parallels to what was going on with Polish folks in the ‘80s to what’s going on with Americans now, and I found that interesting. I’m trying to channel that revolutionary spirit.”
“DEMOKRACJA GRAFIKA: The Democracy of Print” showed the UConn community the true power of art, politics and history’s intersection. To the naked eye, the opening was just 150 prints thrown onto the wall, but when viewed within recent history, it represents how two cultures can join together for the promise of a better world. In the eyes of the patrons last night, that power is still alive as we move forward towards a new decade.
“DEMOKRACJA GRAFIKA: The Democracy of Print” will be showing through March 13, 2020.
Daniel Cohn is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.