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Neon Muzeum Warsaw

Warsaw has a unique museum that exhibits neon signs from the Cold War era. Graphic designer David Hill and his photographer wife, Ilona Karwinska, are the founders of Neon Muzeum Warsaw. David and Ilona became accidental curators, and what started as a stroll through the city of Warsaw ultimately resulted in a collection of more than 300 neon signs. POM Magazine’s Giulia Weijerman spoke with David Hill to find out what is so special about Polish neon lights from this particular time period. During the interview, Giulia fell from one surprise into the next.

by Giulia Weijerman

David, why are you so interested in Polish neon lights?
When I met my then future wife Ilona in London in 2005, she invited me to visit Warsaw. Ilona is originally from Poland, but she moved to the UK as a teenager and spent most of her adult life there. She then knew as much of Poland and its design history as I did. When we walked through Warsaw’s streets and boulevards, I immediately noticed these fantastic, but rather dilapidated neon signs on the buildings. I am a professional graphic designer and typographer. It struck me that these neon signs seemed so fresh and original, with letterforms I had never seen before. I found them exciting and incredible and at the time nobody seemed to have any interest in them at all. Ilona is a portrait photographer and she had just finished a major anthropological project in Syria and the Lebanon, and wondered what she was going to do next. So rather cheekily, I suggested: ‘why don’t you go from photographing people to photographing neons?’ This ultimately led us from photographic documentation, to preservation and restoration of these historical neon signs. We now have more than 300 neons,  the first and largest such collection in Europe.

So you were the first ones to recognise that these actually are important pieces of art?
We would love to say that we immediately recognised the inherent cultural value of these neons. But it was initially just a graphic design project, during which we discovered a lot of unusual typography and designs which eventually led to the publication of a book and an exhibition. That is what opened flood gates for us. People began contacting us, asking us: ‘would you like to have these signs?’ We also noticed that many of the signs were being taken down by workers and thrown into skips or lorries. We were horrified that these neon signs, that had been on the buildings since the 1950s, were being taken down and destroyed so thoughtlessly. We always asked the workers if we could have them. Of course, they thought we were quite crazy, but they gave them to us anyway. So initially, the neon signs were either donations or we had saved them from destruction. It was then we started to emotionally invest in the project instead of considering it simply a transient documentation project.

What makes the neon signs in your collection so special?
What’s interesting is that they were created within strict rules and regulations established by state authorities. Graphic designers had to work within these parameters, there was no ‘carte blanche’. Despite this, the signs were so avant-garde and many were absolutely wild. It was a carefully controlled medium, which is why it is incredible that these designers created such beautiful, expressive neon signs. Each neon sign was designed for one purpose; so for one building, one product, one service or one factory. The signs were completely original letterforms and symbols that were created once, never to be used again. Until later, when the original designers had retired and the technicians were charged with making the remaining neon signs. That is when they started using the Swiss fonts. They started using, Grotesk Neue or Helvetica fonts everywhere. All these newer letter forms appeared in the late 80s, which is when the originality of the early style started to fade. The later signs don’t have the same visual or emotional impact, in my opinion.

How did you come to start a museum?
My upbringing was very much geared around collecting and documenting. It prepared me for the museum, I think. It just seemed like a natural process, collecting neon artefacts and showing them to the public in a museum. We found a space in the building that we now occupied for almost 12 years. Ilona originally said to me: ‘let’s open a pop-up exhibition for a few weeks and see what happens.’ Luckily, we were participating in the European Museum Nights Event called The Long Night Of The Museums, back in May 2012. We put an advert out and 6,000 people came to visit the museum in a single night! We were taken aback by the positive public response. We had expected negative commentary from people, since the neon signs were symbols of the communist occupation. Yet they were designed by the best graphic artists, but the initiators of the neonisation campaign were the communist authorities.

Does the museum tell us something about the history of the signs itself? Or is it mainly focused on the aesthetic?
We are big on history! We have an archive of thousands of original drawings, project packs and blueprints. In the museum we display a lot of information on text panels alongside the neon signs; information about the history, the designer and the original location of the building the neon once adorned. In the 1950s the public was restless in Eastern Europe. They wanted their freedom back and remembered life in the interwar period. The Soviets and communists were very concerned they were losing control. Some genius must have stood up during a conference in Moscow and suggested- let’s neonise, to make the cities look like they did in the interwar period. Early on we were concerned that the public would perceive our exhibition as a big statement about communism, which it certainly isn’t. Over the years, we’ve managed to carefully strip away the political connotations. We wanted people to focus on the design and aesthetic. It is amazing that a society that was so restrictive and controlled, created such beautiful images in neon.

Do you only collect signs from the Cold War era?
We are specifically interested in the designs from the time period running from 1955-’56 to the end of the regime in 1989. It was initiated by the communist authorities, it was a state project and it was run by an internal trade body. These are not commercial neon lights and they were not advertisements as such. They were socialist messages. They were symbols to ‘inform, educate and amuse’. The state refused to allow competition and in Poland there was just a single company handling all the neon sign production. We discovered that other countries in the Eastern Bloc behind the iron curtain, were also engaged in their own neonisation propaganda campaigns. So there was a vernacular style in Poland, Hungary had a style, and the former Czechoslovakia had its own style of neons.

What do you think the museum will look like in 5 or 10 years?
Well, much bigger! We are currently exhibiting and have fully restored, about 125 neon signs. But in our storage we have hundreds of neon signs just waiting to shine. Some of them are quite large in size. We have for example, both the largest and the oldest neon sign from the former Eastern Bloc. It was made during Stalin’s life who, famously hated Western neon advertising. Why on earth the authorities would build a neon globe of 5 meters in diameter and place it in the heart of Warsaw in 1950, is beyond us. We have the original in our collection and we would love to present it as the centre piece of our exhibition, since it represents the genesis of the neonisation campaign. We currently have about 500-600 m2 of space but we would like to double that. Next year, we hope to move the museum to a new building, located closer to the centre of Warsaw. People visiting us now, are determined to come and see us. We don’t have many accidental walk-ins. Visitors have ventured all the way across the city to find us. The Neon Muzeum is on the eastern side of Warsaw, across the Vistula river, and a fairly long journey across the river to find us. Despite attracting more than 100,000 people per year, by moving to the centre of Warsaw we hope to attract even more visitors.

Do you have a favourite neon sign?
The neon signs are like children to us, we love them equally. But secretly I do have two favourites. One is a large blue circle with an electric red word ‘Mydlła’, meaning Soaps, and to the lower right the word ‘Farby’, which means paints. This is my favourite because people are always so surprised that it was made for such a mundane set of products, soap and paint. When they see this neon, they immediately think it’s a sign for a jazz café or a cocktail bar, it just looks so spectacular. My other favourite neon displays the word ‘Syrena’ in dazzling bright blue. I simply love it because the typography is just stunning. It was found in Elbląg on the Baltic coast, in an abandoned movie theatre that was due to be demolished. The workmen of the demolition company went into the building to check if there was anyone left. All they found were pieces of a neon sign that once adorned the building. The real estate developer offered not only to donate it to us but also to completely renovate it. It was such an unusual and generous act that we had a special lighting up ceremony in the museum, for this neon.

Are there new exhibitions planned for the near future?
We recently won a grant to create a pioneering new exhibition highlighting the work of the many women neon designers of Warsaw – we have called it, Women Designers of Light. Despite the fact that the neon sign companies employed thousands of women tube benders at the time in the late 50s and early 60s, the neon designers tended to be men. Later on however, many talented women began designing neons. On November 21 we opened this fascinating and original exhibition. Going forward, it will remain part of the Neon Muzeum’s permanent exhibition.

Susanna Inglada

Spanish artist Susanna Inglada has been in The Netherlands for many years. She lives with her young son in Amsterdam and exhibits her work all over the world. Susanna creates large figurative drawings that she transforms into three-dimensional sculptures. They seem to float in an exhibition space, radiating a dark undercurrent. In an interview Susanna talks about the undercurrent and its underlying sources of inspiration.

by Anna Geven

You use realism and symbolism in your works. You like to play with the dimensions of your work too. Why do you use so many aspects?
When I make a work, I always think about the narrative. It might be based on personal experience or what’s happening in our society. All research and all my emotions I transform directly into a work. If I make detailed sketches first, I will lose that first energy of all these emotions, thoughts and ideas. Until recently the characters in my work were dressed in clothes that represented their role in society. I showed a work in Paris in which the characters are naked. They have strings of braided hair all around them. The work is inspired by motherhood and my childhood memory of my grandmother. It was custom in her village that women always had long hair until they married. After they were married, they cut their hair short and so did my grandmother. She kept her hair in a large braid. To me the braid is a symbol of losing her freedom, it symbolizes vulnerability. I tried to use this idea in the installation called The Fit. In this work the braid has a double meaning because it also resembles an umbilical cord. The naked characters interact with each other, and it is not clear whether they enjoy the interaction or whether it’s a struggle.

What is the role of the spectator in your work?
It is important that my installations surround the spectator by attracting and raising questions. The main characters activate the work by confronting the viewer so that the viewer becomes the protagonist.

You studied at various art schools, but you also studied performing arts in Barcelona to become an actor. Do you use your experience as an actor in your artwork?
I brought theatre back into my work, in the way I use space and in the gestures and expressions of the characters I draw. Every time I have an exhibition, I consider it a stage where I put up my props and place the actors. I am using the space as an opportunity to show new work. Sometimes I create something especially for that space.

My impression is that there is anger in some of your works. Is anger a source of inspiration for you?
The trigger to make a work comes from something in our society which I don’t understand, and which creates emotions which fill me with an obsessive urge to research and find answers. Before I went to Rome to study there, the newspapers wrote about the rape of a young woman in Spain and how this case was handled in court. In Rome I saw these beautiful sculptures made by Bernini like The Rape of Proserpina, and Apollo & Daphne. Wonderful sculptures with beautiful images about rape. I was shocked how women were depicted in these sculptures, all this romanticism. I decided to make an installation showing big hands, like the hands created by Bernini in the sculpture, The Rape of Proserpina. I took these hands and blew them up. They became monstrous hands and also a bit deformed in order to take away their power.

Are you pointing in your work to the ones responsible for the harm done?
I don’t think I am pointing at people, I try to show a universal story. In my work I never put a specific face on the characters. I like to keep them open, so that they become universal. The problems I am talking about are not specific for one place, but they are all around. I don’t expect spectators to change or act. I like it when they start asking questions about certain topics I am pointing out in my work. I want to confront them with issues we are currently dealing with; issues we don’t pay enough attention to.

Are there other sources of inspiration that feed your creating process?
I discovered that using new crafts is inspiring. It makes me step out of my comfort zone and suddenly something new happens. Now I am trying to translate my work into ceramics, textile and animation. Working with animation is interesting. Normally I work with fragments of drawings with narratives interacting with each other. But working with animation is different because you have to work with time frames and a screen. Working with textile means working with needles and sewing. It offers new possibilities.

You have lived in The Netherlands for a while now. Did Dutch culture inspire you in your work?
Being in The Netherlands made me aware that I come from a different culture. It gave me a view on Spain from a distance and I started to create work that was inspired by this reflection. The art scene in The Netherlands inspired me, I met a lot of artists and was offered interesting commissions. Of course, local issues influenced my work. I think if I wasn’t in The Netherlands, I was not making the work I create now.

What is your upcoming project?
This summer I will show a big sculpture in Drenthe in the biennale, Into Nature. I created it specifically for this location and it was inspired by the history of the location and its folk stories. I have a solo show coming up in Spain, in Tarragona. And I am preparing an exhibition with Gallery Maurits van de Laar in The Hague. Next year, in 2024, I am doing a couple of art-residencies. One in Germany and one in Morocco. So, a busy schedule with super interesting projects.

Inge Aanstoot – Small Change, Little Changes

Dutch painter Inge Aanstoot, has been very busy over the last two years. For the Rotterdam Museum, in 2020, she made a mural for the exhibition, Lions on the Coolsingel. In 2020 she also worked under the name, Marie Pop, with photographer Anique Weve. Marie Pop work was on display this summer at the ART Rotterdam fair.

At the end of July, Inge opened an exhibition of 15 paintings at the Amsterdam gallery, Vriend van Bavink. The paintings are large and small and in typical Inge style, expressive, figurative and symbolic. In this series, Inge investigates both well-known and unknown key figures in history: kings, emperors, scientists, inventors, male and female. These people made a difference in the past and they all look you right in the face. Inge is not shy to appear in her own paintings. In this series, you will also see her in some of her works. In Small Change, Little Changes, she wears a pink dress she seems to have borrowed from the French queen, Marie Antoinette. It is the icing on the cake, a painting full of symbolism and reflection. Usually, birds and flowers are not easy to paint without the risk of reducing them to decoration or symbolic elements. Not with Inge. In Temperance Is Wickedness V: Headspace, you feel as if you are in a jungle, enshrouded by flower arrangements. In The Avian Reptilian Complex, forty birds form a stilled image in which every detail is captured. However, when looking at the painting you feel an urge to say to those birds: “Oh please sit still so Mrs. Aanstoot can start painting you quietly.”

Until September 4th, in the Vriend van Bavink gallery, Geldersekade 34, Amsterdam.

It’s Art. Not Chemistry!

An interview with Dutch painter, Inge Aanstoot, quickly turns into a maelstrom of associations that, in a split second, leaves you far away from your question. Thoughts meander endlessly, and before you know it – and with great pleasure – it is three hours later. Your questions still have not been addressed, let alone answered. Anyone who knows Inge’s paintings will not be surprised. Her work has been described as unbridled associations, of which she gradually becomes the conductor. Together with Thierry Reniers, Inge looks back on her development as a painter and talks about the challenges in the upcoming six years.

by Thierry Reniers

Inge, how did you experience the period after your graduation?
At art school I didn’t learn anything about what comes to you as an artist. That’s quite alright. For my first solo exhibition at the Vonkel gallery, in The Hague, I already had work lined up. I wasn’t pushed at all at the time. That changed when I was asked whether I had work available for such and such art shows. Fortunately, deadlines work well for me and I can work all through the night. But working three days a week in a drugstore doesn’t leave much space in your mind to take the next important steps. Every aspiring painter faces this issue of course, but it’s great that I can fully concentrate on my art work now. Frustrations about the process can result in very good results. The painting, ‘The Young Artist’ for example, is such an explosion of frustration, and is about the struggle that every artist goes through. That made it a very atypical work, a key work actually.

Inge Aanstoot-The Young Artist (2014)

Can you tell us more about your key works?
For a long time ‘Fever Pitch’ was a key work, although it was created very differently. After a period in which I had a lot of time to try things out, I was asked to create a work for an exposition in Rotterdam, in TENT. That gave me a positive boost. Looking back, I notice that my key works are created every time something crucial changed in my life. ‘Caught In the Act’ was created when I got more and more involved with artists’ initiatives, and studio complexes. There was hassle about my work between two galleries. The painting is partly about my own positioning. Over the past six years I have learned to tell authorities like museum directors and gallery owners what I think and how I would like things to be.

Inge Aanstoot-Caught in the act (2012)
Inge Aanstoot-Caught in the act (2012)

How does your work reflect upon your personal development?
‘Verhalenvertellers’ (2010), ‘Land’s End’ (2009) of ‘Pomegranates’ (2009) are full of associations, and I can tell what each element means, or why it is where it is. ‘Gamma Delta’ (2015) and ‘Sabi’ (2015) are, more than is usual for my work, empty paintings. I now allow myself to paint them emptier. I no longer have to put everything I see or think, in one painting. I feel it is no longer necessary that everything in a painting focusses on the same theme. I realise that everything I put on canvas can be seen as a statement. But, I don’t feel the obligation to explain everything. It’s art, not chemistry. It’s a bit like not hearing the end of a story at a party. That story will be thrilling forever. In a similar way, I want my work to have a thrilling relationship with my thoughts. I don’t want to be merely the illustrator of my ideas. That’s why I am not a politically engaged artist. Of course I have opinions on politics, but I don’t think it interesting to use them one-on-one on canvas. For me, painting is simply not the medium for this.

Have you become freer in the way you paint?
I think less about the exact how and why I put certain elements on canvas. Sometimes it is just too comprehensive. In ‘On Rites’ there is a dead seal puppy with worms coming out of its head. An image coming straight from a documentary by David Attenborough. Every night before bedtime I watch documentaries, because I think it’s interesting to see what fascinating things nature brings. Such a seal head combined with crawling worms and starfishes is a very aesthetic image. I think it is shocking that people would rather shop than explore nature. They take their children to the Zoo but don’t read the information on the signs, and hardly look at the animals. The painting deals with all these things. I have become freer in my substantive choices. But I am also more aware of the reactions to my work. With my first paintings, everybody asked why I painted with so many drips. I didn’t do it consciously. It is because of the many layers of thinned acrylic that I used. The same goes for all of these white people who resembled corpses. If only one person has this association, I don’t take any notice of it. But if many have this association, it is a reason for me to wonder why I portrayed people like that. It shouldn’t become a trick. A friend once said jokingly: “Inge’s work? That’s a bunch of plants, dead animals and a woman with one finger in her vagina.” Indeed, I deliberately show certain elements frequently in my work. But I want every new work to add something new.

Are there any other remarkable changes in your work?
The faces shown in my work have become more realistic. My work has also become more balanced, I think, because I make clearer choices. I hesitate less to nick images. Why would I think about how to portray a dead seal, when there are documentaries? As long as it fits within what I want to communicate and within my way of working, I think I can integrate the work of other artists in my paintings. ‘Caught In the Act’ shows, my version of ‘Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy’ by David Hockney, in the background. In this work I also used the bottom of a poster by Egon Schiele and a half-crumpled drawing by Leopold Rabus. My work is about how images and information drown us and influence us. Why then should I feel guilty about integrating these images in my paintings? The funny thing is that these liberties make me add less to my paintings. Half of ‘Gamma Delta’ is a mint green wall and that is actually more interesting than a busy background, as I intended to do. Technical consideration also plays a larger role. In ‘Sabi’ for example, I chose to leave the foot of the person at the right, unfinished. And yet, hardly anybody noticed that.

Inge Aanstoot- Gamma Delta (2015)

How do you think your work will continue to develop?
There is more abstraction, although I think I will never only paint spots and stripes. The road is clear to experiment with different formats, to focus on different media like sculpture or performing arts. Painting comes naturally to me. I could paint plants, animals and women until the end of days. And sometimes a man. I am not the type that puts a few wooden boxes in a meadow with a text. But I see myself combining paintings and spatial art. Everything that feels comfortable, can restrict you. If I noticed that painting feels too comfortable, I would like to expand.

Photography: Jasmijn Schrofer

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