A short history of the “prohibited act”

> Anna Kołodziejczyk, Anna Stec, Michał Bieniek


The varying functions of the building at 40 Księcia Witolda Street in Wrocław over the period of the previous 100 years have always been inextricably linked with the category of the “prohibited act.”

The impressive five-winged and four-storeyed edifice was erected in 1907. Initially it housed the Central Customs Office; its austere and inelaborate architecture and its neoMannerist costume, which was considered the “national style” in Germany at that time, perfectly matched the specificity of the office. Three decades later, toward the end of the 1930s, the venue was turned into the barracks of a riot police unit as a result of an administrative reorganisation. The characteristic tower-shaped bay windows offering a wide panorama of the city were situated in rooms at the end of the wings that until recently used to be police chiefs’ offices. Resembling prison watchtowers, they triggered associations with supervision and executing the law.

The internal structure of the building comprised a suite of enfilade rooms and offices, which brought to mind the setting of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. On the one hand, they led to a number of threads revolving around the sequence: crime – trial – punishment; on the other hand, they directed our thoughts toward feelings of alienation and helplessness in the face of the bureaucratic machine.

The opening sentence of Kafka’s novel, “Someone must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong,” 11 Franz Kafka, The Trial, translated by Idris Parry, Penguin Books, 1994. ↩︎ initiates a literary journey across the surreal world of judiciary bureaucracy, permeated with a feeling of threat. It was tightly connected with the subject matter of the 13th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review, which analysed the “prohibited act” in the context of an individual being lost in a world of legal rules, regulations and provisions.

As the motto of this year’s Review, “prohibited acts” were tightly connected with the function and history of the venue. The complex used to perform administrative functions for many years; later, it belonged to an organ ensuring the correct functioning of the city, which protected the legal (and social) interests, and thus protected the society as such. The motto made it possible to use art to describe a number of issues connected with the existence and execution of the criminal code. The motif of the “prohibited act” had significant bearing in the context of the city perceived as a space where one is particularly prone to victimisation. As the population of the largest metropolises grows, so does the feeling of anonymity, which increases the risk of the occurrence of criminal acts. Research unequivocally suggests that the crime rate depends on the wealth of a society, which leads to a simple conclusion: the greater the wealth and the percentage of people living in cities, the higher the crime rate.

The motif of the “sin city” is used in art and culture as a metaphor of human decline. Let us mention here the image of a broken city in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which was afflicted by poverty, hunger, intemperance and greed. It was an image of today’s Sodom – a demonic place, a sin city on the verge of decline.

The motif of offence, which was part and parcel of this year’s Review, strongly corresponds with the history of Wrocław, tainted with the infamous episode of mass plundering right after the capitulation of the Third Reich. The year 1945, sometimes dubbed “year zero” in the Regained Territories, gave rise to a wave of individual and institutional looting. Poles, Germans and Soviets; pioneers, thieves and bandits; requisitions, robberies and murders – in May of 1945, the capital of Lower Silesia was probably the least safe city in Poland. Swells of people overflowed the territories reclaimed from the Germans, having been prompted to venture west by the tales about innumerable riches hidden in abandoned German houses.

Bolesław Drobner, the first mayor of Wrocław after the war, titled his memoirs about the first days in the captured city We Have Conquered the Polish Golden Fleece. 22 Bolesław Drobner, Zdobyliśmy polskie Złote Runo, w: Trudne dni. Wrocław 1945 r. we wspomnieniach pionierów, t. 1, Wrocław 1960. ↩︎ However, the true character of this “treasure” was reflected more accurately by the famous mathematician from Wrocław Hugo Steinhaus, who described the post-war city as “the largest crowd of paupers on the largest heap of ruins in Europe.” 33 Hugo Steinhaus, Wspomnienia i zapiski,  Oficyna Wydawnicza ATUT, Wrocław 2002. ↩︎

The atmosphere of those days was exquisitely captured in the 1964 film The Law and the Fist, directed by Jerzy Hoffman and Edward Skórzewski. The main character Andrzej Kenig (Gustaw Holoubek), a former concentration camp prisoner, is assigned the task of protecting the property in the Regained Territories against theft. He quickly realises that his colleagues, who have been entrusted with the same task, are in fact looters ready to do just about anything to gain a fortune.

Described by reviewers as “a Polish western,” the film is a study of peculiar social callousness to evil; it shows an attitude that rules out any initiative, in keeping with the principle “I don’t steal or murder, but I won’t interfere in other people’s business.” 44 Źródło: http://www. filmpolski.pl/fp/index. php?film=121952 ↩︎

Identified with the eponymous “prohibited act,” evil has always lain in artists’ centre of interest. Misdeeds, crimes, demons and moral decline of the society – these subjects have tempted artists of all disciplines since time immemorial.

Classical painters provided us with innumerable depictions of the motif of crime. A murder scene that for some reason appealed to a large number of artists was the beheading of Holofernes by Judith. It was painted by the greatest masters: Michelangelo Caravaggio, Annibale Carracci, Peter Paul Rubens, or Artemisia Gentileschi, who created one of the most dramatic depictions of the scene (she was one of few women painters who painted a murder scene in the wake of her own traumatic experience of a rape and tortures that she suffered during a trial). The murder of Abel by Cain was also captured on canvas by some of the greatest painters: Titian, Tintoretto, or Marc Chagall. Depicting the rottenness of the society and human propensity for evil was what appealed to Flemish artist Jan Steen, whose paintings showed the everyday reality in Holland at the time when he lived there – adultery, drunkenness and violent quarrels.

However, it was probably Hieronymus Bosch who depicted evil in the most appealing and persuasive way. In just one work, he managed to include all the seven deadly sins of the Western world, which testify to the peculiarity of human nature and all its worst traits. His portrayal is so expressive, fleshy and intriguing that viewers have been unable to tear their eyes from it for hundreds of years. This masterpiece will forever raise the question of why evil is so hard to renounce, so tempting and appealing that it gains the upper hand over humans, both in life and in art. How to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the fact that it was created by an ideal and infinitely good God was a problem pondered by Leibnitz, among others. He claimed that (metaphysical) evil is an element that is indispensable for the creation of entities, and that is the reason why God allows it to exist. In the subsequent historical periods people believed that evil is independent from God – it is a human creation that results from our lack of morality. A breakthrough in the perception of evil occurred in modernity, with the phenomenon of positivising evil. Henceforth error was perceived as a necessary element of cognitive processes, and ugliness was endowed with an aesthetic quality. These changes impacted on the perception of evil in the centuries to come, which would often manifest itself in literature, film and the visual arts as an appealing, attractive or even beautiful quality.

In the 19th century, ugliness was singled out as a separate aesthetic category, synonymous with evil. It became the driving force behind eliminating platitudes and clichés in art. As Lars von Trier claims, there are more images in evil, which inspires a much larger number of visual solutions.

In regard to the contemporary visual arts, the motto “prohibited acts” suggests threads connected not only with the traditionally understood perception of crime and offence as inspiration for artists, but also triggers associations with prohibited practices in art, such as forgery, fabrication and hoax. Throughout the history of art, there have been numerous examples of acts that were illegal, or bordering on the illegal. Many of them concerned forgery. One of the most ingenious art forgers was Han Van Meegeren – a Dutch painter whose aversion to art critics and experts prompted him to mock them by making perfect copies of paintings by the Dutch Masters, in particular Jan Vermeer. Van Meegeren’s works, such as The Supper at Emmaus or Christ with the Adulteress, were purchased for the largest art collections in the world as genuine Vermeers, resulting in his earnings of over $50 million. Although he later confessed to making more than a dozen copies of the Dutch Masters, it was only after his death when advanced methods for verifying the authenticity of artworks unambiguously confirmed that they were fakes.

“Prohibited acts” in art do not always refer to the immoral or socially disapproved. In the newest art in particular, that which is not allowed is often included in the repertoire of contemporary artists. Intentional actions bordering on illegality have become part of artists’ manifestoes, or even a field of art in its own right. Such endeavours enjoy considerable renown in today’s art world, often being identified with subversive strategies or the so-called intelligent resistance art. One of the most obvious associations between art and illegal actions is graffiti, or, to put it more broadly, street art, alongside other actions motivated by the desire to provoke – culture jamming, adbusting and subvertising.

Contemporary art is one of those fields where practices such as “appropriation”, “transformation” and even “destruction” have become particularly popular in recent years, alongside all other rebellious and deceptive actions that distort the authoritative social order. Elaborate hoaxes have become a thing in itself, as it was the case with Israeli artist Roee Rosen, who created and promoted a fictitious Belgian artist named Justin Frank. Rosen not only created an entire collection of works that had supposedly been made by Frank – he also invented a number of art critics who had purportedly investigated Frank’s oeuvre.

Creating fiction for the needs of art has always been used by famous artists to reinforce their image. Joseph Beuys, for example, included in his biography events that had probably never occurred – he alleged that as a German pilot he crashed his plane in Crimea, where he was found by the Tatars, who miraculously cured his broken body by wrapping it in animal fat and felt. This story was supposed to explain his use of these two substances in his later practice as an artist.

The same Beuys used to find similarities in the ways artists and criminals work – in his opinion, genuine and unhindered creativity was only possible once laws, regulations and social norms had been rejected. After all, contemporary psychiatry looks for connections between criminality and creativity when treating mental disorders. Scientifically speaking, there are similar processes guiding the work of criminals and artists – from an impulse that triggers action to completing their “oeuvre.”

Little wonder, then, that the visual arts have been used since time immemorial to depict a panorama of extreme human emotions, from rage and fury accompanying crime passionnel, a hidden desire for revenge to a coldly calculated crime, which could be perceived as a perfect plan – a masterpiece of art.


Anna Kołodziejczyk is an artist and curator. She studied at the Faculty of Painting and Sculpture at Wrocław and Cracow Academies of Fine Art. Since 2005, she has worked at the Department of Painting of the Faculty of Painting and Sculpture of the E. Geppert Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław. She is a member of the ART TRANSPARENT Foundation for  Contemporary Art. Since 2008, she has been the curator of the SURVIVAL Art Review. She has received many awards, including the 2010 WARTO award of Gazeta Wyborcza daily in the field of the visual arts.

Anna Stec has graduated in Art History from Wrocław University. She has been the recipient of a scholarship at Universidad de León. She has been cooperating with the ART TRANSPARENT Foundation for Contemporary Art since 2011, curating exhibitions at the Mieszkanie Gepperta Gallery and co-organising the SURVIVAL Art Review. She has had her articles on art published in Monogram and Format magazines and on Obieg.pl portal, among others.

Michał Bieniek is President of the Board of the ART TRANSPARENT Foundation for Contemporary Art, the creator and Chief Curator of the SURVIVAL Art Review, and the instigator and supervisor of the Mieszkanie Gepperta Gallery in Wrocław. He studied at the Faculty of Painting and Sculpture of the E. Geppert Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław. Since 2010, he has been studying Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal  College of Art in London. Since 2014, he has been working as the Visual Arts Curator of Wrocław 2016 European Capital of Culture. He has received numerous scholarships and awards.


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