454 years of Polish art

Waldemar Baraniewski

There is no art which would be indifferent to its own time. The artist is always deeply fixed in reality. As is – of course – his art. But this manifests itself in various ways, usually not directly, sometimes discreetly, ironically, perversely, paradoxically. Sometimes, it is through denial, a programmed escapism. The strategies are diverse, but there is one reality and the artist refers to it.

We wanted to have an exhibition that would be a historical exhibition, that is one which tries to relate to history, to the resurrectionist and independence narrative dominating today in Poland. At the same time, it would not be an anniversary, thematic, critical or controversial exhibition. We asked ourselves about the picture of alternative history. What would happen if the painters from the Pendzle group (and those who wrote these words) did not live today, but in following generations, one after another. We added up the number of years we lived and they exceeded four centuries – 454 years. Quite a piece of the time of Polish art. If this were true, the narrative would begin in 1564, the times of Sigismund Augustus and the Polish Renaissance. But this is also the year of death of Michelangelo, bringing to Poland the Jesuit order and a great clash of Islam and Christianity, the battle for Malta and the defeat of the Ottoman army. One of the reasons for the conflict was the embargo on the sale of war weaponry to Turkey. 454 years ago, and yet it sounds familiar. But of course it is just playing alternative story that, as one knows, does not repeat itself and teaches nothing. But it can be assumed that the artists creating the Pendzle group living today, in a sense, fill this temporary space of 454 years. Whenever we are together, it is as if we were summing up these years and shared experiences.

“Pendzle” is a social group, a kind of discussion group, bringing together artists from different generations and formations, who are linked by the need for painting and intellectual reflection on the image. Each of them conducts a constant discourse with the image in a slightly different way. In the circle of their own artistic practice and towards contemporary visual culture. The image concepts they implement are different, but they grow from one area. From the tradition of modernity and modernism, with their categories and concepts of works. Also from their relation to reality, their time, and history.

The “Pendzle” group is not a program group. What links the artists who form it is a certain type of intelligence, sense of humor and mutual curiosity. You can not translate these values into something specific in the image, or build a program manifest from them. But if they were divided by decidedly different views on art, even on social grounds their cooperation would be very difficult. They are undoubtedly linked by faith in painting as timely art today, at the beginning of the 21st century. They believe in painting as the effect of the transposition of sense values, creating an organized visual formula that does not use an anachronistic, realistic model of representing reality. The group has been connected through friendly and amiable relations for many years. It is made up of leading Warsaw painters: Tomasz Ciecierski, Ryszard Grzyb, Robert Maciejuk, Paweł Susid and Włodzimierz Jan Zakrzewski. One of its co-creators was Tomasz Tatarczyk, who died in 2010. And several years ago the group was complementd not with a painter, but a sculptor – Krzysztof M. Bednarski.

The concept of the exhibition was simple. The artists show two of their latest works, assuming that in them, in their actuality, in relation to reality, lies this element of historicity and reflection on our time. And thus it was not meant to be an exhibition of historical paintings, but a historical exhibition, giving grounds for reflection on various strategies of experiencing our historicity.

Włodzimierz Zakrzewski combines his work on paintings with the work of memory, with working over images. He is fascinated by places marked by memory, the concrete and its timeless existence. Like places of battles, which are still like the same places. Only that something has shifted in time. The places of battles that can be depicted in a conceptual, almost abstract graphic sign. Characteristic of every battle, because the changing patterns of fighting armies, their movements and maneuvers changed. “Three battles (Grunwald, Kircholm Bzura)” were created in the earlier painting “Three Polish Battles” (2008), creating a multi-layered palimpsest of history, vision, memory and struggle with matter. The painting “Kalisz 1940” is composed of four parts and is the closest to the situation and setting of the present exhibition. These are spectral views of Kalisz streets, processed from the city’s color photographs published on the internet, made in 1940 by a soldier of the Wehrmacht. The history of many looks, many eyes, hands and borrowings. But also a discourse about a kind of indifference of vision that is beyond time.

Paweł Susid paints “both someone else’s and his own words and sentences worth depicting.” His paintings are close to reality, they comment, criticize, but above all, they poetize. We have a list of human virtues written on a large, multi-panel painting: honesty, understanding, goodness, gentleness, love, kindness, tenderness, innocence, naivety. Black rows of words are filled with colorful, slanted stripes: yellow, green, blue, white, red, creating geometrical layouts of forms, variable, illogical. As if there was a lack of order in this world of kindness and gentleness. Or maybe it is intended, good anarchy, freedom of love and gentleness. The second picture is a banner, a sad reflection on the present: “Religions in the avant-garde of hatred”.

Ryszard Grzyb explores the layers of cultural imaginings, myths and literature. Primitive and archaic paintings. In the latest works there is a motif of a pictogram, the simplest picture of a human figure. All you need is a few strokes and a circle, and there is a man. The canvas “When our great ones die, a part of us dies with them.” is a posthumous tribute to A. R. Penck, (Ralf Winkler – 1939-2017), an artist-dissident artist from the GDR, who became one of the co-creators of the “wild painting” of the eighties, formation close to the artistic attitude of Grzyb. Penck created in his painting the pictographic formula of the human figure, which he termed “Standarts”. Primitive, silhouetted figures like rock carvings accurately diagnosed human condition in oppressive reality. In Grzyb’s paintings (“Conscientious rubbing with the edge against the lakes of hearts”), we find a similar vision of primitive, “Dionysian” rituals. What are they today? How, when and why does the suppressed “Dionysian” element of human nature seize the “lakes of hearts”?

Tomasz Ciecierski is concerned with the analysis of artistic status and painting as an artistic practice. He conducts a permanent discourse on painting and with painting. His paintings are like a treatise on painting developed in cycles, in which basic questions are raised about the boundaries of the painting, frame, shadow, patch, relations between reality and its depiction. Ciecierski’s painting is like outside time, but it’s only a figment. In these autotelic procedures, there is a great deal of work to solidify the expressive culture of fine art in the present time and place. In one of the interviews in the crucial year of 1989, the artist said: “Staying in Poland is a decision that certainly does not make it easier to pursue a career.” Let us add that this decision is fully aware and consistent. You might say, it is historical.

Robert Maciejuk is a devourer of images, a phagocyte who is able to absorb and process everything – signs, symbols, fairy-tale pictures, illustrations, paintings. He is interested in randomness and infirmity. He analyzes banal and artistic failure. He is an active explorer of all visuality, on many levels. The starting point for the “Ceremonies” series was an engraving from the eighteenth-century English work “Religions, rites and ceremonies of all nations”. Maciejuk analyzed the structure of the representation by examining the relations between the rational form of architecture and the representations of mysterious rituals. He used the cubist stylistics as the most suitable for analytical procedure to find the answer to the question “How can one observe spiritual phenomena?” The question asked by Maciejuk is vivid and valid, here and now.

The year 2018 is the hundredth anniversary of regaining independence. But it is also the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx. If one were to remain in the sphere of dates and their symbolism, Marx was born on May 5, and it was supposed to be May 3. “Hail May, May Third… Hail May’s dawn.” Krzysztof Bednarski from his diploma thesis (“Total Portrait of Karl Marx”, 1978) transforms the image of the head of the creator of scientific socialism. The head is the center of human consciousness, hence the great, historical significance of the simple invention of the French Revolution – the guillotine. Bednarski, as the critics point out, uses decapitation as a metaphor for the processes of deconstruction, decomposition – form and idea. His Marx in a wheelchair (“200 years from 1918”) is part of the discourse about history and awareness of the place where we are.

454 years of Polish art – rewritten for outstanding personalities and exciting works.

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