Powerful Sasnal exhibition aims to create ‘dialogue and discussion’ that will draw people together
Regarded as one of Poland’s greatest living painters, an exhibition featuring the works of Wilhelm Sasnal opens tomorrow (Thursday) at Warsaw’s POLIN Museum.
Titled ‘Such A Landscape’, the exhibition features around 60 works created by the artist between 1999 and 2021, and represent his first major exhibition in Poland since 2007.
Complex and challenging, the theme goes beyond spotlighting Polish-Jewish relations to explore feelings of hatred, animosity and ‘otherness’ set against the larger picture of the Polish landscape.
Clearly, however, the Holocaust remains central in this with the Tarnow-born Sasnal explaining his interest in this dark chapter of history as an almost sub-conscious need to be explored and addressed on a personal level.
“I think it comes from some unconscious feeling of absence that is difficult to define,” he says. “Or maybe because of the guilt I bear, being a Pole brought up in the Christian tradition. I certainly didn’t become interested in Jewish topics out of sentiment, more out of my own needs.”
Visually stunning, the exhibition opens with a striking, large-scale work depicting barrack-style buildings surrounded by rich expanses of rolling green fields. Above, wispy clouds appear in a powder blue sky.
When Sasnal’s father first saw the work in the artist’s studio, he enquired why his son was painting Auschwitz. “But I’m not,” came the answer. In actuality, he was painting an abandoned state-owned farm.
As an anecdote, it serves to underline one of the primary purposes of the exhibition, that being to challenge the way in which we fundamentally perceive the Polish landscape.
Adam Szymczyk, the curator of the exhibition, expands on this recurrent, underlying narrative: “We have a certain vision of the Polish landscape,” he tells TFN. “In the 19th century our painters addressed this genre and it was their way of expressing their ‘Polishness’ at a time that the country was partitioned and didn’t exist on the map.
“Landscape art turned into a locus through which they projected their idea of a nation. The locations were not named, instead they became more of a general representation of Poland and of the nation’s soul.
“Simultaneously, though, these became ultra-Polish artworks, and could be seen as almost threatening to groups such as Jews or Gypsies through the parochial attitudes they could foster.”
Often basing his paintings on pre-existing sources such as fragments of poems, film stills, photographs, newspaper quotes or other artworks, Sasnal follows a path that looks deeply into our established and pre-existing images of the Holocaust.
In this, Claude Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah features with Sasnal choosing to focus on the experiences of the Polish translator, a woman he felt carried the weight of the Polish nation on her shoulders whilst serving as the pawn between Lanzmann and the perpetrators that he interviewed.
“Her situation was exceptionally difficult,” says Sasnal. “She was trying to gloss over both the anti-Semitism present in the witness accounts and sarcasm – and even hostility – of Lanzmann’s questions. The awkward position in which she has been placed is recorded on tape as she sighs, hesitates and uses euphemisms.”
Often, Sasnal is prone to obliterating his own work. One painting features a classically attired Highlander as found in the Tatra Mountains, only with the three dogs at his feet spray-painted out.
Another, a portrait of Hitler, has been aggressively scrawled over. Describing the experience of painting the Nazi leader as “intense” and “unique”, Sasnal later “crossed out” his work before adding a beam symbolic of Oskar Hansen’s Birkenau monument.
Throughout, one is left struck by the artist’s versatility. We see a gently touching depiction of Herschel Grynszpan (the Jewish 17-year-old whose assassination of Germany’s ambassador in Paris was used as the pretext for Kristallnacht) as well as more abstract works that, for example, present Poland as appearing next door to Israel on a map.
“Although there are similarities,” says Szymczyk, “there is no one particular Sasnal style.”
Frequently, there are startling parallels we can immediately draw between scenes so commonly sighted in rural Poland and the grim pictures we have seen taken at the height of the Holocaust: in one painting, burning crops could just as easily resemble a human pyre, whilst in another, a heap of cabbages can be mistaken for either piles of bodies or horded Nazi loot.
Throughout, there is a depth of thought that prompts viewers to pause and reflect and this is perhaps never truer than when considering the last work to be painted.
Titled First of January, and completed this year, it presents a pair of paintings that resulted after Sasnal and his partner coincidentally found themselves passing the gates of Birkenau after driving back from a New Year’s Eve party.
In the first, Sasnal’s wife gazes right ahead, whilst in the second, she turns her head to glimpse the concentration camp’s entrance; in the wing mirror, stands a dense Polish forest and a thick, verdant meadow. The duality of the scene is haunting and typical of an exhibition that approaches its subject with a practiced sensitivity.
But despite the location of the exhibition, that being the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, this should be seen as more than a Holocaust-inspired exhibition. Rather, it is a wider statement against xenophobia and an appeal for human understanding.
As such, there are paintings that question the West’s appropriation of African culture, not to mention those that generate conversation around the stereotypes born from the Julian Tuwim poem Murzynek Bambo.
In these difficult times, it is an exhibition that Szymczyk hopes will create dialogue and discussion that will draw people together instead of dividing them yet further.
“This is not a political intervention,” he says. “Ultimately, we want to spark debate by opening gates, not by closing them.”