Hasior’s Dreck

Eastern Europe, Modernism, Uncategorized

 

This essay is a transcript of a talk given in Zakopane in late 2014. It will appear in a book edited by Kola Sliwińska.

 

Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Władysław Hasior, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) Coll: Muzeum Śląski (Katowice)

Junk and trash seemed to rise to the surface of Polish culture in the mid 1950s. Of course, in the aftermath of the catastrophe of the Second World War, the country itself was full of debris. Ruins and bombsites still considerably outnumbered new buildings in Warsaw and elsewhere; and because the Stalinist economy did little to provide new clothes and furnishings for a needy population, the Poles had become adept at the arts of repair and bricolage. Nevertheless, a new kind of trash that one might even be called modern appeared in the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL) during the so called Thaw, the turbulent period of reforms which followed Stalin’s death in 1953. New trash is, of course, close to being an oxymoron. But this trash was new in one important sense: it was the chosen medium of a number of young modernist film makers and artists. After the Stalin years (1949-53) – during which culture had been required to deliver ringing messages of progress to society – artists embraced the opportunity to explore hitherto closed-off zones including those filled with junk.

Władysław Hasior was one of these junk artists. His earliest works embraced the particular kind of primitivism which is offered by the decrepit. Works like his portrait of the Peruvian singer, ‘Yma Súmac’ (1961) and ‘Srebrna maska’ (Silver Mask, 1961) were assembled from broken and exhausted material which would otherwise have been thrown away as trash. Writing in Ty i Ja in 1966, Hanna Kirchner pointed out the value that Hasior found in waste:

 

Hasior is a poet and philosopher of things, exploring the dialectic of their existence in the human world. He forms altars, statues, monuments and shrines with objects that seem to coexist with man, forming his natural surroundings because they are worn and poor. They provide [Hasior’s] masks, and allusions. His compositions are most often anthropomorphic figures wound from wire, moulded with soap, arranged from panes of various kinds of glass. Sometimes a great body is suggested by bread, an anachronistic machine or a cast-iron stove …[1]

 

Others interested in animating trash at the time included the young filmmaker Roman Polański. Before the director achieved international success with his feature films, he made a number of shorts including ‘Gdy spadają anioły’ (When Angels Fall, 1959) and ‘Lampa’ (Lamp, 1959). ‘When Angels Fall’ begins with the journey of an old woman to work along the streets of an empty city, populated with little more than dustbins. She is an attendant in a public toilet, one which is highly ornamented in the Victorian manner. Her clients – drunks and workers – seem to trigger thoughts of her life and loves, presented in flashback. Memory, the anticipation of death, human waste and other themes beloved by Samuel Beckett run through this 21 minute film. In ‘Lampa’, a single scene movie by Polański, a man repairs dolls in his workshop. The camera records his crafts, panning over the china faces and limbs of the figures in his care – all bathed in the warm light of oil lamps. Then time seems to jump forward: the man is older and the workshop is lit by electric light. When the workshop is shuttered at the end of the day, it catches alight (or perhaps is incinerated by the menacing anthropomorphised electrical meter). The dolls are destroyed. Polański’s film seems particularly bleak: there is no catharsis, no redemption.

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 - coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Z. Beksiński, Dno, photocollage, c. 1958/9 – coll: National Museum in Wroclaw

Artist Zdzisław Beksiński’s early photographs seem to share much in common with Hasior’s art and Polański’s early films. His portraits and nude studies appear distorted or torn, as if the negative has been through some kind of trauma or the portrait has offended its owner. Pathological and even misogynistic images, Beksiński’s subjects in these early works appear defaced as if by some violent act. Other works were organised in sets with three parts, often featuring amateur photographs, reproductions from magazines and text books, damaged negatives and pages from entries into dictionaries. ‘Dno’ (‘Bottom’, 1958/59) for instance, features a nineteenth century studio portrait of young girls and close-up of a tombstone: in between, a column from the page of a dictionary are reproduced marking a descent from ślub (wedding) to śmierć (death).

Trash found its way into Polish theatre at around the same time. Poet Miron Białoszewski established Teatr na Tarczyńskiej (Tarczyński Street Theatre) in his apartment in Warsaw in 1955. Drawing upon a circle of friends in the artistic avant-garde, Białoszewski with Ludmiła Murawska, painter and actress, and Ludwik Hering formed a small company, ‘Teatr Osobny Trzech Osób’ (The Individual Theatre of Three Individuals). They performed fragments from the classical cannon including works by Cyprian Norwid, Juliusz Słowacki, Adam Mickiewicz and William Shakespeare as well as Białoszewski’s own plays. Finding a grotesque character in everyday life, his works drew upon the language and experience of Warsaw’s streets finding absurd proportions in the most ordinary things. What is significant, for this talk at least, is the way in which he dressed his dilapidated flat, with Białoszewski and Murawska producing crude costumes and backdrops by painting cardboard. It also furnished the props. If the drama called for a door or a dog, one was ‘on hand’. A chair could be a character.

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

Miron Białoszewski and Ludmiła Murawska in Songs for Chair and Voice, Osobny Theatre, Warsaw 1958 (Photo: Marek Piasecki, 1957 in the collection of Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej)

This sensibility also shadows artist, dramatist and writer Tadeusz Kantor’s 1961 concept of ‘realność najniższej rangi’ (‘the reality of the lowest rank’), a term which he used to describe the power of lowly objects to stimulate the imagination: ‘being, death, love … exist somewhere in a poor corner, a parcel, a stick, a bicycle wheel … bereft of pathos or illusion.’ In his words, ‘refuse, cast-off ends and odds’ were conscripted throughout his career into productions, performances and happenings.[2]

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

Cover of April 1963 issue of Ty i Ja magazine designed by Roman Cieślewicz

The taste for junk seemed to spread widely in the early 1960s, even becoming something like a popular fashion. This is evident on the pages of Ty i Ja (You and I), a popular magazine launched in 1959 by the Ligia Kobiet (Women’s League), an offshoot of the official Polish United Worker’s Party. Early on, however, its editorship was taken over a group of young writers and designers who shared a taste for the démodé. Printers’ devices, illustrations from nineteenth century school books and studies of natural history were used to ornament the pages of the magazine. In appearance, the magazine was a kind of printed collage in which out-of-date images were folded into the present – interviews with film stars and directors, short stories and reports of new fashions in London and Paris. Its covers – often created by Franciszek Starowieyski and Roman Cieślewicz – were a play on the romantic possibilities of the magazine’s title, but often tended to the eccentric and even absurd.  This graphic style found its way into numerous publications in the period, not least Andrzej Banach’s 1964 monograph on Hasior.[3]

 

Starocie

What significance might we attach to this taste for broken and out-of-date images and things? And what lay behind their appeal? One fact is evident: these things originated in another time. Not antiques or saintly relics, these out-of-date things might be best described by the Polish word ‘starocie’ (lit. ‘old things’). Their primary value lay in the very fact of their survival. This was as much the product of rhetoric as it was a matter of fact: the party-state had gone to great lengths to announce that the Poles were now living in a new epoch. In this way, many of the objects which feature in Hasior’s art were doubly lost.

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

Home of Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz from Ty i Ja, Feb. 1963

During the 1960s starocie in PRL was domesticated, literally. There was a marked fashion amongst poets and painters, film makers and academics – the intelligentsia – to furnish their homes with scuffed Biedermeier chairs, collections of vernacular spoons, earthenware jars, dingy seventeenth century portraits and other minor survivors from the past. We know this because each month in the 1960s Ty i Ja featured their homes in a regularly feature called ‘My Home is My Hobby’. Other regular features guiding this taste for the old included the series ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’ (‘Collection Not Trash Can’). The aesthetic was so consistent that it is barely worth singling out examples. But perhaps the home of artists Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz – best known for their contemporary style murals in socmodernist shops and other public buildings – warrants special mention. Their ‘Anty-mieszkanie’ (Anti-apartment) on Lekarska Street in Warsaw, organized around an enormous decorated sleigh from the late nineteenth century, traded the entire apparatus of conventional domestic living for the aestheticism of starocie.[4]

Homes filled with starocie might be what Russian philosopher Mikhail Epshtein, writing in the 1980s, called ‘lyric museums’:

 

What kind of museum is it where ordinary Things are on display, and what right does it have to draw attention to them? … every Thing, no matter how insignificant, can possess a private or lyrical value. The latter value depends on the degree to which a given Thing has been lived and thought through … The purpose of this museum is expose the endlessly diverse and profound significance of Things in human life, their rich figurative and conceptual meaning which is not at all reducible to the utilitarian function.[5]

 

This order of home is a place for the care of things in the final stages of their lives before they are cast into the dump (recall ‘Kolekcja nie śmietnik’). Writing in the Soviet Union in its last years, Epshtein identified curatorial attitudes in the making of these homes. The significance of this care for venerable things is all the more pronounced because the USSR had announced a preference for the future over the past. In fact, this was one of the major ideological planks of the Thaw throughout the Eastern Bloc. One of the signs of destalinisation was the pronounced and loudly-voiced avowal of science and technology. The ‘Leninist way’ – which Stalin, according to Khrushchev and his followers, had abandoned – meant reengaging with the rational and international values of science, technology and engineering. New prospects for Soviet-style socialism were being opened up by computing, abstract art and modern movement architecture. Yet inside intelligentsia homes – quite literally – one might enter into a world fashioned with the material remnants of the past. Like Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of Paul Klee’s figure of Angelus Novus, these citizens of the PRL surely looked on these fragments of history as the remains after an explosion.

There is perhaps little new in this taste (and that is perhaps the point). Nationalist intellectuals had turned their homes into collections of mementoes of the nation in the nineteenth century when the Poles lived as unwilling subjects of foreign empires.[6] But the dominant mood of intellectual life in Poland in the 1950s and 1960s was not national romanticism or even decisive anti-communism. Perhaps if we look for one common thread, we will discover it in the low-key but pervasive existentialism of the age. This was found, for instance, in a marked preference for things as found rather than as they might or even ought to be according to the certitudes of Marxism-Leninism; and in attention to social realities, even when irrational and absurd. It is hardly surprising that the plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco were performed on Polish stages during the Thaw to enthusiastic audiences. Beckett’s ‘Fin de partie’ – a play in which two characters live in dustbins – was staged in Kraków’s Theatre 38 in November 1957, just six months after its premier in London and then on Polish television in Stanislaw Hebanowski’s production in 1958.

Ionesco’s ‘Les Chaises’ was performed at the Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw in August 1957; a play which ends with an invisible crowd or audience on stage. This is Ionesco’s direction:

 

For the first time human noises seem to be coming from the invisible crowd: snatches of laughter, whisperings, a ‘Ssh!’ or two, little sarcastic coughs; these noises grow louder and louder, only to start fading away again. All this should last just long enough for the real and visible public to go away with this ending firmly fixed in their minds. The curtain falls very slowly.[7]

 

The theatre audience watches and listens mutely to an absent presence, the other audience ‘on’ the stage. Things – the chairs – mark both presence and absence. They are starocie. As such, they need to be seen in terms which had been set by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book The Human Condition. Of things like starocie, she wrote: ‘it is this durability which gives the things of the world their relative independence from men who produced and use them, their “objectivity” which makes them withstand, “stand against,” and endure, at least for a time, the voracious needs and wants of their living makers and users. From this viewpoint, the things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that…men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table.’[8] Viewed in this way things, starocie marked continuity after catastrophe (of war and of Stalinism) and, conversely, the lack of such ordinary things was the cause of disconnection.

 

Dreck

Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Władysław Hasior, The Widow, 1957

Despite its existential appeal, starocie does not adequately describe either the form or the distressed condition of many of the works by Hasior, Beksiński and other junk artists of the late 1950s. Marked by abjection and destruction as well as the uncanny effects of animism and anthropomorphism, they offered little solace. A work like Hasior’s ‘The Widow’ (1957), a figure whose roughly-hewn face might well have been fashioned from the butcher’s cleaver which forms her torso, suggests anguish in both theme and appearance.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, sculpture, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

Władysław Hasior, Grandmother, 1960 Muzeum sztuki, Lodz.

His ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother’, 1960) has the appearance of a human body which has turned into fat or even shit. Perhaps ‘dreck’ – a word which I have adopted from the writings of Tomasz Kitlinski – might be a better term than starocie to describe the turn to junk.[9] A Yiddish / German word meaning filth or crap, dreck can signify rotting matter but also kitsch. Products can be dreck, as for Berthold Brecht, for instance, were American theatre.[10] And for Hasior and other Polish artists in the Thaw who sculpted or filmed garbage, wounded and broken bodies too could be dreck. Here was an an aesthetic which testified to the dark subject of unheroic and brutal death.

There may be a generational perspective at work here. These artists were teenagers during the Second World War. Hasior was born in 1928; Beksiński in 1929; Polański in 1933; and Cieślewicz in 1930. (That this was – seemingly without exception – a male aesthetic might also give pause for thought too). Whilst Polański’s biography – as a Jewish child in the Kraków Ghetto and then in hiding – is exceptional, the experience of witnessing human corpses and dead animals in the streets during the war was not. Violence constituted a material fact of this generation’s youthful existence. Polański’s film ‘Lampa’ in which dolls are caught in a total inflagration is evidently an allegory for the Second World War and perhaps even the ovens in which the bodies of so many victims of the extermination camps were tossed. This said, I don’t think that it is appropriate to use art to diagnose individual traumas. Art is not a symptom. But it may be productive to reflect on the ways in which the dreck aesthetic of the late 1950s and 1960s might constitute a ‘return of the repressed’ within the public realm of Polish culture.

During the Stalin years, there had been a knot of factors which had restrained clear recall of the traumas of the Second World War. For instance, Socialist Realism – a Soviet import to Poland in the late 1940s – put a tight representational frame around the representation of violent death. In the Soviet Union – where the rules and rituals of the cult had already been drawn up – death had been attached to utopia. Literary scholar Katerina Clark writes ‘In the Stalinist novel, death and token mutilation have a predominately mythic function. When the hero sheds his individualistic self at the moment of passage, he dies an individual and is reborn as a function of the collective.’[11] Numerous canvases in which Soviet heroes die on Nazi gallows or fighting on the battlefield played their part in embroidering the myth of the Great Patriotic War. In the PRL, however, the representation of death was treated rather more coyly. There are relatively few images of violent death during these years, perhaps because the new regime put such a premium on the joyful project of constructing socialism.[12]

At the same time, political imperatives put the representation of the recent past under considerable ideological pressure. Events and even individual memories were reframed to match a historical script that had been written in the Kremlin. Individuals were forced – with threats or coercion – to retract testimonies which they had already given. Eyewitnesses – like the members of Polish Red Cross who had examined the corpses of Polish offices murdered at Katyn – had to retract their wartime affidavits; and violence against the Jews by Poles was placed sous rature by an ideology which trumpeted brotherhood. But things were different in 1956. During the waves of destalinisation which rocked the Bloc in this year, the representation of the recent past was one of the fields in which the party-state offered concessions in order to hold onto power. For example, during the Stalin years the authorities kept a firm grip on the representation of the Warsaw Uprising. The Home Army soldiers who had risen against the German occupation of the city in the summer of 1944 were described as fascists and reactionaries in official accounts of the conflict. But after 1956, films, new books, monuments and memorials marked changed attitudes to what was now called the ‘heroes of the Warsaw’.[13] In fact, the new regime led by Władysław Gomułka sought to tap popular feeling by announcing – also in 1956 – a competition for a new public memorial dedicated to all those who fought for the city including the Home Army. This announcement was amplified by great swells of public opinion. Hundreds of letters were sent to newspapers suggesting not only the ideal form of the memorial (often a triumphal arch or a funeral barrow) and the most suitable site (usually one connected with fighting in the city), but offering reflection about what should be remembered – the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Ghetto uprising of 1943 as well as the events of the summer of 1944. In April 1958 nearly 200 remarkably diverse designs were exhibited to 100,000 visitors in the Zachęta Gallery. Art critic Aleksander Wojciechowski said this ‘is not an “artistic” competition but a national plebiscite’. So great was public interest that discussion of the competition threaten to spin out of Party control. And so, as Olga Grzesiuk Olszewska has shown, a smaller closed competition was announced in 1959, which specifying that the monument be sited in Plac Teatralny.[14] The winning design was a massive figure of a sword-wielding siren, the traditional emblem of the city, sculpted by Marian Konieczny, a young artist from Cracow who had studied at the Repin Institute in Leningrad.

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Marian Konieczny, Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw, installed in Plac Teatralny Warsaw in 1961. Collection: NAC

Monumental and symbolic, this design was insensitive to the acute historical injuries that the ‘Memorial to the Heroes of Warsaw’ had been originally proposed to heal.

Perhaps the broken bodies, filth and decay of the dreck aesthetic needs to be seen in the context of the short-lived freedoms of the Thaw. Death, carefully managed and allegorized during the Stalin years, was rehabilitated and it could now be represented in its most abject forms, in the decay of the flesh and irrational violence. Artworks which looked on this order of death were created, or in some cases brought out of hiding. The Ogólnopolska Wystawa Młodej Plastyki (The All Poland Exhibition of Young Artists), known to art historians as the Arsenal Exhibition in Warsaw in 1955 is usually understood as a return of modernism in Polish art: it was also an opportunity to explore prohibited themes, not least death. For instance, Waldemar Cwenarski’s canvas ‘Pożoga’ (Conflagration, 1951) – which depicts a horse stamping people beneath its flailing hooves – was exhibited there for the first time; as was Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949), a Jewish pietà.[15]

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

Izaak Celnikier, ‘Getta’ (Ghetto, 1949)

When six years later Hasior had his first one man show in the Salon Współczesności in the Foyer of the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, one critic called found ‘distant echoes of the Arsenal exhumations’ there.[16]

There were many representations of dreck deaths in this period. Perhaps the most emphatic, insistent example was to be found in the cinema the final scene of Wajda’s ‘Ashes and Diamonds’ (1958). Dramatising the final hours and acts of a doomed former Home Army soldier, now in the anti-communist underground, the film is ideologically compliant. But it contains a kind of excessive image of his death. After carrying out his assassination mission despite increasing doubts, Maciek – the Home Army fighter – or as the Stalinists might have put it a ‘fascist assassin’ – is shot and dies slowly alone, digging himself into a rubbish heap. Even in the Thaw, he remains an enemy, but now a pitiable one as a young adherent to the old and doomed ideology of capitalism. But Wajda’s treatment goes far beyond what required politically, even in the turbulent years of the Thaw: this pointlessness of this death is emphasized by the setting, the trash heap.

Viewed in terms of dreck aesthetics, Hasior’s early works seem to take on far darker associations than the later characterization of his work as a kind of PRL pop artist might suggest. Typically, his works combine broken and discarded materials to form bodies which, missing limbs or lacking faces, remain marked by their incompleteness. They seem to give human form to the words of Bruno Schulz, the Jewish novelist who was murdered by a Nazi officer in Drohobycz in 1942. In his 1934 ‘Traktat o manekinach (‘Treatise on TailorsDummies’), the arrogant father of the narrator sets out a vision for ‘a second generation of creatures who stand in open opposition to the present era’: ‘… we shall not demand on either durability or solidity of workmanship: our creations will be temporary, to serve a single occasion. If they are are human beings, we shall give them only one profile, one hand, one leg, the one limb needed to perform their role.’[17] After the Second World War and Stalinism, Hasior’s generation – avid readers (and sometimes illustrators[18]) of Schulz’s works when they were republished in 1957 – perhaps felt as if they were living with the consequences of this vision.[19] Providing none of the solace of starocie, Schulz’s writing also provided uncanny images of matter: ‘There is no dead matter …’ says the father. ‘Its lifelessness is merely an outward show, behind which, unknown forms of life lie hidden’.[20] This was not a claim about the soul but a perspective on the most abject forms of bare life. Some of Hasior’s early works seem approach this condition in which humanity itself is on the edge of slipping into matter. Hasior’s ‘Prababka’ (Grandmother, 1960), a figure slumped in a broken wheelchair, seems more like excreta than a woman. [see figure 7]

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

Władysław Hasior, ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Muzeum Narodowe Poznan

In the early 1960s many of Hasior’s works – made with Dreck and representing broken or incomplete bodies – were given themes and titles which suggest lofty themes of transcendence and sacrifice such as ‘Anioł Stróż’ (‘Guardian Angel’, 1964) and ‘Fragment bohatera’ (‘Fragment of a Hero, 1963). Moreover, he increasingly turned to Christian archetypes to lend meaning to his assemblies of junk. Do these titles dip his art in irony? Maybe not. It is probably more accurate to suggest that they pointed to his ambition. Here, perhaps, Hasior departed from his dreck colleagues. So many of the Thaw works which have been discussed in this talk were marked by a disavowal of monumentalism, whether in terms of scale and setting, or the pathos which public art of this kind was and often still is required to deliver. Monuments – as the Heroes of Warsaw competition made clear – had to promise some kind of redemption (just as Socialist Realist representations of death were required to infer rebirth). It seems clear that after the brutality of the Second World War and the hollow triumphalism of the Stalin years, dreck aesthetics provided the means for some kind of reflection on experience without making an accommodation with any kind of historical (or even eschatological) script. However, with such titles, these works point out the direction in which Hasior was to travel as a monument maker after the Thaw. His public monuments from Pomnika Rozstrzelanym Partyzantom (Monument to the Shot Partisans, 1964) at Kuźnice to the Rzeźba Płonące Ptaki (‘Flaming Birds Sculptures’, 1978-80) were created as part of the larger project of managing history in the PRL.[21] Dedicated ‘To those, who fought for the Polishness and freedom of the Pomeranian lands’, Hasior’s roughly-cast birds mounted on rickety cannon carriages at Koszalin was an attempt to monumentalise dreck.

 

[1] Hanna Kirchner, Hasior’ in Ty i Ja (January 1966), p. 10.

[2] Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Reality of the Lowest Rank’ in A Journey Through Other Spaces. Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. Michal Kobialka (Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1993) 30.

[3] Andrzej Banach, Hasior (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1964).

[4] Felicja Unichowska, ‘Moje hobby to mieszkanie’ in Ty i Ja (February 1963) 15-18. On Gabriel and Hanna Rechowicz see Klara Czerniewska, Gaber i Pani Fantazja. Surrealizm Stosowany (Warsaw: 40,000 Malarzy, 2014).

[5] Mikhail Epshtein, ‘Things and Words: Towards a Lyrical Museum’ (1988) in Alla Efimova, Lev Manovich, eds., Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) 153.

[6] See Beth Holmgren, Rewriting Capitalism. Literature and the Market in Late Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland (Pittsburg, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998) 167-77.

[7] Eugène Ionesco, Plays: The lesson. The chairs. The bald prima donna. Jacques; or, Obedience (London: Calder, 1958) 84.

[8] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) 137.

[9] See Tomasz Kitliński, ‘A Brief History of Cleanliness and Abjection in Poland’ in Dream? Democracy! A Philosophy of Horror, Hope & Hospitality in Art & Action (Lublin: Maria Curie-Sklodowska Press, 2014) 189-195.

[10] Cited in Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in paradise: German refugee artists and intellectuals in America, from the 1930s to the present (New York: Viking Press, 1983) 161.

[11] Katerina Clark, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) 178.

[12] German corpses appear casually and cruelly accompanied by a dog in Wojciech Fangor’s ‘Wyzwolenie’ (Liberation, 1950) or as cold war martyrs in his ‘Matka Koreanka (‘Korean Mother’, 1951). But these are rare appearances.

[13] Made before the Thaw and released in 1956, Andrzej Wajda’s film ‘Kanal’ depicts the final hours of insurgents in the ruins of the city. The first illustrated popular book on the theme – Jan Grużewski and Stanisław Kopf’s Dni Powstania. Kronika Fotograficzna Walczącej Warszawy (Days of the Uprising. A Photographic Chronicle of Warsaw in Arms) was published by PAX in 1957.

[14] Irena Grzesiuk-Olszewska Polska Rzezba Pomnikowa w Latach 1945-1995 (Warsaw: Neriton, 1995).

[15] Celnikier’s painting raises the question of how and when the Shoah was distinguished as a distinct historical phenomenon within the culture of Polish remembrance – a question which Hasior does not help us answer.

[16] S. Ledochowski, ‘Malarstwo, rzezba, grafika. Rzezba sie nazywa’ in Nowa Kultura, nr. 12 (1961) pp.6-7 cited in Wladyslaw Hasior. Europiejski Rauschenberg? (Kraków: MOCAK, 2014) 198.

[17] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 61-2.

[18] In 1963 Roman Cieślewicz produced collages for a new edition of Schulz’s Sklepy Cynamonowe employing illustrations from zoological studies and illustrated newspapers reporting war.

[19] In 1957 the Kraków publisher Wydawnictwo Literackie, published an anthology of Schulz’s writings with the title Sklepy cynamonowe. Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą. Kometa with an introduction by Artur Sandauer.

[20] Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe / Sanatorium pod klepsydrą (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985) 60.

[21] See Marcin Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm: nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce (Warsaw: Trio 2001).

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Every Single Crash – Filip Berendt’s art

Uncategorized
Berendt2

from the ‘Every Single Crash 1’ series photography, archival print ed. 5+2AP, 100×80 cm / http://www.filipberendt.pl

This text was written to accompany Filip Berendt’s show at L’étrangère, London in 2015.

Working in Taiwan a few years ago, Filip Berendt was struck by the profusion and variety of ordinary materials on sale there. Taipei’s shops offer paper, metal foil, plastics and other other everyday materials in dizzying, even excessive, variety. He was also drawn to black, perse and green jellies made made from lychees and different grasses in Taiwan. In their diversity and unfamiliar textures and finishes, these cheap but often lustrous substances struck Berendt, an artist from Poland, as strangely vital, even ‘creepy’. He started using them in photographic experiments with colour and light that eventually developed into artworks which form three series sharing a common title, ‘Every Single Crash’ (2011-13). Combining photographs of shimmering light patterns reflecting off the surfaces of some unknown order of objects and intense monochromatic planes, the ‘Every Single Crash’ images seem to offer an invitation to a rich world of sensation. Perhaps one might sense hints of the brash artificial light and colourful signs of the streets of Taipei and the lush nature of the East Asian island in the first and second series, as well as the cooler subfusc notes of Poland where Berendt made the third set in 2013 using different resources including animal bones and aluminium. But these images eschew photography’s promise to explain the world to the viewer: instead, they present matter which refuses to stabilize into fixed forms or coherent objects.

In fact, the ‘Every Single Crash’ works present the viewer with uncertain surfaces, scales and effects. What has been recorded? How small or large are these assemblages of things? Are they things? If so, where are they? Berendt uses instant film, a once-popular format (then known by the generic trademark, Polaroid) that is still employed by studio photographers for test shots today. Instant film accentuates the colour and the contrast of the subject but lacks the overpowering detail of much digital photography. In fact, works in his third series images look particularly lossy, as if some information has been discarded in the process of making the image, or, like the electron microscope images of the ultrastructures of cells and crystals; matter beyond human perception. But these are not digital images. A product of analogue techniques, they result from a resolutely manual process. Working in the studio, Berendt creates temporary sculptures from ordinary materials, all the time checking the appearance of his assemblage in the camera. Each sculpture is fashioned for the lens. Preoccupied with managing the effects of light and colour, he searches out light reflections in the arrangement of the form. Light ricochets – or perhaps as the series’ title suggests, crashes – from one surface to another, or is absorbed in the waxy skin of some unidentified substance. The vivid colours in these photographs are not the inherent properties of materials but are the additive effects of light. Once the photograph is made, Berendt destroys the sculpture. The image is then incorporated into artworks that seem closer to paintings than anything else. The chromatic effects in the studio photographs – already overpowering – are sometimes amplified by being laid over simple geometric compositions and then set into monochromatic frames. In these ways, Berendt’s work produces in the attentive viewer the kind of retinal afterimages and auratic effects of colour contrasts which have long preoccupied artists and scientists alike.
In some works in the first ‘Every Single Crash’ series, the flat colour fields which form backgrounds for the photographs flood over the picture frame. A boundary or limit, the frame usually separates the artwork from the world. It is, according to Louis Marin, one of the ‘means by which a representation presents itself representing something’. When Berendt colours his frames in the same vivid hue as the picture plane, he reminds the viewer that the artwork is less a representation than a three-dimensional object. Like the photography of sculptures which have been carefully organized by Berendt to form an angular constellation of planes for the lens, this is another switch of dimensions.

Berendt’s engagement with form, light and colour place him outside the dominant currents of Polish art, at least in recent years. Many of the most high-profile artists who have enjoyed critical success have acted as guides to the transformation of the country since 1989, often for international audiences fascinated by the catastrophe and dreamworld of Soviet style socialism. Artists like Monika Sosnowska and Wilhem Sasnal have put a spotlight on blind spots in the historical consciousness and on the rapid transformations and commercialization of public space. Berendt, however, belongs to a different current in Polish art that has taken a much deeper interest in the formal qualities of art and their effects, not least on the operations of the eye. A line can be traced from the constructivist avant-garde of the 1920s through the experiments in visual perception made by artists like Jan Ziemski and Jerzy Rosołowicz in the 1960s known as ‘wizualizm’ to the quasi-scientific formal experiments of structural film makers associated with the Workshop of Film Form in the 1970s. Berendt’s place in this succession is perhaps not surprising: he studied in Łódź, the city that might justifiably claim to be the home of this tradition. In what was once a major centre of industry, modernist painters and constructivist artists created one of Europe’s first museums of modern art in 1930. Berendt admits a fascination with the works of one of their number; Henryk Stażewski (1894-1988), the longest lived member of the inter-war avant-garde whose paintings and reliefs rarely departed from the zone of geometric abstraction. In the 1960s Stażewski adopted the square as the basic element in his artworks. By multiplying and subtly colouring this ‘component’ on monochromatic planes (which, like Berendt, he often extended over the frame), he produced intense colour effects and the illusion of movement.
Viewed in isolation, the three ‘Every Single Crash’ series seem to have an affinity with Stażewski’s investigations into optical effects. But seen in the company of other works made by Berendt over the last decade or so, they signal an interest in something a little darker.

'Pandemic', photography, archival print on dibond ed. 6+2AP, 40×50 cm - from http://www.filipberendt.pl

‘Pandemic’, photography, archival print on dibond ed. 6+2AP, 40×50 cm – from http://www.filipberendt.pl

Earlier works include ‘Pandemic’ (2009), a series of photographic studies of mould that look like the last traces of life in a dying world, and ‘Badland’ (2010-11), a series shot in the studio in which androgynous human beings appear to be as artificial and repulsive as the fetid objects that they try to adapt as tools and clothing. Far less abject than these works, the ‘Every Single Crash’ series still have the capacity to disturb. This may have to do with the ‘creepy’ associations of some materials that first drew Berendt into the shops of Taipei, as well as the intense concentration of colour in the works.

We come to images cued to perceive them. Our experiences of colour, movement, sight, sound, smell and touch, form a kind of memory field against which we judge all images but photographs in particular. Held back from complete abstraction, Berendt’s images seem to hover on the edge of a distinctly palpable and yet unknowable world. This has much to do with the way they seem to call for and, at the same time, deny touch. We engage with the world responsively, testing our expectations against experience. Hard or dry, soft or wet? We like to touch things for the veracity and certainty that this sense provides. Philosopher Georg Hegel claimed that, of all the senses, only touch can give a sensation of spatial depth. ‘Initially,’ he writes, ‘the child only has the sense of light, though which things are made manifest to it. This mere sensation misleads the child into grasping at distant objects as if they were near at hand. However, the child learns about distances through the sense of touch. Thus it acquires a sense of visual proportion and casts which is external outside itself.’ Even when touch is not possible (or, meaningful in an immediate sense, as in the case of almost all photography), we still rely on haptic memory. Occasional notes in Berendt’s compositions seem to offer these cues of familiarity – rippling waves of light across a surface suggest cool smoothness or perhaps the grainy texture indicates sawn timber – but for the most part these images seem to confuse our sensory memory. Perhaps this is where their fascination and even their creepiness lies.