Andrzej Wróblewski at the Van Abbemuseum (Exhib. Review)

Andrzej Wróblewski, To the Margin and Back, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, April 10 – August 15, 2010.

It is difficult to discuss Polish art after 1945 without taking into account the specific political context of the time. This is especially true about Andrzej Wróblewski’s work in Poland which is discussed, primarily, from a historical perspective of the war and its brutalities, or within the specific conditions of the post-war period in Poland. The exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the first international museum solo show, was an attempt at representing a new approach to Wróblewski’s work.

Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Dance [Taniec]'. Woodcut, 7.2 x 4.7 cm, 1946. Property of the artist’s family.Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Sky Above the Mountains [Niebo nad górami]'. Oil on canvas, 90 x 120 cm, 1948. Collection of Starmach Gallery.Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Juggler [?ongler]'. Woodcut, 14.6 x 15.2 cm, 1946. Private collection.

In her curatorial introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the show’s curator Magdalena Zió?kowska writes: “To the Margin and Back can be seen against the backdrop of Wróblewski’s journeys in Western Europe in 1947 and Yugoslavia in 1956 which shaped his artistic idiom, his early repatriation from Vilnius to Cracow with his mother and brother, various train travels to the countryside and trips to the Tatra mountains, a place where he was eventually found dead.”(Magdalena Zió?kowska, “To the Margin and Back”, in Andrzej Wróblewski. To the Margin and Back, ed. Magdalena Zió?kowska (Eindhoven, Van Abbemuseum, 2010), 12.)

Exhibition sign for Andrzej Wróblewski, To the Margin and Back, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, April 10 – August 15, 2010.On the cover of the publication that accompanies the exhibition, we find a black and white photograph, quite unexpected in the context of Wróblewski’s work. The image, a fragment of sky with clouds, looks like a photograph typically taken through the window of an airplane. The photo is surprising not only because it is not one of Wróblewski’s paintings but also because of its intangible calmness and subtlety. (When I think about Wróblewski, what comes to mind are images from the Executions series, which present the scenes from the street shootings that took place in Polish cities in the Second World War).

Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Untitled [Bez tytu?u]', sketch for 'Surrealist Execution'. Watercolour on paper, pencil, 31.2 x 23.2 cm, 1948?1949. Property of the artist’s family.Born in 1927, Andrzej Wróblewski was twelve when World War II began. In 1941, during a raid by the Gestapo, he saw his father die of a heart attack. In fact, the trauma of war seems to be a recurring motif in his work. Although Wróblewski gained most recognition as a painter, he graduated not only from the Art Academy but also from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków where he earned a degree in History of Art. He was also a prolific art critic. Wróblewski’s output is particularly impressive given that he was only thirty when he was found dead in the Tatra Mountains, where he had probably suffered an epileptic seizure during a solitary stroll.

According to Zió?kowska, the artist’s formula of “direct realism” lets us perceive his paintings as “images in a state of crisis”.(Zió?kowska.)  Although I agree with the curator here, it is crucial to stress that crisis implies a groundbreaking moment, an unstable time in which a decisive change is immanent. Traces of such a transformation can be seen not only in his Blue Chauffeur (1948), but also in his later thematic resumptions of the “driver”, such as Chauffeur and Passengers (1957), or the gouache Chauffeur with a Winter Landscape (1957). The first two paintings were displayed in the exhibition, while the latter can be found in the catalogue.  The transformations can also be found in works where the human figure is the subject matter: Organic Portrait (1957), or even in the recurring subject of the Chairing in which a seated human body is depicted as a place undergoing transformation.

Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Blue Chauffeur [Szofer niebieski]'. Oil on canvas, 89 x 120 cm, 1948. Private collection.Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Chauffeur and Passengers [Szofer i pasa?erowie]'. Ink on paper, 29.6 x 42 cm, 1957. Private collection.Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Organic Portrait [Portret organiczny]'. Oil on canvas, 70 x 44 cm, 1957. Collection of Elzbieta and Jerzy Stelmach.

In a general sense hesitation and doubt seem to be hallmarks of Wróblewski’s art. However Wróblewski also painted brutal images of war and somewhere between his poignant memories and the irresistible new reality, a kind of ambiguity emerges. This ambiguity emerges at its sharpest and most meaningful in a two-sided painting entitled Execution VI / Execution with a Gestapo Man (1949) and Biological Abstraction (1948) which represents, as if in one work, the artist’s interest both in abstraction and in figurative art.

Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Execution VI / Execution with a Gestapo Man [Rozstrzelanie VI / Rozstrzelanie z gestapowcem]'. Oil on canvas, 118 x 89 cm, 1949. Private collection.Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Biological Abstraction [Abstrakcja biologiczna]'. Oil on canvas, 120 x 90 cm, private collection. 1948. On the reverse of 'Execution VI / Execution with a Gestapo Man'. Photo by Peter Cox.

Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Green Skull [Czaszka zielona]'. Gouache on paper, 41.5 x 28.8 cm, 1956. Collection of Elzbieta and Jerzy Stelmach.Painting About the Horrors of War shows a simple pile of fish, some only torsos without heads. Painted in 1948, after the five-year period of Nazi occupation, this work can be viewed as a kind of vignette, suggesting the frailty and futility of human life. However, what is striking about the scene, are its vivid greens and reds, powerful colors inside the broken bodies of fish. Thus, possibly suggesting a double meaning, where the image of death becomes the manifestation of life. A similar approach can be seen in his later works, such as Green Skull (1956), in which the painting shows a human cranium resembling an anatomical study, emerging from a torso, colorful and poignantly suggestive of a living body.

Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Man’s Head on Red Background [Głowa m??czyzny na czerwonym tle]'. Oil on canvas, 66 x 59 cm, 1957 Muzeum Okr?gowe, Gorzów Wielkopolski. Andrzej Wróblewski, 'The Lovers [Zakochani]'. Oil on canvas, 170 x 100 cm, 1956, Muzeum Sztuki, ?ód?. Photo by Peter Cox.Color is significant in Wróblewski’s works and it seems designed to translate the artist’s personal and artistic hesitations into a pictorial record. The color blue, so typical of the Executions series where it marks the dismembered and cold bodies of those murdered, appears also in the composition, Child with Dead Mother (1949). Here we can see only a part of the blue, rigid and distant body, of a woman, and a joyless boy in colorful clothes desperately trying to hold her. In his painting, The Lovers (1956) a dark-blue man hides behind the colorful and light woman figure. She seems to walk in the direction of the viewer, looking straight ahead with a leg raised in a step forward and a hand in a welcoming gesture. The man hiding behind her stands in the shade, slightly bent, seemingly cringing, and seemingly, lacking the courage to follow, he grabs her hand as if to stop her.

The exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum reveals a kind of artistic and personal war waged by Wróblewski. During his short life he struggled with his own body, the painful and brutal memories of the past, the disillusions of everyday life with all of its restrictions. Wroblewski’s works both echo his memories of war and carry the traces of his post-war reality, creating a natural context for their reading. The curator of the artist’s first solo museum exhibition succeeded in presenting his work in such a way that its context was made accessible to the international public, as well as suggesting a different, more distanced perspective, in which the focus is placed on the works themselves as expressions of Wroblewski’s various and often contrasting artistic personalities.

Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Installation of an Element of the Great Furnace (Nowa Huta)' [Monta? Wielkiego Pieca (Nowa Huta)]. Ink on paper, 41.8 x 29.6 cm, 1953. Private collection.  Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Abstract Composition / Abstraction-Man [Kompozycja abstrakcyjna / Abstrakcja-m??czyzna]'. Watercolour on paper, 22.6 x 22.6 cm, 1948?1949. Property of the artist’s family. Andrzej Wróblewski, 'Heart and a Rose [Serce i ró?a]'. Monotype, 42 x 30 cm, 1957. Collection of Starmach Gallery.