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Andrzej Wróblewski at David Zwirner Gallery

The giant of Polish art gets his first solo show in the UK

 

We may be experiencing a renaissance of post-WW2 Polish art in the United Kingdom.  All of a sudden, two legends of Polish art – until now almost unknown outside of Poland – have been presented to the UK for the first time, in solo exhibitions. In winter, I wrote about the excellent Alina Szpocznikow retrospective at the Hepworth Wakefield. Now I am reviewing this exhibition of Andrzej Wróblewski’s work at the David Zwirner Gallery in London. This sudden interest is arguably related to the inclusion of both artists in the latest, 14th edition of the Documenta, in Kassel, curated by Adam Szymczyk. This important exhibition has definitely drawn international attention to the two artists.

 

[Group Scene no.607] 1954 Ink on paper 29.7 x 42 cm Private Collection © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation

[Group Scene no.607]1954
Ink on paper
29.7 x 42 cm
Private Collection
© Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation

 

The focus of these solo presentations is quite different.  Szpocznikow’s show was a retrospective, presenting some of her most significant works.  Wróblewski’s exhibition focuses primarily on his works on paper, and presents only three large canvases.  The works on paper include ink-drawings and watercolours, but works with gouaches are the most numerous.  They come largely from private collections in Poland, and the Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. Wróblewski was a prolific artist. He painted over 200 canvases, and 800 works on paper. Gouache was arguably Wróblewski’s favourite technique, and working on paper was for him the same as working in a sketchbook: he would record scenes from everyday life, ideas, and artistic inspirations.  This technique also gave him great freedom to experiment with form and colour[1].

 

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl.  Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018.
© Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl. 
Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

 

The David Zwirner Gallery is a commercial entity, yet only a few of the works on display are for sale.  It would be reasonable to conclude that this exhibition is an attempt to raise Wróblewski’s profile as an artist internationally, and that selling works – at least for now – is a secondary concern.  Luc Tuymans, who is represented by David Zwirner, is already a great international champion of Wróblewski and his work, and owns several of his paintings[2]. He considers Wróblewski’s work to have significantly influenced his own painting practice. Perhaps his connection to the gallery was one of the incentives to organise this exhibition? There have been other attempts designed to promote Wróblewski internationally in the last few years. The Recto / Verso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (2015)[3] was the first exhibition of Wróblewski’s work to be curated by a non-Polish scholar – Éric de Chassey. The narrative of Recto / Verso was based on Wróblewski’s double-sided works, which are usually exhibited showing only one side of the painted canvas at a time. David Zwirner also allows the viewer to walk around ‘Chauffeur (Blue Chauffeur)’ – one of the major canvases,  and see both complementing sides.

 

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl.  Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018.
© Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl. 
Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

 

Wróblewski is known mostly for his compositions with the figure of a chauffeur. The chauffeur stands with his back turned to the viewer, gazing into the distance.  The painting is realised using concise forms and bold colours. The chauffeur is present in two of his oil paintings, a well as in a few gouaches and some of his watercolors. Zwirner presents both oil paintings from 1948/49 and 1956. ‘Chauffeur (Blue Chauffeur)’ & ‘Liquidation of the Ghetto’ (on the reverse) (1948/1949) is presented in the centre of the first room of the exhibition. Wróblewski painted this work after the war, when he was only twenty-one. The blue chauffeur is seen from behind, as if we were the passengers of his bus. He is driving into the unknown, towards a white, uninviting horizon. The meaning of the work is enhanced by the reverse side entitled ‘Liquidation of the Ghetto’, showing a group of people in a moment of desperate defence, including a mother with a dead child, and trampled bodies. The feeling of being trapped is underlined by a feeling of “compression”, as the figures are “trapped” between the bars of the canvas stretchers. According to the newest interpretation of the double-sidedness of Wróblewski’s works, this was not purely the result of his economic situation, but a considered, deliberate decision[4].

The second (1956) chauffeur painting on canvas is in the last room of the gallery. This time the view in front of the driver is more optimistic.  The composition presents the front window of the bus, divided by a narrow strip into two uneven parts – an abstract, colorful composition[5]. Perhaps Wróblewski was hoping for a better future, especially during political thaw of 1956? The work on paper, ‘Chauffeur no. 1144’, which although undated is exhibited in the same room, seems to be a study for the larger painting. The composition is the same, only the colours were changed, from white, red and blue to a broader palette of colours.

 

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl.  Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018.
© Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl. 
Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

 

The usage of white and red might also refer to the colour of Polish flag, as it does in ‘Woman in White [Polish Mother]’. This painting is displayed downstairs, and is an example of gouache on a large scale. An elderly, overweight woman in a white petticoat and red skirt sits on the wall, leaning back on her hands. An upraised head and closed eyelids give her face a look of contemplation and tranquility. She is just an ordinary old women tired of life and work, but she sits proudly upright, not ashamed of her overly large shape, like a modern day Venus of of Willendorf.

Another series which brought Wróblewski posthumous fame is Executions, comprising of eight paintings from 1949, dealing with the terror of WW2. Wróblewski experienced the horrors of war as a teenager. His experiences translated into this series of breathtaking paintings showing people at the very edge of life, on the border of death, in front of the wall, in front of the firing squad. There are a few sketches for this series in this exhibition, including a large gouache and ink on paper measuring over meter in width.

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl. Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018.
© Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl. 
Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl. Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

Installation view, Andrzej Wróblewski, David Zwirner, London, 2018.
© Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation. www.andrzejwróblewski.pl. 
Photo by Jack Hems. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

In 1949 Wróblewski produced Mother with Dead Child / Construction (on reverse), which is exhibited in the centre of the upper gallery. The mother is painted seated, while the child climbs on her and covers her neck. In the child’s body, one can see a dark hole made by a bullet. The painting is limited to a few colours: tones of green, grey, yellow and blue. The child is painted in blue, the colour Wróblewski often used to symbolise death. Mother with Dead Child is also double sided, however the curators decided not to exhibit the reverse. Perhaps Construction[6], more an exercise than a finished painting, showing two wooden boards on grey background, was not interesting enough. The exhibition also presents many other smaller studies of figures, some portraits, figurative compositions and abstractions.

 

[Group Scene no.238] Undated Watercolour and gouache on paper 15 x 21 cm Private collection © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation

[Group Scene no.238]Undated
Watercolour and gouache on paper
15 x 21 cm
Private collection
© Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation

 

The exhibition at David Zwirner although modest gives a good overview of Wróblewski’s rich and heterogeneous practice.  The exhibited work presents a good sample of his numerous experiments with different techniques, scales and topics, as well as exhibiting two of Wróblewski’s most well known works, the two ‘chauffeur’ paintings. Similar themes, for example works depicting Zampanòs, portraits or figurative compositions  are exhibited together, giving a good insight into Wróblewski’s various interests. The amount of presented work was just enough to fill in two floors of the gallery in a concise and elegant way. Personally, I was hoping to see more of his paintings on canvas, but the Gallery made their choices based on what was available to them.  It would be great to see a major retrospective of Wróblewski’s work here in the UK, like the Alina Szapocznikow exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield, carried out by a public museum. The first show of Wróblewski’s work outside of Poland was fifty years after his death, in 2010 at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven. This was followed by an exhibition in the Museo Reina Sofia, in Madrid in 2015. This exhibition at the David Zwirner is only the third time that Wróblewski’s work has been exhibited in a solo show outside of Poland; Let’s hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next one.

 

Written by Roma Piotrowska

Edited by Aleksander Cellmer

 


ANDRZEJ WRÓBLEWSKI

The David Zwirner Gallery: March 16 – April 14

First UK solo exhibition of paintings, prints and works on paper by Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski

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[1]http://www.format-net.pl/pl/item/183-andrzej-wroblewski-prace-na-papierze-w-galerii-starmach.html#.Wr351ZPwbVo

[2] http://culture.pl/pl/tworca/andrzej-wroblewski

[3] This exhibition later travelled to Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.

[4] https://artmuseum.pl/en/doc/andrzej-wroblewski-recto-verso-3

[5] Wróblewski often mixed figurative representation with geometric abstraction, which became his trademark.

[6] http://wroblewski.artmuseum.pl/en/praca/92