Wróblewski or the Unwillingness to Reconcile Contradictions: An Interview with Éric de Chassey
#photography & visual arts
small, Wróblewski or the Unwillingness to Reconcile Contradictions: An Interview with Éric de Chassey, Éric de Chassey and "Recto / Verso" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, photo: Bartosz Stawiarski, eric_de_chassey_kurator_wystawy_fot._b.jpg
Agnieszka Sural talks to Éric de Chassey, the French curator of the Andrzej Wróblewski exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
Agnieszka Sural: We're meeting at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, where two years ago you organized an international conference and seminar on Polish painter Andrzej Wróblewski. The result of these events is the Recto/Verso exhibition. When did you first see Wróblewski's oeuvre? Do you remember that moment?
Éric de Chassey: I don’t remember the first painting that I saw. I know I saw one painting in a group show about Polish art that was happening in France in the late nineties. But I know it through a catalogue not because I remember seeing this painting.
I became interested in his work and in Polish art of the postwar period in general because I was working on an exhibition about art from 1945 to 1949 which took place in Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and the exhibition was called “Starting from Scratch”. I wanted to include in the exhibition for the first time works not only from New York and Paris. So I wanted to see some Polish art. I was speaking with Joanna Mytkowska who at that time was in Paris and she said I should go to Warsaw, where there was an exhibition of an important painter whose name I didn’t know at the time: Andrzej Wróblewski.
I came to the National Museum, it was in 2007, and I was absolutely struck by what I saw. I think that, for someone who has no idea of the context, just seeing one painting by Wróblewski might not be enough. You might have the feeling that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he was completely contradictory, that nothing is solved in the painting. It’s only when you see a group of paintings that you realize that it’s meant to be that way, that it’s meant to be contradictory.
What's Wróblewski's image in an international context?
His particular way of making art in the postwar era was completely singular. I would say that he was doing things that we would normally take as impossible for that period. It only became possible in the paintings of the late 1980s, early 1990s, with artists like Luc Tuymans, Wilhelm Sasnal, Raoul de Keyser or René Daniëls. These artists who were doing both abstract and figurative work, without thinking that there is so much difference between the two. Of course, the fact that is was happening in the late 1940s makes it completely different and specific.
Wróblewski is a completely singular figure. He’s both unique in a global context and a national context. I know no other artist who could do what he did for the I Exhibition of Modern Art in 1948 in Kraków, where he showed “The painting on the horrors of the war (Fishes without Heads)” with several totally abstract paintings. Normally, if you think about artists like Jean Hélion, you would have one abstract phase followed by a figurative phase and sometimes a return to abstraction or to figuration. But not this kind of simultaneity. The fact that he did that in less than 10 years is also absolutely striking. He starts when he’s 20 and he ends when he’s 30. It’s remarkable in itself.
He’s contemporary now, but isolated when he was alive. He’s a tragic figure who was in conflict with all other artists of the time – treated as a wild realist, he was rejected by colorists and even by socrealistic painters.
For me, the fact that he was isolated is itself a myth, as one of his best friends, for instance, was Andrzej Wajda. I know that he was not well received by everyone and that he led quite a tragic life, but that doesn’t really explain the quality of his paintings and works on paper. What’s more important is the fact that he was trying to be a committed, utopian artist, while being completely honest, truthful to his own self and to what he was seeing in the outside world – this is what isolated him and still makes him very unique.
In Poland, Wróblewski is one of the most important figures of 20th-century art. Is he known abroad? Is there any reception?
There is no reception abroad. Nearly no one knows about him, even if there has been an exhibition in the Netherlands recently and if Luc Tuymans has been speaking highly of his work for quite a long time, even showing some works in a group show he curated. But it never worked somehow, because it stayed peripheral and you could not see a large body of work.
When we worked on the circulation of our show, some people knew him through the exhibition I did in Lyon where I devoted a room to his work, next to a room devoted to Pollock and Rothko. A lot of my friends – curators or museum directors who came to visit this exhibition were saying: What are you doing? You’re showing, between two major postwar artists, this artist who's completely unknown but quite interesting. We want to see more. When I showed some reproductions to the director of the Reina Sofia, Manuel Borja-Villel, it was a complete surprise for him but he very quickly decided to bring over the show to Madrid.
The show in Madrid will be a real chance for Wróblewski to be recognized abroad.
That’s important because it will take place in a major museum, which is aimed at rewriting the history of the 20th century in a very dynamic way. It is very difficult for a non-Polish to get a clear idea of what Wroblewski’s work is, because most of his paintings and works on paper are only in museums and private collections in Poland. They are not circulating abroad and it’s impossible for a foreign museum to buy one. It will be quite difficult for a foreign museum to buy something that expensive when it’s virtually unknown in other countries – because it’s a national market.
So up till someone does what was done for other artists in other countries – which is to place good works in good museums and try to have a more international perspective – it’s not going to work. A good example would be the way the widow of Barnett Newman worked on placing each work that she had at different important museums. That, for me, would be the best and most lasting way to spread knowledge and recognition of Wróblewski abroad. We’re doing it through the exhibition but it’s only a beginning. And I do think that he is a major artist in a global context.
Andrzej Wróblewski, "Rozstrzelanie na ścianie" / "Niebo", olej na płótnie, Muzeum Wojska Polskiego w Warszawie, fot. dzięki uprzejmości organizatorów wystawy
During your research on Wróblewski, you discovered new works by the artist.
It was a real surprise and excitement because we've discovered a lot of things. Together with foreign scholars who participated in the seminar and conference we were instorage of the Warsaw's National Museum. We were looking at “Laundry”, which is one of the most important paintings of Wróblewski, and while it was being shown to us, we noticed that there was a painting on the back, which is not recorded anywhere. A very large “Nude” that we are showing for the first time. And we did discover several double-sided works on paper while installing the exhibition which we didn’t know existed. I think that it is why the work currently being made by the newly established Wróblewski Foundation is so crucial.
Is it the first time that both sides of Wróblewski's works have been shown?
Some of them were already presented once or twice with both sides in various exhibitions (most notably a 1996 retrospective in Krakow), but not in the consequential and cohesive manner we have adopted here. I really wanted to stress this aspect because – contrary to what a lot of people think – I think that it’s not incidental.
What's the concept behind this?
Many people have been writing that he was doing it for economic reasons. The only thing is that he was not the only artist in the world to be living in poverty. But I know of no other artist who – in 1949 – was doing that repeatedly. I know many other artists who did it a few times and then stopped. Usually when they have an unsuccessful painting on one side and it is very clear that it is unsuccessful.
As a collector or a curator you normally have to choose one side over the other. And this is what happened. You know, the majority of the paintings he showed in the first Modern Art Exhibition in 1948 are double sided and the other side, sometimes, were painted later but never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Nevertheless, some of them have become privileged.
eric de chassey
Let’s take another example. One of Wroblewski’s best known work is “Blue Chauffeur”, on the other side of which was painted “The Uprising of the Ghetto” – which is unique in Polish painting and in the history of international art in general because that subject wasn’t very popular albeit really crucial. The way it’s framed and stretched now, you see that the blue driver side is favoured. None of the sides was shown during Wróblewski’s life. Why did the collectors or institutions choose to show one side and not the other? It’s symbolic and it is thus important to show both sides at the same time.
I don’t think that this double-sidedness was something he consciously explored, but it is symptomatic of his aesthetics, of his willingness not to reconcile contradictions but to show them as they are.
It makes his work one of the most important works of art not only for historical reason but also for human reasons. He’s never trying to solve something or find an artificial harmony. He wants to be committed to the idea of a better future, and makes paintings that acknowledge this commitment but, because his way of painting is profoundly honest, his utopia are always awkward, they never achieve a state of completeness, complete harmony, stability. Sometimes it looks like Mondrian except that it’s awkward. It’s not awkward because he doesn’t know how to paint but because he is also registering the failures of this utopian dream.
The same thing happens with figurative works later. It’s impossible for him just to describe the world. Maybe that’s why for this exhibition I made a strong choice and concentrated on the early period and the last one. I’m not saying the middle period is not interesting. For me, it is less moving in the sense that I see the contradictions but maybe more as a kind of failure than as a kind of way to acknowledge the possibility to have the two things at the same time or the impossibility not to have them.
What striking is the fact that it’s not artificial. Among these contradictions, I would count the fact that he wanted to be a truthful, faithful communist, but was also seeing how this ideal was being abused. Do you renounce your ideal? He didn’t. And of course, some people didn’t like this kind of contradiction.
What are the differences between the shows in Poland – where everybody recognizes Wróblewski – and in Spain – where nobody's heard about him?
Both exhibitions are having the same back-spine – double-sided works. In Spain the exhibition is going to be larger. In Warsaw, I can skip the social realistic period – 1949-56 – because you all know the paintings that he painted then, from other exhibitions and museum collections. They are in your minds when you see other works. It’s not that I’ve eliminated them completely. We’re showing for example a very important, very striking series of drawings he devoted to people learning about the death of Stalin, as well as some other drawings that are related to his family. But in Spain it’s necessary to show the middle-period works, as people there wouldn’t know them. We want there to give a complete picture of Wróblewski’s achievements and endeavors, and it will certainly resonate with some parts of Spain’s own history.
Warsaw, February 2015
Éric de Chassey is a scholar of postwar painting, the director of the French Academy in Rome – Villa Medici since 2009, and a professor of the history of modern art at the École normale supérieure in Lyon. He's the author of many publications on European and American postwar art – research that was brought together in the ground-breaking exhibition “Starting from scratch, as if painting had never existed before” organized in late 2008 at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon.
"Andrzej Wróblewski: Recto / Verso. 1948-1949, 1956–1957"
Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 12.02 – 17.05.2015
Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, 17.11.2015 – 28.02.2016
Curator: Eric de Chassey
Associate curator: Marta Dziewańska
Curator of the archival part: Dorota Jarecka