A series of five paintings inspired by Art Spiegelman’s comic book Maus, which was published in Poland in 2001.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus was issued in Poland in 2001, fifteen years after the premiere of the first part, and ten years after the publishing of the second part of this famous comic book, which earned the said author a Pulitzer in 1992. The story of the wartime and camp fate of Spiegelman’s father interlaces here with the tribulations of the so-called transition trauma. This trauma was suffered by the second generation, which tried to cope with the dramatic experiences of their parents. The Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal became fascinated by “Maus”. In an interview the artist once said that: ”it’s exceptional that the narration has a contemporary setting, that the story heard by Art is not only a war story, but also a living tale about the times of war – this is very important to me. I’m under the impression that we’re not living after ’89 but after ’45”.
Spiegelman’s book was controversial for two reasons. First of all, it broke genre taboos, which attribute trivial or fantastic content to comic books and equate the publications of this kind with works of low (mass) culture. Secondly, in his story about the Holocaust and Jews in wartime Poland, Spiegelman highlighted national antagonisms by showing various nations as specific animal species. Nationality was set in the forefront and became the basic identifying element of the characters. No wonder – in the times of Hitler, this feature determined whether somebody lived or died.
Substituting humans with animals is a device often used in stories for children, in which heroes often represent a varied menagerie. In “Maus” however the piglet won’t be friends with the bear. Here, Jews are the title mice, Germans are cats, Frenchmen are frogs and so forth. In Poland the fact that Poles were presented as pigs stirred controversy. The comic book was suspected of being anti-Polish and this was the main reason for which the Polish translation appeared as late as in 2001.
That year was significant to the Polish-Jewish relations and to the memory of the Holocaust. In the press and on television a discussion about the Jedwabne massacre, which was caused by Jan Tomasz Goss’ book “Neighbours, was under way. For the first time the less noble episodes of Polish history were being debated in the broader social discourse.
The same year a painter described by the critics as a pop-trivialist, Wilhelm Sasnal, addressed a serious social issue for the first time in his career. He made a series of five paintings inspired by Art Spiegelman’s comic book. Four of them are large canvases that vary in size. The artist reproduced on them the black and white backgrounds of drawings he selected from the comic book. He decided not to copy the figures and conversations from the chosen scenes. At first glance we can’t say what it is that we’re looking at. What in the comic book constituted a fragment of a floor and a piece of a wall, in one of Sasnal’s paintings turns into an abstract pattern. Another canvas with a similar motif gains three-dimensionality thanks to a floor with a black stain. The remaining paintings show doors and kips. Wooden kips may easily be associated with death camps. It becomes apparent that the said doors lead to a gas chamber and the stain ceases to be abstract.
The fifth painting from the series "Maus” shows one of the heroes of the comic book. This work is smaller than the rest of the pieces and it presents a slightly amorphous pig in a jacket and a cap. Knowing Spiegelman’s comic book, we may be sure that this is a portrait of a Pole.
In reference to Sasnal’s painting, especially to those series which address the complicated problems of history and heritage, Adam Szymczyk wrote about a “need to inquire about shame”. The painter showed such moments of the wartime fates of Poles, which were questionable or definitely condemnable. As in 2002, when on the wall of the Bielsko-Biała Gallery BWA he hung a fragment of “Maus”, from which he removed all the drawings leaving only the texts in characteristic comic-book clouds. Sasnal chose this fragment (157th page of the Polish edition) carefully. A part of the comic book’s action takes place in the town of Bielsko-Biała. It was there that Władek Spiegelman, the author’s father, and the wife of Spiegelman senior were denounced to the gestapo by a blackmailer. The page with the comic-strips, or actually just the text that was on it, was enlarged to the size of a wall. Sasnal’s work reminded about the history of the old inhabitants of the town. The piece also pointed to the less honourable fragments of the past of Poles, which were erased from national consciousness. It’s worth noticing that initially the mural was to be put up on one of the walls of the Museum of Technology in Bielsko-Biała, which is located in a former factory (in “Maus this was Spiegelman’s factory). The artist didn’t however receive permission for this.
Adam Ostolski noticed an important shift in meaning, which occurred when the language of the comic book was transformed into the language of a mural placed in the space of a town. He wrote that: "The personal (although not devoid of public meaning) story about how the son of a Holocaust survivor copes with the trauma of the second generation and how this son tries to reconstruct his father’s story from various fragments, turns into a chiefly public gesture (based nevertheless on a very personal story)”.
Similar things may be said about the entire series inspired by "Maus”. Sasnal’s gesture isn’t however accusatory. He shifts the accent from the portrayed victim to the position of the witness. The painter is interested the most in “the third party”. As in the series “Shoah” (2003), which was based on Claude Lanzmann’s famous film from 1985. The French director cut 350 hours of footage to create a 9-hour-long film. He didn’t use any documental materials for this movie. In his work he included only interviews, which he made amongst others with farmers that lived directly next to a death camp. Sasnal focused on the translator that accompanied the director. In one of the canvases, in a piece entitled “Las” (“Forest”), the human figures (the director, the translator and a witness) were reduced to small dots. The work is dominated by abstract, vigourously painted greens.
Both the mural in Biesko-Biała, and the series of paintings which was created a year earlier, seem to be addressed chiefly to Poles, who today may still be considered witnesses. After all the most significant traces of the Holocaust may be found on Polish soil. Do Poles identify with the portrait of a Pole à la Spiegelman? – asks the painter.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2009
"Maus" (series of 5 paintings)
oil on canvas