#photography & visual arts
A sportsperson is not necessarily an athlete, a muscle-flexing boxer, a speeding sprinter, or a gravity-defying high jumper. In Edward Dwurnik’s ironic take, it is someone who smokes Sport cigarettes.
This absurd – since it is generally associated with health – name was carried by a popular cheap cigarette brand from the Polish People’s Republic. To Dwurnik, Sportsmen are the protagonists of his painting series, counting almost 300 canvases and created over the course of twenty years. Some of the works from the series were repainted by the artist years later and most of them have become part of many global art collections. Year 1972, when the cycle was inaugurated, also marked the beginning of the Gierek era in Poland – a period of an El Dorado powered by loans (taken out from Western banks). By 1992, when the author decide to finalize the series, capitalism had already taken hold in Poland.
The characters in Dwurnik’s paintings don’t really smoke their cigarettes all the time, but when it comes to sport – they don’t do it at all. Only sometimes, out of nowhere, they will wear sports t-shirts or bib numbers, as if taking part in a race. But their discipline is different and it is survival or, simply, existence. In this apartment, with this wife, at this job, in this city. And, of course, in this country.
Only a handful of canvases actually carry sporting connotations. In the first painting from the series, titled Po treningu (After the Workout) (1972), naked men wash themselves in a bathroom. An intricate ceiling system pipes water to numerous showers. One immediately notices that this is not about an athletic workout. The artist explains:
After the workout means after hours, as in the communist times work was treated as a survival workout. Most Polish production plants were technologically underdeveloped, while being at full hiring capacity, which resulted in a very low labour efficiency. The real production was happening elsewhere: in the United States, in Germany, in Japan, and so on. And over here, we had workouts, one would just go and exist there for eight hours.
Olimpiada rolnicza (Farming Olympics) (1973) shows two men on a tractor. They are wearing bib numbers on their clothes, however, it is difficult to figure out what competition they’re taking part in. One of them holds flowers in his hand (did he win?). They are both smoking cigarettes. So yes, they are ‘sportsmen.’
The only actual sportsmen in the whole series are the ones in the painting Meta (Finish) (1976). The runners are standing on the start line, ready to race. One of them puffs away on his pipe. There are two slogans in the painting: ‘Sport is health’ and ‘Tobacco is the enemy of sports.’
My sportsman is tough and proud, he smokes his pipe and is in it to win.
– the painter comments.
The inaccurate title – as this is the start line, not finish – was given to the painting by mistake. Or perhaps out of habit.
In Dwurnik’s art, a title rarely has a literal meaning. Written directly on the canvas, the titles act as a form of stage directions for the represented scenes. Sometimes, the characters talk as if they were in a comic book. But rarely are any of the texts straightforward, one is rather better off assuming an intentional irony. For instance, when the artist titles his painting Romantycy (Romantics) (1972), he does so teasingly, as the canvas features a group of workers, one of whom has his head wrapped in a cloth and is holding his cheek. He evidently suffers from a toothache. He looks concerned. It is this unease, in this case caused by a physical pain, which puts him in common – at least visually – with romantics. That is all. Another piece is titled Prawiczki (Virgins) (1974), even though one immediately sees that it shows ladies of the night, professing in the world’s oldest occupation. The artist also purposefully plays with language:
In Polish, the word prawiczek refers to men, but I used it in reference to women, in order to highlight the irony of the title.
– he explains.
When he paints a typical image from the martial law period – soldiers warming up by a brazier – he titles it Rzymskie ognie (Roman Candle) (1982).
Soldiers, prostitutes, workers… Sportsmen is an entire catalogue of human types. Dwurnik’s passion for portraying Poles, even if in a tongue-in-cheek manner, and sometimes with a brutal irony, brings him close to August Sander, a German photographer who back in the 1920s and 1930s intended to create a photographic documentation of different kinds of occupations performed by German citizens in the never completed project People of the Twentieth Century. Dwurnik, however, is selective. He tends to paint the lower social strata or the types present in the social imagination. We have an engineer and an independent farmer (Piękna krowa / A Beautiful Cow, 1973), a journalist (Tygodniowy artykuł / Weekly Article, 1974), a restroom attendant (Srajbabka / Loo Lady, 1974), the legendary civil servants, constantly drinking tea and touching up their make up (Biurwy / Office Bitches, 1983), and officials (Za jajca / By the Balls, 1983). With the arrival of the eighties, and at the same time an increased importance of the anti-communist opposition, Dwurnik’s paintings begin to feature Człowiek podziemny (The Underground Man) (1983), a partisan in a big city.
It seems like the most captivating theme in Dwurnik’s series are the drunkards, while the most popular discipline of the Polish People’s Republic is alcoholism. We observe Poles in front of a beer shop (Pywo / Beer, 1973), at a drunk tank (Izba / Chamber, 1973), holding on to the toilet and throwing up (Antabus, 1973), or deep in alcohol-induced hallucinations (e.g. when animals visit a frightened drunk man – Nad ranem / Early in the Morning, 1974).
In Dwurnik’s cycle, Poland comes across as a country of unfulfilled hopes. After all, do we believe in the words of the garbage collector ‘I will be a goldsmith’ (Będę złotnikiem, 1973), or in the profoundly optimistic confession ‘My daughter will become a scientist’ (Moja córeczka będzie naukowcem, 1973), uttered by one of the boozers outside of the liquor store? ‘You have wasted my life’, a heartbroken woman says to a vest-clad man, who announces: ‘I am moving to Silesia’ (Perliste łzy / Pearly Tears, 1973). Sometimes, the distant and unattainable West appears, but only as an alternative. One of the paintings (Jak ja tęsknię na Zachód / How I Long for the West, 1977) shows a nude couple against the background of Sandomierz.
Poland under communism
polish people's republic
The girl looks like a typical woman who will one day emigrate from Poland: bleached hair, thick make-up and a brightened face. The boy has a fashionable hairstyle à la the Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky. She is constantly anxious, unhappy, and thinking about emigration, while he is upset, because he knows that these romantic moments will soon pass and he will lose her, according to the artist.
Finally, one of the Sportsmen is an artist, competing in the potboiler category. Chałtura (potboiler) used to describe commissions which artists received from the Visual Arts Studio (PSP), an institution which was in charge of the visual aspect of propaganda. For many painters, sculptors, or graphic designers, it was their main source of income. This incorporation of artists, and not only, into the system, is depicted in the painting Chałtura (1972), which Dwurnik described as follows:
A guy is holding a bucket with paint, while the other one is painting his face red.
Sportowcy / Sportsmen
series of 274 paintings created between 1972 and 1992
In 2011, all paintings from the series were published in an album.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, January 2012, transl. AM, August 2016