Edward Dwurnik's The Battle of Grunwald was first presented in Wawel Castle in Kraków, which deserves a special emphasis because works by contemporary artists are seldom exhibited there. The presentation was held during the events accompanying the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the historic battle, but the approaching opening of the Contemporary Museum of Arts in Kraków served as inspiration – the institution was inaugurated with an exhibition focusing on the relationship between contemporary art and history.
With this context in mind, Wawel Castle was the perfect place to present the painting by Edward Dwurnik – one of the few Polish contemporary painters to touch upon historical topics in his works. Although history is not the sole or even the most important topic of his art, it does recur in hundreds of paintings and thousands of drawings directly and indirectly through places and memorials, characters and images serving as visible signs of remembrance. Different moments and events from the distant past and more recent history appear in Dwurnik's art in the form of individual paintings or bigger series, presented in various ways.
However, Dwurnik's Grunwald should not be seen as a showy punch line for the cultural events associated with the pompous celebration of the 600th anniversary of the victory over the Teutonic Knights. Indeed, it provokes questions about the strategy of creating a collective identity through art – especially in juxtaposition with Jan Matejko's famous painting, perhaps one of the best known works in Poland's history. Although the two works have never been presented directly next to each other, the unusual clash between them in the viewer's memory and imagination paves the way for a fruitful reflection on the topic of the fixed vision of history and indigenous myths. Still, it is the viewer who has to undergo the effort because the artist does not even try to engage into dialogue with Matejko's canvas. He does not criticise the painting which was already criticised many times, for example, in the severely suggestive and persuasive texts by Stanisław Witkiewicz. There is no caricature or pastiche present in works by Poland's most esteemed artists as different as Stanisław Wyspiański and Katarzyna Kozyra, and even in pop culture (for example, in Stanisław Bareja's films).
What we can see is more like Dwurnik's own vision of history, created on a canvas 2.7 metres high and 4.5 metres wide. In spite of its grand size, the painting is half the size of Matejko's work but still comparable to Picasso's Guernica (as the artist himself says). However, the biggest difference between the two lies in their iconography. The great battle in which the Polish and Lithuanian armies fought against the Teutonic Knights is replaced by an ordinary brawl in which Poles fight against other Poles – a free-for-all. The participants fight not only with sticks and batons but also with crosses. In the chaotic melee, it becomes difficult to separate sides of the conflict. It is every man for himself and there is no discernible battle formation. Dwurnik's Battle does not have a definitive moment, so apparent in Matejko's composition in which we can see the Master of the Teutonic Knights meeting his end and Prince Witold in triumph. In Dwurnik's painting, there is no such grand scene, not even a few more-emphasised points. Everything is equally significant or equally insignificant. The whole space of the painting is evenly and tightly filled with minor characters among which there are no heroes. Historical personae are replaced by an anonymous mob, a shapeless mass of people.
It is not only a vision of history but also an ironical commentary on the Polish socio-political reality of 2010. Through allusion, the depiction of quarrelling characters says much about specific events which can be read through signs (the cross). It is both a diagnosis of conflicts and tensions rooted in various divisions of the contemporary society. Paradoxically, Dwurnik comes close to Matejko's concept of diagnosing the current state of affairs by using historical motifs in paintings addressed to contemporaries.
The principal difference is that in Dwurnik's case, history is just a loose point of departure. In Matejko's work, it was the core of a suggestive and persuasive narrative. It was also extraordinarily attractive and captivated the viewer with its colourfulness, bringing to mind Dwurnik's first drawing inspired by Matejko's painting, created when he was fourteen years old. The one painted in 2010 has a strikingly dark colour scheme and limited palette, similar to his other works created during the period of martial law in Poland, dominated by blue and black tones. It lacks the sumptuousness characteristic to paintings by Matejko who provided the viewer with eye candy: shining armour and swords, rich shabracks, ornamented cloth, and lustrous jewels.
The juxtaposition of the two Grunwald paintings draws attention to a completely different attitude presented by the artists towards their viewers, to a differently designed relationship between the artist and the performance. While Matejko throws the viewer into the very centre of the battle, Dwurnik, following the old battle tradition, offers a wide overview of the battlefield from a bird's eye. In effect, the first painting absorbs viewers, throws them into the performance and demands identification with the scene, while the second one offers them the possibility to distance oneself. The view from a significant distance mercilessly exposes the senseless and grotesque actions of the feuding characters.
Maria Poprzęcka, Polskie pobojowisko, [in:] Edward Dwurnik. Bitwy pod Grunwaldem, katalog wystawy, Kraków 2010
Jana Matejki "Bitwa pod Grunwaldem". Nowe spojrzenia, red. Katarzyna Murawska- Muthesius, National Museum in Warsaw, Warsaw 2010
Written by Magdalena Wróblewska, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Aug 2018