Often lauded as the greatest talent of his generation, a new exhibition featuring the works of Wilhelm Sasnal has opened at Polin, and in the process opened a Pandora’s Box that questions how we view the Holocaust.
Depicting Poland in the wake of the Shoah, the exhibition grapples with weighty topics that examine topics of loss, guilt, absence, exclusion, nationalism and alienation. Deeply layered, it goes further to address issues relating to xenophobia and cultural appropriation.
“It’s a complex exhibition because this is a complex painter,” explains the curator, Adam Szymczyk. “Moreover, it presents works painted over a 20-year timespan so of course it will be challenging.”
Of the sixty or so selected paintings, many directly reference Poland’s landscape, which Sasnal presents against the haunting shadow of the Holocaust. In one painting, he depicts his bicycle standing in front of the vastness of Majdanek; in another, his wife stares out of the window at the gates of Birkenau – titled The First of January, the idea for the work came after the couple found themselves accidentally driving past the Nazi death camp on New Year’s Day.
Viewing these, you feel the void left behind by the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime.
Titled ‘Such A Landscape’, the exhibition draws inspiration from other artists, and in particular the landscape painters of the 19th century that helped solidify a national identity at a time when Poland did not geographically exist. Though these works helped unite Poles and mold the nation’s soul, the nostalgic patriotism that they fostered came at the cost of excluding other ethnic groups such as Jews and Gypsies.
Sasnal brings attention to this though many of the presented works, but there is more to this exhibition than landscapes alone. Other inspirations include poems, books, films, photographs and even graphic novels: four images, for instance, see Sasnal depict scenes from Art Spiegelman’s Maus series, only with the protagonists removed.
In other works, he pays a respectful nod to the melancholy stories of Tadeusz Borowski, a Pole that survived captivity in Auschwitz only to later commit suicide after the war.
Interpreting the paintings is left to the viewer, but there can be few people that do not sense the disgust and horror that the artist must have felt when painting a portrait of Hitler – it clings to the wall crossed out with a seemingly furious hand.
Posing tough questions, and tinged with a heavy sense of melancholy, this is an exhibition designed to make an impact. However, Szymczyk stresses that the intention is not to cause division but rather to build bridges through the discussions it may prompt.
“In these difficult times, and our current reality, I hope this exhibition gives people a glimmer of hope,” he says. “We have a history we need to understand and address, and only by doing so can we come to terms with the present.”
Wilhelm Sasnal: Such a Landscape
When: ongoing till January 10th, 2022
Where: ul. Anielewicza 6 (Polin)
Cost: PLN 20 / 15
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