Pola Dwurnik

This sporting life...

"Sportsmen" is a story about the fate of the Polishman - in the country and in the city, at the time of communism, behind the iron curtain. I painted his daily life; I painted him getting up in the morning, going to work, doing something there, eating lunch during his break, going back home, meeting pals, smoking, picking up a girl, drinking, lying ill, selling, wheeling and dealing, going on vacation. Just his miserable life in this Polish landscape. This is about the time of socialist misery. These people had to survive, so they were really record breakers. They were like professional sportsmen; They went through life smashing others' noses with their elbows.
I painted "Sportsmen" in a social void, in greyness and hopelessness. No one was interested in them. Nothing happened in Poland. There were just the colourful TV sets on the Eastern Wall in Warsaw [an architectural structure in the centre of Warsaw including blocks of flats, department stores and free-standing showcases – translator’s note]. I worked in a flow. At last painting wasn't difficult for me. I used my paintbrush ably and I wanted to paint. I never thought that I would show these paintings to anyone; that anyone would like to watch them. They were terrible, vicious, ugly paintings; completely useless[1].
Edward Dwurnik
Edward Dwurnik graduated form the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1970. Already during his studies, around 1967, he was struck by the naive painter Nikifor Krynicki and, fascinated, he started a series "Hitch-Hiking Travels" independently from the course of his education. These paintings show Polish cities and towns in a bird’s-eye view. Numerous streets, alleys, squares and circuses are filled with hundreds of small human silhouettes; they head for some places, discuss topics, dig in the soil, drink beer, fight. He didn‘t stop working on his series on graduation. Some elements were developed in smaller series, e.g. "Plaster Plein-Air" were huge head-shaped monuments grow suddenly between buildings. He lived with his wife in a one room flat in Międzylesie, just outside Warsaw. Teresa Gierzyńska was the first and inseparable witness of new pictures being created.
I spent all the time in the same room and I saw how painting town landscapes was getting easier and easier, how he painted them with growing lightness. I started wondering what would happen if he painted a fragment of a "Hitch-Hiking Travel", if he took one of these tiny human creatures and enlarged it to the size of the whole canvas. I was curious and I talked him into it.
Two small series of paintings were created at that time, prior to "Sportsmen", that foreshadowed it formally and in its meaning. "Clouds" (1971-1974) - streets of small towns under cloudy skies and "Moment" (1971-1972) where the protagonist comes into faint eye contact with the viewer. The first painting from the "Sportsmen" series – After Training - was created in May 1972. The title relates to a sports theme, but the protagonists are just workers taking a shower at their place of work. Their stout, shapeless bodies make it obvious. The sports suit of one of them foreshadows and underlines irony and warm criticism that will be present in all following paintings.
Until now the name of the series used to be derived from the Sport cigarette brand, very popular in socialist Poland[2]. However perfectly the irony of the cigarette name corresponds to the artistic concept of Edward Dwurnik, and even though his protagonists surely smoke Sports, the painter stresses for the first time the fact that what he had in mind, was mostly the "sporty" way of functioning: simple, strong, brutal and cheap; usually deprived of subtlety and sensitivity. It was This Sporting Life, the 1963 film by Lindsay Anderson, that Dwurnik saw in one of the Warsaw cinemas and that urged him to start the series. The protagonist, perfectly performed by Richard Harris, is a strong, impetuous, ambitious miner who becomes the star of a local rugby team. The artist still remembers the mood of the film and the impression that it made. Dwurnik recalls the character of Frank Machin with a twinkle in his eye:
He used to come home beat-up, with broken ribs or his face smashed and all he had was trouble. He loved a woman who didn't want him, he was constantly miserable, always fighting things. Everything around him was ugly - the people, himself, the town and the grey weather. This was the real sporting life. And I thought: fuck, this is a great idea: the sporting life of Polish people! Four o'clock in the morning going by train from his village next to Pilawa to the Warsaw based car factory; working there, coming back at 4 p.m., going into the field to work; meeting pals in the evening, getting drunk, fighting, getting some sleep and farming during the weekend and so on.
The "Sportsmen" series was created in the period from 1972 to 1992. Its first part includes 144 paintings created until 1978 in specific, juicy colours and in comic-like aesthetics. These paintings are mostly dedicated to daily life of simple people. The other part was created from 1981 throughout the eighties and is completely different; painted impasto with aggressive, wide gesture in dark, dirty shades. It shows the same sportsmen but in a new political situation - after the implementation of martial law in 1981. These paintings not only investigate into the Polish society but also are clearly politically involved.
Dwurnik wasn't happy in the People’s Republic of Poland. He hated the communist government, the ubiquitous misery, hypocrisy and boorishness. At the same time he felt close to normal, simple people from small towns and suburban villages[3]. From 1950 to 1964 he lived with his parents in Józefów. Later, until 1976, in Międzylesie, in the southern suburbs of Warsaw. In their essay on "Sportsmen" Łukasz Gorczyca and Michał Kaczyński remark that Dwurnik had completely entered their world, so that one may believe the paintings had been created by the protagonists[4]. The artist just perfectly knew and felt that world, its taste, scent and structure of colours; its lameness, primitivism and poverty. The paintings are often based on contradictory emotions. They are full of empathy and kindness as well as anger and virulent criticism. Dwurnik laughs at the People’s Republic of Poland and its "illnesses" and most of all he laughs at the degenerating practise of abusing alcohol. Most of the paintings that include alcohol emanate with ugliness and arouse disgust (e.g. Room , Antabus , Preserve). Teresa Gierzyńska says:
Edward was always into bums and alkies. It started during puberty in Józefów, from his school friends who were just like that. What can you do after school when you're in Józefów? They met at a beer kiosk and during weekends at the so-called "planks" - suburban dance halls where lots of alcohol was drunk, girls were picked and fights were commonplace.
There are nice and jovial Sportsmen but there are also the aggressive and trivial.
It's similar with women:
One day Dorota Wnuk, Teresa's younger sister, came to visit us in Międzylesie. She started to watch my paintings and all of a sudden she asked why there were no women. All Sportsmen had some women! I had a brainwave.
Sportsmen's women - as their partners - tightly fill the canvas. The shape of hard underwear is visible from under thick, skin-tight clothes. They hold spades (Masovia , Southern Seas). They are ugly and hardened, their hands are big, their bodies are heavy, they are not afraid of any physical work. They build tracks (MZK), cut wood (Knots for Winter), build an airport (The New Airport), rejoice at the opportunity to work (I'm Employed). But Dwurnik can also be ruthless and sneering. Seemingly elegant women burn their faces red at a beach (Elegant Women at the Beach), they bear children without plan or restraint (Nature-Reproduction), trade cunningly (Buy Cheap - Sell Expensive) or pretend to work (Office Ladies).
Many paintings portrait specific people, mostly the artist's friends. His mates from Arts School (e.g. Art Workers, The Phantom of Sculptor M.), from the local artistic world (Weekly Article, Aunts of the Extreme), members of his and his wife's family (e.g. Before the Heart Attack, He Got Smart, Engineer Zygmunt) Teresa Gierzyńska says:
When Edward was in conflict or criticised the actions of a person or a group, he made it the subject of a painting. Sometimes the paintings were subtly ironic, as with the portrait of the art critic, Andrzej Osęka (Weekly Article), sometimes very critical and full of sneer as I Am Vegetary or We Caught an Eagle.
Dwurnik's way of life is paining. He receives and interprets the world through painting. He expresses feelings and views, anger, passion, anxiety and fright through painting. No wonder many of his works, also among the “Sportsmen” series, are directly related to events from his private and social life. That is why in 1981 the political situation of the country violates into the series with the martial law and its governmental representatives, internments, underground. At that time Dwurnik intensively worked on a concurrently created "Workers" series, formally very close to "Sportsmen" but lacking the irony.
Paintings full of existential anxiety, often bringing travesties of biblical characters into the “Sportsmen” world distinguish themselves from the wide picture. The artist deprives their drama of the time-honoured pathos, but he leaves the suffering. The man in Barabas - the Lonely Man is still a personification of longing and alienation, even though he's just cycling. The young man standing before Pilate in What is the Truth? is as authentic and defenceless. Weirdoes, usurping "saints" and pseudo-authorities also turn up several times (Moses , My Indian Psychopath , Angel and Devil, I Am Christ).
Most of the 70s “Sportsmen” were painted on the basis of earlier sketches taken with colour felt-tip pens. That brought in their form, very innovative for that time: flats of colour, a clean, juicy palette, contour. He used, at that time popular, acrylic paint to compose the painting and cover it with colour. He put a thin layer of the acrylic paint with a small roller or a brush. When it dried he put an oil paint contour. He often applied collage elements - he used to stick existing works (his own or others' – e.g. Very Beautiful Men, Farewell Communism) into his compositions. An interesting formal idea was “sticking” monochrome silhouettes into the painting in the foreground. He used this technique also in his drawings and graphics (e.g. Uproar, Man With a Yellow Briefcase). He always painted quickly, often one painting a day. Gorczyca and Kaczyński mark that this method corresponds with the subject:
Dwurnik's painting machine works as a mechanical weaving loom, creates paintings systematically, meter after meter, as if it was merely a decorative pattern. The faster it sews it the better. This ostentatiously hasty technique determines a rubbish-style exterior of Dwurnik's works. This rubbish-style, however, isn't rubbish. It has a specific meaning locked inside, which, combined with the iconography of the paintings, creates a suggestive whole - a story of an imperfect, average life[5].
At that time, however, nobody painted that way in Poland. Other painters from Dwurnik's generation tried to work through the colour doctrine taught at art schools and searched for their own answer in the so-called New Figuration.  The following quotations present this situation most accurately:
The creators of New Figuration, though often lively interested in social subjects, have kept the modernist rule of "high style" - they worked hard to create their own, completely new language, even if it was to be based on a formal, anti-academic jauntiness [...] In effect these painters kept their art at a high level of formal, drawing room speculation...[6]
Crude, expressive gobs of the Sportsmen, their huge, swollen hands and unpretty, shapeless bodies, and the flat, primitively decorative look caused trouble for the first reviewers. The series was presented for the first time at the Cracow based Arkady gallery in winter 1974. Zofia Gołubiewowa in her review of that exhibition published in Culture stated, that Dwurnik's work doesn't want to be art at all[7]. The first big exhibition of "Sportsmen" in Warsaw (with Jerzy Kalina) took place at the Studio Theatre Gallery at the break of 1974 and 1975. The critics passed it over in silence. In his review of a “Sportsmen” presentation in the New Theatre in Poznań (1977) Jacek Juszczyk named the works "comic", "satirical" and "caricature"[8] - the words didn't suit the young, ambitious artist. In Poland comic was considered as something popular and low, equal to illustration or satire at the best.[9] American pop art wasn't well known in Poland at that time. Publications with works by Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein, if they appeared, were available only in few libraries. Besides, the poor aesthetics of Dwurnik's work was far from the sophisticated, smooth surfaces of the works by the American stars. Reviews favourably disposed toward the artist but more or less stinging or sceptic hurt him enough to make him repaint a dozen paintings giving them a thick "colourist" texture, dirtying colours and effacing the clear contour. Teresa Gierzyńska regularly photographed her husband's works. She managed to take photos of some that were later repainted, e.g. Sexual Revolution or Love and Anger. Today Dwurnik regrets his hastiness.
It also happened that the artist completely painted his painting over. Gierzyńska recalls:
Edward always had this huge, almost compulsive need to paint. He painted for many hours every day. He couldn't even make a day's pause. In the 70s we were rather poor and we used to lack money for canvass and frames. Edward used to pick a picture he considered unsuccessful and paint a new one on it.
A dozen paintings are gone due to that practice, among them Along the Tracks or Tractor Driver Expresses Thanks. Gierzyńska many a time tried to stop her husband from painting new pictures on old ones or "improving" them. She led long debates with Edward Dwurnik. Often she persuaded him to her ideas, but just for a while. After several days it turned out that the painting had already been repainted or that it was just gone.
The pungent realism of the "Sportsmen" series was never a true portrait of reality - especially its first part. Dwurnik let his imagination roam freely when he painted the clothes of his protagonists. A peasant or a physical worker wore a grey donkey jacket or overalls and felt boots. The artist put a fanciful beret or an eared cap on his head, gave him a figured shirt, a wide belt, elegant breeches or a pair of herringbone trousers, a coat and shoes on thick soles. He put a decorative watch on his hand, hung a medallion on his neck, put a leather briefcase in his hand. These are not just clothes. These are eclectic outfits with folkloristic, military, historical and modern elements. Even today he tells about it with pleasure:
I always loved to dress Sportsmen in costumes from my fantasy, to enrich the paintings and arouse the viewers’ interest. I wanted to give them charm, make them prettier. That is also why I used to paint colourful faces, glasses, interesting caps, whiskers, moustaches, and, for the younger ones, also long hair.
The landscapes surrounding Sportsmen are similarly decorative and colourful, often just as fancy and eclectic, resembling a hastily sketched, rackety theatrical stage design. Dogs smoking pipes is another fantasy element. In the eighties there are more and more enormous heads - one of the most recognisable elements of Dwurnik's iconography, present in his work from the very early "Plaster Plein-Air" (1970-1971) until the 90s. In the “Sportsmen” paintings from the 70s the heads emerge mysteriously and all of a sudden in the background of the depicted scenes, as anonymous witnesses, the Big Brother, superior intelligence or spiritus movens; or maybe just an element aimed at enriching the composition (Imported Good, Room, Paradise). Other heads are the cut and kicked ones (Two , Roman Church, Me and My Head). In the later parts of the "Sportsmen" series the huge heads, as in "Plaster Plein-Air" are a symbol of power, totalitarianism, hierarchy, control and enslavement[10]. And in the group of paintings from 1991 (Sick Town, Sick Village  and the following) they embody the Polish nation.
"Sportsmen" - the vast, colourful portrait of the society of the People's Republic of Poland has never been mixed in the state propaganda. It turned out to be too honest, too pungent, critical and accurate. Today that time is just a story told to us. What’s left are the black and white films by Jerzy Gruza, Marek Piwowski, Tadeusz Chmielewski, Stanisław Bareja; the actor performances of Jan Himilsbach and Zdzisław Maklakieiwcz; the novels by Marek Nowakowski; poems by Ryszard Krynicki, Julian Kornhauser, Adam Zagajewski. And we have Sportsmen.
Crooked people raise crooked buildings and have a crooked look in their eyes - total osmosis. They have learnt how to pretend, pose and show off. They come into the frame bold and cheeky. Sometimes they stare at the viewer with interest, as if waiting for a reaction to their actions and words. Maybe they hope that the frames of the painting will work as a euphemism. That they will become better for a moment, their self-esteem will improve for, at least, they will be seen.[11]
Translated by Agnieszka Wąsowska
(„Edward Dwurnik. Sportowcy“, pub. by Osman Djajadisastra, Warsaw, 2011)
[1] All quotations of Edward Dwurnik and Teresa Gierzyńska I recorded and wrote down for this publication in summer and autumn 2010 in Warsaw and Berlin.
[2] cf. Adam Jankowski, “Ruhm und Ehre für Jedermann”, in: Edward Dwurnik. Retrospektive, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, 1994, p. 36
[3] cf. application for an arts scholarship in: Edward Dwurnik. From December till June, catalogu edited by M. Sitkowska, Bydgoszcz 1997, p. 154 as well as copy on the poster of the exhibition “Edward Dwurnik. Painting“, Galeria Nowa, Teatr Nowy, Poznań, February 1977.
[4] Łukasz Gorczyca, Michał Kaczyński, “Who Will Get You Moving? Edward Dwurnik and the Polish Extreme Sports”, in: Edward Dwurnik. Painting. An Attempt at a Retrospective, Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej Zachęta, Warsaw 2001, p.13.
[5] Op. cit. Ł. Gorczyca, M. Kaczyński, p. 16.
[6] Ibid., p. 16-17.
[7] Zofia Gołubiewowa, “Ballad”, in: Culture no. 24 (16th June 1974), p. 13.
[8] Jacek Juszczyk, “Na szkle malowane”, in: Gazeta Zachodnia, 14th March 1977.
[9] Even today comic in Poland doesn’t get the adequate attention of an independent arts form.
[10] Most of the “Sportsmen“ with the head motif were created in 1984 during the artist’s stay in Worpswede, Germany. It was a residency granted to Dwurnik by DAAD and Carl-Duisberg Gesellschaft.
[11] Op. cit. Ł. Gorczyca, M. Kaczyński, p. 16.