Edward Dwurnik's world presented
"After all, you're a simple person, from somewhere in Poland, from the boundless plain, well, so I exaggerated a bit, from the moderate plain, not too big, not too small, with little curving rivers, moulting forests, sparse fields and people that are neither peasants nor townspeople, neurotic, ambitious, timid, skilful, unsure of themselves, starved of authenticity, hysterical, sincere liars - conceited people with an inferiority complex, part prophets, part whores. Let's have a drink, dear."
This is the image of Poland Tadeusz Konwicki sketched in hisWniebowstąpienie(Ascension), published in 1967.1 At that time, Edward Dwurnik, who was then studying at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, began to work on the series of paintings Hitch-hiking Trips (Podróże autostopem) which marked the beginning of a great painterly panorama of the country, a panorama of people and evenls, a panorama which was never and nowhere closed, expanding in time and space, into which passing time continues to thrust new pictures. The artist paints a great deal. He paints fast. He paints greedily, as though he wanted to paint everything, grasp life in its unpretty flight, represent the world as it is ordinary, swallow up reality and everything it brings with it. Reality flows through his work like an elemental, unstoppable stream, busting out of the frames of the paintings and spilling onto hundreds and thousands of canvases.
"In Poland, in the 1960s and 1970s" writes the "child of the Polish People's Republic", Tadeusz Sobolewski, "we lived as though surrounded by a wall. To see what was beyond it, one had to jump high. Art was what people used for these high jumps: literature and film, theatre and painting. We lived in-between two realities: the world of the Polish People's Republic and that other, true reality. It was known as 'the unrepresented world'. The fact that this world was not represented, placed artists in an extremely fortunate position. Creation became meaningful: it was a continual discovering of reality, understood deeply, not just in the sociological sense".2
Dwurnik's painting is just such a "continual discovering of reality, understood deeply, not just in the sociological sense". He is the only contemporary artist in whose work, recorded in over two thousand five hundred numbered pictures, we find an imposing register of Polish reality, and at the same time, unreality. Precisely both one and the other, both in the strangest way coming together to recreate life in Poland in the last few decades. Although there is a great deal of reality on them, Dwurnik's pictures do not amount to description. From the beginning of his career as a painter, the artist captured the attributes and requisites of the world around him with uncommon intuition. He created an inventory of the components of ordinary Polish existence. He sees and extracts what is secondary, unimportant, shallow and trivial, but is a part of existence that is not to be pshawed at, giving it a particular flavour and character. "I meet people on their way to work. I travel around small towns, I am interested in common Polish people. I have been brought up by them, so I do not think that they are common and I think that I know their concerns, the way "they dress, their habits, their beliefs, their slang - I love them, and it gives me joy to immortalise them in my painting" - wrote Dwurnik, as a student, in an application for an arts scholarship.3 And he really has erected a monument to them. It is an individual monument and at the same time a guide to Poland; to Polish riff-raff; to the land of vodka, „Sport" cigarettes and orangeade, which people with coarse physiognomies and awkward bodies treat themselves to; to suburban landscapes of blocks; to suburbs carved up by workers' allotments; to towns enveloped by a tangle of traction cables, where borrowed quilted jackets mingle alongside crimpolene-bistor chic at bus stops and the laying of a new pavement becomes a historical event.
The people swarming around these paintings are not an assortment of statistical individuals. Out of the hundreds of paintings and drawings, a gigantic „portrait of Poles", well-known and unknown, emerges, each endowed with a face which may not be pretty but is expressive. It is not only Cruel - Strangers (Okrutni - Obey - Ludz/e) who have a face. Dwurnik also paints portraits, but he is, above all, a painter of the human face, being, as is well-known, "the most interesting surface in the world". He examines this surface with particular insight. These faces are not just combinations of noses, mouths, eyes, chins, eyebrows, furrows and wrinkles - everything that was once used by physiognomists, convinced of the openness of the human face, not just so as to judge character on the basis of appearance, but also fate. Dwurnik does not go so far. Like many painters of the past, similarly fascinated by the human face, he creates a gallery of countless likenesses in his paintings. Yet he is more akin to sociological then to anthropological observation. Workers, peasant-workers, passengers, people in queues, allotment tenders, civil servants, passers-by, shopkeepers, officers, policemen, citizens, barmaids, consumers, clients, manual labourers and white-collar workers - the entire population of the Polish People's Republic stands before us, commonplace but also true.
However, Dwurnik was not simply recording the Polish People's Republic iconosphere, eulogising the commonplace, chronicling the appearance and customs of grey people from the crowd and their everyday, ineffectual existence. By showing commonplace and nameless people, the artists remained with them when they became great historical heroes. He continued to paint them when they went on strike, turned out on the streets, congregated in squares, crowded together into marching mobs, went on demonstrations, resorted to stone-throwing, raised slogans, carried crosses and banners, shouted, sung and prayed - and also when they died. He accompanied them "from December to June" - as he called the only painting epitaph of its kind, devoted to the victims of martial law. One could say that his painting, always equally thirsty for authenticity, transformed itself along with the transformations in the reality depicted, in harmony and sympathy with it. It grew up when that reality was growing up; it was sublimated along with it. The tragedy of the times and events filled their tragic aspect. The guide to Poland became a guide to Polish history, though one that often departs from conventions, even now.
There are many dangers lying in store for an art as deeply embedded in reality as Dwurnik's. One must avoid temptations and ratify contradictions; be "with" others without letting oneself be subsumed by collectivity; co-participate while retaining one's distance; co-feel without letting oneself be carried away by general emotion; "be a man of one's times" but not get stuck in them; commit without letting oneself get blinkered; see from close-up and afar simultaneously, but at the same time not fall into the trap of contradicting oneself. Dwurnik - perhaps not always - nevertheless manages to do this. Representing the ugliness and shoddiness of the Polish People's Republic, he did not slip into political or moral grotesque or caricature. We all know how easy this is and the acclaim it receives. He did not slip to the level of licensed "satire" - although there are sometimes attempts to disarm his works by seeing them in this way. There is no irony in his distance, although it is so often the case that the two go hand in hand. But also feeling himself to be a part of that degraded world, Dwurnik avoided the over-familiarity which Polish literature, penetrating the inferior regions of life, is often tinged with. The world presented may be shapeless but it is not a shapeless pulp; it is astigmatic - but not defeated. The artist does not feel called upon to tidy it up. He records the state of affairs.
The political upheavals of the 1 980s must have been a challenge for a painter of Polish reality like Dwurnik. At that time it was hard to avoid painting political propaganda, which was so thoroughly expected of art. Nevertheless not only the artist's biography - he received an award for his prophetic vision of martial law, and was later ostracised by society - but also the very character of his paintings at that time, were such that they did not always fulfil these expectations. Neither did they fit readily into the well-worn interpretative rut. Even today they arouse mixed feelings. The pressure of events meant that it was no longer enough to record reality. This was when the painter reached for a new and perilous form - allegory and personification. All the same, his personifications - Polish Nike or the anniversary Polonia - are "real allegories", those same ordinary, heavyish Polish women, only that history has given them symbolic attributes and left them in a new role. Elsewhere, reality gains power, grows into a generalised painting - such as Great Coffin (Wielka trumna), devoid of any concrete references to do with calamity or mourning. For Dwurnik's "realism" is deceptive and his "commitment" is not straightforward. It may seem simple to Western critics. For those of us who know more, his seemingly obvious painting "for all", almost tendentious in its content and ideas, is not at all univocal, since the harsh, undigested reality he presents has many meanings. He presents it - he does not state an opinion. It is born of instinct rather than of reflection.
Dwurnik does not theorise on the subject of the unity of art and life, which keeps recurring in twentieth century criticism; he does not shake up the nuances of meaning of the basic concepts: "art", "life", "reality", "realism". He does not ask questions about the relationship between the object and the painting. He is not troubled by the "imitative" nature of his painting. He does not try to define the way his art is supposed to refer to life and reality. He just paints. These questions seem to lose meaning in the face of the
momentum of his painting which is not to say that his way of seeing and presenting reality is simple. Presenting the world, Dwurnik takes all kinds of points of view - which can be taken both literally and as a figure of speech. There are paintings which are painted as though from the inside, from the heart of events, seen by someone mingling in the crowd. The surrounding bodies press in, proximity enlarges and deforms them. They seem to leap out of the canvas - like the human throng in Prayer (Modlitwo).It is crowded, thick, dark, airless. A similarly close viewpoint dominates the paintings of martial law. There are other paintings seen from above, from a distance, almost panoramically. The artist has encompassed the world with this view from above for a long time: be it the Fruits of the Earth(Owoce Ziemi),or the Warsaw streets littered with snow and tanks, or the unpeopled Diagonal Cities [Miasta diagonalne). The dual perspective also carries over onto the creative standpoint of the artist - who is both a participant and a remote observer. This multiplicity of viewpoints brings into sharp relief any tendentious- ness and univocality.
"Man cannot cope with too many realities". This sentence of Eliot's seems to refer even to an artist as faithful to reality as Dwurnik. Views of the sea became for him a source of rest (but not escape) from reality - paintings with nothing but regular waves of blue, and the Diagonal Cities, supposedly familiar, recognisable, yet nevertheless transforming themselves into secret and unimaginable cities, seen through a haze of blue. Continuing the Hitchhiking Trips series the painter goes further and further. Skaryszew and Venice, Kielce and St. Gallen, Mogielnica and Amsterdam - the artist endows them all with the same urban order, the same rhythm of diagonals sketching the painting, the same poetic aura. On one of the streets of Sępolno in Wroclaw there is even a Pegasus in amongst the cars.
Does the form Dwurnik has found for his "denunciation of reality" adhere to the world represented? This question seems more important than a stylistic disassembling of his painterly language. More important than measuring how much he has taken from Nikifor and how much from the German "fauves", from the different varieties of expressionism, and how much from inverted social realism, the visual trashiness of banners and illegal news-sheets. Dwurnik's form always strives after the representation of reality, submitting and adapting to it. The "genre" paintings, to use an old term, are played out in the stylistics of the "visual culture of the Polish People's Republic", with its whole muddle of aspirations and trashiness, its high and low cycles. One can slap up a painting in an insolent, off-hand way, loosely, carelessly smearing on the paint, whopping on black line, and tottering along in the naive manner of an amateur portraitist, laboriously firming up the shapes with drawn contours and light-heartedly planting clumsy patches of colour. The paintings of the martial law period (to use a provisional term again) take a completely different form. They seem to have been painted with a wide brush dipped in silt, "tar and ink", which is what so shocked the faithful colourist Józef Czapski. Strong contrasts of light and shadow appear, previously of little importance. Or rather, everything is submerged in dirty darkness, only occasionally brightened up by a radiance whose source it is impossible to locate. The same courage in reaching for secondary sources of representation remains. Dwurnik is not afraid to recoil 19th century patriotic kitsch or propaganda painting. If they have force, then why not?
In all his work, Dwurnik presents rather than recounts. His painting is neither narrative nor literary. We will not find any literary inspiration, thematic references, illustrativeness, though many of his figures would be quite at home among the heroes of Konwicki or Białoszewski: the couples flirting at the station in Otwock, the editor's wife from Biała Podlaska, Lilka, Wiesia, Pola's auntie, the queuing people waiting for the delivery of gold rings from Russia on the snowy street. Yet Dwurnik also seems to be the only match for these writers. He is characterised by a similar "distance towards the world not outlawing sympathy". He uses commonplace pictorial language, full of colloquialisms. In the same way, he elevates the trivial realities of life. He really feels this "no good" world. Like Białoszewski, he can get excited about suburbs - "be thrilled by Wołomin" and appreciate Garwolin. Like Konwicki he "draws aside the curtain on reality". He finds expression for the reality for which no form of expression had been found, through a different art a different way of painting. Will he therefore be counted among the "prophets of the Polish People's Republic"?
Finally, let us return to Konwicki: "...because you love people, dear. I see light in you. It fooled me to begin with and that was why I flung you in the pen. But after all, you're a simple person, from somewhere in Poland..."4
1 T. Konwicki, Wniebowstąpienie, Warsaw 1 967, p. 96 ¡if the name of the translator has not been given beside the quotation, translated by Klara Kemp-Welch]
2 T. Sobolewski, Dziecko Peerelu. Dziennik. Esej,Warsaw 2000, p.21
3 Edward Dwurnik. Od grudnia do czerwca, exh. cat., Bydgoszcz, Bytom 1997, p.154
4 T. Konwicki, op. cit.