Art in Exile – Polish Painters in Post-War Britain

Publication:                June 2008

Douglas Hall
Art in Exile – Polish Painters in Post-War Britain
395pp. Sansom & Co. £35.00

By the author’s own admission this is an eccentric and unusual book – but these observations, rather than detracting from its interest and appeal merely add to it.  Moreover, Hall, who worked as the first Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern (SNGMA), between 1961 and 1986, is, perhaps, the ideal author to tackle its subject matter. Somewhat detached from the metropolitan insularity and the ‘mainstream’ currents and tastes of the London art world, Hall is himself a self-styled ‘exile’ from such concerns and so is well-placed – temperamentally, professionally and geographically – to discuss the work of this disparate group of artists whose common point of reference was their nationality and the catastrophe which befell their country in 1939.

For a non Pole, Hall’s grasp of Polish art history and it bewildering array of movements, grouping, schisms, transformations and evolutions is convincing; early on in this study he makes a crucial observation:

The close relationship between the health of the body politic and health of the art community is often ignored in art history. In the case of the Polish republic it is impossible to ignore. All the most inventive and dynamic developments in Polish art took place in the first eight or ten years of independence, when innovative art seemed a feasible expression of the new nation.

The republic to which Hall refers is, of course, that which flourished in the inter-war years; however, despite Polish fledgling independence this period was tinged by repressive tendencies, suppression of thought and speech and a rife anti-Semitism, facets which the virtual martial law of Marshall Piłusudski did little, if anything, to alleviate.

By mapping the territory of Polish art and giving accounts of figures such as Wyspiański, Pankiewicz and Matejko, Hall illustrates the patriotism and nationalism which underpinned so much of artistic thought in Poland at this time; the historical paintings of Matejko, in particular, amply illustrating this tendency. Given the instability and indeed non-existence of the Polish state over many years and the cultural and political zones dominated by, respectively, Prussia, Austria and Russia, it was natural that so many of the Polish intelligentsia would gravitate to Paris, which stood apart from these obvious and unattractive spheres of influence and acted as a real beacon of hope and salvation during the many periods of privation which enveloped Polish intellectual life.

A direct result is the prevalent influence of French art on Polish painting, an influence which can be discerned to the present day. A case in point is Henryk Gotlib (1890-1996) who trained in Kraków but lived for a time in Paris. While absorbing and adhering, at least for a time, to the tenets of groups such as the Formist and Kapist movements, Gotlib’s Francophile tendencies were manifest, and throughout his life he conducted a kind of dialogue with Bonnard, distant but close, admiring but critical. In 1947 Gotlib noted, “Bonnard paints atmosphere. I paint the thing itself…”

As Keeper of the SNGMA, Hall was in the fortunate and enviable position of meeting many of the artists who form the subject matter of the present study as most of them, at one time or another, either lived in or visited Scotland; some, like Aleksander Żyw, (1905-1995) became friends.  As Hall observes “It is difficult for me to write objectively about [him], who was for many years a dear friend. He was so different from the other …painters whose lives and work I have described at length that it was a difficult decision to include him in their company”. However, after reading the overly short chapter on Żyw, it is immediately clear that Hall’s decision was the right one. Hall does not subscribe to the hands-off ‘objective’ tendency of current art historians anyway and his insights, in many cases formed through personal encounter and close observation, are sharp, perspicacious and entirely appropriate. Quite how different Żyw was to the other painters becomes apparent when it is revealed that after years of struggle and experimentation, Żyw settled on the study of an apparently repetitive, diminished subject matter reduced, incredibly, to four objects: a piece of clinker, a lump of olive wood, a pebble and some driftwood. But what was Żyw looking for? Hall comes to the astute conclusion that he was painting not objects but energy and adds that Żyw “made little use of directly emotive visual language either in theme or in demonstrative technique”.

Of the other artists here – Marian Kratochwil, Zdzisław Ruszkowski, Josef Herman, Stanisław Frenkiel, Jankel Adler, Peter Potworowski, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and Marek Żuławski – Herman and Frenkiel deserve special mention. The stories of their escape from Poland and subsequent development follow broadly similar patterns to the other artists. However, while Fenkiel’s treatment of his material, like Herman’s, was frequently biographical or autobiographical, it differs markedly from Herman’s in its expressive use of paint, it momentum, movement and passion. Herman, perhaps the best known of these artists, was famous for his depiction of Welsh miners; his work, underpinned by empathy, not pity, seems to have all the quality of sculpture but in two dimensions. Hall observes that for Herman art was a matter of conscience not aesthetics.

As the cycles of fashion and focus in the art world change and those once marginalised become noticed, it is clear that this timely book – a labour of love as much as intellect – will instate these artists in their rightful place in the history of British and Polish art.