Andrzej Wróblewski review – troublingly emotionless visions
Source:The Guardian Author:Skye Sherwin Date: 2018-03-20 Size:
The driver, an unnatural blue, like the inside of his cab ……

Doubt and helplessness … Blue Chauffeur (1956).Photograph: Przemek Blechman/Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation

The driver, an unnatural blue, like the inside of his cab, keeps his back to us. I suspect he is deaf to requests. Framed by the vehicle’s split front windows, a landscape unfolds before us, two abstract planes of blood-dimmed sky and bone-white earth. It is a journey without end and one that seems to go nowhere. Are we even moving? His upper arms are invisible, as if his hands were fixed on the unseen steering wheel. Or is it that they have been chopped off at the elbows and there are no controls at all?

Blue Chauffeur is one of the great and earliest works of the Polish painter Andrzej Wróblewski’s tragically brief career. It was produced in 1948, when he was just 21 and coming of age in a world that demanded its inhabitants take a position. Literally so, in the case of the Soviet-sanctioned social realism that would soon dominate the early 50s, with clearcut stories of war’s heroes and villains and newly empowered workers. More acutely, as his friend and posthumous champion, the director Andrzej Wajda once explained, this was a generation that felt they “were the voice of the dead”. Aged 14, Wróblewski himself had witnessed his father die of a heart attack while Nazis searched their home.

As the tantalising, but at times frustratingly limited, first UK solo exhibition of his work makes clear, his answer to these pressures was, in a way, to give no answer. In place of ideological certainties, Wróblewski pursued an art of ambivalence, doubt, even helplessness. That makes his work very contemporary – he doesn’t tell us what to think or feel and it’s all the more troubling for it. Liquidation of the Ghetto – painted, perhaps pointedly, on the chauffeur canvas’s underside – includes a parent holding a lifeless child and bodies trampled underfoot. Yet it’s without drama or emotion: faces are hidden, eyes closed, gazes turned inwards.

Self-Portrait in Red. Photograph: Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation

This didn’t win him many advocates in newly communist Poland. When he died at 29 in a mountaineering accident, he had only participated in two group exhibitions, though he produced around 150 paintings and 800 works on paper. And while his interrogative stance has since marked him out as one of Poland’s major visionaries, he remains little-known outside his home country. This looks set to change. His international fans include Luc Tuymans, master of muted studies in what painting can and can’t say, whose gallerist, David Zwirner, is staging this show.

The double-sided canvas takes centre stage in the gallery’s first room. Upstairs are two more of Wróblewski’s best-known paintings, including Mother With Dead Child, another provocatively affectless treatment, where blue signifies death. These big loans are here to give context and heft to what dominates: watercolours, ink drawings and gouaches.

There are many studies mixing up heads and figures with geometric abstraction, while suggesting the human cost of its utopian ideals. Two works depict Zampanò, the strongman from Fellini’s La Strada, who morphs from a Christ-like sad clown into a musclebound cipher, his body composed of coloured planes, his head tiny. Though in far shorter supply, some of the most riveting inclusions are bleak little landscapes in barely-there washes of paint. Their interest for Tuymans, an artist whose response to 9/11 was an anaemic still life with fruit and a pitcher, or the apparent influence on the younger, leading Polish art star Wilhelm Sasnal, is striking.

Wróblewski once wrote that he wasn’t interested in making one-off masterpieces, but “a succession of works”. Moving from extermination to stunted everyday scenes, culled from life, memories and photos, it’s hard not to read his entire project as one of cultural trauma, infecting everything, tangible everywhere. In one memorable image of surreal domestic horror, the evening meal is a woman’s head on a plate.

Group Scene No 238. Photograph: Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation

Where are we and when are we? This is the question that recurs. Is the chauffeur, for instance, on the way to a concentration camp, or trapped in the limbo between the communist aspirations and everyday shortfalls of postwar Poland? Executions were the subject of another landmark series, yet in all but one image, included here, the aggressors are absent, the victims standing quiet and meek. These figures are not so different from those left hanging, in what might be an ordinary Polish waiting room. A well-known ink drawing from a group made on the streets, recording reactions to announcements of Stalin’s death, is similarly pensive. No one cries or cheers, instead wondering, surely, what will happen now?

The show’s final painting is the second and only other chauffeur that Wróblewski realised in oil, resurrected, after the thaw, in 1956. He’s back on the road, still blue, travelling through a broken-up, abstract world, chasing questions that won’t go away.

Andrzej Wróblewski is at David Zwirner, London, until 14 April.

[Editor] 姜鑫

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