ART OUT OF THE BLOODLANDS: A CENTURY OF POLISH ART IN BRITAIN RACHEL DICKSON
EXTRACT FROM From Adler to Zulawski: A Century of Polish Artists in Britain; Edited by Rachel Dickson. DATE 2017. SOURCE Published by Ben Uri Research Unit (London, 2020). Accompanies the exhibition Art Out of the Bloodlands. For further information see collection, exhibitions and research on Benuri.org.
Art Out of the Bloodlands: A Century of Polish Art in Britain Introduction American Historian Timothy D Snyder coined the term ‘Bloodlands’ in his book of the same title published in 2010, to describe the vast border regions between Berlin and Moscow, in the midst of which lies modern-day Poland, and in which 14 million non-combatants were murdered under Hitler’s Fascism and Stalin’s Communism between 1933-45. Taking this dramatic title as a starting point, this publication has, in turn, grown out of the second exhibition in Ben Uri’s ongoing series highlighting the cultural contribution of refugee and migrant groups in Britain. Following after Refugees: Artists from Nazi Germany in Britain, the opening exhibition and its companion publication, Art Out of the Bloodlands features Polish artists who have had a significant presence in this country for more than 100 years. This focus is particularly apt as the Polish community in Britain approaches its millionth UK citizen during summer 2017, marking its position as the largest migrant community, and as Poland is about to celebrate a century (in 2018) as an independent nation state, reborn in the aftermath of the First World War. Also, within an artistic context, 2017 is considered the centenary of Poland’s first engagement with avant garde art, celebrating the opening on 4 November 1917 of the first exhibition by the group “Polish Expressionists” in Krakow. Once Europe's largest country, with the continent's first written constitution, the multinational Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared from the map in 1795, divided between Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Emerging as an independent state in 1918, only to be partitioned again by Nazi Germany and the USSR in autumn 1939, Poland remained in the Soviet sphere of influence after the Second World War until 1989, when it regained sovereignty and re-established democratic governance, joining the European Union in 2004. With London's special status as the former seat of the Polish Government-in-Exile from 1940 for half of the twentieth century, and Britain's role as the country where many Polish migrants chose and continue to choose to settle, Art Out of the Bloodlands investigates the extraordinary story of a peripatetic nation which never gave up dreams of freedom, whilst proudly holding onto patriotic images steeped in national history, culture and religion. The two-part narrative reflects experiences of the Polish community in Britain, and Poland's recent turbulent history, through the lens of art, tracing the complex journeys of artists – both Jews and non-Jews – who fled successive regimes, were variously persecuted, imprisoned and interned, who crossed continents, or who, today, in contrast, have made positive choices to move here to study or to develop professionally. Art Out of the Bloodlands brings together a century of artworks and archival material by both celebrated and lesser-known Polish-born artists drawn from the Ben Uri Collection and from a range of external sources, many from within the Polish community in London, to explore complex issues of identity and migration. Ben Uri and the Polish Contribution
Perhaps surprisingly, there has been a Polish presence in contemporary art in Great Britain for more than 100 years, as the records of the London Group and the Ben Uri Art Society – formed in the capital in 1913 and 1915 respectively – attest. And although it is impossible to unite these disparate Polish artists under the single banner of one national school abroad, it would not be incorrect to say that most share a 'common tradition', much as German émigré artists of the period 1933-45 were often defined by their expressionism – and as a result found little popularity amongst the British art buying public who preferred the French “taste”. As writer and art critic Hebert Read commented in his introduction to the 1938 exhibition Modern German Art at the New Burlington Gallery in London, which showcased 31 “degenerate” artists: “It would not be untrue to say that to the general public in Great Britain, modern German art is totally unknown.” – to which one can add the unfamiliarity of Polish painting. A number of these early twentieth century painters were products of the renowned Polish Fine Arts Academies in Krakow (Marian Bohusz-Szyszko; Caziel; Stanislaw Frenkiel; Henryk Gotlib; Zdzislaw Ruszkowski and Feliks Topolski) and Warsaw (Franciszka Themerson; Marek Zulawski), variously influenced not only by the important earlier generation of Polish Jewish history painters, such as Maurycy Gottlieb (1856-79) and Samuel Hirszenberg (1865-1908), but also by a range of avant garde groups such as the Formists and Kapists. Hence, much of the work featured in Art Out of the Bloodlands is marked by an overriding concern for colour and form, as well as a powerful painterly expressiveness, and a belief in a work of art as a carrier of avant-garde theories, often through the vehicle of figuration. The first part of this publication features artists from Ben Uri’s collection (which currently numbers around 1400 works), charting the first two main waves of migration to Britain from Polish soil, commencing with those who primarily fled from the Russian Pale of Settlement before the end of the First World War, to escape pogroms and persecution or to seek better economic conditions. The Ben Uri Art Society itself was founded in Whitechapel in the heart of the London Jewish East End ghetto by Russian émigré artist/craftsman, Lazar Berson, and a number of other key, early members were born on Polish soil, such as Alfred Wolmark (Vice President from1923-1956); Moshe Oved (formerly Eduard Goodack/ Good; Ben Uri Council from 1915-52 and Vice-President from 1934-56), responsible for facilitating many important early acquisitions made by the Society; and Leopold Pillichowski (Vice President from 1923-24 and Honorary. President from 1930-33.) His wife, known as Lena Pillico, was honoured with the first solo exhibition under Ben Uri’s auspices, held at her St John’s Wood studio in 1927 - only two years after the Society opened its first gallery, and hosted its inaugural exhibition of the newly acquired collection, opposite the British Museum in London’s West End. Research for this publication has also brought to light the significance of Marthe Hekimi who was, in fact, born “Marta Szostakowska” in Łódź, exhibited widely in Europe during the 1930s, and participated in a two person show with Sophie Korner at Ben Uri exactly 70 years ago, in 1947. Ben Uri today continues its support for women artists; 27% percent of artists represented in the collection are women –a figure significantly higher than
the average for national and regional collections, while the fierce debate over Ben Uri’s future location continues unabated. A number of artists born on Polish soil - or the children of recent immigrants - began to make their mark in British artistic circles during the first two decades of the Twentieth century. Associated with the East End ghetto and known collectively as the Whitechapel Boys, this group, was identified by Colour magazine’s critic ‘TIS’ (Herbert Furst, later art critic at Apollo) in April 1920, as ‘a remarkable phenomenon […] of so much artistic talent. Epstein, Wolmark, Kramer, Meninsky, Bomberg and [Philip] Naviasky represent, I believe, the first English generation of Polish Jewry’. The first part of Art Out of the Bloodlands also features works by a small group of Polishborn artists who briefly sojourned in Britain but did not settle permanently – though they left their mark on Ben Uri: Henry Glicenstein, the renowned sculptor, was feted by the Society in 1921, as recorded in early minutes written in Yiddish, and funds were raised to acquire a number of his works, which were subsequently displayed in the opening exhibition of 1925; while Lodz-born Isaac Lichtenstein – usually associated with L’Ecole de Paris Juif - was also briefly in London in the 1920s when he was in contact with Ben Uri, designing the Society’s second logo after the departure of its founder, Lazar Berson. Moving forward, Ben Uri’s holdings of work by Polish artists is, unsurprisingly, particularly enriched by the second wave of Polish Jewish refugees and Holocaust survivors who fled Hitler’s persecution from 1939 onwards. These artists include: Jankel Adler, Roman Halter, Josef Herman, Shmul Dresner and Alicia Melamed Adams; the latter, now in her nineties and the only surviving student of Bruno Schulz, the renowned Jewish writer and artist, regarded as one of the most important Polish literary figures of the early twentieth century, who was tragically murdered by the Gestapo in 1942. Ben Uri also maintained contacts with the Polish and wider émigré community through the short-lived Ohel Club. This largely philanthropic association was founded in late 1942 by the Polish-Jewish émigré brothers Alexander (1902–1991, Chairman of Ben Uri from 1965-86 and on council from 1948-86) and Benzion Margulies (1890–1955) to offer ‘a centre for political, social and cultural activities of Polish Jewry’, with membership embracing artists, such as Josef Herman, writers and political thinkers. Leading galleries founded by emigres, and noted regional museum shows also maintained a strong Polish presence; Jankel Adler, Henryk Gotlib, Josef Herman and Zladislaw Ruszkowski, comprised four of the original ten artists shown in Helen Kapp’s Continental British School at Wakefield City Art Gallery in 1959, while the same five names were shown with Martin Bloch at Campbell and Franks exhibition Six Continental British Artists in 1977, both part of Professor Hodin’s largely unrealised initiative to create and promote a single coherent ‘school’ of émigré artists in Britain. As with the majority of acquisitions made during Ben Uri’s first three decades, many of these works were not acquired as part of a deliberate strategy, but came about often as donations, and in the wake of Ben Uri’s important annual exhibitions of work by Contemporary Jewish
artists, which commenced in 1934, as a means of providing opportunities for newly arrived émigrés, many of whom settled in north west London. (This is no less true of the Polish artists; Ruszkowski and Herman lived in Hampstead, the Pillichowskis were in St John’s Wood, and Zulawski moved into the former studio of the British Edwardian sculptor, Gilbert Bayes, in Greville Place in NW8, only yards from Ben Uri’s current gallery). Ben Uri also has significant holdings by Polish illustrators and cartoonists, including Ralph Sallon, born Rachmiel David Zelon (Zieluń), who was resident caricaturist on the Jewish Chronicle until 1930, and Mark Wayner (Weiner), both from the earlier generation, to George Him, half of the notable design duo, Him-LeWitt, founded in 1933 in Warsaw and transferred to London before the outbreak of war through the efforts of the V&A, amongst others. From Anders Army to European Union The second part of Art Out of the Bloodlands features work primarily by non-Jewish Polish artists (the exceptions are Gotlib and Frenkiel, neither of whom were observant although they had Jewish heritage), ranging from those who found themselves trapped in Britain, unable to return home with the outbreak of war; those who joined the Polish Armed Forces in the West from 1939; those came as part of the so-called Anders Army later in the 1940s, to the young artists who have chosen to come to Britain today – more than 70 years later – for educational or professional reasons. Lent by galleries, Polish institutions, such as POSK (Polish Social and Cultural Association) which like Ben Uri, became a repository for artworks by its own community), private collectors, and directly from artists and their families, these pieces highlight artists who often retain a clear sense of national identity, despite translocation, and common themes and iconography reoccur – images of the Polish cavalry, the dark eastern European forests, Polish folklore, crafts and Polish Catholicism. Many of the older generation were imprisoned or deported deep into the USSR following. the occupation and annexation of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in autumn 1939, while others escaped to continue the fight against tyranny from Britain with the Polish Armed Forces in the West. The significant presence of Polish artists in Scotland is witnessed by two wartime exhibitions held in 1940 and 1941. The first, Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings by Polish Artists was held at T & R Annan & Sons of Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, and featured 85 works by five artists – including Gotlib, Topolski and Zulawski, whilst the Exhibition of Works by Artists of Our Allies Belgium Czechoslovakia France Greece Jugoslavia Nederlands Norway Poland under the auspices of the British Council May 1941, at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, no less, displayed more than 400 works (encompassing sculpture and metalwork) with well over half the contributions by Poles, including Gotlib, the design partnership Levitt-Him, Ruszkowski, Topolski and Zulawski. Many of those deported by the Soviets subsequently made a perilous journey from Siberia and Central Asia with the Polish Armed Forces in the East under General Wladyslaw Anders via Iran, Palestine and Italy. Remarkably, due to the financial support of the Polish Government-in-Exile in London and the enlightened strategy of General Anders, the so-
called 'Anders Army' provided opportunities via the Centre of Culture and Education for its artist-soldiers to study and exhibit during their long route out of exile. Many of these artists feature in Douglas Hall’s important publication, Art in Exile, Polish Painters in Post-war Britain (2008), who were then supported in London by Polish-run exhibition spaces, such as the Centaur, Drian and Grabowski Galleries, and variously joined Grupa 49, The London Group and the Association of Polish Artists (APA, founded in 1955), all offering exhibition opportunities. In this context, Andrzej Kuhn’s joyful roundel celebrates 40 years of the Centaur Gallery, founded by Polish pilot, Jan Wieliczko, to offer his countrymen exhibiting opportunities in north west London. The travails of the Anders journey is reflected in works such as Koltonowski’s haunting forest drawing, inspired by 19th century Russian painting and redolent of Polish folktales. He kept this work with him, rolled up, reworking it over a 14 year period, as evidenced by the inscription on the lower left, a trajectory all too familiar with those Poles who traced their way to Britain, via the Middle East, Italy and France, over many years. This epic journey is also documented in Jan Wieliczko’s eagled-embossed album, created with his pilot brother, ending with his joyful arrival in Britain and a fledgling art career, when Jan would leave his British air base each day to study stage design with Vladimir Polunin at the renowned Slade School in London. Ruszkowski also recorded his wartime experiences with the army in his moving personal account entitled Unofficial War Artist. Janina Baranowska arrived in England in 1946, her years in exile precluding art study; subsequently, she enrolled with David Bomberg at Borough Road in the early 1950s, relishing his skills as a teacher who emphasised form and composition. Her Borough Portrait is accompanied by a later Crucifixion, which owes much to the expressionist influence of her next teacher, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, founder of the Polish School of Art in London. A deeply spiritual artist, he eventually married Dame Cecily Saunders, founder of the Hospice Movement in England; much of his work is still on display at St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham, south east London. Stanislaw Frenkiel, charismatic member of the emigre Polish artistic community, whose epic journey with the Anders Army encompassed sojourns in Beirut and Cairo, produced suites of lively figure studies in both cities. Eventually arriving in Britain, he variously studied at the Courtauld Institute of Art, was employed by the Institute of Education; taught art in schools, wrote art criticism; broadcast in Polish for the BBC, and painted prolifically, creating idiosyncratic works whose style and content hover somewhere between that of Georges Rouault and Otto Dix, where myth, history painting and a wryly humourous domesticity collide. Janina Bogucka’s colourful Middle Eastern women, made on her Anders’ journey, contrast with Frenkiel’s monochrome sketches of Cairo prostitutes. In contrast, ZniczMuszynski, another Anders’ artist, is unusual in that his spiky, landscape-inspired work, rather than looking to Polish culture, reflects the influence of British artists of the midcentury, such as Graham Sutherland. In a different narrative arc, Topolski, Gotlib and Zulawski each found themselves trapped in Britain with the outbreak of war, unable to return to Poland. Gotlib, with his singular
approach to form and colour, created a highly personal vision of England; although he had a degree of critical acclaim, commercial success was limited, particularly at a time when abstraction was in the ascendency. However, one of his most notable works has recently been part of a small display: Emigres: Twentieth century Self-portraits by Artists from Abroad (which also featured works by Josef Herman and Jankel Adler, both in the Ben Uri Collection and in Art Out of the Bloodlands.) Piotr Potworowski is the only artist in Art Out of the Bloodlands who returned to Poland in 1958, and to a degree of artistic freedom, eventually dying in his homeland in 1962. Zulawski, arriving in Britain in 1936, is represented in the first instance by a poster design created as a clarion call in 1939, followed by a powerful expressionist work. His works highlight themes ranging from the nobility of labour, to the British at leisure outdoors, to intimate portraits of loved ones. A parallel narrative highlights Poland’s important contribution to graphic arts, with posters, book covers, illustrations and cartoons. Posters issued by the Polish Information Service during the war served to educate the British public by highlighting the closeness of the two allied nations, whose armies were depicted “hand in hand”. Certainly the Polish military effort cannot be underestimated, and the Polish Air Force in particular contributed to the success of the Battle of Britain. Support for Polish soldier-artists by the new host nation is further evidenced by a catalogue published in autumn 1942 the progressive Director at Leicester’s Art Gallery devoted an exhibition to Five Polish Soldier Artists from 3 October – 1 November, 1942. The contribution to British book design is also notable: Art Out of the Bloodlands features covers for Penguin Crime novels by Romek Marber (whose works are now collected by the design archives at the V&A); children’s stories written and illustrated by the Themersons, and exuberant pop-up books for the very youngest, designed by Jan Pienkowski. His paper pop-ups owe something to traditional Polish paper cutouts, still made by illustrator, Andrzej Krauze, who presents powerful drawings from The Guardian newspaper which need no captions, commenting wordlessly on our often-traumatic global histories. Joanna Ciechanowska lifts the mood with a humourous style. As more recent arrivals, Joanna Ciechanowska and former theatre performer, A M Borkowski, migrated in the 1980s to escape martial law in Poland, imposed by the Communist regime to curtail political opposition. From 1989, with the arrival of democracy, opportunities to study and work creatively opened up, beckoning a new generation, such as Adriana Swierszczek, who came as a postgraduate to study at the Slade. For the youngest artists in the exhibition, arriving since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, in search of educational and creative opportunities not offered at home, as truly “European” citizens, they see no difference between working in Paris, London or Berlin. Maja Ngom, Hanna Puskarz and Maciej Jędrzejewski explore photography and new media, yet return to familiar subjects of migration, identity, home and belonging. Magda Skupinska and Magda Blasinska, both from the Royal College of Art, have different responses to
painting – Skupinska is interested in its materiality, using natural substances like chili and cumin, to provide texture and smell as much as colour; Blasinska, brought up on a farm, is concerned with the Polish landscape, folklore and traditional crafts. Gosia Łapsa-Malawska weaves national and personal histories together, highlighting the continuing legacy of the Second World War on subsequent generations of the Polish diaspora. Taken as a whole, the more than forty contributors to Art Out of the Bloodlands highlight the distinctive, enduring and continuing contribution made to Britain’s visual culture by artists and designers from its largest migrant community.