Friday, 25 February 2011

On The Bus: Bronisław Wojciech Linke

We visited the National Museum (which also seems to be the National Gallery) in Warsaw. In the Polish Modern Art section I came across the painting, Autobus (Bus) by Bronisław Wojciech Linke. Tastes differ, of course, but I can only say that this is, for me, not only the greatest Polish painting I've ever seen, but also one of the world's finest.

If there is one priceless masterpiece I would want on my wall, this would be it. It needs to be looked at, studied and appreciated. It is complex, intriguing, fascinating and so full of images, both in terms of composition and meaning, that a small reproduction - the painting must be over 1 1/2 metres in width - cannot do it any justice. Look for the vague shape of a lemon in the picture below and then consider going to the gallery, where you will find a perfect, roughly life-sized, depiction of a lemon, the face of a ghoulish passenger.

Linke's place in international art seems to be minimal, if not non-existent. It may just be the vanity of my own tastes, but I would like to think that this results from western markets having little access to his work and no sales opportunities: an artist caught by the twin hangover of McCarthyite USA and communist Poland. The latter may be particularly unfair: the picture is included in a book I have on Polish Painting and, after all, it is there in the Museum. However, it is hung on the rear of a badly lit stand, in a modern art gallery more of interest for Polish art history than artistic quality. He doesn't even have an entry in English Wikipedia. A quick translation and slight adaptation of the Polish Wikipedia entry therefore follows.

Bronisław Wojciech Linke (born 23 April 1906 in Tartu, now in Estonia, died 6 October 1962 in Warsaw) – painter, illustrator and graphic artist, who produced pictures based on political and social themes.

As a child, he saw terrifying scenes during the Russian February Revolution of 1917, the subsequent German offensive and the Estonian War of Independence against both the Germans and Soviets (1918-1920). Living through such dramatic times bore so heavily on his imagination that, for the rest of the life, he pursued artistic themes exhibiting powerful social commitment and strong moralistic undertones.

Within newly independent Poland, he initially studied at Szkole Przemysłu Artystycznego (School of Artistic Trades) in 1922–1923 in Bydgoszcz, and 1924–1926 in Krakow under Henryk Uziembło, and then, 1926–1931, in Akademia Sztuk Pięknych (Acadmey of Fine Arts) in Warsaw under the guidance of painters Tadeusz Pruszkowski and Mieczysław Kotarbiński. He belonged to Loża Wolnomalarskiej (Freepainters' Lounge) and after the Second World War to the Powiśle group (Shores of the Vistula).

As a graphic artist, he made his debut in the columns of the weekly satirical magazine Szpilek ('Pin' or 'Stiletto Heel') in 1936 and worked as illustrator for Dziennik Ludowy (People's Journal), Nowe Życie (New Life), Sygnały (Signals), Tygodnika Robotnika (Worker's Weekly) and, after the war, with Polityka (Politics) and Trybuna Ludu (People's Tribune).

He created Cycles of work. His earliest Cycle of drawings was Wojna (War) (1931-32), followed by Miasto ('City' or 'Town') (1931-35).

He was friends with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz with whom he journeyed in Silesia. A Cycle of 30 works entitled Śląsk (Silesia) resulted from this trip. In May 1938, an exhibition of the Cycle at the Instytut Propagandy Sztuki (Institute of Art Promotion) was shut down because of its potential social harm.

After the outbreak of World War II, he fled with his wife to Lviv (part of Poland taken over by the Soviets in September 1939, now part of the Ukraine), concerned about potential reprisal from the Germans for his press caricatures of Adolf Hitler. He was sent to Orsk on the river Ural in 1942, only managing to return to Poland in 1946.

After returning to Warsaw, he painted his most famous cycle, Kamienie krzyczą (Stones Shout), 1946-56. This was a terrifying vision of the ruins of the capital. Reproductions of work from the cycle were included in a 1959 book, Kamienie krzyczą with an introduction by Maria Dąbrowska.

He produced little in the post-war period because his art did not conform with the artistic climate of the time.

[Photo: Nie widzieć nie słyszeć (Don't See, Don't Hear), 1957 self-portrait from the Atom series.]

Linke's creations are sometimes accurately described as metaphorical realism. The essence of his art is a visualisation of literary metaphors. The composition of his images, and the way the cycles of pictures are constructed, have a remarkably narrative character.

Most of his work was done on paper. The performer combined watercolour, gouache, crayon, pencil and Indian ink, often scratching and wiping the surface of the paper, and employing collage.

One of the best known of Linke's works is the painting called Autobus (Bus), popularly known as Czerwony autobus (Red Bus) which was one of his last works, inspired by Stanisław Wyspianski's play, Wesele (The Wedding). Like the heroes of the Wedding, the characters in The Bus are slaves standing as an obstacle to their own liberation. The poet Jacek Kaczmarski dedicated his 1981 song Czerwony Autobus to the picture in 1981. Another well known picture by Linke is Modlitwa zamordowanych (The Prayer of the Murdered) from 1942.

A documentary film was made in 1991 with Bronisław Linke describing the world as he saw it. It was directed by Grzegorz Dubowski.


Michael Dembinski said...

WOW! An amazing painting. Sadly, my son was in such a hurry to get to Starbucks on Sunday that we skipped the modern Polish gallery altogether. SHAME. I regret having been so close to this masterpiece and missing it, damn!

Paddy said...

The atomic one is brilliant. Very interesting.

odrzut said...

Great painting that is.

Regarding Kaczmarski - I cannot recommend his songs enough - people associate him with Solidarnosc, and think of him as a political poet, but his art has many more faces than fighting with communism - I consider him poet equal to Słowacki, Mickiewicz, or Miłosz.

If you want to understand Polish-Jewish relations, Polish idiosyncretics and complexes - Kaczmarski wrote a song about all of them.

Gee Em said...

On the bus is the highlight of the whole museum, I take all my international and any domestic guests there if they haven't already seen it. I would love it on my wall. It really is stunning and awe inspiring.

Paddy said...

How much is entry by the way?

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