Maler Wilhelm Sasnal in Amsterdam | EUROtoday

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Es war der 1. Januar 2020, als Wilhelm Sasnal mit seiner Frau Anka im Auto von einer Silvesterparty kam und vor den Toren von Auschwitz-II-Birkenau hielt. Der Künstler aus Krakau fotografierte Anka und malte danach zwei Bilder. Einmal ist sie im Profil gegeben, sie schaut starr geradeaus durch die Windschutzscheibe, eingefasst von der pechschwarzen Auskleidung des Wagens. Ihr Gesicht ist verschattet, nicht eben charmant wie­dergegeben, wohl als Folge einer kurzen Nacht an Neujahr. Im anderen Bild dreht Anka den Kopf nach draußen, in Richtung des ehemaligen Konzentrationslagers am Ende jener berüchtigten Gleise, die in zynischer, schulmäßiger Zentralperspektive auf das Torhaus zulaufen. Ihr Schopf ist so schwarz wie das Innere des Autos. Im Außenspiegel erscheint ein Wachturm.

Der KZ-Wachturm im Rückspiegel

Die beiden Bilder hängen jetzt eingangs einer Einzelausstellung Sasnals im Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Links daneben ein Porträt, das einem aus der klassischen Moderne sogleich bekannt vorkommt. Es handelt sich um „Mme Matisse“ von Henri Matisse aus dem Jahr 1905, genannt auch „Der grüne Streifen“, zu sehen ist aber nicht das Original; Sasnal hat es abgemalt, ohne sich ernsthaft an den leuchtenden Akkorden und den chromatischen Finessen zu versuchen, für die der französische Fauvist gerühmt wird. Sasnals Kopie sieht auch nicht liebevoll und nach akribischer Hingabe aus, wie die Amerikanerin Elaine Sturtevant ihre Vorbilder nachgeahmt hat. Seine Madame Matisse ist, verglichen mit dem Original, trocken wiedergegeben, sachlich, flach, fast möchte man sagen: ein bisschen stumpf. Als hätten sich all die traumatischen Erfahrungen, die dem zwanzigsten Jahrhundert 1905 noch bevorstanden, ihrem Antlitz als Ahnung eingeschrieben.

Gebaute Banalität und Akkuratesse des Bösen: Wilhelm Sasnals „Pigsty“, 2011
Constructed banality and accuracy of evil: Wilhelm Sasnal's “Pigsty”, 2011Marek Gardulski

A mental balancing act between the eras

With just 25 paintings, the exhibition in the central hall of the Stedelijk Museum draws a line from the present back to the modern era, in order to capture in images that diffuse unease that links the eras then and now almost fatefully. If you pay attention, you will notice that a few works are framed with black strips. Sasnal had painted these pictures for a film adaptation of Robert Walser's novel “The Assistant” from 1908, which he made with Anka Sasnal and which is due to premiere soon. Hence the strange-sounding title of the exhibition, “Painting as Prop”. In the film, the copies of the canonical paintings hang on the walls of the villa of the notoriously unsuccessful inventor, who takes out his bad mood on his assistant. And in whose emotional world a fatigue and a certain pessimism typical of the time are reflected.

But you don't need to know the novel or the film (which is not part of the exhibition in Amsterdam) to be able to understand the incredibly dense display of images. To immerse yourself in it and to understand it means to follow associations and leaps of thought between images or to make connections yourself – and thus to perform the constant mental balancing act between the eras. This means entering a time machine of painting that is completely current and contemporary, since the comparison of the present with the Weimar twenties is one of the reflexes of today's political self-examination, however robust it may ultimately be.

Time as a medium of expression

At least in this respect the 21st century is far ahead of the beginning of the previous one: we know what concrete consequences can result from contempt for democracy. Based on a photograph from 1942, Sasnal paints an everyday scene with two men on a handcart in his typical, illusion-free black and white; the photograph of Rudolf Dodenhoff in the Polish ghetto of Tarnów was commissioned by the “Institute for German Eastern Work” as part of a study on “race and ethnicity research”. Next to it, Sasnal places a painted clock that clearly dates from a later period and therefore cannot really serve as a warning sign. At the time shown, 3:28 p.m., the painter's children come home from school. And yet the theme of time runs through the entire exhibition. Sasnal, who was born in Tarnów in 1972 and is one of the most important painters of his generation, constantly provides personal and biographical pictorial narratives with historical depth.

He leaves no doubt about his contempt for the enemies of an open society. He portrays the likeness of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – alongside the French right-wing populist Marine Le Pen – as a grim, downright ugly figure; Sasnal paints former Polish Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński and Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak at the border fence with Belarus completely faceless and covers their heads with black brushstrokes. Apart from that, however, he does not indulge in polemics, but rather creates surprising formal connections between canonical works such as a still life by Georges Braque and a construction site somewhere in Greece; paints the flowers on the dining table at home following the example of Édouard Manet and Gerhard Richter, or the afterimage of the view into the sun following the example of his compatriot and avant-garde painter Władysław Strzemiński (1893 to 1952), who also painted “Afterimages of the Sun” but in addition left behind stunning works in regards to the Holocaust.

In Sasnal's Amsterdam exhibition at the Stedelijk, two painted pigsties hang opposite this unfinished copy of Matisse's
In Sasnal's Amsterdam exhibition on the Stedelijk, two painted pigsties cling reverse this unfinished copy of Matisse's “Dance”: “Untitled (After 'Dance' by Henri Matisse)” from 2018.Marek Gardulski

Art as a political device

Seldom is the unease in regards to the current and an unsure future, which may be felt in every single place in Western civil society, summed up in such a prosaic, unemotional approach in an exhibition of work – and linked to a historical past that’s assured as a canon and but has remained ineffective within the face of the hostility to freedom. For twenty years, Sasnal has repeatedly developed the existential instability of latest historical past from the attitude of his private on a regular basis world. His painterly trademark, the sobering black, units the tone in quite a few photos. In phrases of motifs, it’s the suggestions between the person and society for which the Krakow artist has developed his personal talent.

In the Amsterdam exhibition, he constantly confronts the expertise of present actuality with fashionable portray in chosen pairs of images. This finally helps us to know why the big, albeit incomplete copy of Matisse's “Dance” and the image of two pigsties cling reverse one another on the entrance partitions of the room. They encircle and compress the exhibition: as an expression of euphoric pleasure and unprecedented disaster, as a result of the 2 stables are organized as exactly because the barracks of Auschwitz.

Wilhelm Sasnal: Painting as Prop. Urban, Amsterdam; bis 1. September. No Catalog.