Tamara Sztyma: The Otwock Afterimages of Wojciech Cieśniewski

Beata Twardowska and Wojciech Cieśniewski, Otwock, July 2022. Photo: Jacek Twardowski

Wojciech Cieśniewski calls up events from the past and, through painting, makes ‘attempts’ at touching experiences he cannot understand and which evoke fear. The title of the exhibition, Life, After All, complements the message coming from the paintings. The artist has chosen, in the context of the crime perpetrated on the Jews, to talk about their life.

Text by Tamara Sztyma, art historian, curator of exhibitions in POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, published in the catalogue of the Life, After All. Exhibition of paintings by Wojciech Cieśniewski.

‘I paint out of fear of evil and longing for holiness.’ This succinct sentence is how Wojciech Cieśniewski, painter and professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, describes his current work. Since 2020 he has been working on Life, After All, a series of paintings expressing his personal, emotional relation to the past, to the difficult and tragic history of twentieth-century Europe, which reached its culmination during the Second World War.

An important strand in this work is the tragic fate of the Otwock Jews, in whose stories the artist has immersed himself in recent years, in part thanks to his Otwock-connected friends Beata Twardowska and Jacek Twardowski, whose considerable efforts have led to the mounting of this exhibition. Another huge inspiration for the artist were the materials about Otwock Jews made available by the Citizens’ Committee for Remembrance of the Jews of Otwock and Karczew, headed by Zbigniew Nosowski.

Life in Full Flower and the Holocaust

Before the war Otwock was a place where over half the population was Jewish. Starting in the 1880s the town evolved into a thriving summer resort, then in the next decade as a spa, full of sanatoria and boarding houses. Well over ten thousand people came every year to holiday or to improve their health, and the majority of them were also Jewish. The town pulsed with Jewish life: there were many cultural and political organisations, Jewish sanatoria, sports clubs and Jewish newspapers.

After the outbreak of war and the beginning of the German occupation of Poland, the Jewish population of Otwock was subject to brutal persecution. In the autumn of 1940 the Germans created a closed quarter into which the Jewish population of the town was resettled. Over a period of two years about 15,000 Jews passed through the Otwock ghetto. Some of them came here from other towns because, periodically, this ghetto was thought to be safer and more open than others, such as the one in Warsaw.

On 19 August 1942 the Germans began their annihilation of the ghetto. About 8,000 of the Jews living here were sent to Treblinka, while 3-4,000 were murdered on the spot or during mass executions.

The exhibition of Wojciech Cieśniewski’s paintings Life, After All has been organised for the 80th anniversary of the annihilation of the Otwock ghetto. Most of the work shown has been inspired by photographs of Otwock Jews taken from a number of archives, primarily Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which collects information about the victims of the Holocaust. Some of these materials can be accessed on the Jews of Otwock FB page of the Citizens’ Committee for Remembrance of the Jews of Otwock and Karczew. As well as photographs from before the Holocaust, the page also makes available photos from immediately after the war, showing residents of the Dawid Guzik Jewish children’s home in Otwock, set up in 1945. This was one of the many postwar institutions for Jewish children who had miraculously survived.

Memory plates

After the Holocaust, images from before the war took on new meaning and are frequently called up in the context of remembrance. As Golda Tencer writes in her catalogue introduction to the exhibition And I Still See Their Faces, snapshots that were supposed to catch a fleeting moment have come to document a whole epoch.[1]

After a war in which the Nazis killed off most of the Jewish population, it is hard to look at prewar photos or films in a neutral, objective manner. They have become ‘memory plates’: viewing them brings up strong feelings, and tears for a lost world.[2]  That is why they are often made use of for exhibitions, museum installations or artistic projects.[3] Looking at these images is hard, knowing that these people perished in such a barbarous way, with the ‘unawareness of their inevitable deaths’ plainly written on their faces when, on the other hand, before the war they looked so astonishingly full of life.

Paintings that make reference to snapshots of this kind are at the core of Wojciech Cieśniewski’s exhibition. The artist transposes onto canvas the faces from the photographs, contemplating them with astonishment and disbelief. His inability to understand, and the strong feelings that the Holocaust arouses in him, find expression in the way he paints: ferociously, sketchily, smudging his figures expressively, or bringing them forth from overlapping layers of paint. In many of the paintings the impressionistic, blurry faces are eroded even further with a net of thin lines, giving them an organic, web-like structure.

They are like the afterimages lurking under our eyelids, where the past mixes with the present, and reality with dreams. This technique brings to mind the ‘afterimage’ painting theory of Władysław Strzemiński, who referred in his work to the physiology of sight, particularly to the eye’s ability to superimpose and combine images: those still on the retina though no longer being looked at, with those currently being seen.[4]

Painting in Defence of Life

The transposition of photographs into paintings in Wojciech Cieśniewski’s work is an attempt by the artist to express his own feelings about the past. Not only does he deconstruct the portraits, breaking them down into separate layers and areas of colour, but he superimposes different shots and frames of the same story, thus disrupting the sequence of cause and effect of an event.

Such a blurring, fragmenting and multiplying of images would seem to bear witness to the impossibility of creating a coherent representation of what happened. In this way the artist can express his inability to understand the past, his difficulty with reaching for experiences that have gone. This condition has been described by Byron L. Sherwin, rabbi and writer on theology and interfaith dialogue, when he said, ‘…the more we know about the Holocaust, the less we understand.’

The different overlapping layers and colours suggest an overlaying of different temporal and ontological orders: of life and death, fact and fiction, past and future, imbuing the work with a hallucinatory quality. The artist repeats images of the same people in the next paintings in new configurations, so the paintings permeate each other, enter into dialogue with one another.

Cieśniewski’s take on observing the former world is not merely a question of tears and grieving for its loss. His work is not just an elegy for the murdered; the artist is able to transcend grief. In the dreamlike pictures his imagination brings to life those who perished, or juxtaposes the dead with those who survived. Creating these paintings thus becomes a declaration of not accepting death, an act of moral opposition towards history, a philosophical gesture of denial.

On the backs of the paintings Cieśniewski has written emotional title/comments, often using the word próba (attempt), underlining in this way that the pictures are just an attempt… at what? Entering into particular experiences, approaching the incomprehensible? Showing the intertwining of life and death? An attempt at calling up life?

Such an ‘attempt’ is the series of portraits of Ita, a young woman from a prewar photograph in the Yad Vashem collection. In one painting Ita’s face is framed by a window, suggesting a window in the train going to Treblinka. Two others are entitled Ita Lives! They are impasto snapshots of a laughing young woman, caught in movement, her hair flying. The annotations on the backs of the paintings say, ‘Ita lives!  She was in Bielany [in Warsaw] 18.04.2022.’ In this way the artist expresses his contestation of the course of events. When he transposes snapshots onto canvas he adds question marks to them, undermining the facts. She lives, after all! The act of painting becomes a defence of life.

Other ‘attempts’ are the depictions of the Symchowicz family, Ita, Perła (Pearl) and a pair of anonymous twins.

The Symchowicz Family (1st Attempt and 2nd Attempt) are paintings based on a photograph of the Otwock family of Mojżesz Symchowicz taken in 1938, when the oldest daughter, Szajndla, was leaving for Palestine. She and her brother Symcha, standing next to her in the photo, were the only ones in the whole family to survive the war. In the first version of the painting the close-ranked family group is totally dismembered, each of them floating by themselves, their faces melting away in the act of obliteration. In the second attempt two of the figures have kept some of their shape and are more like portraits, while the other four faces appear to be disappearing in the dark abyss.

The twins motif appears in several of the paintings. Sometimes the girls are very young children, another time adolescents; sometimes only one remains, the other having been rubbed out. Pearl, the painted snapshot of a child survivor who found herself after the war in the Otwock children’s home, is in a second picture multiplied into a whole pageant of girls, some of whose images have been turned upside down.

A similar motif appears in Art or Lottery, where a bust of the figure is duplicated and turned about, creating an image reminiscent of a playing card. These upside down images appear to signify being torn between life and death, which is what Jews lived with during the Holocaust, and seem also to be an expression of the artist’s ontological uncertainty about how to read, how to understand the people in the photos.

A New Beginning

Among the people remembered are also those who survived and began new generations. The subject of several paintings is Thomas Buergenthal, born 1934 in Ľubochňa, Slovakia. As a child he spent some time in the Kielce ghetto, from where he was transported to Auschwitz, and is one of the youngest people to have survived a death camp. Immediately after the war he came to the Dawid Guzik Children’s Home in Otwock, finally emigrating to the USA, where he has gained renown as a lawyer specialising in international law and human rights. He has been a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and served as a judge on the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

For the artist Buergenthal’s story represents a crescendo of life that survived in the face of prearranged death. The paintings depict both Buergenthal as a child (The Child Not Supposed to Live), as a young boy after the war (Buergenthal with His Mother) and as an elderly professor receiving an award for his human rights work (Anna Ramberg Presents Professor Thomas Buergenthal with the Stockholm Human Rights Award, 20 11 2018).

The fact that some Jews were able to survive the Holocaust, even though they were so few, attests to the failure of the plans for extermination. Their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are writing new pages in the history of the world. This was the discourse that dominated the Jewish community after the war. For survivors to have numerous offspring was a sign of victory and triumph over those who would deny them the right to life. For some it was evidence of the continuing fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham in the Book of Genesis, ‘… Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: […] So shall thy seed be’ (Gen 15:5).

This is the meaning expressed in The Spring of the Nation, 1948, a painting inspired by a shot of three teenage girls: Chana Grynberg, Elwira Grosfeld and Wiesia Awiwa Blum, who lived in the Dawid Guzik Children’s Home after the war, before going to Israel. The artist emphasises the physical flowering of these three girls: their generous hips suggest they are strong and healthy, well able to give life to the next generation.

How Do You Remember Something that Defeats Understanding?

In this exhibition the paintings recalling Otwock’s Jewish inhabitants are surrounded by other work, which allows for a broader perspective, sharing the artist’s scrutiny of the perpetrators, the witnesses, those who resisted and those who still struggle with remembering. Some of this work was created in parallel with the Otwock paintings, starting in 2020, some comes from earlier periods of the artist’s output, including his Caravaggio period, when he engaged in a dialogue with the tradition of the old masters.

These paintings also contain questions. How is violence born? Can you resist it and what could be the consequences if you do? Can you preserve the memory of something? And finally: how do you remember something that defeats understanding?

Reflections about the birth of violence appear in Fascism and A Primitive Consumes His Greatness. These paintings are juxtaposed with The Inevitability of Things, a work inspired by an ancient sculpture of a lion attacking a horse. Biblical motifs of David and Goliath, and Judith and Holofernes, evoke the archetypical struggle against overwhelming odds, and of sacrifice. Their Spirit Lives On is dedicated to the memory of Sophie and Hans Scholl, members of the German anti-Nazi group, the White Rose, who paid for their anti-Nazi activity with their lives.

The paintings of witnesses form a special group. Inconvenient Witness shows the expressionistically distorted face of a young Irena Sendler (who had been brought up in Otwock), recognised as Righteous Among the Nations, instrumental in saving hundreds of Jews. Sendler is now a mighty symbol of resistance, struggle and the failure of Nazi plans. The title of the painting, however, is a reminder that after the war many of the Righteous had become inconvenient witnesses, whose deeds, like the fates of the Holocaust victims themselves, it was more expedient to pass over in silence and forget.

Difficult memories provide the context for the moving Young Woman from Otwock, which shows an image of the famous well in Otwock market, known from writer Alter Kacyzne’s prewar photos. An icon of the lost Jewish world of prewar Otwock, in the painting the well is juxtaposed with a contemporary portrait of a woman lost in thought. This is typical of Cieśniewski’s work, the setting together of images from different ontological orders. The painting asks questions about the identity of Otwock’s current inhabitants, their attitude to the town’s multicultural past and the annihilation of the Otwock Jews.

Also part of the Life, After All series are paintings in which the artist measures up to his father. Wojciech Cieśniewski was born in 1958 in Działdowo, in the borderlands between Poland and East Prussia, where history had left the community strongly divided, with part of the population leaning in the direction of Germany and part in the direction of Poland. During the German occupation there were those who supported fascism, and this still casts a deep shadow over community relations.

This also affected the artist’s personal and family history. At sixteen his father managed to avoid being taken by the Germans to the front, jumping out of a train heading east. For many years after the war he was persecuted by the Polish secret police. The tragic figure of his father is a recurring motif in the artist’s work. In the paintings about him Cieśniewski employs the same artistic language as in the Otwock work: a fragmentation of form and piling up of planes, questioning the course of past events. There is a question, besides, about identity, which the artist asks of himself. This story also takes place under the shadow of fascism.

An Archaeology of Traces

Wojciech Cieśniewski’s paintings of the last two years show how much the theme of the Holocaust is still alive for artists. The subject keeps coming back in art and, paradoxically, the passage of time does nothing to diminish its presence.

Immediately after the war artists who had survived the Holocaust (the witness generation) long searched for a language appropriate for their experiences, for the expression of their trauma. Many of them showed a decisive turn towards the physical body, which was often distorted, subjected to disintegration (seeking to express death, to convey near death experiences).[5]  Quite different was the work produced by subsequent generations, for whom the dramatic immediacy of the first generation’s experience was replaced by exploring what was left of the extinguished world and working on remembrance.

In the 1990s American researcher Marianne Hirsch coined the term ‘postmemory’ to describe the experience of people who grew up, or are growing up now, in a world dominated by stories from before they were born. Their lives are lived in the shadow of the traumatic history of previous generations, whose direct experience they do not share, but which they try to understand and bring to life.[6]  In contrast to the actual witnesses of the Holocaust, who generally avoided direct reference to particular times, people and places, younger artists deliberately reach for the traces that remain, the scraps of physicality sometimes contained within a photograph, sometimes only in the aura of a place or in nature itself. What often accompanies them is a feeling of powerlessness and confusion, arising from the impossibility of getting back the past or even touching it.[7] 

Wojciech Cieśniewski’s work falls within this trend of an archaeology of traces, an archaeology of remembering. The artist calls up events from the past and makes ‘attempts’ at touching experiences he is unable to understand and which engender fear. His work would appear to combine archaeology with some kind of alchemy, or exorcism. In his manipulation of traces he creates an artistic act of resistance, of negation. He reaches for disintegration, then makes an attempt at revival. Life, After All

The title of the exhibition complements the message coming from the paintings. The artist has chosen, in the context of the crime perpetrated on the Jews, to talk about their life. In the ‘pursuit of holiness’ he grasps at thin threads, thin strings of light.

Translated by Jolanta Scicińska

Tamara Sztyma: art historian and museum curator. For over a decade associated with POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, first as joint curator of the interwar gallery of the core exhibition, then as curator of temporary exhibitions concerning various aspects of Jewish culture and history. Author of several publications and lecturer on Jewish art and the work of Jewish artists.

[1] And I Still See Their Faces: Images of Polish Jews, Shalom Foundation, Warsaw 1996, p. 6.

[2] Op. Cit, p. 5.

[3] One of the best-known projects of this kind is the exhibition And I Still See Their Faces, organised by the Shalom Foundation. This presents a huge collection of photographs and memories gathered during a mass action (1996), with an accompanying album of the same title. Another example is the work of artist Krystyna Piotrkowska and the project curated by her, Ulica Próżna (Próżna Street), a series of artistic actions in the ruins of a prewar Jewish townhouse. Before its partial demolition and commercial renovation, the building itself had become an art installation, with prewar images of Warsaw Jews placed in its windows.

[4] Strzemiński also made use of the texture of afterimages in a series of collages produced from 1945 onwards, entitled To My Jewish Friends.

[5] Polish art and the Holocaust, exhibition catalogue, Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw 2013.

[6] M. Hirsch, Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, London, 1997.

[7] K. Bojarska, Obecność Zagłady w twórczości polskich artystów, www.culture.pl (accessed: 13.06.2022).

Leave a Comment

Twój adres e-mail nie zostanie opublikowany. Wymagane pola są oznaczone *