100 Flags

Osiowski’s 2018 series 100 Flags can be classified as reflection on both the technique of painting, and politics. The series was conceived during the preparations for the Polish anniversary of one hundred years of national independence. However, the first sketches for the painting The Flag were drawn in Copenhagen in 1988 and 1989, at a time which was significant for recent Polish history. These dates represent times of important political and social changes. The subject matter and the visual form bear similarities to Jasper Johns’ 1960s works and Włodzimierz Pawlak’s painting Poles Form the National Flag whose first version was created in 1989. Osiowski’s physical distance from his homeland in the 1980s seemed to prompt him to use Polish “national” motifs and colours. The works created at that time illustrate his journey, both the physical and the mental one, and are rooted in the Polish reality.
Yet the paintings are concerned with these issues indirectly. Osiowski himself stresses that the starting point for his 1980s sketches were Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Colour, first published in London in 1977, which Osiowski had translated into Polish before the official translation was published. On the back of one of the sketches from 1988/89, a quote in English and a commentary has been added: “?WHITE MUST BE THE LIGHTEST COLOUR IN A PICTURE. / IN THE TRICOLOUR, FOR EXAMPLE, THE WHITE CANNOT BE DARKER THAN THE BLUE AND RED. / HERE WE HAVE A SORT OF MATHEMATICS OF COLOUR. WHAT ABOUT OUR HOME MATHEMATICS? IF THE WHITE IS GREYED OR BLACKENED? THIS WILL BE TRICOLOUR, TOO. IN OUR CASE.”
And so, in the series 100 Flags, Osiowski did not limit himself to only two colours; he used black and blue paint, he made his white grey, and sometimes added gold leaf or newspaper clippings. The precise division of the fields of colour was textured with scuffed or dripping paint. The flag has ceased to function as a national symbol because its conventionality and symbolism have become visible in the process. As an object based solely on a combination of colours, it does not connote national feelings, instead becoming a field for ever bolder formal experiments. If the question “Is it a flag or a painting?” was appropriate in the case of Jasper Johns’ flags, no doubt remains here that we are looking at paintings.
What about the political dimension?Osiowski, a firm critic of the current Polish government, does not include any slogans in his paintings, nor does he resort to the obvious unlimited source of iconography. He avoids using pictures of protesting crowds defending the rule of law and the Polish Constitution or the photos of Mick Jagger’s Warsaw concert. Instead, he numbers these works from 1 to 100 and paints them as more and more indistinct and faded. The first are dynamic, with vivid, sharp colours, while later ones are pale and grey, with the border between the red and the white – increasingly blurred. The last painting in the series is an unrecognisable mixture of greyish-brown forms. The artist has declared that he will add flag 101, flag 102, and so on, to the series. In the first one hundred, there are subtle paintings with a delicate texture, ones which feature the cross and the star of David, some blurred like children’s pictures – made banal as are the national celebrations organized by the state apparatus. This concept undoubtedly refers to the pompous and trivialised celebrations of Poland’s one hundred years of independence, and it is a commentary on the current condition of politics. Nevertheless, Osiowski argues about this in the following way: “art is not concerned with politics because rather than being mirror in which reality is reflected, it is a critic of reality. Art’s freedom relies on the ability to be somewhat indifferent. Art has the right to «be concerned with itself», and if it occupies itself with the present time, it is not limited by political correctness, conventions, an imposed value system” (Marcin Osiowski, conversations on art 2016–2017).