Paintings for Civilians

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Many of Osiowski’s 1980s works deliberately and clearly raise political questions. They are both attempts at characterizing the reality of that time and to protest it. Paintings such as Salisbury Cathedral, Words Don’t Come Easy and Unidentified Men with Firm Facial Expressions characterize the political circumstances in order to criticize them. In these works, Osiowski created his own lexicon of symbols which accompany oppression, the regime, propaganda and Communist policies: Orwellian pigs, the hats of party dignitaries, and buildings like the Palace of Culture or the headquarters of the Polish United Workers’ Party.
With his masterful use of metaphor, Osiowski talks about the realities in Communist Poland in his series of works entitled Salisbury Cathedral. The titled was adopted from John Constable’s cycle of paintings and sketches of the major English Gothic cathedral, created in the 1820s at the request of Bishop John Fisher. In its most famous depiction, the building is seen from the perspective of the bishop’s grounds. In 1823, the painting was shown at the Royal Academy, and the artist seemed satisfied with the final result. The bishop did not share his enthusiasm and asked for a new version of the painting with the sky looking less gloomy. The painter, who only sold twenty paintings in England during his lifetime, abided by the request.
For Osiowski, the anecdote about repainting the sky is an example of the centuries-old practice of the authorities’ interference in the domain of art. Therefore, the cathedral’s slender spires appear as one item in the rich inventory of associations juxtaposed on Osiowski’s canvas. In his version, an artistic synthesis of the building, whose white colour harmonizes with the blue sky, is at the centre, while other loosely connected motifs encircle it: portraits of Constable and his patron, the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz, George Orwell, camels, a pig in a suit, and drawings of hats. In the background, the Party headquarters in Warsaw are waving their red flag. In front of the building, three Soviet soldiers are marching, stripped of any decorum in a manner typical of Osiowski. Yes, they are marching, but they are drunk, tripping over their own feet. In the foreground, a grey Palace of Culture appears as a symbol of the political regime of that time.
If a political power, be it secular or religious, starts imposing its dogmas onto citizens, it naturally evokes associations with George Orwell’s work. Therefore, in order to build an irrational and mocking critique of Communist authorities in Poland, Osiowski reached for Orwell’s portrait, placing it in the painting next to a pair of eyes behind tinted eyeglasses, which were then associated with General Jaruzelski, the leader of the military junta which ruled Poland in 1981–1983. This is also a clear allusion to the Orwellian threat “Big Brother is watching you.” The figure of a pig dressed in a suit inspired by Orwell’s Animal Farm recurs in sketches for that painting. Animal Farm remained on the Polish list of banned books almost until the complete collapse of the Communist regime. The pig which imitates a human through its behavior and appearance is a symbol of a demagogue leading the totalitarian state. The pig’s head is crowned with a hat, which also refers to the looks of political leaders of that time. In one conversation, Osiowski jokingly pointed to the eschatological problem of Party activists who were meant to represent the working class while wanting to look dignified and “expensive” – which, of course, did not fit within the canon of Communist propaganda. This is why Osiowski will usually talk about Party members wearing “their little hats.” In the same fashion, Osiowski makes the practical woolen beret an attribute of the working class, repressed and humiliated by the Communist authorities which were supposedly representing the workers.
It is no coincidence that the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz also appears there. At the time when Constable tried to immortalize the English cathedral, and thus demonstrated the sentimentalism of the Brits, their attachment to tradition and culture, and their fascination with ages gone by, Mickiewicz was writing his play Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve). The subject of some installments of this multi-part drama is the Polish struggle for national independence against the Russian occupant. Here, Osiowski points to the role of historical and political conditions in shaping the image of art. The diverse national heritages and the national pride that accompanies them are unique and untranslatable for other nations. Goethe will not be read in Poland in the same way as he is in Germany, while the West will find it foreign how Mickiewicz longed for national independence, displayed Romantic affectation and was sensitive to violations of his personal and artistic freedom.