The Portrait of Poles

Any group or any generation would point to different historical events, figures, monuments or symbols as key to creating its identity and historical memory. In 2007, Osiowski encountered a magazine ranking where Poles were asked to name the most important symbols for their Polish identity. The list began of course with the name of Pope John Paul II who had died two years before; next, there were Copernicus, Lech Wałęsa and Frederic Chopin as well as the white eagle from the Polish coat of arms, the Medieval Battle of Tannenberg, and even a Polish species of bison, the fish carp, vodka, and the Palace of Culture in Warsaw. For Osiowski, that “slightly absurd list” – as he said himself – became an inspiration to paint the equally witty Portrait of Poles. He described it as: “A collective portrait of a nation, with the Pope, the eagle, the gift from the Soviet people for which we paid ourselves [i.e. the Palace of Culture, built in Warsaw in the 1950s] as well as a fish and a bottle of vodka.” The artist evidently decided to employ a diverse arsenal of painting techniques, formal solutions and iconographic sources for each symbol in the series. Was this a mere painting challenge to depict the subject as absurdly as the ranking was itself, or did he conceal unexpected messages in his works? The artist prefers not to say, concentrating instead on the details of each painting. This is how he talks about the “portrait” of the pope: “The greatness of John Paul II, his world-scale format, has been caricaturally deformed in Poland through tasteless worship, horrendous statues, and the absurd «struggle for Catholicism» mainly by those whose attitudes contradict Catholic values. Kraków, which in a sense has become a second home for me, is full of kitschy «memorabilia» and Karol Wojtyła’s city has become a huckster’s stall selling religious accessories.” Osiowski’s painting is composed out of used t-shirts with an idealized image of John Paul II printed on them.
Meanwhile, in its first version, Copernicus’ likeness was painted by Osiowski in a flat, poster-like manner, similar to how the astronomer is usually conventionally depicted in Poland. Osiowski added one surprising detail: his Copernicus’ lips are golden. Later, another version appeared when Ryszard Grzyb called Osiowski on the phone and notified him about a breakthrough archaeological discovery in Toruń, Poland. Copernicus’ remains had been found in that city, which allowed scientists to recreate the facial structure of the astronomer at the age of seventy. That image is far from the popular portrait of a sharp-nosed face framed by a crown of dark, shoulder-length hair. A frightened older gentleman with a slightly misshapen face looks down at the viewer from Osiowski’s painting. Due to the lack of familiar attributes, he cannot be identified with the hero who stopped the Sun and moved the Earth.
Osiowski confesses that the carp required many sketches. The first, monochromatic ones reduced the painting to an inscription which imitated digitally-cut lettering. This was followed by studies on colour, inspired by Andrzej Wróblewski’s small watercolour painting of… a carp. Osiowski took the geometric shapes in which Wróblewski had captured his carp, adapted the colours and created a final version which he admits that he deliberately aged: “Works by Wróblewski, an undoubtedly extraordinary, pioneering and radical artist, are currently treated with a sort of deference, even though they belong to a past which conceals the dark climate of that time. One renowned art historian told me that Wróblewski had been a militant Communist, which is disguised today with talk of experiments at the intersection of social realism and abstraction.”
It seems that Lech Wałęsa’s portrait posed the greatest challenge for Osiowski. In his view, Wałęsa is the most ambiguous figure in the paintings, distinctive, regularly present in the press and television, and nowadays portrayed in mostly negative light. Osiowski stresses that Wałęsa is the symbol of thefall of Communism, and therefore the face of real Polish success recognized worldwide: “Before, when someone had fallen from Stalin’s grace, he was cut out of encyclopaedia pages and retouched out of photos. Now, new Bolsheviks are at the gates, wanting to erase Wałęsa from history books with their rubbers. This is a subject for painting. But this should be a portrait of the great Wałęsa, a historical figure enmeshed in dark games, rather than an image of the complexes of a little man [Jarosław Kaczyński] who would like to get into history books uninvited. This is a different subject altogether, although fit for a painting, too.”
Here, Osiowski refers to a print created by Jacek Fedorowicz as a response to governmental policies in Communist Poland and the attempts to discredit Wałęsa, the leader of Solidarność, and even to erase his name from Polish history. Wałęsa’s portrait was reprinted with duplicating machines as part of illegal circulation. Under the portrait, there was an inscription modelled after a museum plaque which said “A Portrait of an Unknown Man with a Moustache (Late Twentieth Century)”. By depicting one of the most famous Poles as though his actions would never make history, Fedorowicz expressed the ruling party’s desire to treat the Nobel Prize laureate as a regular citizen. In the Communist media, Wałęsa was called “a private citizen” which was intended to deny both his leading role and the existence of Solidarity or any kind of political opposition. At the same time, in the West, he was an icon of the struggle for democracy.