Since 2018, Osiowski has also been working with a young artist, Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts graduate Julia Słonecka. Together with musician and director Antoni Gustowski, they make up the collective #grupawolno [Wolno means both “slowly” and “allowed” in Polish]. This is how Osiowski and Słonecka reminisce on their first encounter: “We were surprised by how similarly we think about painting. We decided to collaborate right away.” Osiowski added that he found at lot in common between Julia’s theoretical texts and what he had written thirty years before. The young painter shared his inspiration by Wittgenstein and fascination with Antonioni’s Blowup. They began painting together the day after their meeting. They stress that while they talk a lot, drawing remains their natural language. They begin with sketches which turn into minutes of their meetings as the work progresses. On a sheet of carboard, they synthesize their ideas which emerge from conversations and formal experimentation. Glued-on photographs and pages torn out of single-day calendars complete the drawings, bringing the compositions to a close. This is how their Diaries are created. Many motifs which had appeared in this format for the first time were elaborated on in grupawolno’s painting series, for example in Mona Lisa from Finland, Paintings on Relationships or Islands. A motto for these works, important for the whole group, is the recurring provocative “nam wszystko wolno” (“we are allowed [to do] anything”), which implicitly outlines the framework within which the artist has the right to unrestricted activity.

An instruction manual for a fridge, a matchbox or oil paint packaging, proved to be unexpected sources of ideas and painting themes for the artists. In their joint works, they discuss the role and function of language and the problems of the identity of symbols and signs. They also play with conventional thinking on representational and abstract art. They expressed this directly in their portrait of Plato with the ironic inscription „Mimesis. Rusrs?” (are you serious?). Meanwhile, the series of works The Milking of Van Gogh posed the question on the relationship between memory and the understanding of art as well as the relationship between art and modern-day market realities. Is this Van Gogh? A portrait of an artist misunderstood in his lifetime? Is this a fragment of oil paint packaging? The humorous and surprising title of the painting served as the title of their first joint exhibition (December 2018). This is also a sort of manifesto for #grupawolno.

When the two painters meet, the canvas becomes a field for experimentation and search for form whose final properties should seem right for both artists of differing temperaments, life experience and personalities. Słonecka and Osiowski emphasize that collaboration with Antoni Gustowski remains a key component of their joint exploration and discussions. Osiowski says: “In the studio, we don’t just swing brushes; music isn’t just jabbing at keys. Art is reflection.” Osiowski has also written a lot. His literary works, theoretical texts, poetry and prose, especially those from the beginning of his career, importantly highlight the inseparability of literary and pictorial language, making the reception of paintings easier, and giving insight into the integral connection between the two domains. Notably, like in his paintings, Osiowski does not exploit conventional formulas. His texts are permeated with humour; at times, thoughts are expressed in very explicit language. Osiowski’s texts, written since university, have come to life in front of visitors at the opening of #grupawolno’s first exhibition thanks to Gustowski’s musical talents. Osiowski wrote about their collaboration, demonstrating his interest in history, and revealing paths of associations particular to the collective through which they travel from antiquity to current politics:

“How we paint with Julia – since they’re asking … [W]e are painting a fridge instruction manual because we’ve agreed that a painting can be painted for any reason. And since they brought in the fridge, why not? A matchbox? That’s good, too. Especially if there’s a stain that resembles a round shadow at a graveside scene; the shadow and the ba of the deceased, or other shapes at the feet of Goddess Nut emerging from a sycamore tree in order to feed the deceased and his ba. What is ba? It is the soul, in our terms, just like ka and ach, with the difference that ba can take any form, e.g. a bird with a human head, and ka is always depicted as a human being, or rather in the form of a human being because it isn’t one. The Goddess Nut, whose form of the Cosmic Cow is of no interest to us at this point, was mainly tasked with supporting the sky, and with that we are satisfied. Similarly, we are interested in ka; not only is it presented in the form of a human, but it is also a spiritual element which accompanies a person from birth. It is a perfect, faultless model in which our good characteristics and vital energy are concentrated. Some perceive this as the origin of Plato’s Idea – and this leads us (via a straight path) to mimesis, but before we get there, we dive into Heliopolitan theology. We see the great, even fundamental significance of a name. It determines the individuality of a person, his existence. We create something by naming it and conversely – we destroy by destroying the name. Does this ring a bell? Erase someone with a rubber? Stamp someone over? Delete from history and replace with one’s own self?”

2019 – description

Because it seems so to me – or to everybody – it does not follow that it is so.

That it seems so to men is their criterion for its being so.

In the titles of the paintings: quotes from the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein listed below in
full or in part, or supplemented or changed by the author or the author’s titles.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, Basil Blackwell 1977,
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value,
First edition of Vermischte Bemerkungen 1977,
English translation 1980, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, translated by Peter Winch,
Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
German-English languages edition, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.
New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., 1922
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, Basil Blackwell 1977,
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value,
First edition of Vermischte Bemerkungen 1977,
English translation 1980, Blackwell Publishers Ltd, translated by Peter Winch,
Ludwig Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
German-English languages edition, London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd.
New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., 1922
Original translation: C. K. Ogden, F.P. Ramsey
Notebooks, 1914-1916
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Blackwell Publishers 1998,
English translation by G. E. M. Anscombe, First published 1961
„Some Remarks on Logical Form”, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 9 (Supplemental), 1929,
Über Gewißheit / On Certainty. Oxford: Blackwell 1969.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me

Begun in 2018, the series Tomorrow Belongs to Me is a reference to a key scene in Bob Fosse’s classic 1972 musical Cabaret, set in the Weimar Republic in the 1930s. Between vaudeville scenes in a second-rate nightclub and Berlin’s decadent parties and amusements, more ominous events take place: people are beaten for their political views, malicious slogans are painted on walls, and the Jewish minority begins to feel frightened. In the background of a flourishing love affair and a cabaret variety show, the rise of Nazism was portrayed.

The painting’s title is also the title of a song sung passionately by a golden-haired youth in the film. It starts innocently, with paeans in honour of nature. Gentleness soon turns into fierceness as the song gets louder and more engaging while its words begin to express the promise of national glory. The camera’s slow movement reveals a swastika on the boy’s arm: he is a member of Hitlerjugend. The whole crowd joins him in song. The gender, age or social status of the singers no longer matters. Youths, entrepreneurs and workers, and even a small child subconsciously trying to imitate what happens around it, contribute to the ghastly polyphony. The song does not include words which would explicitly express the future policies of the Third Reich, but it gives a clear outline of a mentality shared by an increasingly larger part of society. The telling scene laid bare the psychological and social roots of Nazism in under three minutes. From an innocent song, it transforms into a hymn which glorifies a brutal expansion and reveals a national complex accumulated since the German defeat in the First World War. Tomorrow Belongs to Me was written by American composers John Kander and Fred Ebb. Its similarity to German patriotic songs resulted its use by groups of Neo-Nazis all over the world as a sort of hymn. Ironically, the authors were of Jewish descent and openly homosexual. This did not prevent such bands as Saga or Skrewdriver from performing the song while emphasizing anti-democratic and racist views.

Osiowski’s collage includes the faces of both the young Nazi and Cabaret’s Master of Ceremonies, who seems to embody the worst human vices. The smile appearing on his made-up face in especially disturbing and worrying moments of Cabaret makes him a demonic observer of the events, aware of their final result. Like in another song from that film, the cabaret becomes a miniature of life, especially its dark side, governed by the human desire for power, greed for material things, pride and shamelessness.

Osiowski’s works bring to mind the output of Dadaists, both formally and because of their relationship with socially engaged art, openly criticizing current political situations. German artists of the interwar period were equally inclined to apply the techniques of collage and photomontage, stressing that traditional values and solutions proclaimed in culture and social life had been compromised post-1914. Works by Dadaists are devoid of aesthetic claims in favour of unmasking uncomfortable absurdities and paradoxes deeply rooted in society as well as mocking the authorities and their war propaganda. Such pieces were created by Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, soon joined by George Grosz, Hans Richter, John Heartfield and Max Ernst, among others. A key point in their manifesto was to connect products of high culture with popular culture, which – in all of its kitschy expression – was a vehicle for values shared by the vast majority of society. The use of ready- made images facilitated the creation of mental shortcuts. The art critic and curator Stephen Foster considered Dadaists to be a resistance movement which constantly aimed at transgressing the accepted norms of judging the work of art and interpreting it, and thus at revealing hidden power structures. What Osiowski’s works have in common with those created one hundred years ago, and with Cabaret, is the need for finding the truth. Through surprising associations and the use of grotesque, they unmask the mechanisms which control citizens and the audience of art. However, this tangle of motifs, this cabaret party, offers as much innocent excitement as it does ominous threats.

Art on Art

Osiowski’s concentration on the physicality of a painting was culminated in the series Paintings on Paintings [alternatively: Images on Images], also titled Art on Art. The series stands out from his body of work as the paintings do not rely on any outside inspiration, they do not look for iconographic references to other fields of art, literature, music, or cinema, and they do not draw on signs from the pop-culture reserve. They give an impression that the painter had suspended his personality and experience for their creation, or at least had put them aside. The minimalist works focus on the artist’s gesture and the preceding decisions about technique. They seem unfinished. Yet, it is precisely thanks to this austere form that they expose the individual choices faced by the artist in his work.

The first of these decisions is the choice of the format and the type of base used underneath the painting. In his youth, Osiowski favoured the large format, realizing that some subjects have a better chance of resonating given the right scale and space. At that time, Osiowski was responsible for the entire process of creation, including constructing the stretcher and stretching the canvas onto it. Meanwhile, choosing smaller formats and using factory-made tools allows the artist to draw attention to the material aspect of the painting, to what constitutes the painting in the most literal way, and yet rarely inspires reflection. When looking at a painting, viewers do not often ask themselves about the painting technique, seeing rather the narrative given to them on the plaque or in the catalogue. Instead, these paintings ask the questions: what is a painting? what is painting?

Another aspect to which Osiowski draws attention are the smallest details of the painting process. When viewing paintings, we tend not to look at individual brush strokes, the order of layering paint or even the chosen colour palette. Osiowski, almost scientifically, breaks down the rudimentary elements of the painter’s technique. Not only has he reduced the composition to a minimum, but he has also eliminated any multiplicity of colours in order to emphasise such properties as saturation, brightness, and hue. The choice of this or that shade of black is all the more interesting because in common perception black is the absence of colour, and people rarely realize the number of its varieties.

Visually, these paintings show similarities to the work of artists such as Cy Twombly or Franz Kline. Cy Twombly served in the U.S. Army as a cryptologist after the Second World War, an experience which left a clear mark on his artistic style. In the 1950s, he developed a painting technique based on his hand gestures: he would cover a dark-coloured canvas with thin lines, giving the impression of scratches. On the other hand, Franz Kline’s dynamic forms were compared to calligraphic signs. Perhaps associations with linguistics are appropriate when artists are concerned with the fundamentals of painting, where the surface of the painting is not concealed by any history or artistic theory. Osiowski’s Art on Art exposes both the finesse of the individual gesture and the refined set of personal rules regarding the painter’s technique. In their modest form, these works draw attention to the important moment of creation when a work is considered complete: how far should the artist go into his reflections? are they intelligible to others? These compositions draw the line which the artist did not want to cross in order not to blur the intelligibility of the area of exploration which had emerged from the chaos of his thoughts as an example of a personal “artistic language.”

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).

Works with Ryszard Grzyb

Osiowski was a contemporary of Gruppa artists, sharing their sense of humour and ideas on the role of art. Yet his unexpectedly extended stay in Antwerp only allowed him to get in touch with one of the group’s members, Ryszard Grzyb, years later. What made them paint together was their similar sense of humour and sensitivity to the absurdities of everyday life, connecting them as people and painters. Since 2002, with a higher or lower frequency, they have been making paintings jointly and signing them as OBA (BOTH). As they suggest in the subtitle of one of their joint exhibitions: “my oba to trzecia osoba” (the both of us are a third person), the two artists really do create a new artistic quality which results from their differing styles, inspirations, and strong personalities. The artists treat the effect of their collaboration as autonomous value which crystallizes during their conversations and joint painting sessions rather than as an extension of individual pursuits. Although each of them paints differently, they are not interested in highlighting that fact. Their main objective is to extract the highest artistic quality as they both perceive it. As Osiowski summarized it, “we do something in order to get that satisfying final result rather than to elbow our way in with our own ideas.” Osiowski believes that what distinguishes his work with Grzyb from other collaborating painters is the sense of a common goal and mutual trust which they have for each other. When characterizing OBA’s works, the association with Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of carnivalization comes to mind. Bakhtin drew attention to the “culture of laughter,” often disregarded by researchers. In Bakhtin’s view, laughter with its expression in the form of the folk carnival is ambivalent as it can express both approval and criticism. It is inherently eccentric, with some aspects of clownery or even obscenity and blasphemy. Grzyb and Osiowski’s paintings remind the viewer about the carnivalistic dimension of everyday life, in which reason and the seemingly universal acceptance of principles and order are suspended, and behaviours and social situations often considered as obvious and unquestionable are pushed out to the margin.

Osiowski and Grzyb discuss the idea of a painting together, concentrating on its formal aspects by translating words into visual language. It is even before their meeting that one of the painters has picked out a photograph, a postcard from abroad, an illustration for a book, a forgotten sketch, a thought or aphorism read recently or jotted down long ago. The division of roles is unplanned. The one who is certain and who knows what gesture should be made at a given point takes his turn painting. Their meetings are jam sessions of painting, improvisations in which a theme is interpreted and processed through turn-taking. Since its inception, Osiowski and Grzyb’s collaboration relies on their meetings as friends, and so the pleasure from working together and the joy of the very act of painting is evident in OBA’s works.

The works vary in both subject matters and formal aspects, at times closer to Osiowski’s early abstract canvasses, at other times – to Grzyb’s trademark horror vacui. The harmony of collaboration is understood in the visual language as a synthesis of opposites: Grzyb’s ornamental style and the synthetic, deliberately “anti-decoractive” character of Osiowski’s works. In their paintings, a world drawn from books and art merges with their observed facts from everyday life. Their works are rooted deeply both in the spiritual message of Egyptian mythology, African beliefs or philosophical thought, and in mundane issues which seep out of the media and advertising. As though in a kaleidoscope, their works depict herds of animals, heroes from ancient lore, protagonists of popular culture led by Marilyn Monroe, artworld celebrities such as Andy Warhol, artists who inspire Osiowski and Grzyb such as William Blake, William Hogarth or the Polish Jacek Malczewski, as well as politicians. In search of inspiration, Osiowski and Grzyb enter the field of socially engaged art. A great example of this is their 2003 painting Biała rasa musi biało patrzeć (The White Race Must Look Whitely), painted at a time when manifestations by white supremacists in Poland were not as ostentatious and as endorsed by the Polish government as they are today. OBA’s socially engaged works express their reaction to the surrounding reality translated into the language of visual arts. However, they are never at the centre of the painters’ interest, never eclipsing other sources of inspiration important to both men.

The results of OBA’s collaborations were shown on a number of occasions, including exhibitions at the Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture, the National Museum in Warsaw, the Warsaw Galeria Promocyjna, the Poznań Arsenał, and Piętra Sztuki (Storeys of Art), organized by Galeria Program. The latter was a temporary exhibition at a makeshift art gallery, arranged in a new building at 76 Marszałkowska Street in Warsaw before it was fully adapted as an office space. For two weeks, the building was also an artwork in itself thanks to a light installation by Mirosław Filonik. An Internet chat window created by Marek Kozłowski was projected onto the façade. Each floor of the office building was designated for one artist. OBA’s works were perfectly suited to the innovative character of the exhibition, which proved once again that encounters with art can take place beyond the museum and the gallery: in working or living spaces.

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.

Four seasons

Osiowski began thinking of it during his visits to the British Museum and the Louvre at the end of the 1970s. In his notes from that time, Osiowski said that he would try to focus on individual works. In London, these were Japanese woodcuts, which he considered to be more modern than many contemporary pieces. In the 1980s, Osiowski became acquainted with works by Amy Newland, an Australian researcher of ukiyo-e, a Japanese style of woodcuts from the Edo period, known as “pictures of the floating world.” He discovered artists such as Utagawa Kunisada and Isoda Koryusai, the author of a series of works titled Four Seasons. A centuries-old subject for which artists had long been inclined to multiply allegories and attributes on large-format canvasses was explored by Japanese woodcut printers on A4-size sheets of parchment. Japanese woodcut printers used parchments the size of an A4 piece of paper. These works were characterized by impressive conciseness and precision. After finishing his series, Osiowski wrote: “So I managed to finish the Four Seasons in five paintings, of course; without ladders, without the falling snow in the winter, without the leaves in the spring and without the autumn rain. According to the Celts, the year started in November with the beginning of winter, and was divided into geimhreadh – the winter season, and samhradh – the summer season. Their holidays were built around winter preparations, the expectation of spring, spring work, followed by the summer and the harvest period, dividing the year into five parts. And besides, isn’t four seasons in five paintings an obvious decision from the artistic point of view?”
Osiowski’s large canvases are characterised by a minimalism and severity far from stereotypical representations of cyclical changes in nature. They do not refer the viewer back to historical art traditions, representations of landscapes from the observation of nature, works depicting particular months, or allegorical images of women which embody the conventional division of the calendar year.
In the past, this division, the emphasis of the cyclicality of changes, came from the order of agricultural work. People depended on crops for survival, and it made them more sensitive to changes in nature. They felt the need to regulate time and give it a certain order. The natural clock measured months and days, assigning roles and tasks to the members of historical communities. In contrast, Osiowski seems to paint the experience of the modern man, surrounded by concrete whose colour does not seem to differ much whether it is the sunny July or the grey autumn. The particular seasons in the paintings would perhaps be identified by the titles. They would make the abstract images recognizable representations of changing periods or at least they would allow the viewer to learn the intentions of the artist. And yet Osiowski calls each of the five paintings the same way: Four Seasons. In his notes from that period, Osiowski expresses some disappointment with Jasper Johns’ paintings: the obviousness of their symbolism and their oversimplification. Conversely, in his compositions Osiowski attempts to paint subjective psychological states induced by change. The presence of black and grey, dotted sparingly with ochre, forces the viewer to think about the passage of time and invites him or her to guess whether geometric shapes can replace the conventional flower buds in the spring, the sun’s rays on the green summer grass, or snow-sprinkled fields. In this work, Osiowski proves that the distinction between figuration and abstraction is purely arbitrary. The central point of the work is not the narrative or the motif itself but the development of new ideas for traditional landscape painting and the convention of the four seasons. In this series, Osiowski sought to transcend the viewers’ habits and expectations, and to show in a unique way what is well-known both from everyday experience and from art history.

Daisy Girl

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The painting entitled Daisy Girl was inspired by the controversial 1964 political campaign ad for American president Lyndon B. Johnson. Although this sixty-second commercial was only broadcast once, it is widely believed to have been a major reason for Johnson’s victory over Barry Goldwater, and a defining moment for political advertising campaigns. Although the name of Johnson’s political opponent never appears in the short film, and the campaign staff created several other equally controversial ones (for example Eastern Seaboard and Girl with Ice Cream Cone), it is considered as the beginning of the era of negative campaigning. The short broke the mould of what political advertisements had used to be: half-hour speeches with some shorter films or songs mixed in. In its concise form, the ad shocked the viewers with an emotional message which frightened the voters with the prospect of nuclear war, implicitly suggesting that it would be Goldwater’s doing. The authors seemed to follow the principle that advertising is a means of persuasion first – not a science but an art. Therefore, they took any of the opponent’s imprudent words out of context, and rejected rational criticism in favour of literality and fearmongering – successful largely due to recent memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Osiowski saw the short film in London in the early 1980s. It was then that he drew the first sketches for the cycle with the trope of the daisy girl. He began painting in 1987 in Copenhagen. Years later, he described this experience in his notes: “After watching the film, I asked myself the question: how much time did we have before such an «atomic bomb» of political campaigns would actually go off?” He returned to working on these paintings in the 1990s, and he continued throughout the decade. His work found a turning point in a conversation with Fred Martin, an American political campaign advisor whom Osiowski met in 1991. Martin’s explanations gave Osiowski the ultimate motivation. The cycle comprises ten paintings, numbered according to the daisy girl’s countdown as she omits the number six, and then repeats it twice. She picks the petals off a flower, and before she counts to ten, a voice off screen picks up the countdown to an explosion of an atomic bomb. The creators of the short film admitted that they drew inspiration from François Truffaut’s 1954 film The 400 Blows (Les quarte cents coups). In order to accentuate the tragedy that is a child’s death, Truffaut froze the frame and closed up on the still face. In the Johnson campaign ad, the girl’s voice is followed by the emotionless countdown and a shot of an atomic mushroom cloud. This is how political campaigns began using techniques of emotional persuasion which had been previously reserved for selling cars or laundry detergent. Osiowski commented on this with the following words: “Recently, on the fiftieth anniversary of the short, I think, I read in The Washington Post that Daisy was the mother of negative campaigning. And a sentence like this: «Daisy was a full-throated, gloves-off, take-no-prisoners negative message.» Hello, how are you doing?” These thoughts found an aftermath in Osiowski’s notes from 2019: “And what is the image of today’s world? It has been de-composed. Its parts are dismantled. I see someone’s face, but another one appears in the background; I don’t know whether a term like this already exists or if I’m making it up on the spot, but for me these are phantom images, like in computer files infected by a virus. Someone is tinkering with the reality surrounding us, someone is financing an army of trolls. Tanks are bought and sold; war is waged by hackers. Where, what kind, in whose name and interest? If tanks are now being sent to murder civilians, it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Manipulations from the time when people believed in subliminal messaging, the time of the Daisy Girl broadcast or the little wars between Hoover and Lennon, seem like innocent frolics. The image falls apart, concepts are blurred. For Wittgenstein, reality is not a simple sum of facts; reality is determined by the facts in logical space. And the task of philosophy is to free our mind from the confusion and puzzlement caused by language. The thing is that simple manipulation, of the same quality as today’s government’s television, has been profoundly primitivized. It’s a hammer for wreaking havoc on brains. There are no «other facts» which would create some sort of «a new sum of facts in a space of changed logic» because there is no such thing as illogical logic. Gibberish is gibberish, a lie is a lie. Welcome to the world of Orwell.”

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.