Wilhelm Sasnal reveals his "fight" with art

Polish artist admits to stretched and torn canvasses at Whitechapel Gallery talk
Kacper (2009) Wilhelm Sasnal signing prints at Phaidon

1 / 8 Kacper (2009) Wilhelm Sasnal signing prints at Phaidon

Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled (Church) (2001)

2 / 8 Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled (Church) (2001)

Wilhelm Sasnal, Anka (2001)

3 / 8 Wilhelm Sasnal, Anka (2001)

Wilhelm Sasnal, Shoah (Forest) (2003)

4 / 8 Wilhelm Sasnal, Shoah (Forest) (2003)

Wlhelm Sasnal, Untitled (Kacper and Anka) (2009)

5 / 8 Wlhelm Sasnal, Untitled (Kacper and Anka) (2009)

Wilhelm Sasnal, Kacper (2009)

6 / 8 Wilhelm Sasnal, Kacper (2009)

Wilhelm Sasnal, Bathers at Asnieres (2010)

7 / 8 Wilhelm Sasnal, Bathers at Asnieres (2010)

Wilhelm Sasnal, Tsunami (2011)

8 / 8 Wilhelm Sasnal, Tsunami (2011)

Wilhelm Sasnal’s show at the Whitechapel has been garnering rave reviews since its opening last week. After Sasnal spent a morning at Phaidon signing prints we were lucky enough to sit in on an interesting chat between him and Whitechapel Gallery Chief Curator Achim Borchardt-Hume, the highlights of which we bring you below. 

Sasnal graduated from Krakow’s Academy of Fine Arts and works in film, comics and painting, approaching the world around him as a stockpile of imagery. He has famously said: “There are no rules, there are things that intrigue me,” and it’s a good summation of his career to date. His subject matter takes in Polish history and cold war paranoia. More recently, after spending time in Israel, he has turned his attention to the consequences of the Second World War.  He kicked off the chat by talking about his maturation as an artist. 

“There wasn’t a special moment I changed the way I work, so I see the whole process as an evolution. During the last 10 years of my practice, I see probably a couple of periods, but they are not properly divided for me. For sure there was a moment after finishing study that I was afraid of painting in pastel. I tried to draw rather than paint - to draw with the oil on canvas. At that time I didn’t attend museums, I didn’t want to look at old masters and probably it took me 2-3 years until I felt free of this hang-up, this post-school hangover. I was also fed up and tired of being labelled as a pop artist someone who used this pop language or pop reality." 

Achim Borchardt-Hume: You have a very strong structured working day and approach to work even though you say within the work there is a lot of chaos. 

Wilhelm Sasnal: I don’t believe in any gift from a higher power - it’s a job. I mean it’s not a job that you can just put in the frame of time or any other structure but I think it’s a job. And if you treat it seriously everyday you work all day. I think an artist is not a special person within society. It is a privilege to be an artist and live and work in art, I believe art is a field of freedom. Not because of being able to say what one wants to say but because of coping and finding solutions to make yourself convinced about what you do. 

AB-H: So what happens during the process of painting once you've chosen the image. What happens while you are working on it? 

WS: What I like about painting is that you can react instantly to the images that you see or can come across. Some of them I use right at the moment I find them - I found it today I am going to use it today. But some of the images I store in a file called ‘To Work’. Some of them wait quite a long time - maybe a year or two and some of them are just waiting their turn. When I have the image I print it out. I make a grid and I transfer it onto the canvas. I make a drawing with a pencil and then I start. But then I try to anticipate what are the connections, what are the associations with the image. During painting I find many more of these links and connections and I build a whole network for myself - like a three-dimensional network of connections, quite like a plot. I also try to explain to myself what the painting is. When I was interested in comics I thought that the painting is like 100 pages of a comic book with empty bubbles to be filled in by yourself when you paint. I am trying to explain how it works for me. 

AB-H: When you came out of Krokow Academy of Fine Arts you had this pop sensibility to connect painting to daily life and make it almost banal, then you came to this much bigger and grander subject of the history of Poland, did this feel like an organic development? 

WS: Yes but I was a very young person when I finished studying and felt I wanted to paint what is cool, to be cool and close to the rock and roll entourage. So these paintings I did at the time I believe are a part of that. I was aware of getting older and I found that painting is also a special way of communicating with other people and conveying some important messages, maybe unconsciously. I wanted to cope with the so called uncool subjects that were contrary to what I was connected to. I was part of Grupa Ładnie with young painters from Krakow and we were recognised as Pop painters and I was very tired of it. 

AB-H: In the late 1990s this chapter in history [Polish history] became revaluated and Polish involvement in the holocaust, anti-Semitism became a hot topic. Was it important in terms of you locating yourself as a painter within society and politics? 

WS: I think so. I wanted to put myself in a confrontational position to face it, to face what was also controversial for myself. I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to hear that I came from the nation that was not only a victim. That was painful and difficult for me. What I painted was reaction. 

AB-H: Is it important that you never paint directly from the event (but comics, newstories)? 

WS: Yes maybe I thought it would be too vulgar to paint directly from materials from Auschwitz. 

AB-H: What is the dynamic between painting a subject which is not pleasurable but painting it in a pleasurable way? Sometimes you paint something which looks like a pleasurable subject matter but it’s not. 

WS: Yes and I have to admit that painting and the canvas is not on my side. It’s rather my counter partner. We play tennis together, but we don’t play doubles on the same side, but rather on the other side. I want to express this struggle, this fight, and sometimes you can see torn canvases and holes in it and you can see the traces of the stretchers because I push the canvas. 

AB-H: Do you feel that makes painting closer to the way we circulate other images like digital photos. People no longer take photos to preserve for posterity but to circulate a moment? 

WS: Yes. It is not even photography it’s not an object anymore. It is something existing in a virtual world. So thanks to this and thanks to a wash of photography, painting is quite special, because it is handmade and can’t be detached from its history and past. 

AB-H: In terms of history obviously Poland comes up quite often. More recently there is more work that relates to the consequences of the Second World War. Are they journeys and the places you go to? 

WS: The journey is probably the starting point of making a set of paintings because I am loaded with the images and thoughts and I want to sort of throw them up on the canvas. They are quite unique in my daily life, they are an inspiration that’s why I want to work with them. So after a journey I usually paint a set of paintings about it. 

You seem to be part of a wider strategy amongst some artists at the moment people like Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, Vik Muniz and to some extent Elizabeth Peyton. Are you conscious of this fairly figurative/ abstract painting tradition that’s evolving? 

WS: Honestly not that much, I know of course what they do but I don’t follow much of what is going on. I have to say I am not that interested in art, not being ignorant, but I think I watch more films than I look at art. I want to be aware but I don’t want to calculate. 

You compared the painting process to a tennis match, just wanted to ask a simple question. Do you think you are winning or losing? 

WS: I always stop when I win. 

Sasnal’s signed Collector’s Edition prints will be available at the Phaidon store soon.

Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled (2011) Wilhelm Sasnal, Untitled (2011)

The exhibitions runs until January 1 2012, further events and curator talk details can be found on the Whitechapel Gallery webpage. The exhibition is part of I, CULTURE, the international cultural programme celebrating Poland's presidency of the EU. For more information visit culture.pl

Follow the link to read more about Wilhelm Sasnal.


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