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Saturday, 11 January 2014

Pole Position: Polish Art in Britain 1939–1989

"Pole Position is a brand new exhibition which will shed light on a neglected chapter in the story of British art.

Created from the private collection of Matthew Bateson, the exhibition showcases 60 works by Polish artists, many of whom were forced to flee mainland Europe during the Second World War. Some of these artists journeyed through many countries before settling in the UK, while others were captured and imprisoned before finding their way to British shores.

The artists’ transitory experiences are reflected in the subject of their work; from powerful depictions of their lost homeland and the horrors of war, to the landscapes and luminaries they encountered in their new lives in Britain. The striking works on show are a testament to the great adversity the artists faced, but also to the wealth of new ideas and approaches they brought with them across the channel."

Amongst the highlights of Matthew Bateson’s collection included in the exhibition are Stanislaw Frenkiel’s Descent of the Winged Men, (1973), Josef Herman’s Head of a Bergundian Peasant, (1953), Henryk Gotlib’s Christ in Warsaw (c1939) and Feliks Topolski's celebration of British war time resistance, Old England (1945).

Matthew Bateson has said: 'These works were sourced from auctions or acquired directly from the artists over the past 30 years. I was attracted to dark and challenging imagery, aware that my passion for expressionist and narrative painting was unfashionable and outside the ephemeral art market and celebrity culture that dominates our times.’

The website for the Association of Polish Artists in Great Britain (APA) explains that "Although it is impossible to point to one characteristic which unites these Polish artists in one school abroad, if the influences upon these artists are examined, it would be right to say that they definitely belong to a 'common tradition'. The general term 'common tradition' allows us to see the influence not only of the Academies of France or Germany but also Polish Fine Arts Academies such as the ones in Cracow, Warsaw and Wilno (before the war) ... This leads towards sensibility of colour in their works, as well as painterly expression, and the belief in the work of art as a carrier of avant-garde theories. Further development of these traits in works of the artists took place in Britain."

In my Airbrushed from Art History series of posts, I referred to Polish painters in Post-War Britain as documented by Douglas Hall in his book Art In Exile. Hall wrote that the number of displaced artists from Poland coming to Britain as exiles from war and persecution before or after 1939 was perhaps greater than from any other country. In Art In Exile he told the stories of ten such artists as well as reviewing the context from which they came and their reception in England and Scotland. Hall writes that we "remind ourselves, through the experience of the exiles among us, that there have been other ways of feeling, other ways of understanding history, other ways of using creative ability for other expressive purposes."

Through Hall I discovered the work of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and wrote a feature piece for the Church Times about his relationship with Dame Cicely Saunders. Bohusz-Szyszko and other exiled Polish artists (such as Stanislaw Frenkiel, Adam Kossowski, Henryk Gotlib, Marek Zulawski, and Aleksander Zyw) were part of a consistent but under-recognised strand of artists' employing sacred themes which runs throughout the 20th century in the UK.


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