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Osiowski Marcin - [Tytul] (Lech Walesa), [rok], olej plotno, 81x65cm - [fot Adam Gut] 2000


“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.”

Marcin Osiowski, notes (excerpt), 2019

“Art is not concerned with politics because it is not a mirror that reflects reality; art is its critic. The freedom of art lies in the capacity for a certain indifference. Art has the right to "deal with" itself, and if it focuses on the present, it is not limited by political correctness, convention, or imposed system of values. That is why the authority, especially the intellectually limited authority, is so afraid of art. For the mediocrity in power, art appears to be a pain in the ass.”

Marcin Osiowski, notes (excerpt), 2016-17

Because art and politics are social phenomena, it is indispensable to examine them in their dialogue and mutual relationship. According to W. J. T. Mitchell, “visual culture is the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction of vision” (W. J. T. Mitchell, Showing Seeing: A Critique of Visual Culture, The Visual Culture Reader, ed. N. Mirzoeff, London – New York 2002, p. 100). In this respect, art is an important component of thinking about and navigating a world shaped by social conditions. At the same time, it is equipped with persuasive and ideological possibilities. It did not take long for people to realize that visual culture is an important tool in the hands of the authorities who reach for art as the most versatile language for communicating with the public in any historical period. On the other hand, artists were equally eager to use their talent in order to ridicule, criticize and thus debase the authorities.

Osiowski’s returns to political themes have their source in various circumstances; first and foremost in his experience of the absurd reality of 1970s and 1980s Poland. To this day, he translates into his paintings concepts and events from his surrounding reality which intrigue him, including the ones presented by the media. In time, he began supplementing these experiences, or rather deepening them, with elements of linguistic analysis. Another reason for his political innuendoes is a general interest in language which shapes interpersonal relationships and impacts our functioning.

Nevertheless, Osiowski stresses that some of his works are a way of venting his subjective emotions, and he would call many of them “satirical” rather than “political” as they refer to an apparatus which works frivolously and sometimes even grotesquely. The history of Osiowski’s political views is definitely anti-Communist; even his contemporary judgement on the situation in Poland is derived from it. Looking at politicians’ actions through the prism of Wittgensteinian linguistic research has made Osiowski particularly sensitive to aspects of intrusive propaganda present in the discourse created by the authorities. Even in his early works, Osiowski evoked the symbolic language used in official propaganda. The symbols, used in styles far from the original context, became subversive, showing the superficiality of the system and the advancing decay of its dogmas. In the 1980s, when Osiowski started his cycle Paintings for Civilians, there was no acceptance of criticism. However, although never spoken out loud, it was a common phenomenon fueled by illegal print circulation or exhibitions organized in churches and private homes. It was also smuggled through the increasingly leaky sieve of censorship in the form of allusions and “winking” at the reader. Years of striving to get around censorship contributed to the development of a repertoire of symbols and metaphors. 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.

One of the earliest works in this catalogue referring to politics directly is the painting The Polish Submarine and the Non-Polish Submarine from 1986, which is an extension of a surrealist vision mentioned by Osiowski in his student notes. First, the barely identifiable dirty blue colour of oil paint imitating a dado in residential buildings in Communist Poland brought to his mind some foul liquid, and seemed to Osiowski like “paint used for submarines.” These ships, adapted to engaging in operations which relied on surprise and undetectability, provoke associations with the tactics chosen by the Communist Party. Osiowski’s notes include a vision of submarine ships anchored in some secret cellars under the headquarters of the Party, whose activities were as impactful for the life of “civilians” as they were absurd and enigmatic. The ships, submerged in fecal matter up to their periscopes, were supposedly on standby to take Party officials away from the proletariat’s capital city. In his 1986 painting, Osiowski showed two ships joint together and thus mutually blocking any movement. One hull is somewhat damaged, painted white-and-red and decorated with the Soviet flag. Its phallic cannon is aimed at the other ship, black, marked with the Polish flag, and sailing closer to the surface. The artwork is concentrated on two issues. First, it tries to distinguish between what is “Polish” and what is dictated by the regime of the People’s Republic of Poland and the orders given top-down by the USSR. Osiowski points to the difficulty in defining such concepts as “nation” or “Polishness.” He also highlights the fictitiousness of the signs which are considered national symbols as well as their arbitrariness and impermanence. This is first and foremost an early attempt to demonstrate the destructive character of the Communist authorities’ policies by using the language of painting, without falling back on literality. Osiowski also criticizes the decades-long process of destroying culture, heritage and identity, which was enabled by politicians who followed USSR’s directives.

In the 1980s, Osiowski made two complementary paintings: Unidentified Men, One with His Arm Stretched Out and Establishing the Identity of the Yellow-Eared Men. The first title refers to an image of Lenin with his arm extended as though pointing to a better future, which was reproduced ad nauseam under Communism. In late 2004, Osiowski found one of his own old paintings in the depths of his studio and decided to bring his work up to date by painting on Vladimir Putin’s face, adding the date and the inscription “updated.” In November 2004, a presidential election in Ukraine took place in the atmosphere of a scandal because of the explicit support for one candidate by Moscow and interventions by the Russian president into the result of the vote. Another addition to the painting came on 17 September 2018, thirty years after its creation, and on the anniversary of Soviet Russia’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Immediately noticeable in the left-hand lower corner is the grey shadow of a man’s head, bringing to mind the image of Jarosław Kaczyński. The presence of the contemporary politician completes this disgraceful gathering. The work was finished in 2018 as Osiowski ran out of space on the canvas, which he clearly communicated with the red label “no vacancy.”

The second painting, Establishing the Identity of the Yellow-Eared Men, whose title and concept were born out of experiments with the material aspect of painting, has also seen a subversive continuation years later. The original concept is an abstract composition on which Osiowski placed a similar array of characters, this time revealing their names: from Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao, through Stalin and Hitler, to local historical figures. The yellow ears from the humorous title are not a metaphor but the result of Osiowski’s subjective selection of colour. In 2018, he painted a small-format work entitled An Unknown Yellow-Eared Man from the Early Twenty-First Century with which he tied together several narratives. First, he was referring to his own painting from years before which showed political oppressors. Second, he quoted the inscription from Fedorowicz’s print of Lech Wałęsa distributed illegally during the martial law in Poland as mentioned above. In the 1980s, Wałęsa was debased by Communist propaganda and “removed” from history, whereas the authorities in contemporary Poland still ridicule him and “erase” from history, like Rauschenberg had erased a De Kooning drawing. By including a contour of the person associated with the current government as clearly as tinted eyeglasses were associated with the initiator of the martial law in the 1980s, Osiowski criticized today’s government by equating its actions and threats posed by it to the destructive character of the Communist rule.


Katarzyna Piskorz, excerpts from the catalog accompanying the exhibition "Art on Art"

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