Wilhelm Sasnal @ Whitechapel

Wilhelm Sasnal is a Polish painter and filmmaker who lives and works in Krakow. His exhibition on show at the Whitechapel Gallery gives its audience a fresh view of history, politics and contemporary art. While there has been extensive comparison between Sasnal and Gerhard Richter, after having seen Panorama at the Tate Modern earlier this year, it is clear that the two artists are unique to one another. At a first glance, Sasnal’s work is much calmer; his paintings are not as full on as Richter’s large canvases. There is a lack of assertiveness in Sasnal’s work and a sense of patience to his painting, perhaps a form of modesty: he doesn’t require an excess of drama to draw people in.

Sasnal began as a part of the Krakow Ladnie or pretty group, with an interest in painting surroundings and everyday life. Today, Sasnal’s work has grown into a subtle, more emotional form of art. On show are over 60 paintings from the last 10 years covering a diverse range of subjects including history, current affairs, travel and friends and family. His paintings are geometric, mysterious and often take inspiration from photography, yet in a simplified form. There is no real theme to his work either, on one wall we are confronted with a haunting reminder of the effects of the Tsunami in Japan, while on the next we see the monochrome Maus series with scenery taken from Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning holocaust comic. Also on display are a selection of the artist’s films aswell as portraits of Hitler and Pope John Paul II.

There is a stress on recent history too. Sasnal has included portraits of a Palestinian woman, a woman in the midst of the Rwandan Genocide and most notably, reference to a concentration camp gas chamber in Pigsty. There is a subtle link to his eastern European background, which is not always immediately apparent. The work that stood out most for me was the artists reworking of Seurat’s Bathers at Asniers. The painting was inspired by a story told to the artist by his grandmother about how people bathed in the river of the summer of 1939, weeks before the German invasion of Poland. While we first see a simplified version of Seurat’s original, on knowing its background, we learn of a sinister undertone. While it could be said that the bright colours could be more readily accepted by the 21st century viewer, the simplified colour scheme could be to highlight the simplicity of life before. The solitary figure, and removal of the industrial background must therefore represent the calmness that was lost during the war. Sasnal has shown an impressive interest in art history, and has looked back to Seurat, just as Seurat looked back to Poussin before him.

Indeed, while we may compare Sasnal with Richter, the stillness and sensitivity present in Sasnal’s work is not a direct copy of the more active works of Richter. Born in 1972, the artist is half the age of Richter and there is sure to be much more on offer from Wilhelm Sasnal in years to come.

Wilhem Sasnal is showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until January 1, 2012.

You can read my review of Gerhard Richter’s Panorama here.

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and has written for After Nyne, Arteviste, Canvas Magazine, Harper's Bazaar Arabia, Ibraaz, Jdeed Magazine and Reorient.

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