Poles Apart

Museums Sheffield’s Curator Visual Art, Liz Waring on Matthew Bateson’s remarkable collection of work by Polish émigré artists, currently on show in the Pole Position exhibition the Graves Gallery.

I first visited Matthew Bateson’s house to view his collection of émigré art a few years ago and was struck not only by the sheer number of works contained in a relatively modest-sized house, but also by the focussed nature of his collecting. Concentrating on painters largely ignored by the art market, Matthew has built a magnificent selection of work by émigré artists whose significance to the history of British art has yet to be publicly acknowledged.

When the opportunity of an exhibition presented itself we jumped at it, deciding to focus our attention on the work which forms the majority of Matthew’s collection, Polish émigré artists. These men and women were working alongside the great names of Modern British art, yet up until now their story has remained largely untold.

When I first set eyes on these paintings, by artists that I admit were not known to me then either, an immediate comparison with German Expressionism sprang to mind. While the technique is often similar, I soon learnt that there was more to these Polish works than merely seeking to express an emotional experience over physical reality. Terms such as Expressionism were used differently – to these Polish artists Expressionism instead referred to any departure from a naturalistic depiction and not just the expression of emotion through vigorous brushstrokes.

However, these paintings are indeed full of emotion, and in some cases suffering, stemming from the atrocities that many Polish artists saw or experienced in the Second World War during the obliteration of their homeland. They seem to express something more powerful than we are used to seeing in popular art.

Stanislaw Frenkiel, Descent of the Winged Men, 1973 © Courtesy of the artists sonMany Polish artists were forced to flee mainland Europe at this time, some travelling through many different countries before settling in Britain, while others were captured and imprisoned by the enemy before finding their way to British shores. Even if they managed to escape the direct effect of this European upheaval, learning the fate of their beloved country at a later date certainly left an impact on their art.

‘In the aftermath of war or horrific events there are broadly two directions artists may take in order to cope (other than to ignore it, as many do): the gritty depiction of horror, though never gritty enough, or the expression of emotion through the veil of abstraction.’ 
Douglas Hall in Art in Exile: Polish Painters in Post-War Britain

While many have since been forgotten, it seems that these Polish artists did find recognitionduring the Second World War. There were over fifty exhibitions of Polish Art being held in Britain between 1940-1944, including one at the Graves Gallery itself. Opening in October 1944 Polish Art Exhibition included a few of the names represented in Pole Position; Feliks Topolski, Henryk Gotlib and Zdzislaw Ruszkowski.

Perhaps their popularity at that time was due to their exceptional ability to capture and express the nation’s emotions and feelings about the on-going war, something that has now largely been forgotten along with the talent of these men and women.

With the exception of a few well-known names, such a Josef Herman and Jankel Adler, little is publicly known about many of the artists in Pole Position. We hope that this exhibition will provide a fitting showcase for their remarkable work and that our visitors enjoy discovering it as much as I have.

Pole Position: Polish Art in Britain 1939-1989 continues at the Graves Gallery until 28 June 2014 – entry to the exhibition is free.


Images:

Top: Marian Kratochwil, The Puppeteer, 1955 © Courtesy of Tim and Joyce Jeal
Right: Stanislaw Frenkiel, Descent of the Winged Men, 1973 © Courtesy of the artist's son

Feb 12 2014

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