Henryk Stazewski

Organized as a tribute to one of the most important 20th-century Polish artists, Stazewski’s retrospective should also be perceived as an example of the Polish art world’s penchant for, if not stubbornness in, privileging art that avoids overt references to social or political Issues. Stazewski is considered to be a pivotal figure in the development of abstract art in Poland: for decades he occupied one of the most visible and influential positions in the country’s artistic life. This exhibition summed up his 70-year-long career, attempting to place it in an international context. In Poland, the name Stazewski is synonymous with the adoption of an independent (rather than militant) position in regard to the oppressive ideology of the previous regime. For his manifold Polish admirers, his uncompromising stance serves today as a confirmation of their belief in the infinite depth and superiority of geometric abstraction.

Stazewski’s art spans practically the entire period of development of abstract art in Poland, from the mid ’20s to the late ’80s. The exhibition consisted of his numerous abstractions, which range from early Cubist still-lifes to white paintings with black grids, to geometric reliefs comprising squares or ovals made of copper or painted wood. The artist was involved with several pre–World War II avant-garde groups (Polish and French) such as Praesens, the “a.r.” group, Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création. Thus his art serves as a reminder of long forgotten, vital artistic exchange between Polish artists and their colleagues abroad, among them Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, Thea van Doesburg, and Kazimir Malevich. Consequently, the formal elements of Stazewski’s art can be traced to Cubism, Neoplasticism, Russian Constructivism and Suprematism. His early abstractions point to the existence of a long-ignored link between Eastern and Western European art. But as they parallel rather than go beyond already known stylistic formations, their examination might in fact be of little consequence for our present understanding of the development of art.

After World War II, Stazewski consolidated his reputation as a leading voice in Polish abstract art. He was receptive to the international changes in abstract vocabulary, but only occasionally traveled abroad. For his generation, the artist’s hermeticism signals a psychological defense that allowed him to maintain his integrity in a totalitarian state. Ultimately, in comparison with the art produced during the same period in Western Europe and America, Stazewski’s work attests not so much to the originality of his vision as to the persistence of the utopian belief in the transcendent power of abstraction: as a form of absolute universal expression and, to a lesser degree, as the sign of art’s silent triumph over political ideology.

Unlike the work of many younger Polish artists, Stazewski’s oeuvre remained coherent and untouched by politics. But the price the artist had to pay for his freedom was high; despite his works’ multiple metamorphoses, to a contemporary viewer they seem like formal exercises motivated by the desire “to achieve the highest perception . . . and mathematical precision in formal and perceptual reception.” Stazewski might be understood as a lost romantic Modernist who could not and did not want to relinquish his belief in the internal logic and purity of art, even at the cost of ignoring the broader implications of his position. One might, however, also conclude that he is a symbol of isolationism, which resulted as much from the limitations imposed by Communism as from self-imposed stylistic restrictions.

Marek Bartelik