View of “Andrzej Wróblewski: Recto/Verso,” 2015–16. From left: The Lovers, 1956; Man with Three Heads, Figural Composition no. 1477, ca. 1956; Fan, Abstract Composition no. 1137, n.d.; Mother with Dead Child, 1949. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation.

View of “Andrzej Wróblewski: Recto/Verso,” 2015–16. From left: The Lovers, 1956; Man with Three Heads, Figural Composition no. 1477, ca. 1956; Fan, Abstract Composition no. 1137, n.d.; Mother with Dead Child, 1949. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation.

Andrzej Wróblewski

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

View of “Andrzej Wróblewski: Recto/Verso,” 2015–16. From left: The Lovers, 1956; Man with Three Heads, Figural Composition no. 1477, ca. 1956; Fan, Abstract Composition no. 1137, n.d.; Mother with Dead Child, 1949. © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation.

THOUGH LITTLE KNOWN to global audiences, the work of painter Andrzej Wróblewski (1927–1957) has long been feted in his native Poland as an important bridge between the Constructivist-dominated prewar avant-gardes and the existentialist and figurative traditions of the 1950s. And there is a lot of work to fete indeed: When he died in a mountaineering accident at age twenty-nine, Wróblewski left behind some two hundred canvases, an oeuvre that is striking for its diversity as well as its size. As the artist’s recent retrospective demonstrated, his brush roamed widely, gregariously. He reflected powerfully on the horrors of war—for example, in the shadowy, dread-infused Liquidation of the Ghetto, 1949, with its cadaverous freedom fighter, lifeless child, and prone, hysterical woman clumped claustrophobically together. But the retrospective also included pictures of Chagallesque lovers (Walk of the Lovers with the Sun, 1949), family scenes (Mother and Daughter, Laundry, 1956), nudes, self-portraits, numerous abstractions, and a great many modestly sized quasi-abstract musings, made near the end of his life, that eerily anticipate the elusive, fragmentary aesthetics of René Daniëls, Philip Guston, Wilhelm Sasnal, Luc Tuymans, et al. Indeed, the fact that he was so prolific in both pictorial paradigms, the abstract and the figurative, may be responsible for his obscurity: He is an enigmatic character, hard to pin down, and he lived in an era that preferred its edges hard, its gestures and its ideological stances unambiguous. But it was precisely this dualism, this programmatic ambivalence—asserted as a virtue, not a vice—that curators Éric de Chassey and Marta Dziewańska productively deployed as the organizing principle of the aptly titled “Recto/Verso,” which traveled from the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw to Madrid, where it was installed in the Reina Sofía’s satellite space, the Palacio de Velázquez.

On entering the soaring central lobby of this magnificent, light-filled building, the viewer encountered a handful of paintings mounted inside freestanding steel frames. These display structures highlighted one of the key features of Wróblewski’s art, though one that has been curiously underexplored, even ignored: A number of his works, including some of his most important, are two-faced. It is tempting to consider this unusual tactic of “recto/verso” painting within the broader context of postwar deprivations and destitution (think canvas shortages and the like). It certainly adds to the romantic aura—already enhanced by the often traumatic, melancholy tone of his imagery—of a life cut dramatically short. It is hard to deny, however, that Wróblewski’s predilection for using both sides of certain canvases had something programmatic about it. After all, the most compelling of his double-sided paintings present either human figures or mundane objects on one side (the front? the back?) and whimsical abstract forms on the other (the back? the front?). Most dramatic, perhaps, is the pairing of Emotional Content of the Revolution , 1948, and Train Station 45, Train Station in the Recovered Territories, 1949. In these paintings, which share a single support, the contrast between the two images could hardly be starker. The abstract depiction of the revolution’s purported “emotional content” comprises a brightly colored assembly of circular (solar?) forms reminiscent of Kandinsky, Léger, Malevich, Popova, et al., while the figurative train-station scene conjures a rather more subdued vision set in Poland’s newly acquired western territories, with a typical cast of Wróblewski characters—tight-lipped, closed-mouthed, with steely glances directed straight ahead—looking like the living embodiments of anomie, as it were. (To that effect, see also his Waiting Room I, The Queue Continues, 1956.)

In short, the double-sided paintings epitomize a quality already evidenced throughout this artist’s bifurcated, vacillating body of work: not mere doubt but irresolvable, obstinate indeterminacy, the sort of ambiguity that has become an inextricable element of later, after-modern epistemologies. Here is an artist who both could not and did not want to make up his mind, even though he was active at a time when it was rather more advisable to be crystal clear about one’s commitments, whichever side of the Cold War one was on. (The double-sided paintings and Wróblewski’s restless brush speak of another, more personal quality—the ambitious impatience of someone who may have sensed that his time on earth, behind the easel, was going to be short anyway.) Interestingly enough, however—and this is a telling tension, brought to the fore by the inclusion in the exhibition of some of Wróblewski’s lesser-known excursions into a more academic conception of politically engaged art—it seems that Wróblewski was in fact a true believer. He enthusiastically supported the Soviet-style socialist rebuilding of his disfigured homeland, and wholeheartedly embraced the gospel of social realism—or at least he tried to. As his friend Janusz Bogucki wrote, “When he became convinced about the right cause of socialist realism, he did everything he could to master this creative method.” But the heroism of the genre eluded him, as can be seen in what he himself viewed as his finest contribution to the genre, Break at Work in Nowa Huta, 1954, which was heavily criticized by the Communist Party’s art establishment for its perceived lack of clarity, its obfuscation of problem-free proletarian togetherness—or, more pointedly, for its indeterminacy. A failed social realist then, all the more tragic for having wanted to belong so badly. This depth of conflicted feeling is conveyed most convincingly in a series of ink drawings from 1953 titled “Mourning News,” showing stunned groups of citizens in the streets, struck dumb by the announcement of Stalin’s death in March of that year. The shock at the supreme leader’s demise and the attendant sense of loss seem palpable and real, but what is conspicuously absent is ideological didacticism—the quality that might have earned Wróblewski the acceptance he craved. Today, a politics of us-versus-them is no less dominant than at midcentury, though the identities of us and them may have shifted. And Wróblewski’s work—a star witness in the unresolved, inexhaustible drama of postwar art, seen here from both sides—militates against such reductiveness as powerfully as ever.

Dieter Roelstraete is a member of the curatorial team of Documenta 14.