Marek Włodarski, Montaż konstrukcji (Construction Montage), ca. 1949, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 11 5⁄8 × 8 1⁄4".

Marek Włodarski, Montaż konstrukcji (Construction Montage), ca. 1949, watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper, 11 5⁄8 × 8 1⁄4".

“Henryk Streng/Marek Włodarski and Jewish-Polish Modernism”

In 1942, painter Henryk Streng destroyed his identity documents, acquiring papers under the name Marek Włodarski, which he maintained for the rest of his life. In hiding in Lwów, Poland (present-day Lviv, Ukraine), over the next two years, he scraped the signature with his Jewish name from numerous canvases, which Janina Brosch, his future wife—and a member of the Polish underground resistance—regularly transported to her family home. Piotr Słodkowski, the curator of “Henryk Streng/Marek Włodarski and Jewish-Polish Modernism,” discovered the erased signatures in 2017 via infrared photography, which revealed hatching or sanding in the bottom corner of some of the artist’s best-known paintings, among them Kompozycja form (Composition of Forms) and Pan z fajka˛ (Man with a Pipe), both 1926 and made while Włodarski was studying with Fernand Léger at the Académie Moderne in Paris. In drawing out the history of erasure contained within these and other works, the exhibition drew attention to the traces of Polish Jewishness that, along with the impact of Nazi and Stalinist rule, have been blotted out by the presiding art-historical narrative, which positions the Legérian works Włodarski painted during his Paris sojourn as embodying the pinnacle of his career.

At the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, a maze of display cabinets undermined this distorted account, contextualizing roughly a hundred of Włodarski’s works with just as many by his contemporaries from his early years in interwar Lwów until his death in Warsaw in 1960. The earliest work in the exhibition, Ulica (The Street), 1924, was a montage in watercolor on paper of the metropolis—trolleys and electric streetlights overlaying shop signs and men in bowler hats—indicative of the artist’s interest in the urban modernity of the Jewish trading district of multicultural Lwów. Włodarski adapted the typically modernist motif of the musician, for instance, in an evolving group of works depicting batiarzy, Lwów street performers. In Muzykanci (Musicians), ca. 1937, for instance, a band of angular figures holding stringed instruments rendered in gouache on paper stand against a distant cityscape. In an untitled haunting crayon and watercolor drawing from 1945, made while the artist was imprisoned in the Stutthof concentration camp in what is now Poland, he imagines his fellow prisoners huddled together in song.

In the years after the war, the barricade became a recurrent subject of Włodarski’s, melding his formal investigations of figures in the city with propagandistic themes mandated by socialist realism. Identifying a modernist proclivity within the official aesthetic of Stalinism—contrary to the art-historical tendency to see the art of this period as an aberration—the exhibition debunked the myth that modernism was mainly a product of Western Europe. Another instance of erasure illuminates the friction of this period: After exhibiting Barykada (Barricade), 1950, in Poland’s First National Art Exhibition that year, Włodarski simplified the oil painting’s forms by painting over certain details. The deft way he navigated the tension between sanctioned subject matter and the development of his own visual language is also evident in works such as the watercolor Montaż konstrukcji (Construction Montage), ca. 1949, where a bright and fragmented picture plane captures a sense of simultaneity that grows increasingly abstract.

Resisting a cohesive impression, the exhibition’s circuitous (and often crowded) presentation prompted continuous reassessment of the relationship between Włodarski’s work and its sociopolitical context, insisting on the danger in separating one from the other. This was a timely cautionary tale in the face of a conservative nationalist turn on the part of many of Poland’s art institutions. The separation of art from its context represents more than just a simplification; it’s a form of censorship. In contesting such erasure, however, the exhibition left Włodarski himself elusive, as the widely varied presentation of his contemporaries obscured the subtle evolution of his own diverse oeuvre.