Warsaw

Wilhelm Sasnal, Shoah (A Forest), 2003, oil on canvas, 17 3⁄4 × 17 3⁄4".

Wilhelm Sasnal, Shoah (A Forest), 2003, oil on canvas, 17 3⁄4 × 17 3⁄4".

Wilhelm Sasnal

Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Wilhelm Sasnal’s deft shifts among painterly styles and techniques are positioned in his exhibition “Such a Landscape” as ways to broach the inadequacy—the inevitable lapse—of representations of the Holocaust. Curated by Adam Szymczyk and marking Sasnal’s first solo foray in his native Poland since 2007, the show brings together some sixty works made between 1999 and the present, ranging from the almost abstract green landscape Shoah (A Forest), 2003, which takes Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film of the same name as a starting point, to a pair of photorealistic paintings, First of January (side) and First of January (back), both 2021, depicting Sasnal’s wife, Anka, in the passenger seat of a car pulled over on the train tracks to Auschwitz. The couple encountered the site, as we learn from the exhibition booklet, on the drive back from a New Year’s Eve party.

While the notion of a “crisis of witnessing” (as Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub defined it in 1992) has been integral to discourse on the Shoah for decades, Sasnal’s take on this idea remains timely, in part because of Poland’s delayed reckoning with those events and still infrequent acknowledgment of the country’s long Jewish history. (The Polin Museum, located within the perimeter of the former Warsaw ghetto, opened in 2014.) Sasnal himself is not Jewish but cites Polish American sociologist Jan Tomasz Gross’s insistence that “Poles should deal with this for their own sake, not for anybody else’s,” when describing what pushes him to continuously concern himself with the Holocaust. Beyond that, the show’s insistently fragmented quality seems a subtle objection to history too succinctly packaged, overly reliant on smoothed-out and agreed-on narratives. The sequence of works demands continuous recalibration, yanking the viewer from, say, Untitled, 2016, a painting of a bicycle parked on a path beside a former concentration camp, patches of the pale-brown road stained with drip marks; to Maus 5, 2001, a graphic rendering of a piggish face; and the large-format Untitled (Afterimage), 2019, with its splash of yellow and loping silver spray-painted line. Sheets of aluminum foil covering the exhibition’s curved walls intensify the sense of disorientation.

An accompanying booklet of annotated pencil drawings based on the paintings in the show clarifies some source material and emphasizes the layers of translation at play. Sasnal’s focus on the tensions inherent to moving across languages (and subjectivities) is particularly evident in a caption for an undated drawn version of Shoah (A Forest). An inscription identifies the three tiny figures enveloped by the landscape as Lanzmann; witness Jan Piwonski, and their interpreter, Barbara Janicka. The text quotes genocide scholar and critical theorist Dorota Głowacka’s analysis of the film: “The situation of the Polish interpreter is exceptionally difficult: Janicka is trying to gloss over both antisemitism present in the witness accounts and the sarcasm—or even hostility—of Lanzmann’s questions.” The loose tangle of broad green brushstrokes in Shoah (A Forest) aligns the act of painting itself with the fraught nature of interpersonal communication, suggesting that this is the medium’s domain as well. Sasnal’s art—markedly influenced by Luc Tuymans, who also made images dealing with the Holocaust—hinges on painting’s ability to withhold and divulge, a dynamic that also speaks to the conundrum of translation. If Tuymans’s oeuvre seems primarily concerned with the ineffability of the past, Sasnal’s pictorial world, as exhibited in Warsaw, revolves instead around the attempt  to express it.