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DEC 22–JAN 23

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DEC 22–JAN 23 Issue
In Memoriam

Stefan Gierowski

Stefan Gierowski in his studio, 1990. Photo: Erazm Ciołek.
Stefan Gierowski in his studio, 1990. Photo: Erazm Ciołek.

The year is 1945. The Second World War had just ended, laying waste to the old political order erected by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. In the eastern end of continental Europe, a country geographically encircled by two revisionist forces—Nazi Germany and Communist Russia—is reduced to a smoldering ruin. The country is Poland. Stefan Gierowski turns twenty and, after four years of pursuing clandestine painting classes, enrolls to study fine art at the Academy of Fine Art in Krakow.1 The state of the Academy resembles that of the broader country—disfigurement, havoc, and ruination. The students spend the first academic months returning it to its old shape in hopes of resurrecting Polish modernism, which suffered the wrath of the National Socialist Workers’ Party that rendered the movement “degenerate.” Out of the ashes of the exhausted and pallid political and academic life, an artist typified by remarkable color dexterity emerges. Gierowski is to become one of the most prominent representatives of the Polish avant-garde movement of the twentieth century. Born in 1925, he died aged ninety-seven in August 2022.

In 1945, Poland is liberated by the Red Army. The prevailing sense of optimism of the Slavic nation quickly erodes as it gets swallowed up by the Soviet sphere of influence on, what the West considered, the less desirable side of the Iron Curtain. In the immediate years after the conflict, the Polish cultural topography enjoyed relative freedom in its arrangements.2 Yet, a sudden gust of wind brought with it relentless Stalinism that hastily ended that hopeful chapter. In 1949, a decree announced a socio-political and aesthetic doctrine, Socialist Realism, the predominant and only approved form of art in the Polish People’s Republic. Characterized by depicting the utopianism of the Communist creed, the cultural policy became a leading tool of political control in the construction of totalitarianism in Poland (and in the Eastern Soviet-dominated bloc more generally). Socialist realism forced all those who subscribed to avant-garde thinking to go underground, and with that, Stefan Gierowski at the forefront. Although the artist admits that he recognised some value in the underpinning logic of the Soviet-engineered movement in that art should belong to people, Gierowski’s profound belief in freedom of expression, which he saw as synonymous with freedom in toto, represented an impenetrable screen against the various trials his work was subjected to and sustained him until the collapse of the bipolar Cold War system in 1989. He recalls the wording of letters he received from his Soviet Comrades: “lack of effort towards Socialist Realism!”3

Stefan Gierowski, <em>Painting XCVII</em>, 1960. Oil on canvas, 135 × 100 cm. © The Stefan Gierowski Foundation 2022, Photo: Adam Gut.
Stefan Gierowski, Painting XCVII, 1960. Oil on canvas, 135 × 100 cm. © The Stefan Gierowski Foundation 2022, Photo: Adam Gut.

In 1957, Gierowski abandons figuration in favor of abstract painting. He does not, however, abjure it or renounce it and claims: “good figurative painting is good art.”4 What he does renounce, nevertheless, are literary titles of his work, and begins annotating his paintings with successive Roman numerals. Many consider this date to mark the beginning of his relationship with non-pictorial art, an erroneous and simplistic approach to his production. Already in 1947, the artist pushes his practice to near abstraction, manifested by his watercolor, Sketch for Set Design (1947), which depicts a pyramidal shape assembled from separate simplified shapes and become a harbinger of Gierowski’s non-representational shift that is to come exactly a decade later. At the time, he is still considered a figurative painter; however, in the vein of post-impressionists, Gierowski upstages the painterly issues he explores by limiting the lyricism of chosen themes. His early aesthetic system is heavily influenced by the achievements of the Cubists and Italian futurists, as well as Matisse’s color mastery. During this period, the artist’s mind was preoccupied with the question of how to marry figuration with non-figuration. In Léger’s work, Gierowski finds respite to this conundrum which offered him, what he called, Légeresque visual shortcuts. In 1955 he participated in the Nation-Wide Exhibition of Young Visual Artists, Against War-Against Fascism, and enters the competition that accompanies the show with a painting entitled I Love Life (1955), a poetic ode to the peaceful coexistence of man and nature, where Léger influences writ large. Against the backdrop of the political “thaw”—a term coined to describe the mild post-Stalinist liberalization brought about by the new secretary general of the communist party, Wladysław Gomułka’s rise to power in Poland in 1956- the painting brings him a second prize and critical acclaim. An unquestioned consensus in Polish art history exists about the show’s symbolic weight in marking the death of Socialist Realism and the resurrection of modernity, which Gierowski helped to steer and shape.

As Gierowski breaks with his representational past, he sets out the leading themes that are to inform his abstract explorations—space, light, contrasts, and expressiveness of colors—which remain unchanged throughout his career. His primary preoccupation becomes “space,” a concept that challenges the limits of human imagination, and what the artists considers as “a non-mimetic geometric space or space exposed to energy affecting its infinite quality.”5 Thus, Gierowski seeks to turn his two-dimensional paintings into a gateway to the metaphysical, boundless universe, despite the artist’s remarks that behind the canvases, “there is nothing but a spiderweb.” The artist stresses that his compositions of shapes, lines, and points are not to be considered apart as separate atoms or elements but as a totality, an organic wholeness. Gierowski distances his paintings, nevertheless, from a clear-cut category that is “abstractionism.” He finds it inherently objectionable to render his works as such, as they are devoid of overarching “mental concepts”—a belief consistent with his humanist predilections—and argues that disenthralling them from mimesis does not disenthrall them from reality. He asks: “how can one paint freedom, death or the concept of happiness?’6 Thus, it is through a highly intellectual approach that he wishes to paint emotional states and ultimate conditions that transcend the linguistic capacity of speech. The desire for the paintings to trigger spiritual states is achieved through a punctilious, methodological study of color. His studio, a laboratory in which he attempts to imbue the painterly matter with ideals through the exploration of novel color dependencies, is where he fuses rationalism with intuition.

Stefan Gierowski, <em>Painting CDV</em>, 1977. Oil on canvas, 100 × 81 cm. © The Stefan Gierowski Foundation 2022, Photo: Adam Gut.
Stefan Gierowski, Painting CDV, 1977. Oil on canvas, 100 × 81 cm. © The Stefan Gierowski Foundation 2022, Photo: Adam Gut.

Gierowski’s oeuvre evolved against a complex constellation of historical and geopolitical events. In the realm most pertinent to the artist—Poland’s cultural policy—the Soviet apparatus kept the artists on the qui vive as they sailed through the rocky, cyclical waves of intensified repression and comparative liberalization. This very reality is what, according to Gierowski, determined the unique quality of polish avant-garde art. The production of modern art was tantamount to defying and undermining totalistic rule, “Art did not only have a formal dimension, but it was also the voice of reason,” says Gierowski. The artist convincingly argues: “the polish avant-garde evolved in parallel to the Western avant-garde, not as a result of it—a fact that is mostly overseen, as those on the other side of the Berlin wall took ownership of our artistic achievements and inventions.”7 When in 1960, he traveled to France during another (short-lived) interval of “thaw” and was exposed to the achievements of the Parisian cultural scene, he sumarised: “I did not search for anything there. Instead, I searched for a place for myself, which I quickly found and exhibited in Paris soon after, in 1961.”8

The recognition Gierowski achieved early on in his profession, combined with inclinations towards social activism, translated into his growing presence in the project of popularizing art in Poland. In 1956, the artist began his collaboration with the Krzywe Koło Gallery, inaugurated the same year by the painter Marian Bogusz. As one of three galleries with an independent programme in Poland,9 the institution quickly became the epicenter for avant-garde experimentations and, eventually, a symbol of the movement’s tradition. The gallery embodied a safe, self-contained ecosystem that rebelled against the relentless war waged by the communist state against all manifestations of modern art, which Gierowski and Bogusz were navigating. While it is impossible to discern the exact date when the cultural landscape in Poland was reordered by a more sparing control machine, art became an impelling vehicle of change that quickly spread to other realms of political life. In a sense, the crystallization of a novel mode of artistic awareness was a logical continuation of the significant accomplishments of the pre-war Polish avant-garde and the brief interlude of cultural emancipation following WWII. Thus, in 1957 the artist assumed the role of a secretary in the General Assembly of the Polish Artists Union, the official association of professional artists in Poland; he was at the helm of rebuilding Poland’s mechanisms and in charge of art exhibitions, handling of the preparations of factual reports on the condition of art and the preparation of numerous proposals on the reformation of cultural policies. During this period, the Kremlin’s stern grip over Poland was loosening. However, if the benchmark for improvement under Gomułka was Stalinism, then the liberalization of that period was only relative. The deep patriotism instilled in Gierowski by his bourgeoise forefathers, who were active agents in most of Poland’s independence struggles, meant that his involvement in the armed resistance during the Nazi occupation, and later the intellectual resistance of Soviet enforced ideologies was rather instinctual. Gierowski recalls that while the atmosphere was less suffocating, upholding the New Order required a perpetual and tireless intervention from the artists. It is within this setting that Gierowski’s artistic activities were forced to enter the political. He states: “Everyman has a right to freedom, and freedom in art is fundamental.”10 As such, Gierowski dedicated his life to the fight for two causes: the liberation of Poland and the liberation of the Arts.

Stefan Gierowski, <em>Painting DCI</em>, 1989. Oil on canvas, 140.5 × 99.5 cm. © The Stefan Gierowski Foundation 2022, Photo: Adam Gut.
Stefan Gierowski, Painting DCI, 1989. Oil on canvas, 140.5 × 99.5 cm. © The Stefan Gierowski Foundation 2022, Photo: Adam Gut.

Gierowski saw several climacteric points in history—the interwar period, WWII, the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc, the collapse of the bilateral order and the subsequent democratization wave, to name a few. Trends in art were unfolding as quickly and radically as those found in history. Whilst the artist observed these developments with passionate curiosity; he was equally passionate about preventing them from penetrating his convictions. Anfam (2020) describes Gierowski as “a seeker who has skirted many artistic trends prevalent during his career while squarely belonging to none.” In a fascinating paradox, the artist who precipitated the revival of Polish modernity and, over the years, watched it evolve and morph into new, more “modern” iterations of the original from the comfort of his avant-garde thinking chair. In his resistance to conform to new visual currents, critics found grounds to proclaim the creative end of his art. However, against these pessimistic predictions, Gierowski’s work never hit an impasse, and his oeuvre that spans over eighty years is typified by diversity and inventiveness. While the scope of his theoretical investigations might appear restrictive on the exterior, Gierowski would approach his long-established problems from multiple angles while never settling for definite answers. Thus, it was not trends but his intuition that paved the way for a poignant, unchangeable artistic trajectory, a continuous line with a clearly defined direction—an endless line that echoes those found in his work.

  1. The Artist concurrently studies History of Art at Jagiellonski University.
  2. Stefan Gierowski, interview by Natalia Gierowska, Warsaw, 25 May, 2021
  3. Stefan Gierowski, interview by Natalia Gierowska, Warsaw, 25 May, 2021
  4. Stefan Gierowski, interview by Natalia Gierowska, Warsaw, 25 May, 2021
  5. Wypowiedz Stefana Gierowskiego z 1957 r, zamieszczona e B.Kowalska, Tworcy, Postawy, Artysci mojj galerii [Artists- attitudes. Artists of my galery], Wydawnictwo Literatow Krakow
  6. Stefan Gierowski, interview by Natalia Gierowska, Warsaw, 25 May, 2021
  7. Stefan Gierowski, interview by Natalia Gierowska, Warsaw, 25 May, 2021
  8. Stefan Gierowski, interview by Natalia Gierowska, Warsaw, 25 May, 2021. Gierowski had a solo show at Galerie Lacloche.
  9. The two other independent galleries in Poland at that time were Nowa Kultura Salon in Warsaw and the Krzysztofory Gallery in Cracow.
  10. Stefan Gierowski, interview by Natalia Gierowska, Warsaw, 25 May, 2022


Joachim Pissarro

Joachim Pissarro has been the Bershad Professor of Art History and Director of the Hunter College Galleries, Hunter College, New York, since 2007. He has also held positions at MoMA, the Kimbell Art Museum, and the Yale University Art Gallery. His latest book on Wild Art (with co-author David Carrier) was published in fall 2013 by Phaidon Press.

Natalia Gierowska

Natalia Gierowska is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.


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