At David Zwirner, London, studies in mortality and intimacy from the artist's final years display his remarkable stylistic range
Who was Andrzej Wróblewski? The usual story goes like this: he was born in Vilnius (then Poland) in 1927; 14 when his father died during a Nazi house-call; 18 by the end of the war, when he moved to Krakow to study painting and sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts. At 21 he began a number of extraordinary works that used enigmatic, deep-blue oils to depict the wartime dead – Blue Chauffeur (1948), Mother with Dead Child (1949), the ‘Execution’ series (1949) – but socialist realism crept over Poland and within two years he had stopped working. Aged 29, he died on a mountain hike and his immortal niche was sealed.
The gap in Wróblewski’s story – which posthumous exhibitions have intermittently tried to close – is the one between his blue works and his death, from 1950 to 1957. The show at David Zwirner is the first solo exhibition of Wróblewski’s work in the UK and it mixes several well-known loans – Blue Chauffeur and Mother with Dead Child amongst them – with over 30 later works. In those last years, Wróblewski produced an array of studies and sketches, always on paper but in every medium from pencil to gouache; they mostly show human figures in unremarkable poses, but they have a daring stylistic range. For example, opposite the strict, forceful lines of Tombstone No. 1131 (undated), there’s the gentle, bubbly head of Girl (undated). Both are depictions of the human profile, but one is like Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920), resembling a totem carved in stone, while the other could be from a children’s book on how to draw cartoons.
Few of these works were seen by others – they were gathered by the artist’s mother after his death – and they never came close to the single-mindedness of either the large works in blue or the dutiful socialist-realist paintings that Wróblewski made later on. Still, director James Green prefers not to see this show as an exhibition of studies; these are all, he says, ‘individual works’. There are, in fact, a few early studies here – two ‘Sketches for Executions’ (1949), in pencil and gouache, and the tentative ‘Sketches for Mother with Dead Child’ (1949). Yet distinct themes also emerge in Wróblewski’s late works, which thus make studies of each other.
Cannily, Green has paired works that share subjects but have no compositional relation, so that they glance interestedly at each other. On one wall of the first floor, for instance, every work deals with motherhood and sacrifice. There are three lively ‘Group Scenes’ (1954) in ink, with Wróblewski himself pacing outside the ward in which his wife is giving birth; and then there’s the cruder, blockier Pieta (Sketch for Girl with a Teddy Bear) (undated), which mixes a blasphemous thrill with true respect for the Virgin Mary’s maternal embrace. They all surround Mother with Dead Child, as if respecting its achievement, its elder status. That single dark bullethole in the baby’s luminous flesh is freshly shocking each time you look.
Wróblewski is known outside of Poland for these haunting blue figures, the large canvases that became, as his friend Andrzej Wajda said in his film Wróblewski According to Wajda (2015), ‘the voice of the dead’. But such a narrow lens cuts, and sells, his story short. History was briskly en marche when Wróblewski died; both the Nazi occupation and Stalinist aesthetics had left his land. His world was changing, his visual language, too. The Blue Chauffeur of 1948 drove under a blood-red sky, towards an apocalyptic horizon lit with licks of white and yellow. The Chauffeur of 1956 is sitting in a brighter cab, turning slightly to the right and gazing forward into a settled but lurid abstract vista. This road looks thrilling: you can’t see where it ends.
Main image: Andrzej Wróblewski, Chauffer, 1956, (detail), oil and pencil on canvas, 1.3 x 2 m. Courtesy: Private Collection © Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation
First published in Issue 196