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From the Polish spirit  

04 August 2017

Jonathan Evens sees a selection of the work of émigré hands

© The Artist

Altarpiece: Janina Baranowska’s Crucifixion

Altarpiece: Janina Baranowska’s Crucifixion

THE current exhibition of Polish art at the Ben Uri Gallery, a recent exhibition by Jamaican artists at St Stephen Walbrook, and the current exhibition “I Am” of work by Middle Eastern women artists at St Martin-in-the-Fields (until 20 August) — all opened within days of each other. London is nothing if not cosmopolitan, and the churches continue to contribute to that diversity and our reflection upon it.

Each exhibition is concerned with identity and the part that beliefs, religious or otherwise, play in our understanding of our and others’ identities. Ben Uri claims to be the only specialist art museum in Europe addressing universal issues of identity and migration through the visual arts. Emerging from a collection that represented the Jewish community, the Gallery now seeks to tell the story of migration to London from all the principal émigré communities and artists’ perspectives. Migration inevitably raises questions about what is lost or retained when leaving a homeland as well as what is lost and gained by entering a new homeland. For émigré artists these questions are explored in their art.

© The Artist’s EstateEssential brushstrokes: Karolina Borchardt’s MadonnaFollowing on from an exhibition of German émigré art, “Art out of the Bloodlands” traces the complex stories of Polish-born artists who fled successive regimes, were variously persecuted, imprisoned, and interned, crossed continents — or, today, have made positive choices to come to Britain to study or to develop professionally. Poles are now the largest foreign-born contingent in Britain after migration as refugees from the Second World War, during the Socialist regime, movements afterwards in the 1990s, and migration since the expansion of the European Union in 2004.

The exhibition brings together a century of artworks and archival material by both celebrated and lesser-known Polish-born artists from the Ben Uri Collection, as well as Polish institutions and private collectors in Britain. Paintings, posters, prints, drawings, cartoons, book illustrations, film, and sculpture explore the issues of identity and migration, while intersecting with formal art-historical developments, ranging from expressionism to Pop Art.

Kathy Burrell has explained how the Second World War “saw Polish troops become part of the Allied forces, saw the Polish government-in-exile established in London, and ultimately saw the resettlement of over 150,000 ex-servicemen and their families . . . after the war was over.” The result, she says, “was the establishment of a strong Polish infrastructure in the UK, with churches and Ex-Servicemen’s clubs being collectively funded from community efforts”. This historical context was important, because it meant that migrants who arrived later did not have to build their own world.

For these Polish émigré artists, a key institution was the School of Painting set up by Marian Bohusz-Szyszko , which was then followed by the establishment of the Association of Polish Artists and galleries such as the Grabowski and Drian, which actively supported Polish artists. For many of these artists, Jewish or Roman Catholic faith, identity, and community was central to their artistic practice and to their ability to sustain themselves as artists. In this exhibition, we see the influence of Roman Catholicism in the expressionistic mysticism of Bohusz-Szyszko, the Rouault-esque social satire of Stanislaw Frenkiel, the stained-glass stylings of Janina Baranowska, the humanistic drawing of Adam Kossowski, and the beautiful simplifications of Karolina Borchardt.

reproduced with permission of St Christopher’s HospicePrimal energies: Marian Bohusz Szyszko’s Birth of ManKossowski and Baranowska made significant contributions to decoration of Roman Catholic churches in this country (including, for Baranowska, St Andrew Bobola Polish RC Church, which became a religious and national centre featuring her work and that of architect Aleksander Prus-Klecki), while Bohusz-Szyszko, through his marriage to Cicely Saunders, also came to the attention of Anglicans. Bishop John V. Taylor viewing him as “a materialist who understands the divinity of matter in the manner of a mystic”.

This aspect of Bohusz-Szyszko’s work is represented here by Birth of Man, in which flame-like brushstrokes evoke the primal energies of creation as figures emerge from the feverish frenzy of his mark-making. Baranokska’s Crucifixion contrasts the anguished brushstrokes and hellish colour of the main crucifixion scene with a blood-red and yet peaceful landscape as a predella panel below. Borchardt’s Madonna possesses a serene but light beauty, which amply bears out Bohusz-Szyszko’s observation that she simplifies her figures by reducing them to their essence.

These are works exploring being and becoming in the context of belonging. Whether artists are Poles, Jamaicans, or Middle Eastern women, subtle symbols of faith give hope in the face of loss and destruction.


“Art Out of the Bloodlands: A Century of Polish Artists in Britain” is at the Ben Uri Gallery, 108A Boundary Road, London NW8, until 17 September. Phone 0207 604 3991. http://benuri.org.uk

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