DOROTA JAGODA MICHALSKA WŁADYSŁAW HASIOR: DECOLONIALISM, FOLK CULTURE, AND GLOBAL SURREALISM
For Polish artist Władysław Hasior (1928–1999), folk culture is the antidote to the colonising effects of both Western and Eastern modernist discourses. Through his idiosyncratic objects that weave a network of decolonial solidarities, Hasior seeks to tell the story of a neglected global periphery, one that bypasses the principles of the neo-avantgarde movement as well as those of Soviet-inspired socialist realism.
What role can decolonialism play within the context of Eastern European art histories? How can the debate around decolonial thought and practice be translated into the context of the countries of the former Eastern Bloc? Scholars from the region have rightly pointed out that the complicated historical experience of the region often makes impossible a clean division between the colonised and the coloniser. Indeed, in different historical eras, Eastern Europe has played both the role of the colonised (by the West and by imperial Russia) and the coloniser (of the ethnic minorities, e.g. the Jewish, Ukrainian, and Romani people). Any definite dissection of dominant and subjugated groups proves difficult owing to the history of these territories which included subsequent partitions, military occupations, and shifting national borders. For those reasons, the decolonial reflection in Eastern Europe is entrenched in an abundance of questions, especially those pertaining to the risk of simplifying the historic narrative by drawing a net line between the colonised and the coloniser. However, it is exactly this complex geo-historical context that makes this region an important point of departure for the examination of the foundations of the decolonial perspective.
In my essay, I consider the question of decolonialism in regards to the artistic practice of Polish artist Władysław Hasior (1928–1999). Specifically, I intend to explore the issue of whether the decolonial perspective might be a relevant approach to highlight the class aspect of the artist’s work. Such an approach aims to shed new light on Hasior’s involvement with peasant and folk culture as a form of resistance to both Western and Eastern modernist and colonial discourses. Indeed, his works represent a counternarrative to both Socialist Realism and Western modern art. During his life, Hasior developed an artistic language that went beyond the colonial model within which the peasants were usually considered. His work offers a different understanding of folk culture and identity which challenges the modernist narration based on a faith in progress, rationalisation, and secularisation. Furthermore, the decolonial perspective allows to position the artist’s oeuvre in the context of the Global South. Special attention will be therefore devoted to the monument Hasior created as part of the Biennale of Outdoor Sculpture in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1969 as a way of outlining a global network of decolonial solidarities.
The point of departure for Hasior’s practice was the rural region of the former Galicia, a province of the Habsburg Empire, with its class relations, economic exploitation, and colonial matrix of power. For centuries, Galicia’s peasantry had been subject to colonisation due to the so-called ‘second serfdom’ which is nowadays compared by some historians to the colonial plantation with its exploitation system and racist ideology. Although the peasants were enfranchised in 1848, the province remained the most impoverished area of the Habsburg Empire. A bout of improved living conditions in the early 20th century was soon extinguished by the economic crisis of 1929 which took a particularly heavy toll on the rural areas. Hasior’s biography and art practice were thus shaped by Galicia’s peasant reality characterised by centuries of abject poverty and political subjection. In this regard, his creative output could be discussed while considering the category of ‘the reality of the lowest rank’ coined by artist Tadeusz Kantor in the 1940s. The term stands to describe a poor, derelict, and degraded material reality marked by violence and colonial relations.
Since the very beginning of his artistic practice, Hasior questioned the modernist art paradigm which dominated the late 1950s and 1960s. “While still a student at the academy in Warsaw, I decided that the classical way of self-expression through the medium of pure sculpture, realised in a single material, regardless of whether in naturalistic, realistic or purely formal and abstract in style, was not a strong enough way for me to deliver the content I had in mind,” Hasior declared. In his student years, two main paradigms were dominant within the field of Polish sculpture: Socialist Realism and Abstraction. In spite of their fundamental differences, these two movements were both deeply rooted in modernism and its vision of linear historic progress, subsequent stages of social and economic development, technological advancement, self-improvement and a rejection of everything deemed ‘traditional.’ Furthermore, both artistic languages advocated the rhetoric of rapid progress which aimed to cut ties with the dark ages of the past. Those past ages were portrayed as the times of a conservative and oppressive order which advocated the supremacy of religion over rational thought.
It’s worth pointing out here that, in theory, Socialist Realism was supposed to reflect the experience of the working and peasant classes in Poland. However, its very foundations embedded these social groups in the typical paradigm of modernity drawing on the notions of progress and a vision of linear historic development. The socialist realist paintings from that time mostly focused on the swift modernisation of the peasantry thanks to the technological and social achievements of the communist era, such as rural reform and a fast-paced industrialisation. Hasior’s artistic practice offered a very different point of view on Polish rural reality of the late 1950s. His first assemblages, such as Wdowa, Opiekun Domowy, and Gość (The Widow, House Patron, and Guest), are a highly expressive and sensual depiction of rural culture strongly linked to folk beliefs and practices—all elements considered ‘backward’ and ‘outdated’ by modernism. These works show the artist’s keen interest in everything irrational, child-like, originating from fables and legends. In this context, it’s worth delving into one piece in particular—The Widow from 1957. The sculpture is assembled from a cleaver, some carved wooden elements, and a twisted black wire resembling messy, curly hair. Beads and tiny bells are hanging on the figure’s neck. As a result, the female figure looks like a witch or shaman partaking in a mourning rite. Such an expressive approach to the subject highlights the magical and irrational dimensions of sculpture. In this regard, Hasior’s work goes beyond the rationalist paradigm proposed by not only socialist realism, but also abstraction/constructivism.
Hasior’s artistic language was inextricably linked to the tangible reality which surrounded him: his starting point was always the objects and materials from the peripheral, rural areas he hailed from. These objects—their texture, origin, class, and spiritual connotations—allowed him to build a different kind of artistic narrative, to tell a different kind of (art) story. As opposed to the detached and rational materialism of communist ideology, they involved the sensory experience of tangible materialities. In my opinion, Hasior’s assemblages are among the most important elements of his artistic practice, even though the artist himself didn’t rank them among his most relevant works. Speaking more broadly, it is worth noting that the medium of assemblage plays an especially important role in postcolonial contexts as it allows for an in-depth analysis of a region’s material conditions. The artists’ focus on objects—their components, texture, meanings, and usage—spurs the confrontation with the economic context of their circulation. As such, assemblages turn out to be an extremely important means of expression for artists striving to find the type of language capable of diagnosing the (post) colonial condition.
An excellent example of such a postcolonial assemblage is the piece Opiekun Domowy (House Patron) from 1958. The work was made by using an old, rusty radiator topped with some rustic tools such as rakes and pitchforks. At the center of this ‘folk altar’, the artist lit a small flame. This piece can be interpreted as a reflection on the shifting material conditions during the period of Soviet modernisation in the 1950s. We are confronted with a symbol of technological advancement (pieces of radiator) that didn’t manage to completely surpass former sources of light and warmth (symbolised by the fire burning inside the sculpture). In addition, these ‘backward’ forms seem to represent ‘the heart’ of a house, its atmosphere and spirit. This assemblage could be regarded as the attempt at questioning the paradigm of modernity and its notion of progress as embodied by the Stalinist model of modernisation.
Without a doubt, surrealism was for Hasior one of the most important points of reference. Akin to the surrealists, the artist aimed to recuperate what was considered irrational in the eyes of Western civilisation: the oneiric, fantastical, folkloric, as well as things found on the margins of bourgeois metropolitan culture; objects belonging to the non-European civilizations. What is more, the avant-garde played a key role in the reality of the Global South since it brought together artists, writers, and scholars from Egypt, South America, Eastern Europe, or the Caribbean islands. Those makers and thinkers perceived surrealism along with its postulate to ‘free the imagination’ as the tool for political and psychological liberation from imperial oppression, which also called into question the linear historic progress always downgrading these parts of the world to the backward peripheral areas. The global history of surrealism still awaits its comprehensive survey: the first and very important step in this direction was the ground-breaking exhibition Surrealism in Egypt: Modernism and the Art and Liberty Group curated by Sam Bardaouil at Tate Liverpool in 2017.
While considering Hasior’s relationship to global art histories, we should also mention the fact that it was the Caribbean islands that made an enormous impact on various iterations of surrealism starting from Andre Breton’s journey to Haiti in 1946. Within the Caribbean, postcolonial art context a crucial role was played by Wilfredo Lam—a Cuban artist whose works combine Afro-Cuban culture with cubism and surrealism. Upon Lam’s return from Paris to Havana, the artist attempted to create a decolonial language able to grasp the identity and culture of the local black community whose origins date back to the fifteenth-century slave trade. Lam’s artistic practice was closely connected to the negritude movement: an intellectual and artistic group striving to abolish the colonial order and reclaim their cultural African heritage. Culture was to play a fundamental role in negritude as the first necessary step towards overcoming the radical alienation of black people. It should also be mentioned that it was surrealism with its critique of rational paradigm of modernity that provided the crucial point of departure not only for Lam but also the whole negritude movement.
Both Hasior and Lam embraced what was considered by the advocates of modernity as anachronic, obsolete, belonging to a by-gone temporal and historic era. This artistic approach had huge consequences: on the one hand, it allowed them to portray the inequality intrinsic in global history; and question the colonial aspect of the modernity project sanctioning a single model of progress and development, on the other. It is worth pointing out that it was the surrealist avant-garde that pioneered the incorporation of anachronistic elements into modern art to showcase the complexity of non-linear historical processes. This was also the case of the objects and materials used by Hasior in his assemblages. Their ostensible “anti-modernity” embodied the rural folklore and reality that were going to be transformed and completely erased by the communist project of modernisation. Thus, anachronism serves as an artistic strategy of the peripheries standing its ground against ‘onslaught of modernism.’ What is more, the artistic practice of Hasior seems to resonate strongly with the key issues the artists of the Global South were dealing with.
In this context, Hasior’s participation in two prestigious events held in Latin America holds special importance: the Biennale in Sao Paulo and the International Biennale of Outdoor Sculpture in Montevideo (1969). The piece showcased in Uruguay titled Golgota (Golgotha) seems especially important. To create this monument, Hasior used his unique technique of ‘sculpting the earth’ as he poured reinforced concrete over the shapes dug in the ground to create molds. Subsequently these sculptures—reminiscent of geometric totems—were positioned horizontally and burned. The titular reference to Christian religion notwithstanding, the artwork’s form seems like an attempt at building a dialogue between the folk culture in Poland and the visual culture of the Charrua people, an indigenous nation of Uruguay. The work itself can be interpreted as an allusion to the colonial history of Latin America with its burden of violence, destruction, and torture. Indeed, the artist’s sculpture in Montevideo operates as an exceptionally rich allegory of the Global South, the reality of which is tarnished by the ‘fire’ of colonialism and violence inscribed in the bodies, objects, and landscapes. In this context, the sculpture titled Chrziciel (Baptizer) or Misjonarz (Missionary) from 1958 deserves further scrutiny. The top part of this wooden sculpture is modeled after an animal’s silhouette with several wires twisted into the shape of a cross lodged into the animal’s back. In his artistic practice, Hasior made frequent references to the Christian religion and culture in Poland, as well as to folk beliefs and practices. However, from the decolonial perspective outlined above, the piece could also be seen to refer to the Pagan roots of Poland erased by the onslaught of Christianity. This point of view allows to see the work Misjonarz as a representation of the ‘the flame of faith’ as the symbol of the religious colonial project.
In his works, Hasior attempted to create an idiomatic artistic language rooted in the experience of Polish rural communities with their identity, culture, material practices, and epistemological systems. His artistic practice aimed to subvert the dominating colonial narrative which established the Polish peasantry as the subject of economic exploitation and political subjugation. The artist’s work went beyond not only the Polish (neo)avant-garde but also the principles of socialist realism with its focus on modernisation and industrialisation. As such Hasior’s art can be seen as an alternative to both the Western, capitalist and Eastern, communist modernity projects. It is exactly this type of singularity that opens up the possibility for interpreting Hasior’s practice in relation to decolonialism.
Contrary to a number of examples of decolonial art practices, Hasior steered clear of presenting a simplistic and idealised portrayal of a subaltern community. Scholar Dorota Jarecka made a very astute observation by stating that some of the artist’s works allude to the Polish folks committing atrocities against the Jewish people. The piece titled Chleb polski (Polish Bread) from 1968 makes the most striking impression in this regard. This assemblage depicts a loaf of bread stabbed with a knife, blood gushing from the wound in the form of red ribbons. According to Jarecka’s interpretation, the piece evokes anti-Semitic folk tales about the Jews desecrating the holy bread. The year 1968, when the piece was created, is a direct reference to the communist government’s smear campaign against Jewish people. As such we can say that Hasior’s art was not a naïve expression of ‘reverence for the peasants’: the artist was fully aware of the role some of the Polish peasants played in the ill-treatment of Jews during the German occupation.
This multifaceted historic and artistic backdrop allows us to better understand that, in the case of Władysław Hasior’s art practice, the decolonial perspective should not lead to a one-sided narrative emphasising only the exploitation of the rural communities while paying no heed to their abusive inclinations. This aspect is of paramount importance, especially when considering the Polish peasants’ status of ‘colonised coloniser’ in the former Galicia. In fact, this social group on the one hand was enslaved by the feudal serfdom system; on the other hand, they played a dominant role over the other minority groups, such as the Ukrainian or the Jewish people. Therefore, it’s impossible to draw a clear-cut division between a ‘pure-hearted’ rural community and the colonising political elites. The following conclusion drawn from the historic experience as well as Hasior’s works seems worth highlighting to me: while a decolonial perspective in Eastern Europe might open up new perspectives, it also poses serious risk of simplifying a complicated social, political, and artistic context.