The exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (until 1 January), surveying ten years’ work by the 38-year-old Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal, gets other painters arguing. Everyone has their dislikes. Mine is the largest and most recent canvas, Pigsty. Black lines pick out a long low agricultural compound – whitewashed walls pierced by thin black windows – that stretches some 13 feet between a grey sky and the heavy green of the Polish plains. This foreground swathe of green, streaked at high speed with a six-inch brush, strikes me as phoney. ‘I’m urgent and desperate,’ it shouts. No, no, I say, you’re frantic and contrived. You’re trying to foist emotion on the sullen subject the artist has chosen to depict: and in doing so, you give the game away – why this agro-industrial pigsty has been invested with such monumentality. Inescapably, it becomes clear that Sasnal has been drawn to the image by its Auschwitz-like-ness. Reaching back to the zero hour of his grandparents’ generation, he is making a stab at a Great Polish History Painting. But that schlocky slither of Hooker’s Green suggests to me that you can no longer rely on a seven-decades-old trauma to locate your nation’s emotional truths.
LRB 5 January 2012 | PDF Download