Avant-garde Artist Władysław Strzemiński
Opening in New York May 19 and in Los Angeles on May 26. It is a look at one of the Polish director, Andrzej Wajda’s favorite artists Wladyslaw Strzeminski, an important figure in avant-garde painting in the first half of the 20th century in Poland. He was an assistant to Kazimir Malevich and the author of the artistic theory of Unism.
Strzeminski (Boguslaw Linda) is seen painting in his flat/workshop as a crew of workmen hang an enormous portrait of Stalin to the outside wall of his building. Printed on a red fabric, the portrait totally blocks the view from the window of Strzeminski’s workshop and plunges his whole flat into a blood red light. It becomes impossible for the artist to continue with his work and he feels as if he has been sentenced to prison. He has been cut off from the outside world, as if he had been put in jail. He protests and reacts violently. The film is a reflection of the painter’s struggle against the communist powers bit by bit, take away all of his rights. Seeing that Strzeminski is not willing to accept the new socialist realism movement being imposed upon artists and art teachers, he is dismissed from the Lodz Graduate School of Visual Arts, where he had been teaching History of Art and taken off the list of members of the artists’ association. He has no livelihood and he is humiliated, penniless and deprived of the food stamps he had been given by the school and the association. He goes deep into poverty, is disabled and seriously ill and eventually meets a tragic end.
Strzemiński rose to prominence in the interwar years. Having lost an arm and a leg in the First World War he took up the brush and was an internationally acclaimed painter and theoretician by the time he was at odds with the Communist government of the 1950s. Instead of looking at Strzemiński’s experimental nature, or channeling the energy of his dissidence, this is more of a classical drama.
The film opens in shades of red as we see Strzemiński’s Lodz apartment and its window covered by the enormous Stalin banner. He puckishly rips a hole in it so that he can let in some natural light for his work that becomes little more than visuals and mostly broad-brush strokes. The government tries to order Strzemiński to fall in line before they interfere more interfere with his life in retaliation for his obstinacy. Even after being relieved of his lectureship, he remains adored by his pupils and venerated by contemporaries, but it becomes clear that this more due to his mind than his manner.
Linda gives a performance of charisma but lacking charm and we see that he’s brilliant but carrying deeply held scars despite the missing limbs (played down as an incidental detail). His mood was clearly the reason for his divorce from his wife and it is very evidenced in his relationships with a love struck student (Zofia Wichłacz) and his own young daughter, Nika (Bronislawa Zamachowska) who has a curt and almost antagonistic relationship with her father, yet she’s a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark film.
Andrzej Wajda and his film is homage to an avant-garde artist who fell foul of stifling Stalinist rules. Strzeminski was a martyr to Stalinist orthodoxy, but we also see a hint of personal identification with him from the director. Stalin murdered his father, after all, so this undimmed animosity is entirely understandable.
In the film, the artist is in his late 50s and an inspirational lecturer at the Higher School of Visual Arts in Lodz, an institution he helped to found. However, history went against Strzeminski as Poland embraces a Stalinist code of Socialist Realism, which decrees that all art must “meet the needs of the people.” Abstract painters are suddenly suspect due to their “formalism” and “American cosmopolitanism.” These accusations ruined careers and even lives.
When Strzeminski defiantly stands up against these new strictures, his political overlords punish him severely. And we see him as a brave, almost saintly resistance fighter for artistic freedom. “Afterimage” is an elegant movie that is beautifully lit, tastefully art-directed, and handsomely shot.