If Gerhard Richter at Tate Modern was one big painting story in London this fall, Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal at the Whitechapel Gallery was another. Richter is now nearly 80 and Sasnal, 40. Like Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, who famously shared a pavilion with Richter at Documenta 20 years ago, Sasnal represents a reinvestment in figurative painting that challenges the photographic basis of Richter’s art. It’s a generational challenge that looks to painting as a more authentic, individuated source for image-making, one that serves as an ongoing riposte and alternative to photography’s wholesale capture of the world.
Everything about Sasnal speaks to the handmade. The sizes of his paintings are modest, the surfaces varied and marked with strategic passages of impasto that slow the eye and give a personal track for the images evolving on the far side of the brush. Troubled Polish history weighs on the mood of the work, as does Sasnal’s pervasive affection for the colour black, which reads as an open door into a land still haunted by the Holocaust and by Soviet-era repression.
Some of the most impressive work in the show engages these themes directly, like Sasnal’s Shoah paintings from 2003, or the earlier Maus paintings from 2001 that rework illustrations from Art Spiegelman’s book. But these ideas also carry through indirectly in the harsh silhouettes that many of his figures are reduced to, regardless of context. Sasnal’s figures are partly missing; they are blown into high contrast by a relentless glare that lights the art internally. In an untitled 2004 canvas, four figures are in a landscape, walking through a field towards a hill. Other than the stark white highlights, the painting is all black or modulated grey. The figures read as working women, and there is no real sense as to why they would be walking through thigh-high grass towards a blasted, treeless hill; but there is a touching communion to the group, a solidarity that counters the bareness of the landscape. It is an existential image that hung by itself on a wall at the end of a long second-floor gallery at the Whitechapel. Every work in the room seemed attached to the women’s uphill journey.
In painting after painting, Sasnal makes you readjust and settle down into his images, coming to terms with how the paint serves as a commentary or elucidation on his themes. The fast, delicate, broad brushing on the right side of Roy Orbison 1, from 2007, speaks for what comes from the empty black lozenge that stands for the singer’s small mouth. The knurled white highlights on his cheeks and forehead flesh out a body for what otherwise is just a quick, rudimentary thumbnail image grabbed from Google. In an untitled 2007 work, a blurred brushing of ochre and white seals the kiss between a young man in a blue hat and a green-tinged girl in a pink sweater. It’s a painted kiss where, once again, paint is synonymous with flesh and blood.
The Whitechapel show included more than 80 paintings, and it made clear that Sasnal is a force to contend with in bringing new life to painting. Like his Belgian colleague Tuymans, he demonstrates that painting remains a compelling medium of record for rendering the brutalities and delicacies of human experience. It is also perhaps the medium of choice for keeping history alive in the present. That said, four short film works presented on monitors (including one of a long, lingering kiss between silhouetted figures in front of a window opening to the view of a wavering winter tree, and another of an Egyptian travelogue showing figures moving towards shifting horizons) also gave an indication that Sasnal can make compelling images in any medium. It’s the artist—not the paint, not the camera—that drives the image.