International Film Festival of India 2016

Art in the times of repression

universal struggle: When Strzeminski finds all his options for expression closed by the state, the only hope is is the sense of solidarity with him amongst his students. — photos: special arrangement  

Andrzej Wajda establishes the unconventional ways of Poland’s mid-20th century abstract artist and art history teacher Wladyslaw Strzeminski right at the start of Afterimage. Taking his students from Lodz’ Higher School of Plastic Arts out on a field trip, making them work in a lovely wide open expanse, instilling in them that life is worth living if you can create something — it is evident that for the idiosyncratic Strzeminski, art was life and life was art.

At one level then, the final film by the legendary Wajda, who passed away on October 9 this year, is a reflection on art of the times: the constructivist art group, Strzeminski’s revolutionary book titled The Theory of Vision. The title of the film itself and an early scene reference Strzeminski’s paintings, ‘Afterimages of the Sun’, and the painter himself talks about images and gaze and how an “afterimage” remains imprinted in the human eye even after the original image has faded away.

In a way, Strzeminski’s artistic concerns resonate today as well, especially in the way the film chronicles how the physically challenged, avant garde artist took on the Stalinist repression of the times. How his own radical vision of art clashed with Stalin’s diktat that art should aim towards the good of the masses through social realism and superficial positivism, on how the State’s utilitarian view of art and suspicion for “formalism” and “American cosmopolitanism” affected many an artistic soul.

Wajda portrays a shabby, stricken, dark and bleak post-World War II Poland, in hues of blues and greys. It’s the world of poverty, wants and rationing of food, where the only sign of beauty, perhaps, is art. But even that is being suffocated. There is a telling, symbolic scene, where Strzeminski is working on a canvas at home when the window is suddenly veiled by a red poster of the Polish United Workers’ Party. The overwhelming red looks as though it is smothering his own expression and he tears into the banner to defy the metaphorical clampdown.

For Strzeminski, art has a right to exist for itself. It doesn’t need to “be” for furthering the political agenda of the Establishment, it can’t be an indoctrination and propaganda tool. It has to have an ideology of its own than that of the ruling classes.

It is at once moving and scary to see Strzeminski desperately holding on to his artistic beliefs and freedom. What happens to those like him who don’t compromise? The film is a chilling portrayal of how sinister regimes can get; they may not kill an artist physically, but can decimate his spirit, systematically, step by step. His refusal to compromise costs him his teaching position, his membership in the artist’s union, his work gets vandalised, the ‘Neoplastic Room’ designed by him in Lodz’ Muzeum Sztuki is “liquidated”, his privileges are revoked, he is denied his paints and brushes and, eventually, even food. There can be nothing worse for an artist but to find all his options for expression closed, leaving no way out for him to breathe. The abject humiliation is more brutal than killing him. In the desperate times, his one and only hope then is the sense of solidarity with him amongst his admiring students.

Actor Boguslaw Linda plays Strzeminski with charisma, complexity and dignity. There are hints of personal upheavals and guilt, besides the political churn: a family he couldn’t quite hold together, the death of estranged wife, the artist Katarzyna Kobro, and a melancholic, solemn, too-old-for- her-age teenage daughter who he lets go to a children’s home, fully aware that she will have a hard life ahead. Last but not the least, there’s also a student whose regard for him keels towards love.

The producer of the film, Michal Kwiecinski, spoke about how the film may have been made by a 90-year-old, but was “very young in its expression” and universal in its appeal. It also seems to have a timeless relevance to it.

Watching the tussle between the artist and the state in Afterimage reminded me of a recent incident when U.S. vice-president elect Mike Pence was booed at the Broadway musical Hamilton. After the curtain call, actor Brandon Victor Dixon read out a statement telling Pence that the multiracial and multicultural cast was concerned about the Trump administration. “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights.”

It inspired two tweets from U.S. president elect Donald Trump: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theatre by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” “The Theatre must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”

The tweets were enough to begin a debate on how much can the artists be dictated by the governments. Shouldn’t all forms of art reflect, question and provoke than tow the line of those in authority?

No wonder then, that Afterimage makes a troubled piece of history relevant to the uneasy present and the tentative future as well. Be it communist tyranny back then or communal, casteist, capitalist dictatorships now, Afterimage leaves one despondent because times they are not quite a changin’.

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