Wilhelm Sasnal’s dark fairy tales at Lismore Castle
The Polish artist’s strange and cryptic paintings are inspired by Hans Christian Andersen and the illustrations of Andrzej Strumillo
Untitled painting by Wilhelm Sasnal. Image copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London
Wilhelm Sasnal at Lismore Castle. Image courtesy Lismore Castle Arts 2014
The Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal visited Lismore Castle on a cold, wet November weekend in 2012 to discuss the possibility of doing an exhibition there. His young son Kacper was with him, and Sasnal says it was like travelling back in time.
More or less immediately, he knew that the work to be made for Lismore would have to delve into a subject of special, personal interest to him: Hans Christian Andersen. The castle and fairy tales seem made for each other, and Andersen is at the centre of his show, Take Me to the Other Side , which has just opened at Lismore and runs through the summer months.
Sasnal is best known for his stark, sometimes graphically concise paintings, often short on colour and strong on grey. As with other contemporary realist painters such as Luc Tuymans or the late Norbert Schwontkowski, he can seem to describe a saddened, diminished world in which even the language of representation is strained and uncertain. Drawing on a wide range of visual sources in the contemporary visual environment, from LP sleeves to advertisements, and from news photographs to graphic novels and film stills, he aims to make images that are not quite like anything else – that are a bit strange and cryptic, and that evoke, you could say, “the other side”.
Sasnal was born in Tarnow, Poland, in 1972. His secondary school was a technical school, and he went on to study architecture: “It was a substitute for art.” After a couple of years, he decided to try to switch to art. “My parents were not happy. I only told them after I’d been accepted.”
‘They are so regressive’
He found the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow to be a strict, conservative institution. “When I was looking recently at the paintings I made in the first two years at the academy, I thought: they are so bad, so regressive.”
Then “something changed”, he says. “I realised that being a painter doesn’t mean having to paint still life in a certain way – that I could paint what related to my life. At that time, reality changed every day in Poland, in ways that were bad as well as good.”
He became affiliated with a group of like-minded students. “What we did, I think, to deal with this situation, was to somehow recreate pop art for ourselves, because it had never existed in Poland.” They painted everyday things in a direct, artless way, deliberately eschewing the academic values they were being taught.