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

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.

The turning point
After the academy, he subsidised his art by working in advertising. He is absolutely clear that the turning point for him as an artist came in 2002. His gallery took him to Art Basel, and he found himself suddenly dealing with a host of invitations and opportunities. The pace hasn't slackened since. He has managed to thrive in an international arena where painting is the exception rather than the rule.

“I know,” he says. “Painting is often neglected by curators who want to be contemporary, because they see painting as an obsolete practice. Which is what I like about it. Or one of the things. It has such a long tradition that you can engage with – you don’t have to, but you can, that possibility is always there.”

Much of the work in Take Me to the Other Side was made, incongruously, in San Francisco, where Sasnal and his family spent six months. Not that San Francisco influenced the paintings. He could have painted them anywhere, he says. Still, he notes that he found the city a little too laidback and comfortable, and was more taken with the edgy energy of Detroit when he went there.

His interest in Andersen goes back to childhood, when his parents introduced him to a three-volume translation of the fairy tales, each illustrated by a different artist. The illustrations that impressed him most were by Andrzej Strumillo.

“They were dark and spooky. At first I was really scared by the pictures. Then my parents read me the stories. Seven years ago I came across the books at my parents’ house and that reminded me how important they’d been for me.”

The images had entered into his imagination, become part of his pictorial vocabulary, without him being aware of it.

Direct and unpretentious
A lot of the time, Sasnal looks slightly, thoughtfully amused by things. He is very direct and unpretentious, always quick to undercut any tendency to make his work appear overly conceptualised. For example, he short-circuits any notion that his paintings are based on a subtle reading of Andersen's text: "For me, they are based on the illustrations, not the stories."

Undoubtedly, a major part of the appeal of his work is its recognition that images have a curious life of their own, that they enter our minds and grow and develop and mutate, evading our instinctive attempts to pin them down and contain them.

Sasnal's Andersen paintings recognisably relate to some of Strumillo's illustrations: the ball in flight from the story of The Top and the Ball ; a cobbler at his last; a view from within a head, looking out; an acidic green landscape.

But there are other subjects in the exhibition as well, not directly related to Andersen but in tune with the mood of fairy-tale surrealism. Kasper Hauser is based on a portrait engraving of a mystery teenage boy who was found in Nuremberg in 1828 and whose story inspired many artists and musicians, including the film-maker Werner Herzog.

Sasnal painted a black-and-white version of a lost Caspar David Friedrich, Autumn Landscape with a Man Gathering Wood . The original was lost in a fire, and the only record of it is a black-and-white photograph. There are two versions of the great 19th-century Danish painter Christen Købke's portrait of his younger brother, Valdemar Hjartvar. Sasnal is an admirer of Købke, a contemporary of Andersen. "For me, this portrait was a starting point for the exhibition."

From the beginning, music has been inseparably linked to Sasnal’s work. “I used to be really into music, mostly guitar music.” His tastes have broadened with age, though he is not quite so fervent about it. He was never in a group, never composed – he is a listener. “I always listen to music when I work; I love that about being a painter.”

Album sleeves have been a consistent source of visual inspiration. “I even noticed that the first Andersen paintings I made were the size of record sleeves.” And the show’s title is from a track by English alt rock group Spacemen 3 .

Music also prompted his initial venturing into video and film (two new films are showing at Lismore). “From the early 1990s, I wanted to make images to go with music. I knew nothing of art films and wasn’t trying to make art films of my own. But my wife, Anka, comes from a film background, and we began to work together on films. I’d say she’s more responsible for the script, then we direct and edit together.”

He’s noticeably wary of getting involved in more substantial film productions: too many people, too much happening. He will always gravitate toward the studio. “I am a painter,” he says with a shrug.

Take Me to the Other Side: Wilhelm Sasnal's paintings inspired by Hans Christian Andersen is at Lismore Castle Arts, Lismore, Co Waterford until September 21. lismorecastlearts.ie