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Issue 232

Mikołaj Sobczak Upends History Painting

At Kunsthalle Münster, the artist canonizes contemporary history in his riotous first institutional solo exhibition outside of Poland

BY Krzysztof Kościuczuk in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 18 NOV 22

The genre of history painting is arguably the most egregious lie perpetrated by visual artists. It seldom provides an accurate account of past events, nonetheless, it has been an efficient tool in exercising power and, as such, a primary source for the popular imaginary. Combining painting, video and performance, Mikołaj Sobczak dives into this realm, dissecting and stitching together historical scenes to conjure encounters that, while impossible, are no more preposterous than their source images.

Mikołaj Sobczak, ‘Leibeigene’, 2022–23, exhibition view, Kunsthalle Münster. Courtesy: the artist and Polana Institute, Warsaw. Photo: Volker Renner

In The Vision (2022) – the nearly ten-metre-long centrepiece of ‘Leibeigene’ (Serfs), Sobczak’s first institutional solo exhibition outside of Poland – what initially resembles a monumental battle scene is transformed into a postapocalyptic riot. In the middle of the canvas, Frederick the Great desperately stretches out his hand towards a peasant in a reversal of Robert Warthemüller’s depiction of the Prussian King’s visit to a potato farm (Der König überall, The King Is Everywhere, 1886). He is dwarfed by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the farm hand-turned-Emperor of Haiti whom Guillaume Guillon-Lethière immortalized in The Oath of the Ancestors (1822). Mirroring Jean-Jacques Scherrer’s Joan of Arc Entering Orléans (1887), the French patron saint is depicted on horseback leaving behind figures from William Allan’s The Slave Market, Constantinople (1838) now engulfed in flames. Rolling fields are devoured by a gargantuan monster, while figures from a mosaic by Ukraine artist Alla Horska tower over the scene like Orthodox saints. Belated justice is administered, but there is neither salvation nor afterlife as chaos reigns and the circle of oppression continues: a male nude wears an orange backpack reminiscent of those issued by a global food-delivery service.

Courtesy: the artist and Polana Institute, Warsaw. Photo: Volker Renner

Developed in dialogue with the French historian Daniel Beauvois, Sobczak’s recent works cast a critical eye on relations between Poland, Ukraine and Russia. For Harem (2022), he revisits Eugène Delacroix’s Women of Algiers (1834) using traditional Ukrainian costumes to represent the 19th-century harem of the wealthy Polish count Mieczysław Potocki. Women’s Rebellion (2022), which features a monumental female figure marching towards the viewer, infant baby in one hand and raised axe in the other, references brutal peasant uprisings against tyrannous masters described by Beauvois in his book Trójkąt Ukraiński (Ukrainian Triangle, 2005) about Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev.

Mikołaj Sobczak, ‘Leibeigene’, 2022–23, exhibition view, Kunsthalle Münster. Courtesy: the artist and Polana Institute, Warsaw. Photo: Volker Renner

Set between the World Wars and quoting the language of German Expressionism is Sobczak’s latest video, Upiór (2022), whose titular protagonist is a demonic being from Slavic folklore, akin to, but distinct from, the vampire. Having been abused by a Polish master, a young Ukrainian peasant (played by the artist Taras Gembik) is now a revenant haunting a Polish official (Sobczak) charged with seizing the furnishings of an Orthodox church before its demolition as part of a brutal state minority policy. In the finale, the line between the dead and the living, victims and perpetrators, is muddied when the official confesses in a fit of frenzy: ‘For centuries we have seen you as upiórs. And today we are the same!’ It’s a bold statement considering how historical grudges are currently being floated as arguments against helping Ukrainians fleeing the 2022 Russian invasion.

Mikołaj Sobczak, Upiór, 2022, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Polana Institute, Warsaw. Photo: Volker Renner

Other works in the show relate to German history: Diana and Actaeon (2021) references the infamous Paragraph 175 (the German Criminal Code penalized homosexual acts until 1994), while Up in the Attic (2022) is inspired by Reformation preacher Thomas Müntzer, whose radical views and leading role in the German Peasants’ War (1524–25) led to his torture and execution. Sobczak emphasizes the tensions between masters and servants, questions their portrayal and draws out their emancipatory, utopian potential. For the artist, history paintings speak less about the past than about the future envisioned by those who brought them to life. History doesn’t repeat itself; it is us who repeat it.

Mikołaj Sobczak’s ‘Leibeigene’ is on view at Kunsthalle Münster until 22 January 2023.

Main image: Mikołaj Sobczak, Die Vision, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 2.2 × 9.6 m. Courtesy: the artist and Polana Institute, Warsaw. Photo: Volker Renner

Krzysztof Kościuczuk is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives between Poland and Switzerland.