TEMPORARY EXHIBITION / Xawery Dunikowski. Painting
11 June – 14 November 2021
Xawery Dunikowski. Painting is the first ever exhibition devoted to this lesser-known area of the artist’s practice. To this day, Dunikowski’s paintings remain undeservedly overshadowed by his sculptures, though the artist explored the medium passionately from the beginning of his career. “If I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t sculpt, either,” he was known to say. In his painting, he posed philosophical questions on the meaning of human existence, on man’s place in the universe, or on the immortality of the human essence or soul. The universal messages contained therein remain as relevant today as ever. Taciturn by nature, it was via painting that Dunikowski could give voice to his most guarded feelings, emotions and thoughts. His masterly psychological portraits were an expression of love and devotion to his loved ones, among them his daughter Maria Xawera, commonly known as Xawerka.
His paintings arose from an inner drive so relentless that not even lukewarm reviews could dissuade him. Perhaps that is because he paid little heed to the art world’s trends and currents.
Dunikowski demonstrated an interest in painting already while a student at the School of Fine Arts in Krakow, and he took part in plein-air painting events organised by Jan Stanisławski, among others. Though he first exhibited one of his paintings in 1905, it was not until 1915 in Paris that this facet of his work generated any interest from critics, and by the 1930s he was showing his work publicly with increasing regularity. In 1938, his exhibition at Warsaw’s Institute of Art Propaganda was almost entirely dedicated to paintings. The press called it a sensation and Dunikowski’s paintings proved to be a great surprise to the public.
After the Second World War, Dunikowski turned to this domain with even greater vigour. His paintings dealt with the human being, who fascinated the artist in every aspect of his complex nature, including the cruel and barbaric, which the artist personally experienced when he was prisoner number 774 KL at Auschwitz in 1940–1945. He was reluctant to talk about his traumatic ordeal at the camp, choosing instead to let images, preserved in his memory and transposed onto canvas, tell the truth of the crimes people are capable of. Presented in the exhibition are several pieces from the Auschwitz series, including Christmas in Auschwitz in 1944 (1950), Orchestra (1955), Gridirons (1955), and Pathway to Freedom (c. 1955).
Echoes of Dunikowski’s wartime experiences permeated his canvases throughout the 1950s, as seen in the series “Abstract Compositions,” for instance, and warned against the senselessness of warfare. Interestingly, as time went on, plants increasingly became the main protagonists of Dunikowski’s paintings. He mainly painted succulents, which he simply referred to as cactuses and with which he liked to surround himself at home. They symbolise the frailty and fragility of existence but also a capacity for rebirth. In his compositions, the artist endowed them with human traits, showing them to be more humane than people. “It is true that nature is full of struggle, the struggle for growth and for life, but there is no war in nature,” he once observed.
Any time spent not making art, Dunikowski considered wasted, and his painting tools were a constant companion on his frequent trips, vacations, and sanatorium retreats. With zeal, he drew and painted the landscapes of the places he visited and portraits of the people he encountered. While in Nieborów in 1957, he was fascinated with the prehistoric sculptures residing in the local park and they became the subject of a painting series titled “Nieborów Stone Women.” Concurrently, he worked on his symbolist composition Man in the Cosmos (Man in the Space), one of the major paintings in Dunikowski’s body of work, in which he strove to capture the mystery of existence and the concept of the Absolute.
Many of the works currently on display have not been shown publicly since 1961. Others, like the sketches for the abstract compositions and certain sketches for the “Cactus” series, are being exhibited for the very first time. Extensive conservation work was performed prior to the exhibition. The show is divided in thematic rooms: “Portraits,” “Catharsis,” “Warning,” “Time,” “Studio,” and “Man in the Space,” which make it possible to trace Dunikowski’s artistic process and his technical growth.
A rich educational programme and lecture series will supplement the event.