Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2017

Andrzej Wajda, Art and the Struggle for Freedom

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

May 12, 2017

“Afterimage” opened theatrically in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th, to be followed at the Laemmle Theaters in LA a week later. Made in 2016 by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his ninetieth year and just before his death, it incorporates the dominant theme in a filmmaking career going back to 1955—namely the Polish national struggle that has been defined by its relationship to Russia for hundreds of years.

“Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

In 1945 he co-founded the State Higher School of the Visual Arts (SHSVA) in Lodz, where he lectured on art theory and history. The school created a Neo-Visual Room that displayed a collection of his work that was based on the theory of Unism that was a synthesis of 20th century modernist trends, including Constructivism. This was a movement initiated by Vladimir Tatlin in 1913 for which art and revolution were mutually reinforcing. The Constructivists sought to make art accessible to the public and frequently created works for public festivals and street designs in the 1920s. For Strzemiński, this aspect of Constructivism was less attractive—no doubt a function of the USSR having turned into a Stalinist nightmare for workers and artists alike.

Unism stressed the complete unity of paintings based on internal laws emerging from visual affinities regardless of their origins. The title of the film originates from the importance of afterimages in this theory. As Strzemiński tells his students in the early moments of the film, they are what is left in the imagination after you close your eyes. Indeed, one of his experiments was to record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun such as the 1948 painting “Sun’s Aftersight. Woman at the window”.

The film begins brilliantly with Strzemiński customarily sitting on the floor of his apartment on the upper floor of a drab building in Lodz while he works on his latest canvas. All of a sudden a massive red sheet as tall is the building is draped across the edifice and covers his windows, robbing him of the necessary sunlight the “afterimages” artist relies on. He rises himself clumsily upon his one good leg, takes up his crutches and opens the windows. Without bothering to see what the red fabric was all about, he takes a kitchen knife and cuts large holes in order to continue with his work. Seconds later, we see what he took a knife to—a monumental portrait of Stalin. That was just the beginning of his clash with the New Order.

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  1. Further to the whole article: a very interesting perspective on parts of politicial films of Andrzej Wajda (shame you have not mentioned a great movie Without Anesthesia or Rough Treatment as it’s sometimes translated), it would also be good to notice that Wajda had made beatuful existential films like Innocent Sorcerers (shot at the same time when Godard was filming Breathless),The Birch Wood, The Maids of Wilko, The Orchestra Conductor (one of the favourites Bergman’s films), A Chronicle of Amorous Accidents, Nastasja or Sweet Rush, he is also known of the films that were progressive and innovative in form and cinema language as Everything for Sale (which is by the way one of the greatest films about film making along with Fellini’s 8 1/2 or Truffaut’s Day for Night) or Pilate and others (amazing version of biblical part of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, taking place in contemporary Germany). Obviously one should mention couple of other true masterpieces as Landscape after the Battle,The Wedding or The Promised Land. Also Korczak e.g. was a real inspiration for Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Anyway Andrzej Wajda’s art would be discovered and re-interpreted by next generations and will not be forgotten

    Comment by Mac — May 12, 2017 @ 9:50 pm

  2. Besides as any great art, Wajda’s films (and also magnificent theatre productions) can be analysed and interpreted on many different levels as there are many layers within film structures and stories e.g. Man of Marble is not only about history and politics but also about artists, their duties and responsibilities, about film making as well etc etc. Wajda’s main topic or toposes as we could put it would always be love and death (Eros and Thanatos) and also freedom, understood in many different ways and meanings

    Comment by Mac — May 12, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

  3. I’m surprised you haven’t seen “Man of Marble,” and suggest you rectify that asap. A classic, and definitely pro-socialist. Its sequel, “Man of Iron,” eh, not so much.

    Comment by John B. — May 12, 2017 @ 10:33 pm

  4. I plan to take “Man of Marble”, “Danton” and “Man of Iron” out of the Columbia DVD library this week. As I said in my review, I steered clear of Wajda’s work in the 70s and 80s because of my knee-jerk anti-imperialism.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 12, 2017 @ 10:40 pm

  5. John B: both Men are pro-socialist movies (as Ken Loach films) in a way as they are the sound in worker’s rights’ subject and freedom, they are anti communism regime obviously

    Comment by Mac — May 12, 2017 @ 11:08 pm

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