Tempus passionis according to Stanisław Kulon

Renata Rogozińska

The University of Arts in Poznań


The text discusses several sculptures and drawings by Stanisław Kulon on the theme of the martyrology of the Polish nation. The first to be analysed are the drawings depicting the Volhynian massacres (2010), a cycle of autobiographical bas-reliefs Testimony 1939-1946, showing the ordeal of Polish deportees to the Urals (2013), and twenty-eight bas-reliefs The Way of the Cross (1991), which conflate the fate of Poles at the Soviet labour camps with references to Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. The conviction that he had a moral lesson to teach – which rules out ambiguity and the temptation to let one’s imagination run riot –  made Kulon focus on the “bare facts” only and adopt a this-is-what-really-happened kind of approach. In lieu of the shorthand, symbol, and the radical deformities frequently employed in his previous work, they use a more quasi-documental style of narration in order to emphasise the enormity of the crime. The works show in drastic detail the tortures inflicted on the deportees and their gruelling work in the “inhuman land”. Martyrological themes are also present in Kulon’s other works, both religious and secular. They feature numerous references to the situation of Poles living under Soviet occupation and during martial law in the years 1981–1983. The tragic view of the human condition is not without an appeal to a “higher power”. On the contrary, his belief in the supernatural status of man’s existence is often accentuated, thus revealing an eschatological perspective, especially in the sculptures inspired by the Passion of Christ. Regardless of its themes and modes of artistic creation, Kulon’s entire legacy shows a man entangled in a traumatic past, marked by the trauma of the genocide he witnessed and the years of captivity under communist rule.

Keywords: Stanisław Kulon, drawing, sculpture, Polish martyrology, Second World War, religious art, Easter inspirations


Giving testimony

Known primarily as a sculptor, and for some also as an educator, Stanisław Kulon, who is a retired professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, has recently returned with a series of shocking drawings entitled Sketches. 1943 Volhynia 1944. Their subject is the mass slaughter of Polish people perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, the so called Volhynian Massacre[1] [figs. 1–2]. These works, which have been published and distributed in book form by the Art Promotion Office, are – in the words of the publisher – “an artistic testimony concerning the history of Poland in the 20th century. They relate a tragedy now either forgotten or relegated to the limbo of communal oblivion”.[2]

As is widely known, the massacre took place in the area of what was then the Volhynian Voivodship of the Second Polish Republic. The victims were mostly Poles, but they also included Russians, Jews, Armenians, Czechs, and Ukrainians. Although the exact number of the victims is not known, it is estimated that these ethnic cleansings left between 50 to 60 thousand people dead. Over 99% of the settlements were destroyed. The Polish presence in the area was to be obliterated forever. The killings were acts of unimaginable cruelty. The victims were slain not only with bullets but also axes, pitchforks, scythes, saws, hammers and knives.[3] Kulon himself did not witness the tragic events, but he had gained a profound knowledge of them from stories told by the survivors of the massacre (including his former neighbours), as well as the steadily growing number of publications.[4] Born in 1930, Kulon spent the first ten years of his life close to the eastern border of Poland, in a tiny village in the Podhajce District, where the future artist often had to hide from the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army). In 1940 he and his family were deported to the Urals, where he would later lose both of his parents and three siblings to the extremely harsh living conditions and gruelling work. It was only in the early 1990s, however, that he began to return to these painful memories in a more tangible form through sculpting, drawing, glass-painting and making notes, thus recording in a more detailed manner the tragic experience. Most probably, like other victims of war, for a long time he could not bear the burden of memories, think back about the atrocities from the past, and start writing about the tragic fate of his family.[5]

It is not just the projects created over the last decades, however, but Kulon’s entire artistic output, that show a man hopelessly entangled in the past, bearing the stigma of a life forever blighted by genocide. Martyrological themes thread through many of his works, even when they are not explicitly expressed in language. They are present in Kulon’s sculptures on Christ’s Passion as well as in other representations of post-war Poland – a country dispossessed, enslaved, and oppressed by the Soviet authorities. The main topics of Kulon’s artistic output are multifarious aspects of the drama of human existence, linked to the drama of Polish martyrology, but also feeding on the themes of sickness, transience, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the chores of motherhood, and, last but not least, abortion – an issue touched upon in a number of works. That is why the following investigations will not be limited to the depiction of the horrors of inhabiting what the Polish painter Józef Czapski described as “the inhuman land”, though most space will be dedicated to it. Further on, we shall discuss Kulon’s work on the sacrificial significance of Christ’s death, and then we shall proceed to various sculptures on existential themes. We do so in the belief that “from the very beginning the artist’s entire oeuvre is closely linked to his biography and the fondly cherished memory of his lineage. This approach is one of a loving remembrance of the past as well as a sensitive response to the here and now”.[6] It reverberates with an echo of war memories, which makes the artist particularly sensitive to the problem of human suffering and pain.

As has already been said, the Volhynian sketches, as well as other autobiographical works created in the recent decades, are illustrative in nature and relatively realistic in character. The artistic means of expression employed by the artist are very different from the more openly experimental and innovative style of Kulon’s early work. As if out of fear of erring on the side of excessive novelty and formal experimentalism, but also in order to accentuate the actual enormity of the crimes committed, he opts here for a quasi-documental style of narration instead of the shorthand, symbol, and the radical deformities of his previous work. Its modern form has given way to a more conventional style.

The problem of the “aestheticisation of horror”, often leaning towards manifest self-advertising of the form, is in danger of diluting the representation of agony by transposing it onto the realm of the conventional.[7] This danger has often been discussed by critics as well as artists. It is exactly this kind of danger that Theodor Adorno had in mind when he pointed out that art should not so much be silent in the face of the horrors of genocide, but ought to look for radically novel, and far more appropriate, ways of depicting such horrors. These new ways have been occasionally discovered in various forms stripped of all beauty, degraded, adulterated and repugnant; forms which seem little more than debris, shards and broken pieces of what used to constitute a whole, thus evoking the lost unity. Józef Szajna’s work is a good example of such an approach.[8] Another solution often resorted to is creating bare works of minimalist art, which suggest, rather than depict, the crimes perpetrated. Abstract forms, which by their very nature have no relevance to reality, have been regarded as artistic equivalents of numbness, non-being, or a stifled scream.[9] Occasionally, such consistent reduction of the creative act has resulted in the gesture of foregoing artistic production altogether. The work of art has been replaced by objects or sites scarred by tragic events. Presented in crudo, or else in audio or video formats, they have assumed their own realness.[10]

To be sure, Stanisław Kulon is neither first nor last to have opted for formal realism in an attempt to give testimony to tragic historical events through a detailed representation of them.[11] He did so in the name of absolute clarity of narration, so that the exceptionally horrific nature of the crimes perpetrated would become evident to everyone. In doing so, he was following in the footsteps of Izaak Celnikier, who wrote: “Soon I realised that the pitfalls of ‘inexpressibility’, l’indicible, will annihilate all possibility of artistic creation. I rejected it out of hand, so that silence should not sentence the victims to another death.”[12]

[1] The cycle consists of nineteen sketches in black ink on white cardboard; size 42 × 29.6cm. I analyse them at greater length in: Bez kamuflażu, w: Stanisław Kulon, Szkice 1943 Wołyń 1944, ed. J. Chromy, Warszawa 2012, pp. 7–21.

[2] J. Chromy, http://biuropromocjisztuk.pl/wydawnictwa/szkice-1943-wolyn-1944/ [accessed: 20 Jan. 2015].

[3] See: J. Turowski, W. Siemaszko, Zbrodnie nacjonalistów ukraińskich dokonane na polskiej ludności na Wołyniu, Warszawa 1990, pp. 158–159; R. Torzecki, Polacy i Ukraińcy. Sprawa ukraińska w czasie II wojny światowej na terenie II Rzeczypospolitej, Warszawa 1993, pp. 267–288.

[4] Information about Kulon’s tragic childhood and his stance on the Volhynian massacres comes from his autobiography Z ziemi polskiej do Polski. Wspomnienia 1939–1958, Warszawa 2008. It also features detailed descriptions of the horrific conditions in which his family had to live in the Urals.

[5] An American Jew and novelist Elie Wiesel was a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps. He described the inferno he had experienced during World War II ten years after its end, when he had garnered enough strength to let himself be imprisoned at the camp for a second time. In the case of the Polish artist Marian Kołodziej, who was held prisoner at Auschwitz, five decades had to elapse before he had the strength to face similar memories. See: W stronę Golgoty. Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999, Poznań 2002, p. 66.

[6] J. Fober, Siła Prawdy, in: Stanisław Kulon. Rzeźby 1959–2009, exhibition catalogue, eds. A. Guzowska, J. Chromy, Muzeum Diecezjalne w Pelplinie, 12 September – 30 October 2009, Warszawa 2009, no pagination.

[7] This phenomenon is examined by: A. Pieńkos, Okropności sztuki. Nowoczesne obrazy rzeczy ostatecznych, Gdańsk 2000, s. 264.

[8] Świat Józefa Szajny, ed. K. Oleksy, exhibition catalogue, Państwowe Muzeum Oświęcim-Brzezinka, Oświęcim 1995.

[9] See E. Jedlińska, Sztuka po Holocauście, Łódź 2001, pp. 181–188.

[10] It is worthwhile to quote in this context the moving words of Tadeusz Kantor: “The Second World War, genocide, concentration camps, crematoria, wild beasts, death, torture, humankind turned into mud, soap and smoke… and here is my (and our) response: there is no such thing as a work of art, there is no sacred illusion,

there is no function of sacred representation. There is only an object wrenched out of life and reality. There is no artistic site, there is only a real place” – quoted in: P. Piotrowski, Znaczenia modernizmu. W stronę historii sztuki polskiej po 1945 roku, Poznań 1999, pp. 26–27.

[11] See M. Lachowski, Nowocześni po katastrofie. Sztuka w Polsce w latach 1945–1960, Lublin 2013, p. 16.

[12] I. Celnikier, Od artysty, w: Izaak Celnikier, malarstwo, rysunek, grafika, ed. Z. Gołubiew, exhibition catalogue, Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, January – March 2005, Kraków 2005, p. 14.

[13] Before accusing Kulon of pummeling the viewer with revolting details, one should bear in mind that he only depicted a small fraction of the tortures used by OUN-UPA. The website dedicated to the genocide in Volhynia has a comprehensive catalogue of them, which consists of no less than 135 items! http://wolyn1943.eu.interiowo.pl/artykuly.html [accessed: 20 Jan. 2015].

[14] See Pieńkos 2000 (fn. 7), p. 264.

[15] Rogozińska 2012 (fn. 1), p. 8.

[16] The notion of traumatic realism is borrowed from the title of M. Rothberg’s book Traumatic Realism. The demands of Holocaust Representation, Minneapolis–London 2000.

[17] Their size is 45 × 81cm. The cycle was on display at Muzeum Diecezjalne in Pelplin at the turn of 2013/2014. The exhibition was entitled Stanisław Kulon – Testimony 1939–1946.

[18] The original drawings in pencil on white-grey paper are 42 × 30cm. Most of them were used by the artist as drafts for his later bas-reliefs.

[19] „Polonia – wystawa szkiców z czasów wojny 1939–1944, exhibition catalogue, Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski, December 1944 – January 1945, Lublin 1944. The exhibition was reviewed by P. Smolik, Na bezdrożach złych tradycji (Wystawa grupy artystów krakowskich „Polonia”), “Kuźnica” 1946, nr 31.

[20] The words quoted here come from the commentary for the exhibition Negatives of Memory. Marian Kołodziej’s Labyrinths, handwritten by the artist and copied for the purposes of this event, which was organised by the National Museum in Gdańsk in 1995 (April–September). I discuss them at greater length in the book W stronę Golgoty. Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999, Poznań 2002, pp. 66–73.

[21] See G. Didi-Huberman, Przed obrazem, transl. B. Brzezicka, Gdańsk 2011, p. 25.

[22] A. Turowski, …éblouissement…, “Teksty drugie”, 2011, no 6, p. 81; Centrum Humanistyki Cyfrowej, http://rcin.org.pl/Content/48481/WA248_65564_P-I-2524_turowski-eblouiss.pdf [accessed: 27 Jan. 2015].

[23] See Fober 2009 (fn. 6).

[24] J. Derrida, Psyche. Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, Stanford University Press 2007, p. 22.

[25] Letter to the author of 10 March 1998.

[26] A large part of the material quoted here is based on a series of conversations I had with the artist during a visit to his workshop in 1998, as well as my correspondence with him.

[27] Letter to the author of 10 March 1998.

[28] See Kobielus, Krzyż Chrystusa, Od znaku i figury do symbolu i metafory, Warszawa 2000, pp. 78–80.

[29] Letter to the author of 10 March 1998.

[30] „Ita altare est repraesentativum crucis ipsius, in qua Christus in propria specie immolatus est.”, quoted from Summa Theologica in: Kobielus 2000 (fn. 28), p. 170.

[31] The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1383) gives the following explanation: “The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord. This is all the more so since the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful, both as the victim offered for our reconciliation and as food from heaven who is giving himself to us. “For what is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?” asks St. Ambrose (De sacramentis, 5,7: PL 16, 447 C). He says elsewhere, “The altar represents the body [of Christ] and the Body of Christ is on the altar” (St. Ambrose, De sacramentis, 4,7: PL 16, 437 D)”.

[32] B. Ratter, Dziś jakże by nam potrzebny był ten fanatyk Międzyrzecza, http://bezprzesady.pl/aktualnosci/dzis-jakze-by-nam-potrzebny-byl-ten-fanatyk-miedzyrzecza [accessed: 1 Feb. 2015].

[33] See Rogozińska 2002 (fn. 20).

[34] S. Grochowiak, Turpizm – realizm – mistycyzm, “Współczesność”, 1963, no 2, p. 1.

[35] Ibidem, p. 2.

[36] Jan Kucz’s commentary, quoted in: Stanisław Kulon… 2009 (fn. 6).

[37] A. Szyszko, Twórcze drogi Stanisława Kulona (afterword), in: S. Kulon, Z ziemi polskiej do polski, Warszawa 2008, p. 367.

[38] Stanisław Kulon’s words, in: Stanisław Kulon… 2009 (fn. 6).

[39] Cf. Z. Freud. Żałoba i melancholia, transl. B. Kocowska, in: K. Pospiszyl, Zygmunt Freud. Człowiek i dzieło, Wrocław 1991, pp. 295–308.

[40] M. Lachowski 2013 (fn. 11), p. 236.

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