Polish artworks that depict past pain and future hopes

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An exhibition in Sheffield looks at the work of Polish artists who fled here during the war. Yvette Huddleston reports.

“It has been quite a few years in the making,” says Sian Brown, curatorial services manager at Museums Sheffield, of Pole Position the current exhibition at the Graves Gallery.

Featuring the work of 20th century Polish émigré artists, the exhibition has been created from the private collection of artist and collector Matthew Bateson.

It showcases sixty artworks, on public display for the first time, by Polish artists forced to flee mainland Europe during the Second World War and covers a fifty year period from 1939-1989.

“Matthew is a very prominent collector of émigré art generally and is someone we have a good relationship with,” says Brown, explaining the background to the exhibition. “We always had the idea that at some point we would like to show his collection. What Matthew was most interested in doing – and what we thought would work best here because we have a significant Polish community in Sheffield – was to focus on Polish art.”

Another key reason for focussing on the Polish artists was that very few of them are represented in mainstream collections in the UK. “Museums Sheffield has a particularly strong 20th century British art collection and we thought this would complement our collection and show another side to it,” says Brown.

Most of the artists in the exhibition came to this country because of their traumatic experiences during the war and that informs the content of many of the artworks. Brown thinks this may be one of the reasons that they have been somewhat neglected. “Some of the works are very expressive and painterly and feature dark challenging subject matter and that has not always been fashionable.”

There are three pieces in the exhibition that particularly stand out for Brown. “There is a really beautiful one, Portrait of Anna, by Zdzislaw Ruszkowski which is an absolutely stunning portrait of his daughter,” says Brown. “Anna herself came to see the show and was able to talk about sitting for her father and about her experiences in this country – it really brought the work to life.” Another work she mentions is by Stanislaw Frenkiel who worked in Sheffield for a while. “There is an interesting picture of his of a typhoid hospital in Russia relating to his experiences during the war,” says Brown. “A lot of the artists used painting as a cathartic way of getting over the things they went through.” A powerful example of this is a painting by Piotr Mleczko, who spent a long time as a prisoner of war, depicting prisoners fighting over food. “The prison he was in was next to a concentration camp and he and his fellow prisoners would throw food over the fence to the people in the camp,” says Brown. “That work is incredibly powerful.”

Although many of the pieces are concerned with such dark themes, there are others that are lighter in tone and subject matter. “They are either recapturing their memories of Poland or looking forward to their new life, depicting the British landscape, for example, and they convey the sense of a positive future.”