Reconsidering…Duda-Gracz

 
The wing of the Ethnographic Museum on ul. Krakowska 46 is making its own contribution to the 17th Jewish Culture Festival with an exhibition of Jerzy Duda-Gracz?s (1941-2004) Jewish-inspired paintings, drawings and linoleum prints entitled El Male Rachamim (God Full of Mercy). Duda-Gracz?s father, a bartender in Czestochowa, was tried and executed after World War Two for allegedly conspiring with the Nazis. As it turns out, the elder Duda-Gracz?s ?collaboration? was a front — he was in fact hiding several Jews under his roof, and seven trees presently commemorate his courage in Israel amidst the ?Righteous among Nations.?
Thus, his son Jerzy, the painter, has personal reasons to be addressing the subject matter of the Holocaust, if such validation is necessary.
The first painting the visitor to the Ethnographic Museum encounters is a large canvas entitled ?A Study for Bruno Schulz I? (1990).
Painting history has seen very few successful interpretations of literature, and Schulz, a magnificent inter-war Polish-Jewish author, has been maligned more frequently by painters than perhaps any other Polish writer (a depressing ?Tribute to Bruno Schulz? exhibit held by the National Gallery in Krakow two years ago bore testimony to this). In ?Study,? Duda-Gracz cobbles together some images from Schulz?s stories and drawings — an emaciated Rabbi, a mostly-naked woman and a background like old parchment — and lets these stand for the literature.
It is a typical painterly reduction of Schulz, to diseased sexuality, Judaism and antiquarian books, and one that entirely misses the writer?s abstract genius, preferring to turn him into a handful of dreary cliches.
The earlier-painted ?Attempt at a Reconstruction of the Departed Bruno Schulz? (I and III are presented here) works are more successful, preferring blurry half-abstraction (more reminiscent of the Quay Brothers? filmic interpretation of Schulz, ?Street of Crocodiles?). 
Duda-Gracz is quoted as having said ?I only use elements and citations from reality in order to create a world that doesn?t exist.? In fact, Duda-Gracz?s world does exist, but it is a world of other paintings, not so much the world we see walking down the street. Every painting or print we come across reminds us of some other painter, but done in the unmistakable Duda-Gracz style (more than ?style,? however, one is inclined to use the word ?caricature? — it is as though the artist is rendering other painters in his own, sentimental-grotesque fashion).
?The National Children?s Games with a White Flag? (1986) canvas uses an informal strategy practiced earlier by Tadeusz Kantor and other members of the Grupa Krakowska, making the rabbi?s shawl turn into a real white flag that stretches outside of the frame of the picture (a strategy reproduced verbatim in ?Moonlight Prayer,? also featured in this exhibition). ?The Ghetto? series seems, oddly enough, like Edward Hopper rendered in smeary pointillism.
The 24 linoleum prints from the Judaica series included in this exhibit recycle the smarmy fiddlers, hugging couples and horses of Marc Chagall, and the thick, wavy lines of Edward Munch.
All of these are big points of comparison. I do not mean to suggest here that Duda-Gracz?s works measure up to the above-named artists.
What is often troubling in his pictures is that nothing seems to motivate the comparisons he evokes (with perhaps one exception — there is something stimulating in the comparison — if intentional —   between Hopper?s bored Nighthawks and the Jews of the ghettos).
Defenders of Duda-Gracz?s very prominent style claim him to be a contemporary Polish equivalent of Breughel or Hieronymous Bosch. In fact, Duda-Gracz has, on the whole, much more in common with the Polish School of Poster Art.
Here I have less in mind important artists like Lenica and Mlodozeniec than the more decadent phase of the Polish poster in the seventies and eighties, which delighted in images of snakes coming out of men?s noses and such.
Even when he strives for emotion, as in ?National Children?s Games,? for example, the figures achieve about as much depth as those of a talented newspaper satirist. A similar scene in the hands of Andrzej Wroblewski, for example, would have an entirely different weight and impact, and would affect the viewer in a much less distant fashion.
Having said all this, there were some Polish families who seemed genuinely impressed by the exhibit when I went to see it, and Duda-Gracz?s retrograde form of gloomy representative art surely holds a certain mass appeal.
This can be the only explanation for the presence of his paintings in the Vatican, Tokyo, and New York, among many other museums and galleries.         
 
The exhibit will be shown from until August 26, open every day except Tuesdays.
 
Jewish films at Pod Baranami Cinema
Soren A. Gauger
Staff Journalist
 
The Pod Baranami Cinema (Rynek Glowny 27) has lined up 9 days of films dealing with Jewish subject matter and/or made by Jewish filmmakers to be screened during the 17th Jewish Culture Festival (June 23-July 1).
The genres range from documentaries, to features to short films, and cover a range of topics (the Holocaust inevitably recurring more than once).
?The Rape of Europa? (June 25) was one of the hot tips at the recent Krakow Short Film Festival, a feature-length documentary on the Nazis? wholesale plundering of art as they tore across the European continent. The theft of Krakow?s art is mentioned in the film, including the Czartoryski Museum?s missing Raphael.
Another World War II documentary follows shortly after (?Nuremberg, the Nazis Facing their Crimes? June 27).
This film contains rare archival footage of the trials of Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess, and other high-ranking Nazis before the Military Tribunal in Nuremberg.
Readers of Hannah Arendt will know that there was a fair amount of philosophical complication in these trials, which redefined our notions of ?crimes against humanity.?
The following day, ?Gdansk Station,? (directed by M. Zmarz-Koczanowicz) is another documentary detailing the fates of Jews expelled from Poland in 1968. The subject of Poland?s treatment of Jews after World War II is one that has recently been stirring up a great deal of debate and emotion (Jan Gross?s books are a best-selling example) and this film might generate some lively discussion.
?Four Weeks in June? (June 30), a Swedish contribution to the festival, finally invites a fictional title.
The description here is rather sketchy (?a film about feelings, relationships and prejudices?), but the prestigious Crystal Bear award it took in Berlin speaks well in its favor.
And finally, 1938?s ?Singing Blacksmith? sounds more than a little inane, but then 1938 was surely the last year for quite some time that a Jewish filmmaker could feel free to devote himself to a subject like a passionate blacksmith?s adventures in a shtetl, and this historical timing may just give the film another layer of significance. Or it may just turn out to be a cornball shtetl comedy.     
 
For a full list of films, go to the Jewish Festival website (www.jewishfestival.pl) or drop by the cinema.  All films start at 20:30.

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