Few film directors were as well qualified to address the intersection of art and politics as Andrzej Wajda. For decades, he was bedeviled by Communist censorship, but in 1989 he was elected to the Polish Senate as a member of Solidarity. Wajda would later help found the Polish Museum of Communism to document and preserve the truth about the Communist era. It was a mission that also motivated many of Wajda’s late career masterworks. Unlike Wajda, Constructivist painter and modern art theoretician Władysław Strzemiński unfortunately did not survive the state’s campaign against him and the insufficiently ideological style of art he represented. Fittingly, Strzemiński is the subject of Wajda’s final, masterful film Afterimage, which opens this Friday in New York.
Strzemiński was a double-amputee war veteran, but he lost his arm and leg during the First World War, which did not quite have the political cachet granted to the Great Patriotic War under the new Socialist regime. Nevertheless, he still painted prolifically and became a force within the Polish art world. He was a leading faculty member in the Łodz art academy later renamed in his honor and designed the Neoplastic Room, a gallery within the Museum Sztuki showcasing modernist art of the 1920s and 1930s, including the sculpture of his ex-wife Katarzyna Kobro. Even though Strzemiński had once been a revolutionary firebrand, he took a dim view of any attempt to impose ideology on art, most definitely including Socialist Realism.
Consequently, the State deliberately set out to crush Strzemiński, despite his popularity with his students and his international prominence. Initially, the artist assumes the authorities’ belligerence will quickly blow over, but his situation grows dire when he is dismissed from the Lodz academy and blackballed from other means of employment. He is not even allowed to purchase art supplies after the artists’ union expels him. To further compound the tragedy, Strzemiński finds himself the sole support of his pre-teen daughter after her mother Kobro succumbs to a long illness.
It is easy to see how Wajda would identify with Strzemiński. Although he is closely associated with the so-called “Cinema of Moral Concern,” Wajda predated the movement by decades. He produced his first documentary shorts during the early 1950s, the final years of Strzemiński’s life. He was witness to those times and films like Afterimage are his testimony.
Indeed, Wajda and screenwriter Andrzej Mularczyk do not sugar-coat any aspect of his life-story, least of all the ruthlessness of the Party apparatus brought to bear against him. Nor do they try to install Strzemiński as a Constructivist saint. The lead performance of Bogusław Linda (the dollmaker in Dekalog: Seven) is acutely human and deeply nuanced. Strzemiński very definitely has an “artistic temperament.” He can be brusque and self-centered, but he also has a high capacity for empathy and a genuine passion for art. In no possible way can Linda’s Strzemiński be reduced to a catch-all cliché, but that is exactly what the Party set out to do.
Young Bronisława Zamachowska is also quite remarkable as Strzemiński’s not quite estranged daughter Nika, displaying maturity beyond her years in her scenes with Linda. She projects real grit and sensitivity, so it is a heavy moment when Strzemiński remarks to a student she will have a hard life because of him.