File Note #8: Wilhelm Sasnal - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Alison M. Gingeras


Photography, Painting and the Fear of Forgetting Images Quote Biography References Credits

'The snake slithers across everything it encounters.’ Marcin Swietlicki, Under the Volcano

Photography, Painting and the Fear of Forgetting

Photography and painting have long trodden parallel paths — paths that become especially entwined in relation to the capacity of both media to capture (and preserve) images steeped in memory. Before the invention of a viable means of fixing a mechanically generated image in 1839, painting was the primary vehicle for the pictorial rendering of human remembrance. During the late nineteenth century, the populist trade of portrait painting became nearly extinct as early photographic techniques were refined and commercialised. Conventional art histories recount that while painting as such was not killed off, its role in the capturing of memory was seriously disturbed by the proliferation of camera-produced images. 

More than 160 years later, both painting and photography continue to undergo radical, interrelated shifts. The antagonism that once rendered the painted image obsolete as a means of rendering images has dissolved into a much more ambivalent terrain. Since the early 1960s, photography and painting have entered a complex, ongoing dialogue that has far surpassed simple commercial rivalry or competition for aesthetic relevancy. Best likened to the psychological condition of co-dependency, the relationship between these two media has traversed the work of several generations of artists. 

The work of Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal might be located at the very heart of this ‘co-dependency’. An incredibly prolific artist, the core of Sasnal’s practice revolves around traditional oil painting on canvas, though he also practices photography, film-making, collage, drawing, comic book writing and illustration. Sasnal’s stylistic range is as varied as are his sources of inspiration — in a single exhibition, his work can run the gamut of pop, photorealism, art informel, minimalism and gestural abstraction, among other styles. In a similar vein, his subject matter can be categorised into recurrent tropes — architectural structures, organic/plant forms, portraiture, film stills (often drawn from Polish cinema), album and book covers. Despite these patterns, Sasnal’s eye remains promiscuous: new subjects are constantly entering his canvases. Rarely painting from life, the camera’s lens is what consistently mediates Sasnal’s source imagery.

Sasnal’s fascination with media-generated images is devoid of ideological, political or ontological drive. His incredible range of images and styles could best be attributed to a purely subjective trajectory. When answering a question about how he selects his source material, Sasnal explains: ‘I find a lot of pretexts for painting. There are quite a lot of pictures. I find it difficult not to give in to every impulse. I feel unusually susceptible to pictures.’ [1]  Such an evasive reply tempts art critics and historians to play detective. What does Sasnal’s proliferation of images mean? How does one decode this image puzzle? What does it say about Sasnal’s identity?

‘Not being remembered at all: this has, in the end,
been the fate of the subjects of most photographs (…)
For photographs remind us that memorialization has
little to do with recalling the past; it is always
about looking ahead toward that terrible, imaged,
vacant future in which we ourselves will be forgotten.’ Geoffrey Batchen Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance, Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum and New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004, p.98

Initial attempts to read Sasnal’s work have certainly been influenced by his parallel activities as an author of comic strips. In both the publication of his drawings in the Polish weekly Przekroj, as well as his autobiographical comic book Zycie codzienne w Polsce w latach 1999–2001 (Everyday Life in Poland between 1999–2001), Sasnal’s intentions are more straightforward. Compared to the rather opaque compilation of images that fills his canvases, this aspect of his practice is purely diaristic. Sasnal has explained that he makes his comics based on real life events and dialogues, ‘because life tends to write the best scripts’.[2] Whilst some of the compositional solutions and stylistic devices he uses in his comic drawings resurface later in his paintings, the narrative relationship between drawings and paintings is less transparent. Certain themes, such as the paintings of Polish church architecture or the historically charged scenes taken from wartime images or films, have been inflected with speculation about the meaning of Sasnal’s work. It is a little too easy to try to decipher his work as some oblique map of his identity as a Pole born before the fall of the Communist regime and saddled with the burden of collective memory and ‘integration’ into the capitalist West. These interpretations may have some relevance, but in the end this is a reductive reading that only explains a small portion of his work. 

Instead of trying to pin down the precise references for Sasnal’s painted imagery, an analysis of his use of composition might reveal to what extent his work is situated between the photographic and the painterly image. From canvas to canvas, one might encounter a cropped close-up of the body of a wolf; a distant shot of a bolt of lightning; a head and shoulders portrait of a woman’s face, staring blankly ahead; a bird’s-eye view of a field with figures casting long afternoon shadows; an amorphic blob, that might be microbes in a Petri dish and which in fact looks more like experiments with painterly gesture and impasto. Describing a few paintings that Sasnal has chosen to exhibit together in a single exhibition, amounts to a subjective rebus. Each picture is like a jump cut, taking the viewer back and forth in time and space, from near present to distant past, bird’s-eye view to microscopic close-ups that dissipate into abstraction. This telescoping in and out resembles the way the human mind retains and transforms memories, converting them into a string of ever-mutating images. 

The invention of photography has taught us that memory is not precise; it is nebulous, malleable, ever-changing. Part of the puzzling nature of Sasnal’s imagery comes from an overarching quality of ‘emptiness’. Memories are often triggered by the banal, by otherwise vacant details that activate the senses through association. These images — even if the viewer has not generated them — can trigger a free play of associations or become a catalyst for a web of connections that relate to the viewer’s own memory bank. As photo historian Geoffrey Batchen argues, the ‘straight’ photograph has always been an insufficient vehicle for memory. Since photography’s birth, people have found ways to transform photographs into objects by adorning them with paint, elaborately framing them, or incorporating them into jewellery and devotional objects. The aim of making these hybrid photo-objects is to ‘enhance their memory capacities’ through sensorial manipulation thereby ‘counteracting the fact of death’ [3] or as a tool to combat being forgotten by the living.

While Sasnal does not have a literal connection to Batchen’s argument — his works do not resemble nineteenth century momento mori manipulations of photographic prints — his painting from photographic images could be understood as part of this human need to create images in order to struggle against forgetting. His paintings — often configured in groups selected and installed by the artist — are more than an image record of objects, scenes, portraits or events of personal significance. Sasnal often uses various sensual painterly techniques and styles to transform and elevate the legible photographic image into cryptic signs, powerful emblems and poetic pictures. He mixes the historical and the personal with the random and trivial, not just for the sake of a hermetic narrative to which only he has the key. Sasnal’s attraction to a diverse range of images and styles might be understood as part of this eternal human desire to ensnare and preserve memories. Painting — with its seemingly endless capacity for stylistic experimentation, sensual manipulation and absorption of images — becomes, in Sasnal’s hands, a means to convert the perishable, fleeting photographic image into a more durable icon. His painterly practice can be construed as an attempt to elude the image’s (and our own) usual destiny of being forgotten.


Wilhelm Sasnal was born in Tarnów, Poland in 1972, where he continues to live and work. He studied architecture at the Polytechnic in Kraków (1992–94) and painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, Kraków (1994–99). Working in a variety of media, including drawing, film and photography, Sasnal has risen to prominence in recent years for his intimately-scaled paintings, often based on photographic sources. 

Wilhelm Sasnal’s work has been seen in a number of exhibitions in Europe and the US since the late 1990s, including solo shows at MUHKA, Antwerp; Kunsthalle Zurich; Sadie Coles HQ, London (2003) and Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw (2002 and 2001). His work has also featured in numerous group exhibitions including Creeping Revolution 2 (Rooseum, Malmö, Sweden, 2003); Pause (4th Gwangju Biennial, South Korea, 2002); Urgent Painting (Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, 2002) and Bureaucracy (Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, 2001). He is also participating in the 26th São Paulo Bienal, Brazil (2004).

A monograph on the artist was published in 2003 to accompany the one-person exhibition Night Day Night (Kunsthalle Zürich, Switzerland and Kunstverein, Münster, Germany). Sasnal’s autobiographical comic strip Everyday Life in Poland between 1999 and 2001 was published by Gallery Raster, Warsaw, in 2001.

Wilhelm Sasnal is represented by Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw; Sadie Coles HQ, London and Anton Kern Gallery, New York.


1 Interview with Wilhelm Sasnal conducted by Andrzej Przywara in Night Day Night (Exh. cat. Kunsthalle Zurich / Westfälischer Kunstverein, Münster, 2003), p.38 

2 Ibid, p.38

3 Geoffrey Batchen, Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance(Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum and New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004), pp.96–97

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The File Notes with a hashtag in front of the number were published prior to the numerical system implemented on further printed file notes. As a result, there are duplicate numbered file notes. To differentiate, we have used a hashtag to indicate the original number of file note.

Alison M. Gingeras is Curator for Contemporary Art at the Musée national d’art moderne, Paris