Blum / Cieśniewski. Life, After All

The exhibition of works by Israeli painter and graphic artist Aviva Blum and by Polish painter Wojciech Cieśniewski will be available for viewing at the Museum of Mazovian Jews in Płock from 28 April until 23 August 2023.

Aviva Blum creates paintings and prints in Jerusalem while Wojciech Cieśniewski makes paintings in Warsaw. Separated by such physical distance and the distance of belonging to different generations, they were brought together by an unusual coincidence. It made possible the current exhibition, which is about the strength of the life force and the power of art.

The paths of these two artists crossed last year as a result of an exhibition of Wojciech Cieśniewski’s paintings organised in Otwock as part of the remembrance events for the 80th anniversary of the annihilation of the Otwock ghetto. The artist showed paintings from his "Life, After All" series, in which he draws on prewar and postwar snapshots of former Jewish residents of Otwock. One of the works in the show was "The Spring of the Nation 1948," inspired by a photo of three teenage girls living in the Dawid Guzik Children’s Home in Otwock, a home for Jewish child survivors. One of these girls was Aviva Blum, whose mother, Luba Bielicka-Blum, was the director of the home. Blum found out about Cieśniewski’s exhibition and the painting inspired by her immediately postwar photo, from information about the show published online. After that, a meeting of the two artists gave rise to the idea of a joint exhibition.

Blum and Cieśniewski belong to different generations. Juxtaposing their work clearly demonstrates the difference in artistic approach between witnesses of the Holocaust and the postwar generation. After the war, Aviva Blum cut herself off from the past and devoted herself to studying the landscape of her new country, transposing it into abstract compositions of colour and form. Such a turn to abstraction characterised many artists who had survived the Holocaust and faced the difficulty of finding a language to express their traumatic experiences. Cieśniewski, on the other hand, belongs to the next generation, which grapples with remembrance, reaching in the process for any surviving clues, any traces of the physical – sometimes captured in photographs, sometimes remaining only in the aura of a place. In his dreamlike pictures past merges with present, dream with reality. He calls up past events and makes ‘attempts’ to touch experiences he can neither imagine nor understand.

Although they employ different painting languages – Blum closer to abstraction, Cieśniewski closer to figuration – above all they both paint what they feel. Creating her landscapes Aviva Blum drafts her own feelings onto them. These landscapes are not idyllic: there is drama, tension and conflict lurking in them. Likewise Cieśniewski, when he looks at nature, humans or history, is seeking an expressive form for his feelings about the world. In his quest for an unobstructed emotional flow, he sometimes paints with the lights off, in the dark. His practice is to return many times to the same theme, with the aim of achieving better artistic expression.

Cieśniewski and Blum are also linked by a similar attitude to art. Aviva Blum emphasises that art became a way for her to escape her terrible memories, and a space where she could find peace and solace. Ciesniewski treats art with equal seriousness, looking at it not only in aesthetic but also in ethical terms. Painting the traces of the Holocaust becomes for him a moral act, a statement of disagreement with the course of events. So although one of these painters escapes history for nature, while the other desperately reaches out to touch that history, both Blum and Cieśniewski attribute a redemptive role to art. It is their salvation and their hope.

Aviva Blum-Wachs was born in 1932 in Warsaw as Wiktoria Blum. With her mother and brother, she managed to escape the Warsaw ghetto and survive the war in hiding on the ‘Aryan’ side. After the war, at the age of 17, she decided to immigrate to Israel, where she changed her name to Aviva and went to live in Kibbutz Revadim. It was there that she turned to art, going on to study drawing with Schwarzman in Tel Aviv and painting at the Avni Institute, then printmaking at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. Her paintings and prints are most often inspired by the Israeli landscape, in particular the hills around Jerusalem, where she finally settled and lives to this day. The landscapes in her paintings undergo a synthesis that transposes them into the language of simplified abstract forms. Colour is of particular importance in her work, whether employed in harmony or as contrast, giving the work its particular expression and drama.

Wojciech Cieśniewski was born in 1958 in Działdowo. After graduating in maths from university in Olsztyn, he left for Warsaw, to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts. He works there to this day, for the last ten years with the rank of professor. His earlier work was abstract, later shifting to the figurative in a desire to make his paintings less ambiguous and more communicative. More recently he has been turning to motifs from the tragic history of the 20th century, expressing solidarity with the victims of persecution and totalitarianism. A recurring theme in his work is the troubled history of his place of origin and his own family, playing out under the shadow of fascism and postwar communist reality.