Frank Stella, The Polish Village Series
Narowla by Frank Stella
By Clifford Chanin
As Frank Stella recounts its origins, The Polish Village Series began in the early 1970s as an experiment in form-building, an effort to bring a third dimension to his paintings. Since three-dimensionality has long since been seen as a defining element in Stella's art, the origins of this once-radical step may have been obscured by the sheer density and inventiveness of the many works that followed. Looked at over a horizon stretching back three decades, The Polish Village Series certainly appears as the point of departure for something that, we know now, would evolve dramatically, as Stella became more sure of his methods and materials, always trying for a more persuasive projection of color and volume.
But the passage of thirty-some years encompasses changes in more than just Stella's art-making. We now stand thirty years further from the grainy images that first set Stella off on his imagined excursion into Polish villages: photos of the wooden synagogues of Poland, already long gone by the time they were published in 1957, not to mention by the time the book Wooden Synagogues found its way into Stella's hands some years later. What in 1957 was still a vivid memory, and by the early 1970s an obscure reference, is today at least two generations removed from living experience.
The story of the photos is told by Jan Zachwatowicz, in his introduction to Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka's Wooden Synagogues:
"Shortly after the Institute of Polish Architecture was created in 1923, work began first on an inventory of synagogues, then a broader study of Jewish art, in which Szymon Zajczyk, the great art historian, took a leading part...A brilliant photographer himself, he took thousands of shots, giving a complete picture of every item he surveyed... Between 1939 and 1944 the Germans wiped out the Jewish population and destroyed the monuments of Jewish culture. In 1942, Szymon Zajczyk, that indefatigable and irreplaceable scholar of Jewish art, perished from Nazi hands. Most of the objects of Jewish art met with the same fate. Synagogues vanished along with their rich endowments. Wooden synagogues were burned down not only throughout Poland but also further East in the republics of Lithuania, Byelorussia and Ukraine... (After the war), as we resumed once more the work of the Institute of Polish Architecture, we decided, among other projects, to publish the material concerning synagogues. It represents today the only record of existence of what, only a short while ago, were numerous examples of an architecture that was highly original in form and construction, and offered inimitable bold solutions of spatial problems, particularly in the field of carpentry."
Though bold carpentry is perhaps an obscure accomplishment, I am struck by the Institute's admiring notice of this vernacular architecture, for it unexpectedly recalls a broader reality of the Holocaust, one that becomes harder to grasp over time, even as the Holocaust continues to exert its authority over the contemporary moral imagination. The reality has to do with what were once the full and complicated lives of Jewish communities in cities, towns and villages across Europe. On its own terms, Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Europe was far from ideal, but it was entirely engaged with the religious, economic and cultural issues of its time. The community proceeded on the natural assumption that it would create its own future. The Nazis had not yet precluded this option. Death had not yet frozen these communities in time.
In Poland particularly, the Jewish community was an integral part of a national reality that had much to celebrate and much to regret. The Holocaust brought the life of this community to an end. What was obvious and tangible about Jewish life in Poland in the millennium before the Holocaust - in scholarship and trade and, indeed, in architecture - is now barely graspable. The vast creative reality of a living community is long since gone, taking with it the vital logic of all that it produced. The remaining artifacts - in this case, old photographs of even older buildings - may be studied or admired, but they have now been reduced to the category of artifact, remnants of a way of life that is no more.
All the more remarkable, then, that they would reemerge as they did. As his interview makes clear, Frank Stella's engagement with these buildings was not premised on any notion of a memorial. Inspired by something in the construction of these buildings, Stella sought to address a creative challenge through The Polish Village Series. In this sense, the origins of the series are immaterial; the source is a matter of happenstance, and might have been something else.
Yet Stella's interview makes just as clear that things are not quite so simple. Basing these works on Polish source material seemed fitting to Stella, as he recalled the creative trajectory between Moscow and Berlin that somehow resonates through The Polish Village Series. In thinking about it, he was aware of making a gesture toward important art movements that had been overwhelmed by events. But Stella's engagement with history is more direct than a mere gesture. There is the question of the titles of the individual works in the series: each one of the hundreds he produced bearing the name of the village in which the synagogue could once have been found. Collectively, they call the roll of the Jewish past in Poland, using names nearly indecipherable, except in reference to the histories of these obscure places. Whether or not Stella intended it, a litany of Polish villages and destroyed synagogues cannot be incidental. We know too well what happened in these places to treat it this way.
Yet Stella is right: for all its grave resonance, The Polish Village Series is not a memorial. In making his works, Stella was not thinking of the synagogues as artifacts of a murdered community. His starting point was the inventive design of these buildings, which happened to be the religious and communal centers of the now-lost Jewish villages of Poland. He was drawn to the builders of the synagogues as distant peers, not as victims, drawn to the singularity of their accomplishment, not the anonymity of their loss.
Without intending to, The Polish Village Series reaches into the vitality that marked the long and complicated sojourn of Polish Jewry. In his single-mindedness, Frank Stella made his way back to the time before the Holocaust, when designers and builders could focus solely on creative solutions to communal problems, with no foreshadowing of disaster. Seeking inspiration in contemporary terms, he found it in the terms of the synagogue-builders of 18th century Poland. It seems that Stella was not especially attentive to the particulars of his inspiration, which only makes his treatment of this inspiration more genuine, perhaps more respectful, than any other. Looking at these old buildings, he found something essential and brought it into the center of what is most important to an artist: his work.
So, if The Polish Village Series is not a memorial, what is it? Something smaller, perhaps, but also something closer to its source. It is a reminder. A reminder of the vitality of Jewish life in Poland, captured in this single instance of synagogue construction. A reminder of how much more than this there must have been, created by a people on their own terms. A reminder of the endless span of aspiration that was ended in the Holocaust. A reminder of the old-world capacity to make something new, captured in the contemporary abstractions of Frank Stella's Polish Village Series.