A draft of the preface to the catalogue of an exhibition that did not happen.

Don't eat lotus, talk to spirits, navigate

The two adventures of Homer's Odysseus - one at the beginning, the other at the end of a journey that is a great metaphor for human destiny - lead us to the same fundamental question: the role and importance of memory. If the encounter with the amnesia-inducing lotus-eaters is about the danger of losing meaning and the desire to sail, the story of the encounter with the spirits of the ancestors suggests where the knowledge of the destination and the dangers lurking along the way are to be found.

Voluntary amnesia is madness. It is not just that, as George Santayana warned, forgetting history condemns us to reliving it (a notion that must make us shudder with horror after the nightmare of the 20th century). There's also the point that amputating the past robs us of all that is essentially human. If, as Homer teaches, life is a journey, then the real price of lotophagia is that of humanity.

“My dear Phaedrus, whence come you, and whither are you going?” - are the questions Socrates asks at the very beginning of Plato's dialogue. The past not only tells us where we come from. It is indispensable when we ask who we are, what is the motive and purpose of our journey. Memory is the precondition for the ability to live a rational life and a rational politics. For the sum total of individual and collective experiences is the fundamental basis that makes it possible to reflect on the question "where are we going?" in its deepest sense, i.e. the question of who we want to be and who we do not want to become. With no loyalty to the dead, these questions cannot be answered.

The theme and the message

The exhibition of paintings by Ignacy Czwartos, which will not be shown in the Polish Pavilion in Venice due to political interference, is the result of a profound reflection by a contemporary Polish artist on the terrible history of the 20th century. There can be little doubt that understanding the origins of the two totalitarianisms of the 20th century, remembering their crimes, commemorating their victims and honouring all those who had the courage to resist, is the most important task of contemporary art.

The exhibition of this artist, who came of age in a country which was intimately familiar with the totalitarian madness of the Germans and Russians, is a response to these great questions and responsibilities. The exhibition is dedicated to totalitarianism and is motivated by the desire to honour its victims. The aim is to provoke a discussion about the most profound causes of totalitarian genocide (in particular those that are still very much alive). The central message, however, is the difficult wisdom about the inescapable tragic nature of the world - about its incoherence, complexity and ambiguity. A wisdom, we should add, at odds with the totalitarian longing for a blindingly clear and ordered world, one of simple choices and definitive answers.


We should, however, begin with a word of warning. Czwartos's paintings do not flatter habits of thought, they do not confirm complacency, they do not follow fashions and political trends, but they do provoke indignation. This is an art that recalls what we want to forget, art that provokes, that asks unsettling questions, that enters territories forbidden by the keepers of order and the censors.

They are about - unloved by modern Lotophaguses - creativity born out of loyalty to the victims of totalitarian utopias, the memory of genocide committed in the name of reason, justice, progress and science - and a warning to those who think the last chapter of history is behind us.

The Czwartos' courage to think in a way that reminds us of inconvenient facts seems particularly necessary today. At a time when the sources of 20th century bestiality are encapsulated in platitudes that stagger in their banality, and when the old temptations of new utopias are returning with so much force, Czwartos is indispensable.

Why an artist from Poland?

The scene of the Polish tragedy lies between Germany and Russia. In the 20th century, this meant the experience of two bloody totalitarianisms remaining in a relationship which, according to Furet and Nolte, could be called 'hostile proximity'[1]. Although they differ in their diagnosis of reality, in their ideals and in their aims, what they share is the conviction of having to resort to violence, to terror and to annihilation.

For Poland, the opportunity to experience the similarities between the two totalitarianisms began almost immediately after it was attacked by the allied Germans and Russians in September 1939. Extermination of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Russians in Katyn, Kharkov and Miednoye, as well as the Intelligenzaktion carried out by the Germans in the autumn of 1939, aiming at the physical liquidation of the Polish elite, mass arrests, street round-ups, shooting of innocent hostages, widespread terror, deportations to Siberia and, finally, Kolyma and Auschwitz, enable Poles to look indulgently at the thesis of the asymmetry of both totalitarianisms. While the West was celebrating with its Soviet ally the end of the war, the Stalinist era of terror was just beginning in Poland - a bloody fight against the anti-communist underground, arrests, torture, show trials. There is a long list of victims.

Ignacy Czwartos belongs to a generation whose parents and grandparents experienced war, occupation, terror, deportation and death. Between 1939 and 1945 alone, it is estimated that around 6 million of Poland's citizens lost their lives. Victims of war and terror were mourned by almost every family. The Soviet-controlled, non-sovereign Poland of the 1970s, which coincided with the artist's childhood, was full of ruins, unexploded bombs, traces of fighting, individual and mass graves. The unimaginable scale of destruction meant that everyday life took place among the rubble and cemeteries of the victims of both totalitarian regimes. The unspeakable scale of destruction meant that life went on among the remains and graveyards of the victims of both totalitarian regimes. The painted boxes, which the artist wanted to place in the Polish pavilion in Venice, speak in a very poignant way about the experience of a generation that grew up among the graves. The unresolved question of whether these are the benches on which we can rest or the coffins of the victims in front of which we should kneel casts a bright light on life in a country afflicted by totalitarianism. In this respect, nothing has changed. Houses have been rebuilt, but the dead have never been resurrected. It is to them that exhibition was dedicated.


The historical and sociological analyses that point to the roots of totalitarianism in the anti-Semitism, imperialism, colonialism, totalitarian propaganda, cultural uprooting and social atomisation that transformed the community into a mob in the 19th century (cf. Hannah Arendt and many after her) should be followed by a question about the reasons for totalitarian projects that use genocide, whose uniqueness lies not only in its unprecedented magnitude.

The similarities between the two totalitarianisms were not only determined by terror and extermination. They share something more primordial, the political outcome of which is genocide, or rather a spiral of relentless violence. The belief that a brave new world - a perfectly rational and just order - could be built on the basis of science, social engineering and terror.

What distinguishes totalitarian genocide from all forms of mass violence known from the past, according to Zygmunt Bauman - who himself was involved in the Stalinist terror apparatus in his youth and therefore knows totalitarianism inside out - is precisely the idea of creating an ideal world.

The extermination took place not 'because', but 'in order to'. It was intended - and not even as an aim in itself, but as a means towards the aim - a necessary procedure in order for the aim to be achieved. That aim was the ideal world - a perfect world, without blemish, harmonious, transparent, unambiguous, tailored to the human vocation. For the inspirers of the Holocaust of the Jews and Gypsies, the ideal world was to be a racially pure society; for the inspirers of the Stalinist Holocaust, the ideal world was to be a class-cleansed society. In both cases, the Holocaust was, one might say, was an aesthetic stroke, the removal of a blemish from the composition of the image. The vision of an ideal world, a fairytale garden of finite beauty and total harmony, required the extermination of everything that disturbed the order. Plants not provided for in the plan of the garden are weeds; and weeds are those plants that must be cut out or uprooted. Every gardener knows that tending a garden is mainly a relentless war against weeds.[2]

What makes totalitarian systems much worse than poorly planned world-changing projects based on false anthropology is - as Eric Voegelin noted even before World War II - their secularized religious purpose. The impossible promise of a temporal realisation of eschatological hope permanently binds totalitarianism to violence. Millenarianism as a political project cannot separate itself from extermination and genocide because it pursues an unattainable goal.

Totalitarianism fits perfectly into the image of Heracles at the crossroads. For its adherents, the world appears as a field of simple choices between truth and falsehood, good and evil, virtue and vice. If people do not choose what the totalitarians have identified as the path of light, that is, the path at whose end, in their opinion, lies harmony and perfection, it is because they still know too little or because they belong to a past age. The former have to be enlightened (hence the role that propaganda, censorship and totalitarian education have to play in the forging of the new man), the latter have to be intimidated or eliminated (hence the indispensability of the political police, terror and extermination).

The totalitarian resolutely rejects as the ultimate heresy: a manifestation of ignorance, pessimism, irrationalism and malice, the conviction of the fundamental impossibility of unifying the whole of reality, of the ineradicable incoherence of the world - that is, of its tragic nature. For totalitarian thought, nothing is more repugnant than the convictions at the heart of the Western religious and philosophical tradition, which speak of the limits of human knowledge and the impossibility of establishing a single first principle (arche; in both senses of the Greek word, i.e. a single 'authority' and a single 'principle'). The obvious imperfection that poets and thinkers since ancient Greece have considered an integral part of the sublunar world, while Christians have considered the corruption of nature as a result of original sin, is, according to the totalitarians, an inherent feature and can be eliminated.

The joint foundation of hope for the construction of a new world is the conviction of possessing the plenitude of causality and knowledge - qualities that in the European intellectual tradition were attributed exclusively to God. The promise of Eritis sicut dii scientes bonum et malum is interpreted politically, becoming the principium of a new political plan. Seen from this perspective, politics no longer signifies an attempt to rationally order the human world, but rather the creation of a new order and a new man. The authority entering into the prerogatives of God falls into the illusion of the total malleability of nature. Conviction that utopia can be achieved makes the political act the act of creation. At this point, weeds are no longer being weeded. New plants are being created here for a new garden. The great projects disdain half-measures. They despise petty cost-counting. They are strangers to tenderness and sentimentalism. New order can only be created on the ruins of the old.

The paintings illustrating the examples of totalitarian practices that the artist wanted to exhibit in the Polish Pavilion in Venice don't just depict the atrocities of the 20th century, they are descriptions of totalitarianism in action. The recurrent echoes of medical experiments carried out by German scientists in concentration camps, images of the dismembered bodies of soldiers fighting for their country's freedom and sovereignty, or the pedantically numbered corpses of partisans executed by the communist authorities - present in the paintings by Czwartos - are all snapshots on the road to modernity. This is hybris in action. Here, politics is no longer bound by old truths. Authority equipped with scientific certainty stands above good and evil. Justice, liberty, science, peace and dignity take on a new, inhuman significance.

The Message

Among the subjects of Ignacy Czwartos' painting meditations are the so-called 'Cursed Soldiers' - partisans, members of the anti-communist underground who operated in Poland long after the end of the World War II. Historians estimate that between 120,000 and 180,000 people took part in this guerrilla movement. Refusing to accept the order to surrender, they remained under arms and fought against the communist authorities installed by the Soviet Union, whom they regarded, with good reason, as the next occupiers of Poland after the Germans.

Their loyalty to a Poland that had ceased to exist, their unequal struggle against the mighty forces of the Communist state supported by Russia, their refusal to live in a Soviet-subjugated country, and often their inability to return home, are the quintessence of the tragic nature of Polish destiny. No wonder they have turned into legends. Andrzej Wajda made reference to them in two of his films (Ashes and Diamonds, 1957; Katyn, 2007). Although it was only in the second film, made in free Poland, that the director paid them the tribute they deserved, even in the first, which was made under the dictates of communist propaganda, one can sense a deep fascination with their tragic faithfulness. Contrary to the communist authorities' intentions, the film's protagonist, Maciek Chełmicki, became for years a symbol of the dramatic choices Poles face because of their tragic history.

Following 1989 in Poland, when mentioning the ‘Cursed Soldiers’ was no longer forbidden by the censorship, heated debates arose in which their memory was charged with war crimes. Although the ill-will of people caught up in the communist system certainly played a role in this assault (Zygmunt Bauman compared the Cursed to the terrorists to the very end)[3], and the dispute among historians about the course of individual events, their qualification and, finally, the degree of responsibility of specific individuals seems far from over, some of these accusations seem to be justified.[4] The question is what follows from this? To assume that there would be no black sheeps among the thousands of soldiers operating under extremely difficult conditions wouldn't be an expression of infantile naivety? Do such incidents cast a shadow over the tragic heroism of the entire post-war independence underground? Should we therefore cancel the memory of the cursed soldiers? Nonsense! Not all members of a vast, irregular army deserve to be called ‘heroes’. However, they are all figures of the Polish fate in the age of totalitarianisms - thoroughly tragic figures.

There is no trace of naivety, pathos or sentimentality in Czwartos's painting - there is solemnity. Unlike the critics who feel an irresistible need for easy answers, Czwartos's art is not a vacuous apotheosis, but a painterly meditation on the fate of the victims of totalitarian power - an authority that takes revenge for their disobedience even on the dead. The painting's depiction of soldiers' bodies nailed to barn doors to instil fear among people reminds us that nothing frees us from remembering the courage and sacrifice, or the brutal repressions inflicted on the cursed soldiers and their families. Echoing Andrzej Wróblewski's famous canvas, the image of chopped-up bodies reminds us of the price paid for freedom, dignity and faith. The choice between living in a country that from Hitler's rule fell directly into the hands of Stalin and remaining in anti-Communist guerrilla can hardly be called anything but tragic. To understand it, one must turn to Sophocles and Euripides (the 'black and white' categories of Enlightenment reason are of no use).

The Greeks invented tragedy and the Poles rehearsed it. Perhaps that is why they understand so well the concept of pathei mathos developed by Greek tragedians - a concept of wisdom that can only be achieved through suffering. A reminder of the limits of human knowledge and the limits of human authority. This Greek warning against hubris - especially in the form of political hubris - seems neither strange nor old-fashioned in Poland. The tragic nature of the world, as the artist tells us from the depths of Polish experience, is its inescapable characteristic. The world is not arranged in a clear geometrical pattern - it is full of irreconcilable contradictions, conflicts of interests and ideas, dilemmas that have no solutions.

Grandiose rationalist and totalitarian projects are certainly the wrong way to approach the question of how to reduce the impact of the tragedy of the world. Extermination is not only an evil crying to the heavens - it is also counterproductive as a method of achieving a similar goal. A brave new world cannot be built. That is why dreams of grand designs to repair the world are never innocent. Deluded ideals are a prelude to nightmares.

Political reason is capable of creating hell on earth if it is not sceptical, aware of the limits of humanity, humble in the face of the complexity of the world, convinced that man must always be an end and never a means, and that his dignity cannot be limited by any power. That is why scepticism, humility and human dignity are the Polish lesson from the age of totalitarianism!

This experience deserves to be shared, but we must not lose sight of the main point: the theme of the central painting and the coda to Czwartos' planed exhibition. That is the hope derived from the cross of Christ, in whose shadow the artist has placed the victims of both totalitarianisms. Christ alone can give meaning to suffering, replace despair with hope, hatred with forgiveness and the desire for revenge with love.

[1] François Furet, Ernst Nolte, “Feindliche Nähe”: Kommunismus und Faschismus im 20. Jahrhundert: ein Briefwechsel, F.A. Herbig, 1998.

[2] Dyskusja o „Nowoczesności i Zagładzie” Zygmunta Baumana (A discussion of Zygmunt Bauman's 'Modernity and the Holocaust'), „Kultura Współczesna”, no. 2/1993, pp. 119-120.

[3] See interview with Aida Eiderman: Professor with a past, The Guardian 28.04.2007 (access: 18.02.2024).

[4] See e.g: Information on the final results of the investigation S 28/02/Zi into the deprivation of life of 79 persons - residents of the Bielsk Podlaski District, including 30 so-called "wagoners" in the forest near Puchały Stare, carried out in the period from 29 January 1946 to 2 February 1946, available at: www.web.archive.org (access 18.02.2024). See also: Communiqué concerning the information contained in the final results of the investigation S 28/02/Zi in the case of deprivation of life of 79 persons - residents of the Bielsk Podlaski District, including 30 persons of the so-called "wagoners" in the forest near Puchały Starych, carried out in the period from 29 January 1946 to 2 February 1946. Date of publication 11.03.2019, available at www.ipn.gov.pl, (access 18.02.2024). An example of the complexity of the matter we are dealing with is perfectly illustrated by the study by Mariusz Zajączkowski Spór o Wierzchowiny: działalność oddziałów Akcji Specjalnej (Special Action Emergency) NSZ w powiatach Chełm, Hrubieszów, Krasnystaw i Lubartów na tle konfliktu polsko-ukraińskiego (August 1944 - June 1945), in: Pamięć i Sprawiedliwość 5/1 (9), 265-308, 2006.

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