Agnieszka Klos, for the exhibition catalogue, Galeria BWA Jelenia Gora, Poland
Paul Woods - Stories about History
Faces of soldiers from various war fronts juxtaposed with toy soldiers and victims of violence - this is a visual definition of armed conflicts by Paul Woods. After war - says Woods - all human beings are dishevelled, fragmented remnants of their former selves.
Painting of the Irish artist Paul Woods focuses on the basic, detailed and most intuitive perception of the results of war. Cities and areas that suffered during war times are one of the subjects of Woods's analytical research and study. He visualizes minute details and extracts vivid colours like pink, violet, orange and red from the black and white past with a journalistic alertness. It is as if through the use of a contemporary palette he wants to restore the memory of the past. In Woods's paintings the use of colour is crucial - it directly indicates the circumstances of a victim's death by referring to the methods used to kill them. The agony has the colour of Zyklon B and washed out tones in some paintings suggest the tropes from the unending history of war crimes. After the short stories by Tadeusz Borowski, after the period of reflection on Zofia Nalkowska's prose, after the artistic redefinitions of Miroslaw Balka, we realized that the Holocaust was based on a direct engagement with matter, that it was a struggle with matter, a biological and fundamental battle on the most basic, cellular level. The perpetrators wanted to inflict absolute and unprecedented violence on their victims, followed by precisely planned methods of annihilation, analytical procedures and the processes of disintegration of human remains into elemental pieces. It is not a coincidence that experiments conducted in Auschwitz – Birkenau were centered on advanced technologies of recycling, during which the victim’s biology was the subject of meticulous analysis. The perpetrators’ objective was to break down the human body into elemental parts, recycle the obtained material and use it for further production (quilts, soap, electricity, pharmaceutical products) resulting in complete erasure of the victim’s human character. The analysis of the structures of Woods’s paintings reveals patterns of scarred landscapes, areas transformed by violence, shell craters and mass - graves opened for exhumation. His visual observations follow those of Holocaust philosophers – its outcome was horrifying because it brought total death - absolute annihilation to the smallest particle.
Colour is a direct signifier of the presence of the human body in history. Painting depicts the world of objects, shapes and abstract concepts, and it needs colours, especially the colour of blood and its derivatives, in order to refer us to biological matter. In the world saturated by visual information, even the most accurate photographic or video record becomes only a graphic symbol. The humanity in Woods’s art is characterized by defending emotions and creating a safe space for memory/remembrance - his quest does not end on the archival, historical truth, though he refers to it frequently. His research process includes browsing through numerous archival war photographs and video footage that carry the visual truth, even if they are only a version of the original. All these versions and copies float, and very often drown, in the broad abyss of context association. Woods knows that in current times of complete visual saturation and overexposure to media, a contemporary viewer can experience the true emotional charge of the past only through art. Therefore, his paintings act like catalysts and links between the past, understood both as a chain of historical events and an emotional moment, and the present which interprets the past in an unpredictable manner depending on political and economical contexts. “My paintings are based on history, but they are not historical paintings.” I paint about history” – says Woods.
The paintings of Paul Woods can be placed in the category of great discourses on remembrance and they are characterized by peaceful and balanced tones. They avoid drastic detail and it is not their purpose to cause aesthetic shock. Woods’s art is concerned with contemplation, empathy and the appreciation of detail. It is aesthetic and reflective at the same time. The layers of memories and the past are hidden deep under the cover of colour, and is revealed to the thorough viewer gradually.
Contemporary readings of the WWII iconography confirm that on the visual level war is never over and it continues through photography and real-life footage. The records are the confirmation of the past and gradually their function becomes educational, then, political, archival and finally illustrative. The decline of the aesthetic function of war photography and film is related to the contemporary politics of history. Paul Woods notices this subtle conflict between history and art. The choice of Polish history as background to some of his paintings is not coincidental – it is on Polish territories where the full horror of Holocaust was unraveling. Studies of archival records show that Poland is the most encountered backdrop in the WWII photographs and film footage. Janina Struk writes about their visual impact, historical truth, retouches and manipulations: “Photographs and their interpretations do not always allow us to understand the historical event we refer to as the Holocaust – instead they remind us of the world's order after it. The present always influences the reconstruction of the past.” Could this be the reason why Woods focuses on war photography as the main source for his paintings, considering he grew up in an area defined by a very specific conflict - the Troubles?
The outbreak of WWII redefined modern warfare and also brought about a change in the approach to the phenomenon of war photography. Its function as a medium in the anthropology of ritual gave way to its use as a political weapon of propaganda. It became a witness, an indictment, but also a trophy. In his artwork, Woods returns to the basic function of photography, refreshes its forgotten and lost meaning and gives it power to communicate with us through filling the empty space after emotional energy. This artistic process becomes an act of contrition and reverence for the dead. One of the common ideas referring to the purpose of photography during WWII was the idea that to photograph is to kill. In Janina Struk's book "The Holocaust in Photographs" we read: "To photograph the enemy meant to defeat them. Public humiliation, degradation and the killing of the real Jew signified the metaphorical destruction of the concept of the mythical Jew. Photographing such an event became an integral part of the process of degradation and it amplified the act of violence.”
Woods recovers such images along with the emotional energy they used to possess - he exhumes them and proclaims their long forgotten message through the sacred artistic ritual. It is worth noting that figures and faces in his paintings are not defined by their political or national affiliation, their military rank or uniform. Everyone is stigmatized by war, regardless of their political status, ideological commitment or economic position.
In a paradoxical development of civilization war and photography remain symbiotically interrelated. The most rapid technological and industrial progress is often linked with outbursts of wars. This is also the case in the technological development of photographic instruments – the improvements in their efficiency and accuracy resulted in our ability to salvage material signifiers of the past and retain identity of past existences. War photography became a part of the extensive emulation of progress - during WWII the Communication Corps of the American Army stationed in Europe employed 20 photographers, 30 film operators, 20 technicians and 5 related technical crew.
Photography was influencing the general attitude to war. Directly or indirectly it was also influencing human life. It was provoking to an immediate reaction, direct engagement and declaration of principles. Susan Sontag remembers seeing the photographs from Bergen-Belsen and Dachau concentration camps exhibited recklessly in a shop window in Santa Monica. She recalls the feeling of irreversible deprivation that a 12 year old girl felt. It was not a feeling of shock or surprise, but a sensation of a schism or rupture experienced on a sunny street. As an adult, she wrote that war photographs she saw as a child had divided her life into two periods – before and after: “When I looked at those photographs something broke... something went dead, something is still crying. Images anesthetize. Images desensitize.” This well-known quotation is referring to her original concept of the images and photography of death. In “Regarding the Pain of Others” Susan Sontag acknowledges the immense complexity of the discourse on photographic art. She focuses on its mimetic qualities, its dependence on and involvement with reality, art, politics and economy. Her writing about the beauty of photography is sober, but also melancholic in its claim that all photographs are nothing else but images for rent. No photograph tells the complete truth about the world, nor testifies for the existence of “the decisive moment”, and no photograph can be a definitively accurate document of its era. Susan Sontag’s last book follows the path of Roland Barthes’ subtle writing – both authors gain insight into photography, and maybe life itself as a result of personal loss and suffering.
In his art, Woods reminisces on these moments of insight and aestheticises photographs, placing them justifiably in the realm of art history. Photographs are an ideal basis to tell stories about history. Even in everyday life we colour our personal histories by displaying photos. A picture immediately becomes a bridge between the storyteller and the listener, it facilitates communication, it triggers memories and it affects emotionally. Woods understands the inherent emotional power of photography and its function in art. He carefully chooses photographs that in the most authentic manner convey the emotional moments of the past, and he transfers their elements onto a canvas. But the history on the canvas is very subtly displayed under the camouflage of colour. As a result we look at an image of multiple layers and double emotional charge - a symbolic and impressionistic image related to a particular situation. Only the title allows us to decipher what situation it is, and this knowledge takes us to another level of appreciation.
Nowadays we are aware of the fact that war photography is very often a spectacle, a magnified and multiplied wake up call to conscience. A war photographer is aware of the fact the main task of reportage and documentation is creation. The photographed world is supposed to look like war. The most contemporary and natural definition of photography according to Susan Sontag is "a condensed image of reality".
Paul Woods's art on first appearance takes from two levels of reality (photographed "truth" and imagined "truth") and two different genres (photography and art). In fact, both painting and photography belong to the same category of art, and both have the capacity and right to use metaphor, collage, composition or abbreviation. Sontag claims that photography is no longer only a faithful mimesis, but a powerful tool conveying important features of reality through a visual compression. The art of Paul Woods employs these two strata in order to amplify the emotional level of the forgotten archival photographs - he knows that the true representation of the real world has lost its gravity and only an accurate metaphor can restore it. His paintings are not explanatory - they suggest neither reasons for the inflicted violence nor justification for suffering. The stories they tell concentrate around specific times of violence and the times after violence - they are post-war, post-conflict stories. The post - war, post-genocide periods are usually characterized by the all-present atmosphere of shock, vacuum of meaning and a conceptual void. Those symptoms are equally natural for human beings and for the culture they inhabit. Woods draws us towards these periods through the images of dug up soil, underneath which we encounter the signs from Shakespearean tragedy: crime, and specifically the Great Crime never disappears. Woods's art demands from the viewer what Sontag wrote about in her last essay - rejection of the safe insulating layer of cynicism. The spectators have a right to be afraid, but at the same time they should be willing to accept the value and meaning of paintings about suffering. We should not negate the suffering of others and we should suffer with them if we are to comprehend the human condition.
As time passes, the number of people directly influenced by the history present in Woods's paintings decreases. Photographs are all that is left - everything starts and finishes with them. They are an invitation to critical thinking and they clarify all ambiguities. They are and will remain the only meta-witnesses of that history.
- Das ist Figuren. The art of Paul Woods attempts to link the landscape art as a genre with the great discourse on suffering. We recognize historical references to nature during war times as a hiding place, an execution backdrop or a partisans’ realm. In one of his paintings Wilhelm Sasnal paints a vast green forest and, in the corner, small figures of escaping Jews. We can see an undefined moment - the action is suspended, and we can only guess whether the escapees will be welcomed, accepted and saved or betrayed by the forest. References to nature as a protective force compared with culture which failed humanity are ever-present in the poetry of a witness of history and survivor, Tadeusz Rozewicz: "we envied plants and stones/ we envied dogs/ I wish I were a rat" ("Leave us").
The landscape surrounding an old cemetery, a mass grave or a place of mass execution, exposes the frail core of civilization and culture. Woods, like an archaeologist, uncovers signs of exterminated communities. and reveals the weakness of values that tolerate war crimes and genocide among civilized societies. We live on graveyards and battlefields - he concludes. Under a thin layer of soil lie the remains of massacred people, that take shape of an amorphic mass of dry leaves, twisted ropes and fragments of decayed wood (as described in Claude Lanzmann's film - "Figures"). For Woods the past has an organic and absolute meaning, it emanates from the air, the soil, the trees. It is written in the landscape. In many ways his art is, as predicted by Hal Foster in the 70s', a continuation of a "real art movement" that uses real artifacts, bodies and places saturated with layers of history.
In her book "Art after the Holocaust", Eleonora Jedlinska discusses the art of a number of European artists who engage in an intuitive manner in discourse on history and concentrate on references to facts. These elements can be recognized in Woods's art as well. His awareness of the past is manifested on every inch of his canvases. He captures details described by Ewa Domanska in “The Unconventional Histories” as ready-made prints, faded panoramas of the real world now engraved in imagination and influencing his vision of the present world. But Woods’s paintings prove that such distortion is necessary for the understanding and accepting the post-war order.
The final question remains: is the generous use of vibrant colour in Woods’s art a provocation aimed at the traditionally more reserved style of the post-war, post-Holocaust art? More likely it is the distance in time that allows artists from Paul Woods’s generation to experiment with pain and suffering through beauty and colour. The shift in the approach to post-war and post-Holocaust art is linked to the fact that very few witnesses of those times are still alive. Artists who survived concentration camps of WWII created their own style of expression – “shape of silence”. In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue “Where is your Brother Abel” organized by Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw in 1995, Doreet LeVitte-Harten wrote: “Artists, who were testifying or recounting their own experiences, turned documentation into bad art. Not because they were bad artists, but because they were faced with reality nobody ever visualized before them” (from “Translating Pain into Colour”).