Adrian Wiszniewski

Kasmin and Kappo


Not on display

Adrian Wiszniewski born 1958
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2443 × 2768 mm
Purchased 1985

Catalogue entry

Adrian Wiszniewski born 1958

T04131 Kasmin and Kappo 1985

Oil on canvas 2443 x 2768 (96 3/16 x 109)
Inscribed ‘a. wiszniewski' b.r.
Purchased from Nicola Jacobs Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1985
Exh: Adrian Wiszniewski, Nicola Jacobs Gallery, Oct. 1985 (no cat.)
Lit: Clare Henry, ‘Adrian Wiszniewski', Glasgow Herald, 9 October 1985, p.4; Waldemar Janusczak, ‘Prospects of Mysterious Britain', Guardian, 17 October 1985, p.10; Adrian Wiszniewski, exh. cat., Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool cat. 1987, p.12; Ann Simpson, The Vigorous Imagination, exh. cat., Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1987, p.114.

All quotations in this entry are from two letters from the artist postmarked 2 February 1988, and 21 June 1988.

T04131 was executed during the summer of 1985 ‘in the Glasgow School of Art - the Art School gave me a temporary studio between me moving from Glasgow to Alnmouth'. It was painted specifically for Wiszniewski's show at the Nicola Jacobs Gallery in October 1985 and was the largest of the five oil paintings in the exhibition. The artist knew where he wanted it to hang in the gallery while he was painting it:

I was quite familiar with the size and shape of the Nicola Jacobs Gallery - long and narrow - and wanted something for the end wall, and that would use the considerable distance for viewing from the entrance. I also wanted it facing the Kasmin/Knoedler Gallery [on the] opposite side of Cork Street, to give it edge (letter of 2 February 1988).

The painting depicts two individuals in a Nazi concentration camp:

The subject matter was partly derived from [the film director Roman] Polanski's autobiography called ‘Roman' published by Pan Books in paperback in 1985. [The relevant section of text is the bottom paragraph on page 47]. I saw the book in a Glasgow bookshop. I have always been very influenced and interested in Cinema and was keen on Polanski's early films such as ‘The Wardrobe' and ‘Knife on the Water'. His autobiography was of obvious interest to me. I don't read fictional books as a rule. Polanski's parents both went to concentration camps. After the war Roman was looked after for a while by his uncle who exercised his cruel nature on Roman. The child found out that his uncle was a Kapo in a camp. These were prisoners who were given certain favours for dishing out punishment to their fellow prisoners. I imagined the scenario of the Kapo beating his brother under the auspices of the Nazis. The picture was however a comment pointed at the situation in the Lebanon in 1985, where ‘internees' were massacred by a Lebanese faction supported by the state of Israel, and the subjugation of the Palestinians by their Israeli ‘brothers'. The overall statement is that people do not learn from history and therefore play the mindless roles of victor or vanquished. The painting therefore ridicules this mindlessness in its title: Kasmin and Kappo - the two figures represent a comic-tragic double act in the tradition of Laurel & Hardy, Abbot & Costello, etc. etc. (letter of 2 February 1988).

The title of T04131 is Wiszniewiski's own. The first word, Kasmin, has no connection with the well-known dealer of the same name. Kapo, derived from the Italian capo 'head' or 'chief') was the name given to group leaders of groups of prisoners in concentration camps. The position brought with it power and privileges and many Kapos exploited and tortured their fellow prisoners. The artist is aware of this but prefers the name in his title to be spelt with two p's. Although Wiszniewiski was inspired to paint T04131 by an episode in Roman Polanski's life, his own family, which is Polish, have had their lives touched by similar events. Two of the artist's aunts survived a spell in a concentration camp and still have tattoos on their arms from their time there. Prior to ‘Kasmin and Kappo' Wiszniewski had painted a smaller canvas on the same theme of human brotherhood and Jewish suffering. This was entitled ‘My Jewish Brother' 1983-4 (Scottish Arts Council, repr. The British Art Show: Old Allegiances and New Directions 1979-1984, exh. cat., AC and Orbis, 1984, p.86 in col.). In this work the head of one of the brothers is accompanied by a large six-pointed Star of David. When interviewed by Alex Kidson for the Walker Art Gallery catalogue of 1987, Wiszniewski spoke about the content of his paintings in general and about ‘My Jewish Brother' in particular:

The paintings I do are like conversations taking place. If there's one figure, the conversation is probably between that figure and the landscape: him and his world. With two, it will be between the two of them about something else ... It's not literally a conversation, but a reaction; a happening which is leading to a better understanding of themselves or what they're doing or the situation in which they find themselves.

The situation in my pictures is never resolved ... I'd rather paint questions than answers. That way you are not preaching, you're discussing things with the viewer. For example, one situation I was interested in was being Jewish. I did a painting called ‘My Jewish Brother'. That title is a tautology; if I was Jewish there would be no need for me to call my brother Jewish: he would be bound to be. And similarly if I weren't a Jew, he wouldn't be either. Whereas I could be Italian and have a brother who is French. So the title refers to the separateness or exclusiveness of being Jewish; what the notion of a chosen people implies. I'm not Jewish at all, but as soon as that painting was in The British Art Show, a whole lot of people started talking about me exploring my Polish - Jewish roots and so forth. That's the peril of being an art-critic. You look at fifty paintings a day and start jumping to conclusions. My work is not egocentric. I look inwards in order to look outwards (p.12).

In T04131 the subject is two figures, one being a kapo torturing another inmate, his brother, set in a concentration camp. The kapo or Kappo on the right wears a tie which is decorated with a star of David, indicating that he, like his victim and brother Kasmin, is also Jewish. He wears shoes, while those of the victim have been removed. Both are destined to be murdered by the Nazis in the end. Wiszniewski indicated what was happening:

Kappo is gripping the hands of Kasmin with a sort of garotte - a ring of rope pushed over the hand(s) and tightened by the twisting action of a short stick - [a] very primitive form of torture and very painful. About the features of the landscape, the camp ‘yard' is barren with the exception of a stagnant pool and the truncated trunk of a once healthy tree which throws up 5 desperate ‘fingers' from the dust. In the middle ground is the chimney spouting yellow sulphurous smoke out of the burning process and beyond the walls of the camp the landscape assumes all the signs of normality (letter of 21 June 1988).

Wiszniewski was asked if T04131 was in any sense autobiographical since both the figures of Kappo and Kasmin resemble the male figures in his other works, many of which have a personal content. He replied that T04131

is not in any way autobiographical. The subject matter does however derive from the ‘What-if?' way of asking questions ... Although I am not Jewish nor come from a Jewish background, I have on occasion been taken to be Jewish. This has led me on to themes concerning ‘Jewishness' and its paradoxical nature, on the previously mentioned ‘what-if ...?' way of approaching questions (letter of 21 June 1988).

When questioned as to a possible link between his own work - T04131 and ‘My Jewish Brother' - and R.B. Kitaj's paintings of such themes at a similar time, Wiszniewski replied:

I must admit to having been ignorant of them. This has been mentioned to me since and I would very much like to see them. I actually went to see his very good show at Marlborough in 1986 or 87 [1986] hoping to catch something along those lines but he had changed themes by then.

When the artist was asked if there were any specific preliminary studies for T04131, or developments from it, he replied that ‘There were no preliminary studies ... However the composition was developed from an independent drawing called ‘Bound to Love and Cherish', (repr. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, exh. cat. 1987, p.116) now in the collection of the Gallery of Modern Art [in Edinburgh]. I did not develop the theme beyond this painting'.

In ‘Bound to Love and Cherish', the victim again on the left of the composition, has already been bound up with rope - both his arms having been twisted behind his back, whereas in ‘Kasmin and Kappo', Kappo is still in the act of tying Kasmin up.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.301-2


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