Artistic imports

Launch of new exhibition, a collection of work by 20th century Polish artists. Matthew Bateson and Sian Brown
Launch of new exhibition, a collection of work by 20th century Polish artists. Matthew Bateson and Sian Brown

A private collection of paintings and drawings by Polish artists accumulated over 30 years by a private collector are going on public display for the first time.

Pole Position: Polish Art in Britain 1939-1989, opening at the Graves Gallery on Saturday, sheds light on a neglected chapter in the history of modern British art.

But Matthew Bateson says he began collecting works by Polish artists forced to flee mainland Europe during the Second World War simply because he liked them.

“I began buying them at auction,” he says. “I was attracted to dark and challenging imagery which to some extent was an expression of my own art, reflecting back like a mirror image which is what many artists like to do.

“I was aware that my passion for expressionist and narrative painting was unfashionable and outside the ephemeral art market and celebrity culture that dominates our times.”

This was a bonus for him because if they weren’t fashionable they were affordable.

The artists’ transitory experiences are reflected in the subject of their work, from powerful depictions of their lost homeland and the horrors of war to the landscapes and people they encountered in their new lives in Britain.

“This kind of expressionism wasn’t appreciated in Britain, partly because it was associated with German art at a time when anything German was anathema,” says Bateson. “Besides that the emotional expressionism didn’t fit English sensibilities.”

After initially buying from auctions he contacted some of the artists and got to know them and began acquiring them directly from them.

In particular there was Stanislaw Frenkiel whose Descent of the Winged Man from 1973 is included in the exhibition. “His address was on the back of the first painting I bought and he invited me round to his home. You get a greater understanding of their work through knowing them. By and large they were well-educated and erudite people.”

Having escaped the horrors of the war, many of them had hard lives once they moved to Britain. “At one time Frenkiel was sweeping on the London Underground and for some years he lived in Sheffield, no one knows quite why, but it was probably to find work.”

Other works include Josef Herman’s Head of a Bergundian Peasant, (1953), Henryk Gotlib’s Christ in Warsaw (c1939) and Feliks Topolski’s celebration of British war time resistance, Old England (1945).

So where does he keep his collection?

“Most of them are stacked up in my third bedroom with a few hung on the walls of my home in an end of terrace house in South London. I enjoy changing them round, re-hanging on a Sunday.”

Whern he decided it was time to show them to a wider audience he approached the Graves Gallery where he had exhibited himself back in 1992. The gallery recognised that the work would provide an illuminating parallel to its collection of 20th century modern British art.