It’s not often that a sculptor causes me to crisscross Europe in search of his traces. But Johann Georg Pinsel did just that. I took rickety marshrutka buses to distant Ukrainian villages to see his work at local churches. I visited many a palace where fragments of his sculptures were displayed–a wing of an angel, a headless saint, a saint motioning one to come closer and listen to the revelation. Finally, I made it to Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, and later to Vienna, the center that once exerted considerable political power over Lviv. These journeys spanned almost a year, intertwined as they were around other trips and exploration, but somehow, Pinsel, a mysterious 18th century master, was the leitmotif.
Very little is known about Pinsel. His name was only established with certainty in the 1990s. Where was he born? With whom he did study? The area where he chose to work was the Lviv region, at the time a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the first Partition of Poland in 1772, a part of the Habsburg Empire. After Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, these territories once again exchanged hands and ended up in the Soviet Union. This bloody and brutal history had consequences for the master who has been dead for almost two centuries–he was forgotten.
I stand in front of the sculptural group depicting Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac is bound and kneeling, while his father bound by a promise to God is standing over him. He grips the sword, staring at Isaac, love, pain and suffering producing a violent emotion. Isaac looks up at his father, tense and uncertain, but he’s not afraid. He’s defiant. Could this defiance and the possibility that every minute is a gateway of miracle–Isaac, after all, is saved by the same God who demanded him–explain something of Pinsel and the fate of his works?
According to the historian Timothy Snyder, between the 1930s and 1940s Ukraine was the most dangerous place on earth, and the destruction of human lives and cultural heritage that it experienced can’t be quantified. Pinsel’s works suffered for numerous reasons–war, poverty, ignorance and destruction of the churches where most of his sculptures were displayed. Moreover, Pinsel worked in wood, one of the most fragile materials. That we have anything left of his oeuvre is itself a miracle.
The motifs of suffering and resilience run through Pinsel’s works, although at first, what struck me the most was their expressiveness and drama. Everything feels urgent in his sculptures–angels are caught mid-flight, saints are in the throes of ecstasy, mythological heroes appear in the midst of a battle. They bite their lips. Their robes are swept by the wind. Their blood, tears and sweat appear real.
Since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, art historians have been rediscovering Pinsel, and while he has enthralled many with the striking originality of his work, he also continues to puzzle. It’s hard to classify him or to explain him. Partially, the issue is that with the displacement of sculptures from their original locations, we have lost the context. The sculptures were supposed to be arranged in groups to tell a story, but today they appear as torn pages from a lost book, enigmatic and haunting.
Pinsel was a master of Late Baroque, but on a recent visit to Vienna, after I walked through the halls of the Belvedere with their exhibits of Munch and other 20th century expressionists, I found much kinship between Pinsel’s raw emotions and expressionism’s preoccupation with the themes of human vulnerability and anguish. The difference is that Pinsel offers hope. His Christ suffers on the cross, but he doesn’t give up his faith. Eventually he will rise in glory.
From 28 October 2016 to 12 February 2017, the Belvedere in Vienna honors Johann Georg Pinsel and gives viewers a rare chance to see his work up close. Otherwise, his works can be discovered in Lviv and Buchach, Ukraine.
The Belvedere Winterpalais
Heavenly! The Baroque Sculptor Johann Georg Pinsel
28 October 2016 to 12 February 2017
Photography by Bois de Jasmin