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EssayMikołaj Kasprzyk

By Bogusław Deptuła

Scores for humans to play

The field that spreads in front of you seems to be of the same proportions as your own life.1

John Berger

As an introduction, I would have to explain my reasons about why I have gone for such a title, which might seem somewhat awkward. Having granted my consent to its being inconvenient, I have selected the title because of its double suitability for my purpose here.

Mikołaj Kasprzyk

First, the formal discipline of a musical record is something being close to Mikołaj Kasprzyk’s original need for making some order to the world’s chaos. This painter slips the figures appearing in his paintings on the horizontal rigour of a picture’s format. No matter whether those figures are set against a background being close to nature whilst remaining explicitly conventional, landscape-like, or, a background being a little more abstracted, uniform, smooth and plain. Both concepts strive for a systematising of things, order, and harmony.

The other reason for why the term ‘score’ should be useful in describing what we can see in Kasprzyk’s paintings is the fact that this painter assigns the figures in his paintings certain roles for them to play. And those situations where he has placed human ‘figurines’ are certain tasks to be performed, of a sort. In a sense, he treats his characters in quite an instrumental manner, using them up, and then dropping them, amidst that conventional and not-really-friendly landscape setting. It is hard to tell, really, if they actually feel well in such an environment, and whether they are not bothered by having to perform tasks as imposed on them, which are not always convenient for humans. In this case, the tasks ensuing from a given painting’s subject.

Music as a system of references

Mikołaj Kasprzyk

Mikołaj Kasprzyk frankly says that he considers the world of sounds set in an order, that is, the world of music, to be much more perfect and better than the world of visual arts, of painting, with which he has been dealing for so long a time now. Yet he does not go as far as to practise music himself. He is namely clearly aware of the fact that if he were to settle for good, on an entirely professional basis, in that other world, it would lose its value as a perfect entity and some flaws would immediately start appearing on that idealised universe of sounds, due to the strivings of everyday life. Let, then, that ideal world of sonic harmony carry him away a little, whilst remaining unattainable. Let it be a point of reference and of best possible comparisons for one attempting at speaking of the painting art. Perhaps, Mikołaj would like to hear a score about his paintings, rather than words, and it maybe that in those sounds, he would find a more complete and more apt description than words could offer. It maybe that sounds would not actually describe the paintings, but they could describe a climate that emanates out of them.

No utopian synesthetic order can possibly be made to this area – the one of one’s belief in inevitable associations of the different arts.

Arthur Rimbaud once saw the colours of sounds, and this conviction has remained with us for ever, although everyone could probably made a slightly different record of this experience. And this is good too; perhaps, in a future, an operation of this kind could also be suggested to Mikołaj. One problem, a very serious and impossible-to-overcome one, may, however, occur there : Mikołaj can paint out some of the sounds, leaving the other ones untouched. He has his beloved gamuts and colours, never quitting them. Changes, if any, are a rather rare phenomenon there.

A softening. The inconsistent symmetry

Mikołaj Kasprzyk

Such a limitation of a painter’s spectrum of colours is a step entailing enormous consequences for the paintings themselves. There are virtually no contrasts present. Instead, what one comes across is an unbearable peace-and-quiet, without any tension. The characters perform, perhaps, some strange activities, but this is incessantly happening in an undisturbed quiet environment. One change that has irreversibly been the case with Kasprzyk’s paintings is the motifs getting increasingly simplified. One could utter a statement that the area of regularity is getting irreversibly expanded. Still a few years ago, Kasprzyk’s little humans were carrying some eggs on their spoons, finding it hard to eat apples hanging on trees, or walking a tightrope. Now, they tend to perform more and more actions being extremely ordinary, not to say mean or even banal. Is it better, this way? Hard to say, really. This marks, however, a certain and a clearly visible change as against the canvases painted a few years ago. On top of that, there are more and more musical motifs appearing, which testifies to that music is getting increasingly important for the painter. No surprise, that, for the space around him is quite tightly filled with scores, most frequently, Mediaeval or Baroque ones.

If Mr. Kasprzyk was asked how to paint a good picture, he would not be able to give an answer, which is understandable, but at the same time, he would tell you to listen to a good music, as this is very helpful while painting. There is probably a host of painters who would deem such a suggestion to be preposterous or merely damaging; but, on the other hand, there would be several of those who would completely agree.

As Kasprzyk himself says, in his paintings, just like in the music by some composers, there is a kind of inconsistent symmetry to his paintings. It is this kind of incomplete balance which seems particularly demanded for those who write music. When Swięto Trąbek [‘Hashanah’], the very-well-known picture by Aleksander Gierymski, was x-rayed, it revealed its complicated nature, much to the researchers’ surprise. It namely appeared that Gierymski was many times shifting the black silhouettes of the praying Jews across the painting’s surface. As if he did it with black marks of a musical score, running them over the canvas’s surface. Apparently, he was in search of that non-musical asymmetry which would finally yield a perfect effect in the form of a completed canvas.

Mikołaj Kasprzyk clearly makes the task easy for himself : the figures appear standing in a line, or on several horizontal strips. This enables him to better exercise control over that human mess.

Landscape with a castle (without a condotierre)

Mikołaj Kasprzyk

The flat surface of a greed field, easy accessible, still overgrown with a low grass, wrapped with blue sky trough which yellow colour get pierced, making the green pure, a colour of the surface of what the world’s syncline comprises; the neighbouring field is a plane between the sky and the sea, with a curtain of printed trees in the front, whose edges are frayed and corners rounded [....] the field I’ve known for ever, I’m laying resting myself on an elbow, considering whether I could see beyond the place where you are standing. The wire surrounding you is the horizon.2 Perhaps, this is not an ideal description of lanscapes painted by Mikołaj, but again, it is rather hard to deny that the overall condition of the space described by Berger, whilst creating an imaginable description of an ideal field, in a some strange way proves close to the stage-design simplicity as present in the Kasprzyk paintings. Although the sources of those imagined entities are most probably entirely different, they are pretty close to each other, at the same time. Determining the original order, separating the sky and the earth, plus, that glance of a laying man : this is pretty apt, indeed. I have no idea of where Mikołaj Kasprzyk spent his childhood years, but it seems he could have been laying in a field next to the one John Berger recollects, or rather, creates out of his memory and imagination. Yet Berger, as one would expect from a writer, evokes more details to that. His approach is meticulous, which cannot possibly be said of Mr. Kasprzyk.

Another writer, much closer, for a change, to Kasprzyk, could make use of his laconic style to describe the landscape in a picture by Kasprzyk. The description is as follows : The landscape is dry like a barn floor. No trees, no grass, only bare sticks of the wire entanglement and the frail flowers of war signs. On the fresco’s left and right hand sides, on the peaks of the two hills there, a thin architecture of the castles appears. The one on the left is Monte Massi whose chatelain rebelled against Siena. And there’s no doubt : Guidoriccio is about to crush those walls and crumble the towers.*

The detail is from Zbigniew Herbert’s Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie [‘Barbarian in the Garden’], and speaks of the Sienese painting. The description refers to the grand fresco by Simone Martini at the Palazzo Publico, the Sienese town-hall, showing Guidoriccia da Fogliano, the condotierre then on the town’s duty.

Truly, there is a wealth of instances of mutual resemblance, common features for which Mikolaj Kasprzyk strives in his paintings. There is a downcast colour arrangement, there are empty landscapes and the castles appearing amidst them. Occasionally, artificially built spiral mountains, resembling the Babel Tower, are set where a castle would otherwise appear; and at times, the landscape space is filled with unaccompanied trees. Kasprzyk has several times admitted that the art of early ages, particularly frescos, is a painting-related ideal unattainable to him. A similar story is true about his love for predellas, i.e. long and narrow altar paintings where Mediaeval painters tended to display the less important scenes from the lives of greater and lesser Saints, which they did not manage to contain within the altar’s main representation. Those small scenes have preserved the life and character, and besides, not infrequently, some quite unconventional painting solutions. Therefore, it is really easy for one to figure out that it this particular type of paintings that attract Mikołaj Kasprzyk most, as he visits the museums, and that, in a sense, he attempts at reflecting bits and pieces of the ambience of those old, intimate scenes.

I doubt, so I.... paint like Mr. Kasprzyk does

Mikołaj Kasprzyk

Finally, perhaps one should say that what Kasprzyk does at present in his paintings is quite a serious painting and intellectual project which is quite consistently called into question by himself. These doubts cast about his own paintings is of equal import to him as the very painting process. Looking carefully at those paintings and knowing their author in person, it is as if I were hearing the phrase : C’mon, I was joking” – all the time. Escaping any serious attitude is escaping from taking responsibility for the paintings; it is a peculiar, schoolboy’s escaping responsibility and seriousness. Therefore, the balancing on the borderline of seriousness and irony. It is namely safer to seek shelter under a tablet reading ‘ironist’ rather than ‘moralist’. In essence, Kasprzyk would do anything to remain, and be perceived as, independent observer, which title would enable him to spy on, and comment on, things.

From Bacon to Memling, or, the Last Judgement without a God

Mikołaj Kasprzyk took a strange and ambiguous road to get to where he is now with the paintings. When at the Warsaw Fine Arts Academy, he started off under realist painters : Ludwik Maciąg, and then, Michał Bylina. With the latter, as Mikołaj reports, he was forced to paint some patriotic/state-building themes, possibly with the ‘Polish-Soviet Friendship’ as a leading background motto. However, as he admits, he would stay with Mr. Bylina, as this was the place where his friends studied. Eventually, he got his diploma under Jacek Sienicki, a somber expressionist, rubbing abstract art. This lead him to have started painting gloomy abstract pictures, with the dominating colours of black, grey, and blue. He then stayed at the Academy where he worked for another twelve years. Late in the 1980s, in Kasprzyk’s art, a rapid and thorough metamorphosis followed : the abstract painting world was replaced by observation of the reality, and of themes rooted in it. The characters in those paintings were performing some strange activities, they were ostentatiously unattractive as to the way they looked and the colours they bore; it may be that they were even frightening. These representations were not excessively optimistic, indeed. However, there was something very attractive in those situations’ abstract nature. It was, as it were, a metaphorical record of the wistful reality under what was the People’s Republic of Poland, then already becoming a thing of the past, but still remaining fresh enough, and annoying. Then, the scale of the figures was getting consistently diminished, the themes presented seeking their inspiration in, for instance, the personages from the famous Last Judgement by Hans Memling, now in Gdańsk, with which Kasprzyk was fascinated for a long time. Gradually, the tones of his paintings was brightening and, jokingly saying, Italian influences started prevailing there. It might be that these days, more importance will be assigned to French influences, and the background settings for little scenes with humans will be made up of regular French gardens and variations on the themes of French architecture – as it is France that has recently been the venue for most of Mikołaj’s artistic journeys.


To end with, let us quote Zbigniew Herbert again – this time, from his Martwa natura z wędzidłem [‘Still-life with a Bit’] : Both the audiences and the 17th-century Dutchmen writing on painting [...] were assigning primacy to the genre of so-called historien, that is, figurative compositions.** Mikołaj Kasprzyk’s paintings too may be referred to as ‘(hi)stories’, without risking an erroneous statement. And I don’t know whether this should mean that they represent the topmost rank in today’s painting hierarchies, but they have incessantly been attracting virtually all the interested viewers. However, personally I think of those (hi)stories in terms of scores, and I should entertain the hope that their author will like the term, just as I do.

Notes and references

  • * Herbert, Z., Barbarzyńca w ogrodzie : 1964, p. 83.
  • ** Herbert, Z., Martwa natura z wędzidłem : 1993, p. 32.
  • 1 Berger J., Ways of Seeing, translated into Polish by S. Sikora as O patrzeniu : 1999, p.266.
  • 2 Ibidem, p. 259.