By Bogusław Deptuła
To be an artist: for him, the choice was conscious. Rafał decided to become a painter at a very early age. As he tells me, he read The Passion of Life by John Irving when in the fourth form of his primary school. The effects of that youthful book reading have lasted by this very day. Because this is what his paintings are all about: a proof of a never-declining love and fascination for art, and lives of some grand predecessors. He would devour biographies of artists, one by one, and get fascinated by anything he would have found in them. Stories on the green fairy, that is, absinthe, the wormwood tincture, a real strong one, taking one’s sight away if too much of it has been drunk; and many characters of the story abused the liqueur, to a fault indeed.
In his early young years, Rafał lived in Moscow. His fascination for that city is easy to feel. He could not paint, but could read, and then remember for good, a book on painting techniques. The pocket money he got for a Christmas was spent at an artists’ shop at the Old Arbat. That unusual place has probably contributed to that he has made up his mind about becoming a painter. Pigments were exposed in open drawers. Open barrels showed flaxseed oil inside: a regular one, and one thickened in the sunshine. Both the oil and ready-to-use first coating was purchased in litres. Russian pigments were so thickened that any painter, having squeezed but a bit of it onto his palette, could become a van Gogh himself at once. At once, and without any extra effort, would the paint get a proper texture, as if taken out directly from the Dutch master’s works. Added to that were paintbrushes made of marten, squirrel, or sable fur; they would as if beg for that you held some of them in your hand. The odours made your head spinning, and inject in you an impulse to start painting at once. Just get yourself an easel, and then go home and start painting.
Added to all that was the abundance of Soviet museums. The collections of Moscow or Leningrad, offering one a complete study of Modernism, using the very best of its specimens to exemplify. That he could see and watch all that in the original, become Rafał’s great advantage, and remained so well after he returned to Warsaw. The times were like that – only few Polish nationals could leave for the West, but you would come across difficulties if willing to travel to the Soviet Union as well. The works of Cubists, Fauvists, and Soviet avant-garde artists, heavily basted with a biographical sauce whose ingredients were the books on artists their authors read, produced such a strong mixture that its action has retained its effects by this very day.
Rafał Kostrzewa’s painting topics appear resulting from some complex processes. But one would come across real difficulty if looking for a single inspiration or its source. Rafał is an excellent draughtsman. His drawings’ structure is astonishing, ambiguous, and very complicated. They would often remind you a anatomical rebus. You can merely get lost in the tangle of limbs and details, never finding your way out of there, even though the artist may have given you some artistic compasses. The plainness and bluntness of these works, despite their having been heavily processed, recalls all the most drastic works of European eroticism. The great masters of drawing nude, Austrian artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, rank among Rafał’s major teachers. But Auguste Rodin or Edgar Degas would come up to your mind as well: the ones that taught him a great deal, before he could successfully find his own aesthetic way.
Leda: when I watch her, Rafał collage drawings are recalled. Zeus, having fall in love with her, seduced the Spartan king’s wife in a swan’s disguise. The two become parents to Clythaemnestra and Helena, called the Trojan, the most beautiful woman of Greece, and the Dioscuri twins Castor and Pollux. This one of the most famous erotic achievements of the amorous Zeus, has become a very popular motif in the history of art. Known to us are several ancient examples, whereas in the modern age, artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Corregio, Veronese, or Tintoretto all embarked on this topic. Between 1918 and1939, Polish artist Witold Hulewicz painted his unique expressionistic-cubist version of the old myth. Now, with Rafał, the myth gets entirely transformed again: it looses its erotic flavour, becoming a completely innocent game. A joke of some sort, rather than a story being told in any serious terms. The eroticism has faded away, its place being taken by grotesque, though quite a lyrical one. Leda is naked indeed, and can be seen amidst some plants (the intercourse with Zeus took place by the river, where the god had spied on the queen), but the giant swan has been transformed into a rather small inflatable toy duck which you can float on water. Instead of exposing the fair and making bold impiously, he has become a sort of her loincloth.
Located a few dozen kilometres off Warsaw, Rafał’s house is his hermitage and an oasis of abundance in one. Surrounded with trees, it is located dozen yards away from the Wkra, a river that would sometimes, in the springtime, pay a visit to the locals’ doorsteps. The closeness of nature, its being so obtrusive and omnipresent, is the reason for why it has appeared on so many of his paintings. Rafał says he’s got enough of it and instead of walking in the woods, he would rather stay in the world of paintings. It is fairly easy to comprehend, although philistines may think that to make such a statement is ‘iconoclastic’.
Picasso, it is reported, was wont to say, ‘I paint things as I think of them, not as I perceive them.’ Watching the forests as portrayed by Rafał, one may consider him the one who has accomplished Picasso’s idea proving an intellectual nature of the act of painting. I am not certain, though, whether for Rafał, such colourist or compositional operations on forest landscapes should be deemed intellectual or intuition-based, yet this is perhaps of lesser importance as compared to excellent painting effects.
The scenery of a few of his paintings is an orchard, the one that surrounds his house. The earliest of those works were rather realistic. Apples would fall from the trees straight onto a rest-taking juggler or a musician.
But now, only one, straight and slender, tree has remained. There is no doubt about that the tree is one situated in the centre of the world, a tree of knowledge of good and evil. The one by which our heavenly history once ended, and earthly started. An earlier version of the painting, already by now neglected, the faces of both of the story heroes could still be seen. There is no snake; only some sheets of music, scattered around, add a unusual ambience to the scene. The last version has no music score or faces at all. And what is more, also our Forefather has disappeared, as the other pair of buttocks that can be seen from behind, is doubtless a woman’s one. There are no apples any more. They have turned into some pure-colour balls. They rotate around a circle, and astonishingly tempt you with a juggler’s rhythm. And, to make things even more disturbing, and to make the jugglery even more difficult, a woman’s breast has appeared where the sixth ball was supposed to be, hidden among leaves. It apparently waits for a juggler, or, strikingly enough, for some jugglery. Let us put it straight forward: there are still so may secrets in that paradise garden into which we have been introduced by a painter who knows well our conventional expectations and customs. Or perhaps, this is supposed to be some other, entirely new Paradise, where some other ‘chosen few’ may be found?
In 1908, Georges Braque painted his Landscape of Estaque, one of his most famous pictures, being one of the first Cubist works of all. Ochre blocks of houses get accumulated upwards, and there is a bending tree in the foreground. Rafał returns to this painting most frequently and willingly. This is one of the icons of Cubism and modern art in general. A compact vision of landscape. Another lesson to learn, after the one of Cézanne was completed. What is more, this is almost an exact continuation of it. Estaque, a Provençal town, is the same place where Paul Cézanne stayed painting continuously, at the time where France was losing to Prussia in the 1870-71 war. The father of modern art died only in 1906, whereas Braque came back to the very same place to start a new art again there, basing on Cézanne’s rule: ‘form your painted work according to cylinder, sphere, and cone’. Bearing those instructions in mind, Braque managed to reach further than that. And it was his paintings that inclined Louis Vauxcelles, a Paris-based art critic, to writing a book on ‘cubes’, that is, solids.
In a charade that is proposed by Rafał in his piece of painting, motifs from Landscape of Estaque, quite distinct as they are, get carefully mixed with a silhouette of a horse, flatly placed letters, and crystal-cut space of the canvass area. Add to it one more ‘dramaturgic’ move: the choice of colours. The contrasting pure colours are merely exploding out of the picture. The green reinforces the red, and so does the blue with the yellow.
Braque’s, and a year later, also Picasso’s, paintings were referred to as ‘cubist’. Painting with devotion his new technical forms, pieces of machinery, metal planes, screws, gears, cog-wheels, and pistons, Fernand Léger, was nicknamed a ‘tubist’. Rafał, who would not hide his interest in Léger’s work, has given us a twofold signal by having painted ‘Musician with a tuba’. The direct message is: I know how Léger painted, I know how to do it, and I’m just doing it. The secondary one, ironical as it were, consists in painting an instrument called tuba, and at the same time, recalling that slightly depreciating term that was used to describe the painter. Léger was one of the most influential avant-garde representatives, its faithful promoter, and an unusually popular personage in art. Somewhat forgotten today, for Rafał, he has remained one of the most important painters.
A painting by Fernand Léger was also a model for The painter and his model. However, if the two compositions were to be compared, it would appear that only the arrangements of hands and stripes on the painter’s shirt have remained there in common. The woman lifts up her arms whereas the man lowers them, but instead of a parrot, he holds a palette in his hand. A painter-oriented, atelier -like ambience of the painting makes the whole of it much more multi-layered, and interesting. There, we deal with another incarnation of an artistic myth.
But Rafał, as customary with him, has added up to the complex nature of the whole. He added some letters, music notes, the said palette, and filled the space in the deep background with paintings. Along the left edge, a row of tiny points is set. This is a visible edge of the canvas stretcher, one more confirmation of where we are. Another reminder of the exclusively painting-based origin of those paintings.
It was a love at first sight. Rafał fell in love with that black-and-white drawing by Léger, and decided to make a painting based on it. He added a relief-style background to it. A replica of a strange flower appears against it a few times (an artichoke?), held in a woman’s hand. Another difference is in the four fingers visible in the foreground. They have replaced the three fingers originally made by Léger in his drawing. Rafał admits he had to change this detail. It caused him most of the headache, that one barely visible detail. The three fingers looked like a fork. So, one more had to be added. Now, everything started looking as it should. The painting has become alive, and started living autonomously.
It may seem to be strange or astonishing that a painter should refer to another painter’s drawing as if it were his own sketch, and uses it to make his own painting on its basis. The truth, however, is that this is one of the most common practices applied in the world of art. Finding such quotations is one of the oldest, and most expected, tasks of the history of art. In this case, all appears simpler, and Rafał makes his inspiration plain. And one more thing may at the same time be avoided, which is so popular as regards investigations into early art. We do not have to subdivide one piece of painting into various authors. In large painting ateliers, it was a common and frequent practice that several pupils would work on one piece, the whole thing being then complemented by the grand master himself. Today, such puzzle works of art pose a challenge to art historians.
Spade ace is one of the most fascinating, and perhaps also most beautiful, Rafał’s paintings. A vertical format, so typical for Rafał and, as frequent with him, two figures: a woman and a man. He is wearing a green rhombuses-clad jacket, a bit of a circus artist, or a harlequin. This association is reconfirmed by the curtain being visible in the picture’s background. At the bottom, a fragment of a guitar outline is visible, which repeats the rhythm of a female figure’s slim waist at the foreground. The woman is naked, and only wears a pair of red stockings on her legs. An impulse for that was provided by a painting by August Macke. In the initial version, much has been left out of that piece: the man has a black garment and a hat, and there are traces of trees in the form of red-and-green strips. A woman who in the German painter’s picture was turned away, is positioned here front to the viewer, and dressed in red stockings. In the final version, the male figure has been completely changed, whereas the female was modified at the very beginning. The red stockings are an authentic piece of recollection: Rafał’s wife had once such a pair, and although not naked, she would traverse the garden, which the painter has carefully remembered. And there is the mysterious spade ace which you would not find in the Macke painting. It was there, however, in one of Georges Braque’s pictures, and it is from there that it has wandered to Rafał’s piece. As it may be thus seen, the origin of that painting, being simple and transparent as to composition, is unusually complex and diversified. Added to that is an ornament of dogs’ silhouettes, as visible at the left-hand side – so frequently to be met in Rafał’s paintings.
Ever since Rafał embarked on his new creative way, dogs or foxes have been the most frequently reappearing elements. Not infrequently would they become an autonomous topic of a painting, or, an ornamental sign being so characteristic to it. This element testifies to the artist’s enormous attachment to four-footed animals, dogs in particular. And although those dog figures are not of a portrait nature, they have been inspired by Rafał’s own black Alsatian. Not long ago, there were two of them really, and perhaps this is why they could fill the framed space so tightly.
By now, they have as if gained artistic independence. Rafał has painted two considerable-sized compositions with dogs appearing in them as the main characters. The river, a blue piece of canvas filled with a dog’s silhouette, is a reminiscence of the countryside life on the Wkra, one being closest to the reality. The dogs’ procession, rotating in the red, is an astonishing version of the famous Dance by Matisse, being deprived, however, of the greenery and people.
You can paint with whatever you like: pipes, post stamps, postcards or playing cards, candlesticks, pieces of oilcloth, stiff collars, wallpaper, newspaper, Guillaume Apollinaire reaffirmed in his Cubist Painters. And so, since 1991, first in Braque’s and then in Picasso’s paintings, elements of reality started appearing: letters painted with the use of templates, pieces of newspapers, packaging, etc. Collage was being born, and one more taboo was dying in art. Space – that largest one of cubist obsessions – was gaining a new dimension, and an astonishing one. Foundations for new artistic revolutions were being created.
Letters, so frequent an element in Rafał’s paintings, break up the picture’s unity, adding it more senses and meanings, and at the same time, giving the recipient an incentive for making extra effort while watching. They intrigue, and introduce you to the game. And then we try to make up an inscription using them, and read the message.