Interview by Wojciech Tuleya
You are not afraid of using painting methods rejected by artists over a hundred years ago? Aren’t you afraid then that someone may label you ‘realist’, or, ‘academic painter’?
For centuries, European art was a figurative art, whilst realism was but one of 19-century artistic trends, pretty uninteresting artistically, in any case. Such a realism is not what I’m keen on, as opposed to Realism understood as a platform of European art since Renaissance. Realism thus understood has never expired. It has perhaps stepped aside somehow, yet every once a while grand painters appear who are interested in the visible.
They are outsiders, those painters. Caillebotte was the one, for that matter, to be skipped out of books on impressionism, despite his formally appearing on displays together with impressionists, for his approach to the perspective issue was too rigorous.
True, but no-one could paint glasses with light thrown through any better than him. Or, take Fantin-Latour, for that matter. Well, it’s true that I’m keen on artists who worked ‘aside’, beyond the main currents in the art history. Whenever I travel – recently, we visited the south of France – I like paying visits to small provincial museums. There, you can find rooms entirely filled with works of local 18th- or 19th-century masters. They painted for their immediate milieus, for viewers or clients they knew well, I think. Genre scenes, souvenir portraits, fashionable interiors of the time, still-lives. Those names are not mentioned in any handbooks, but these often were excellent painters. I like spying on how they laid the paints, arranged their models, and what sort of taste they had.
But you spy on grand painters as well. A boy dressed in a tracksuit is stylised after a Bronzin portrait; your models are lighted up by Caravaggio’s light; your fiancée Ola is shown in a pose of a lady dating back to the Art Deco period, which triggers associations with portraits by Ludomir Ślendziński or Tamara de Lempicka.
There is also a whole group of German painters of the so-called ‘New Factuality’. My artistic programme is a little similar to their ideology. Their respect toward the ‘old’ art and its reliable methodology was enormous, while they lived in a modern world of the Weimar Republic, submerged in urban civilisation. They created astonishing paintings which as regards painting technique made reference to Cranach, but showed cabaret scenes, trams, airships, or transatlantic liners. In their portraits of medical doctors or journalists, one can see radio or telephone sets, that is, technical miracles of the time.
That was such a unique moment when each group of artists doubted in progress in art. An impressionist ephemeral quality, expressionist deformation, dadaist giggle – all that was irritating with its subjectivity. They wanted instead to create something stable, solid, objective. They believed they might succeed in chilling the melting pot of modern art. They reverted to realism and early art.
According to them, realism had several strong points. This was the most honest painting technique. Anyone, be it the proverbial man-in-the-street, would tell you whether s/he can see any errors in a picture, which means, whether a piece of painting is painted well.
You too are in search for models to follow in a distant past; you step backward to the Biedermeier, Dutch still-life, or even Renaissance.
Indeed, I discovered Mantegna for myself one day. I namely discovered what a wealth of detail is to be found there, in his paintings. They are dense with details tracing and discovering which in a painting requires an enormous effort. But those are no naturalist pictures, are they. Mantegna’s style doesn’t trigger any associations with some guts-like naturalism; it is, continuously, a Renaissance style. This taught me discovering detail in the reality. Earlier on, I saw hair as a stain, and then, after I discovered Mantegna, what happens is this: I can see a stain and each single hair separately as well! But I always try hard that these details be subject to a coherent whole.
You perhaps try hard, but each of us has a different measure device in his or her eye. To me, you are a far cry from that classical proportion. I think it’s not only me being struck with a passion for detail in your paintings. You do love, don’t you, surfaces, textures, shapes, structures, that entire world of your objects. And, one more thing: a Renaissance painter would immerse those objects in a cosmic unity – for instance, of a portrait with a landscape background. What you prefer is still-life; its individual elements, though subject to a sophisticated composition, seem to be experiencing their existence under a painful isolation. Is this a loneliness of objects?
Objects are not furnished with a psyche, are they. But art is frequently spoken of in such terms indeed. This is one of the ways in which people tend to simplify their own reading of art: a ‘psychologisation’. Whenever I hear an opinion that my still-lives are schizophrenic, I’m then willing to reply:
It’s me, the author, to take responsibility for any schizophrenic qualities of any still-life of mine.
Yes, this is the way people name what they feel about your paintings. They see cold interiors, disturbingly disordered perspective, and those ‘alienated’ objects. Interestingly, whatever is classical about your paintings, e.g. their compositional values, tends to escape one’s attention.
Composition is really very important to me. Some time ago, in the course of my studies, achieving a harmony within a painting seemed to me but a school task. All that elaborate balancing of solids and directions ... Later, however, this became something of an obsession. It seems to me that today, even if I’m desperate, I couldn’t possibly paint a picture in which objects are randomly scattered. I cannot see a ‘wild’ reality any more. What I can see is a reality ordered. And I don’t know whether it is my own order, or its own order, that immanent order of Nature. A golden division? All right, I can show you that in any landscape. Centricity, concentration spots appearing on their own, the world putting itself together into a composition, the Nature reproducing its own worked-out patterns. To me, nature is no chaotic; there is an order to it, with multiple patterns.
A Renaissance spirit, then?
A spirit of Renaissance, a spirit of classicism of any sort, a spirit of idealist currents discovering an order in nature. This does not require any effort, the world put itself together into compositions! I hold the Vasari treatise in high esteem. In my picture ‘A Talk’ [Rozmowa] the diagonals themselves appeared crossed on a hand of a figure, just the hand being most important in the picture overall. This was a significant painting in my development as an artist. I painted it for a whole winter season, or rather, meditated it over. I was painting, and meditating. This was a period when I was not in a hurry and devoted much time to each of my paintings. I think I was continuously learning. I was learning the method, studied the technology, and contemplated. Painting is not all about waving your brush. When I paint, I go into a sort of trance; several thoughts occur, my attention tensed, full control – but I am then carried floating by a subcutaneous rhythm of sorts. Not too fast, rather slow – a maestoso tempo, kind of. This has nothing in common with daily routine, or the pace dictated by the daily life. This is rather a rhythm of a slow, epic dream, a very solemn one.
Hence, the somnolent aura of your paintings? Do you hypnotise yourself with them too? What about the moonlight, then?
I do like moonlight, it favours me. I live in line with the moon calendar. Its cyclic nature is more distinct. I paint along the moon phases. I start painting a picture under the new moon, and complete it with the full moon. Under full moon period, the space gets sharpened, the air is different. But this happens also inside me. The senses become more active, the mind works better.
How about the seasons of the year, then?
Obviously paintings I paint in the winter differ from those I paint in the summer. This has to do with my working rhythm which has been established for several years now. The thing is that I spend the whole summertime in the countryside, at my family house. Then, in those summer paintings, some fruit appear along with cabbage, or whatever I may find in the garden. But I’m not sure whether winter is perhaps a more important season for me, a more fertile one. And it is then that those still-lives appear, with cold metal objects, or crystal vases. In winter, I always go to the town, to Warsaw. I start from hiring a new studio, which must be large, in one of those old houses, highly situated. When in a city, I like being high up there. Not only does it cut you off from everyday life but also guarantees a good light. I can close myself in such a studio and hardly go out for long weeks. Such venues are usually deprived of a telephone; I wouldn’t buy myself a mobile, ever. Breaking contacts with acquaintances, or even with the family, is not a problem for me. I think I’m not such a sociable person as I used to be. More and more frequently, I choose the company of objects. Using them, I arrange compositions which I then paint. I talk to objects, contemplate them, and fall in love with them. My impression is that my real life is there on a table where the still-life is deployed, there, among those objects. I have some barber’s bowls which I have painted many times. They trigger in me real waves of affection. I watch their being embedded in the air, their reflecting light. These details may replace the entire world for me.
The universe boiling down to the world of prosaic objects; painting with light – all that is as if extracted from an encyclopaedia, entry: “Lesser Dutch masters”.
Sounds elegant. Yet I consider myself a modern artist, whatever others may say. Let me perhaps tell you a tiny little story on eroticism of objects, and let us both approach it with a modern irony, shall we? Last winter, I bought at a marketplace a tin statuette of a ballet dancer. Rather an industrial product, Art Deco style, a cheap one indeed. I couldn’t help placing it among ordinary pots. Those were very absorbing sessions, that. Perverse, and magical. And you know, as I painted ‘her’, then I didn’t feel like enjoying a company of women. But practically any object carries strong emotion with it. Ordinary plates don’t get more neutral once I have started painting them, and when I place them on a round table which I keep specially for the purpose in my countryside atelier, then complete stories, arrangements, and systems emerge – some allegories, almost.
Your paintings are disturbing. But stories you tell of the circumstances in which they are made also sound disturbing. You could be described thus: an artist in love with objects, whose utmost ambition is to reflect the textures and proportions in a most faithful manner possible. The paintings you create are flat, metallic, glistening, as if coated with enamel. Even in portraits you cannot bring yourself to making any warm gesture. Your models are equally cold and neutral as your objects. As if your aim were to reify them. Hibernated people ...You should admit, shouldn’t you, that this would be a practically discouraging description. And now, I would like to confess to you what is the really astonishing element to me. You paint pictures which are intriguing indeed, triggering enormous emotion. How is this possible? A thorough craft is not sufficient for one to draw other people’s attention to himself or herself, to smite the spectator with ‘authenticism’. Do your paintings, then, disclose any human longings? Or, is it all just about a need for solidity, thoroughness, and order? Or perhaps, you have expressed the human dream of durability of existence? Or else, your art, longing for the past as it appears, reveals, in a pervert manner, the spirit of the time? Doesn’t it speak of some need to verify discoveries being made by our civilisation? A need for reverting to old values, a conservative attitude?
As I said earlier, I consider myself a modern artist. My paintings could not possibly be painted at any time or place. True, they appear somehow on a sidetrack. But this is due to my own decision. After all, I know exactly what is going on in our contemporary art. But I am not interested in transferring into art any hot topics making headlines, such are talked through for a month over a paint of beer, and then get forgotten for good. As an artist, I am not willing to react directly. I don’t want to frantically look for any ‘not-yet-hot’ topics just to be first to get the idea of adding my tiny little whack to whatever is topical, like ‘suffering animals’, ‘cosmetics corporations’, ‘the household’. My colleagues think hard whether they can use a projector in their works, or perhaps such a machine is already passé in terms of the present season.
Contemporary art annexes larger and larger territories. New issues, new techniques. And you, what you do is limiting yourself, closing up. Just portrait and still-life. Traditional oil painting, that’s all. Perfect indeed in terms of technique, but anachronistic, too intimate for pushing its way through the overwhelming noise; condemned to be read by an elite public. What is the source of such a self-restriction?
My intent is not to make art a political commentary. As an artist, I’m just fond of a certain particular subject-matter circle. Perhaps this means a self-limiting, but within this limited area of mine I am able to set forth as many goals as may satisfy me for my entire life. Artistic, methodological objectives, I mean. From the very beginning, I’ve been using a well-grounded canvas, good paints and brushes. My topics – still-life, portrait – prove ancient and everlasting. I only stare at my pots deployed on the table. Should I revolve around them with a camera? Make a movie about the cabbage getting rotten on the table? Obviously, I’m exaggerating, but all those things-going-in, investigating into processes, is outside my scope of interest. What I prefer is contemplating, drilling down those simple arrangements of mine ad infinitum. It may be that painting is a replacement of prayer to me. Perhaps through painting, I contemplate existence, and cannot help getting astonished at it. And perhaps this is why those compositions are so timeless, abstracted, though veristic. Eternal for some, and hibernated for others. But despite that, I should hope that in my paintings, there’s not only myself to be encrypted, but also the time in which I live. Not directly so, of course, and not on a foreground basis. I should then hope that those who will watch my paintings in a future, will have no problems with dating them. Therefore, I never specify any dates on my pictures. The world around me hurries forward. History is made every day. But art reached its perfect quality just at the outset, somewhere in Antiquity. It has no purpose in developing any further. Art has been, is, and shall be.