Interview by Małgorzata Czyńska
- No painting of yours is ever without people. Is the desire to tell stories about people, relationships and emotions always a pretext to create a painting?
For me, people are the most interesting subject to observe and paint. It is people who create the atmosphere of a place. They bring life to the paintings, introducing motion and feelings. Quite often, people are the main pretext to create. For example, the relationships and emotions, the people’s characters in the books by Fyodor Dostoyevsky are absolutely fascinating. All his life, with great affection, Pierre Bonnard had been painting his wife, who appears in almost every single still life, both in interiors and landscapes. I have always drawn and painted people a lot – children and adults – both from nature and from imagination. I have tried painting without people – still lifes and landscapes, but it’s really difficult for me to tell a story without them.
- You’ve been using the same motifs for years now, adding a new one once in a while. Your paintings can be divided into series: sleeping people with animals, swimmers in pools, matadors, and recently – circus scenes: acrobats in the arena, behind-the-scene stories. Where does this subject matter come from?
I love animals, as they are beautiful and fascinating. It must be some kind of primeval fascination of a man, who has respect for predators. I sometimes dream about bears and big cats – they are tame, but I am not entirely sure they won’t attack me. I wonder what Jung would tell me about it. It may be the fear that I try to overcome, the apprehension about the end that will come for everyone – about death. An animal is dangerous, but it is gently asleep, while a man is afraid and yet somehow reconciled and trustfully nestled into something that may turn out painful. We live with the awareness of our mortality and we have no idea what will happen to us. We’ve got our ‘shadows’ that follow us – worries, trouble that we try to soothe because such is life. This fine wrestling with one’s own weaknesses is what really interests me.
- Then maybe your paintings of the circus are a metaphor for life?
The circus series is not about the circus, but about people and their relationships. These characters are constantly preparing themselves for something, practising, living in incessant wait. I am aware of the fact that whatever we do in life is due to someone who was here earlier and thanks to people who accompany us. Naturally, our continual drive for something, practising things is, above all, working on ourselves, but for the others, however, there would be no inspiration, no passing on traditions, no exchange of experience, let alone creating things together. The recurring motif of buttons and doing up ‘acrobat’s’ costume is worth noticing here – since the buttons are at the back, someone needs to help you do this.
Recently in a second-hand bookshop I came across an album of photographs by Jan Styczyński that showed circus people in the 70’s. The photos are truly exceptional and really appeal to me, as if Mr. Styczyński had similar thoughts about man that I have nowadays. He wrote in his foreword a few words about his work on the album and almost half of the text is about how he couldn’t do it right, about the technical difficulties he had, and about problems with capturing the essence of the circus. And today, who would be so effusive about their trouble in creative work? And yet it is natural and needed. Struggling, searching, testing, failing and then finally a triumphant moment of victory, understanding, fulfilment – this is a never-ending story.
- And you are also fascinated by matadors in their dance of death.
They are so handsome, toned, beautifully-dressed. Cruel artists in love with their art. And they completely lack self-reflection – they listen to the applause and experience their triumph, which is the death of a furious, terrified and suffering animal. Recently I have been listening to a Spanish band called Migala. Their music fits matadors perfectly.
- And how did you come up with the idea of painting swimming pools?
These are the stories about myself. I have been swimming since I was five, almost regularly. Each swimming pool has a different atmosphere and tells a different story. I have never painted swimming pools from photos, they all come from my imagination, memories, ambitions and dreams.
- These are not closed series – you go back to them. What was first?
At first I used to draw and paint a lot – everything that got my interest. And it was a long time ago, even before my primary school. I had a lot of time and my favourite activity was to sit over a blank sheet of paper with my paints, crayons, ink and markers, and to ‘create worlds’. I would crowd the paper with children and their games, animals (especially humanised cats), cross-sections of houses where families of cats used to live, mothers with infants in prams, gymnasts, swimmers and many, many others that would be close to me. Later, already as a teenager, I would spend most of my spare time at my desk with a similar painting or drawing set. I used to sketch a lot from nature, but I also made up stories out of my imagination. It was then that I experienced the illness and death of my beloved Dad – Sławomir Karpowicz, and a sheet of paper and paints were my rescue. The swimming pool had become an obsession that I grew with painting and swimming. I found my solace in water. Regular rebounding off the walls of the swimming pool was like a mantra to me. Apnoea, breathing out, breathing, the rhythm of arms and legs, a flight over the pool’s bottom. Cool water enveloping a fevered body. I wouldn’t go to the swimming pool – I would paint it. I tried to paint not just the swimming pool itself and the swimmer, but the essence of swimming – the thing that I missed while thinking about a swimming pool. My life has always been connected with painting. When something grabbed my attention, when I experienced, read or saw something, or when I met someone interesting, in a kind of subconscious way I would transfer it to paper or canvas. The series I paint are inseparably connected with me. I sometimes return to the themes I used to exploit earlier, but it only happens when I have this inner need to do so. Swimming pools, for instance, do come back to me all the time and it’s been like that for 10 years. Each time they are something else and sometimes I think of them as about self-portraits.
- Are you eager to paint children?
It may be because I had a truly great childhood, full of love and acceptance. I could unhurriedly discover the world on my own. I could draw a lot, listen to music, watch films and go to exhibitions. I was an oversensitive child, very emotional, serious, grim outside, but glad inside. A child experiences the world in a significantly more intense way; a child is constantly fascinated by something, enthusiastic, innocent and full of energy. Children are wise, sensitive, pretty – a very charming theme to paint. When painting a child, I recollect the memory of my childhood – I try to nurse the child inside me. One should always observe and wonder at the world, since it makes life really interesting.
- Since your childhood you were fated to become an artist. Your dad was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and your mum was a painter as well. Did you ever consider choosing a different career?
My also-a-painter sister, Joanna, my also-a-painter cousin Paulina, our Granddad was a painter and my uncles do paint as well. How would I have known there were any other professions? As a child I envied my parents for their oil paints and canvas – I did what I could to add something to their paintings. I would nick my elder sister’s unfinished paintings and finish them myself, pretending that I had painted them so nicely from scratch. I would ask my Dad what he was and when I found out that he was running that atelier at the Academy, I straightaway told him that I would first graduate an artistic secondary school, just like Joanna, and then I would come to his atelier to study there. These had been my plans when I was still in the first years of my primary school. I am fated to be a painter (thank God!), since I know nothing else. All my life I have been doing just this one thing – painting.
- Were you brought up in the spirit of bohemianism?
I was brought up in the atelier of Olga Boznańska. The first 12 years of my life I spent in the beautiful and large atelier at 21/7 Piłsudzkiego Street, which at Olga’s time was Wolska Street. On the one side we had the Planty Park and on the other one there was the Kościuszko Mound in the distance, surrounded by Wolski Forest. My Parents ran an open home. My Dad was famous for his cooking and charisma. Professor Szancenbach , Professor Bednarski, Adam Macedoński, Alosza Afdiejew and many other Kraków-based painters were frequent guests. We would also have numerous writers, e.g. Stanisław Czycz or Jan Stoberski. In the evenings plenty of interesting people would gather in our home, so I tried to be really quiet so as to be able to stay longer with them and listen to their conversations. My Mum would always make sure that the atmosphere of the la bohème was elegant, so I never had to face any negative consequences of my parents’ evening social life. I never felt neglected in any way like it often happens in bohemian circles. On the contrary, the guests would always have some small gifts for me. I still have porcelain cats that I got from Jan Stoberski. Sometimes I thought that several of these painters were my family, because I would see them so often and like them so much.
- Have you got your own masters?
I always look for new inspiration, but there are masters to whom I often return, e.g. Max Beckmann, a brilliant painter. Lately I was sitting in my atelier and looking at the album with his paintings and I read his biography profoundly and it led me to his ‘Letter to a Painter’. It’s a bit as if he were writing to me, all the wise words from the master that I have admired for years. I have seen numerous Beckmann paintings in the flesh and I love his self-portraits. Quite a few times I stood in the museum – tearful and envious, thinking about ‘how he was able to paint it’! My other important artists are Paula Moderson-Becker, El Greco, Kirchner, Bernard Buffet, Balthus, David Hockney, Giotto, Velazquez, Caravaggio, George Braque, Picasso, Michałowski, Nowosielski, Wróblewski, Potworowski, Dariusz Vasina and… many more.
- Your paintings are oneiric, fairytale. You attach importance to dreams and intuition.
I think it’s because I treat painting as a very personal and exceptionally ‘my own’ thing. I do not create paintings. I extract them out of myself.