The Durability of Things
There is no history but that of the soul
A painting exists physically, but it is generally considered to be a different kind of object from others known to us from everyday experience, even if it represents the most ordinary things.
Although canvas and paints (...) belong to the world, the painter takes them out from among things: because he has chosen them and arranged them according to a secret(...). To us, three words are significant in this quotation: chose, arranged, secret. This sentence by the French philosopher and art connoisseur, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, may apply to many paintings, but particularly to the works of Łukasz Huculak. This still very young painter is extremely interested in still life. His very consistent artistic path makes him clearly and decidedly part of the tradition of that genre. He seems to be a continuer of the best traditions and the best works.
Still life is a genre of painting which joined the set of typical themes comparatively late, and that was mainly due to its most outstanding exponents. Let us just name Paul Cézanne here.
Cezanne painted still lives all his life, and all his explorations are reflected in them, wrote Charles Sterling, historian of this artistic genre. We know still lives painted in ancient times, in the Middle Ages and the renaissance, but the golden age of this art form is baroque. The first independent still life painted by an eminent artist is the work of Caravaggio and is currently to be found in the Ambrosiana in Milan. It represents a basket of ripe fruit. That was the first time when a renowned painter considered ordinary everyday objects worth painting. For many years to come this theme would still be considered inferior, easier to paint than, say, a biblical scene or a landscape. At the same time, the 17th century was a time when such representations were extremely popular. Most were painted in the Netherlands. Considerable specialization took place within the genre. Certain motifs were painted especially in certain cities: in Amsterdam and Haarlem, breakfasts were the hot theme; in the Hague, crabs, lobsters and fish; in Utrecht, flowers; in Leiden, books, hourglasses and skulls, which spoke most explicitly of transitoriness; although actually every still life expresses transitoriness, the fleetingness of the delights of this world.
This is not the place to present a history of the genre, however concise, but it is impossible to write about Huculak without mentioning it. Fascinated with still life, he perceives history of painting as if it was only the history of such pictures. One of the most famous paintings in history, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, is of particular significance for Łukasz Huculak. This is what he says about it:
Christianity’s greatest mystery is concealed in matter. The Last Supper, the flat stretch of the table, bread and wine. A bloodless sacrifice. Death, which taints matter, and God’s body, which hallows it. What is more, God does not only become human; during the Last Supper, he bestows his divinity on things. He puts the secret of eternal life in bread and wine, endowing them with the power to defeat time. Two things are important here: the hallowed power of the object and its significance to the painter, and the new perception - in this light - of Leonardo’s well-known masterpiece from the S. Maria delle Grazie monastery in Milan. We suddenly perceive a beautiful still life - the only one created by this artist: plates, glasses, fruit... not much, and yet a lot.
Łukasz Huculak carefully selects his predecessors in art. They are fairly easy to point out, especially as there aren’t all that many. Leonardo, Sanchez Cotan, Zurbaran, Vermeer, Chardin, Cézanne, Balthus, Morandi. The latter certainly had a great influence on the young painter’s concept of a painting. Giorgio Morandi’s method was so uniform and consistent, that it left virtually no room for accidents. All its components have been decoded and fully described in Matthew Gale’s essay written for the catalogue of the illustrious Italian’s exhibition in Paris and Rome. The first item was a white bottle. Why white? Because that’s how Morandi had painted it, and other simple objects along with it: boxes, jars, vases, bowls. The objects were always arranged in the same way, on the same shelf opposite the window. Then the drawing was made; after that, the colours, always light and toned-down; finally, the frame, which the artist liked to choose himself. Huculak probably didn’t realize that he works so similarly to his favourite painter. One difference is that on his pictures more paint is left - evidence of the great effort, the uncertain toil of representing the physiognomy of objects.
We can see the depth, the velvetiness, the softness, the hardness of objects. Even their smell, as Cézanne maintained.
Let us now return to the three words mentioned at the beginning as key to Lukasz Huculak’s art: chose, arranged, secret. The objects in his paintings are ordinary, everyday and simple. Their arrangement is more difficult to explain: why so few or many, and where does this light come from? It certainly is not the objective daylight of Morandi’s paintings; it seems more like a dark, internal light emanated by the painter, who shares it through his works. And this is where we reach the secret, the mysterious, difficult attraction of Huculak’s art. It is the light of the internal logic of the composition of the whole, and not an objective and impartial record. Sometimes the objects fade in uncertain darkness; another time they shine brightly, pushing mercilessly into the foreground. But there are no exalted and humbled here; the supreme aim is the good of the whole picture, not a study of and object. The objects are important as long as they are necessary, required by the composition or the dramaturgy.
Seeing something at close quarters is a tactile experience. What is that mysterious affinity between touch and sight focused on an object seen at close quarters? We shall not try to unveil that mystery here. Nearly 80 years ago Jose Ortega y Gasset noticed something singular about looking closely at a physical object. Huculak puts his chosen objects in front of our eyes in a very similar way to that described by Ortega. We see the painterly aspect, as he does not try to conceal it, but at the same time the objects have an unusual intensity about them. One would almost like to write: metaphysical, but the hand hesitates to use such a word in these times.
A small picture finished after a week’s work is an achievement. The landscape I’m sending you tormented me for a fortnight. (...) It seems to me that maybe I know something, but I either can not, or am afraid... This endemic inability to apply red, this turning colours inside out and back again ten times over - it’s driving me mad. I see colours which do not exist, and I don't see those that are there! This is not a quotation from Chardin, although perhaps it might be, but from Huculak’s private letter. We do not know Chardin’s letters; also, in contrast to Huculak, he did use red. Yet the two painters do have something in common. Let an eyewitness from Chardin’s times, a certain Mariette, speak:
From the first sketch to the last brushstroke, Chardin had to have the painted object in front of his eyes all the time, which made the work extremely slow and could have discouraged anyone but him. Organic objects spoil quickly - flowers fade, fruit and vegetables rot. Chardin had problems with that. Huculak has described his problems in the quoted letter. In his case, we can still hope that we are not so far removed from old art.
Łukasz Huculak does not only paint still life. Sometimes he takes up other subjects: landscapes, and especially cityscapes, which he seems to have a particular liking for. In his cities there are few people and life seems to be going on at a lazy, sleepy pace. Cars and buses are beginning to gain importance, and it all looks like not-so-distant past: the 1950s or 60s. When the background is a landscape proper, it is similar to Tuscany, with gentle rolling hills and cypresses. It seems to me that the present is not attractive to Huculak; that he would like to immediately place the painted scenes outside time, move them to the eternity and everlastingness of art. Ordinary time does not apply there; things happen in a different, more mysterious way. Maybe it is the same way which we have seen for several hundred years in Vermeer van Delft’s paintings: real scenes in real interiors, solid figures, only time seems to have no impact on them. The scenes and events we see in these pictures are not supposed to be subject to the ordinary flow of time, just like Vermeer’s “Girl Pouring Milk” in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum doesn’t. Completely focused on what she’s doing, she has kept at it for centuries and let us hope it will remain so forever. And let us also hope the same will happen to Łukasz Huculak’s paintings.
Notes and references
-  M. Merleau-Ponty, Prose of the world. Essays on speech
-  C. Sterling, Still Life from Antiquity to the 20th Century
-  Ł.Huculak, Thinking of Things, MA thesis, Wrocław Academy of Fine Arts, 2002
-  M. Gale Bouteille blanche, terre rouge, in : Morandi dans l’ecart du reel, Paris 2001
-  M. Merleau-Ponty, The Eye and the Mind. Essays on Painting
-  J. Ortega y Gasset The Dehumanization of Art and other essays
-  W.N. Łazariew, The Old Masters