Małgorzata Czyńska in conversation with Katarzyna Karpowicz
You draw on the plane, I saw pictures from your recent trip to Spain. A drawing from the return flight to Poland even made it into this catalogue - the title, LH1113, is simply the flight number. Is this your way of dealing with boredom?
This is my way of taming the fear, of forgetting the danger.
Are you afraid of flying?
Very much so. For years, I would board planes as fearlessly as a bus or tram. I am from a family of pilots, having flown with my uncles since I was a child. I’m interested in it; I know that flying is safe. All was well until the plane I was on ran into turbulence in 2009 and had a forced landing in Frankfurt. There, they had us take off too quickly and we ran into further turbulence… All this happened after the Smolensk crash, which made us acutely aware that any flight could end tragically. For the first time I thought I wouldn’t get off the plane alive. The experience scarred me, although of course I try to rationalise it for myself, but still, the stress of flying doesn’t let go. And I’m a bit out of options, and because of my family in Spain, I have to get on a plane at least twice a year. I have recently found a way to deal with stress, I draw, I hide myself in drawing. I take paper and three transparent pencil cases with crayons and markers sorted by colour on the trip. Anyway, this method has previously allowed me to survive a time of serious illness, sitting for hours in hospital corridors, in waiting rooms for doctors’ offices. I could die of fear every day, or I could draw. I chose the latter.
Art is your refuge. Does it always help?
As I think about it now, it actually helps me and has always helped me. I drew all the time as a child, and not just for pleasure or fun. I was sitting alone in the house, waiting for my parents, and probably like any child I was worried when they would come back, or if they would come back. Instead of running into the street, or waiting for them on the stairs, I drew. It was in me, and I’m sure not just in me, that this is a collective childhood experience, the fear for your loved ones, for your own existence, for what will happen for that moment when you are left alone in a room.
Have you had anxieties about your career choice? Painting is a precarious way to make a living.
I had to accept the uncertainty inherent in this profession. As a child of painters, I had a very strong need for stability. I thought it was possible to apply a rational strategy, a strict daily rhythm, a discipline. I went into such a system in too extreme a way, which put a tight corset on me. I know at the time I needed this to reign in this uncertainty, to protect myself and my painting. I am twelve years out of university. For me, the first two years after graduation were a time of extracting myself from academia, shedding the professorial prescriptions, the moulds they tried to force me into, a kind of purification. The following years were a time of increased concentration, hard work, and a fight for survival, because you have to maintain yourself, your studio, your future paintings, you have to find your way in the art market, and when you do, you have to establish yourself. In art, you constantly have to reaffirm your existence, your style, your artistic choices. I’ve learnt, probably intuitively, that when things are bad, when things are awful, I don’t break down, I just try to get joy and strength from my work. And when success, praise and offers come along, I don’t gloat over them either, I just keep painting. I appreciate the comfort of the work I have now, but I also know – precisely because I come from a family of painters – what the glories and shadows of practising art are. Uncertainty will always be with me, but I will do it no matter what. What matters most is the process, not the end result, not the moment of success. Rather than celebrate with a bottle of champagne – which of course is nice for one evening, too – I’d be happier to have three or four canvases and an idea for new paintings. Painting is my home, my refuge, so whatever happens I go home. Faced with disaster, faced with the end of the world, I go to the studio, to paint.
Do you face the blank canvas with fear or hope?
Always with hope, with a willingness to work. In painting, I am fearless. A blank canvas, a blank sheet of paper awakens the five-year-old girl in me who is about to play. Of course, I feel a responsibility for the image, I have my limitations. Now that I’m doing a lot of work on paper again, I feel a kind of liberation, a change. Until recently, I took my paintings so seriously that I didn’t pay enough attention to my drawings. They’re created somewhat outside of the participation of consciousness. I never quite know what I’m going to draw, I make decisions on the fly; it’s never a chore.
Does the canvas impose greater rigour?
Definitely, because it’s a canvas, after all, because of the paints, and I always choose the good ones and the expensive, sophisticated colours. I don’t make sketches for a painting, I plan right on the canvas, the composition and the choice of colours must therefore be thought through. There is more freedom in the drawing. I’m freeing myself in drawing, giving myself more right to make mistakes. But I also spend a moment with a drawing, while I sometimes work on a painting for several months. However, I can see that slowly, something is breaking through in me, as if my way of thinking is shifting from the drawings to the paintings and that gives them something good. I am starting to treat paintings less definitively. I myself am curious to see what direction this will take me in, and I am prepared to take a chance.
You were a highly sensitive child. You are a highly sensitive woman, you are a highly sensitive artist. We’ve always talked a lot about the moodiness of your art, the reflectiveness, the metaphysical, and so on. Now there’s a lot of anxiety, even horror in it. Apocalyptic landscapes, fear in the eyes, loneliness.
Two years of the pandemic, war, personal experiences, leave a mark. I deal with difficult subjects, with darkness, but I paint them in my own way, without bluntness. There are, after all, Hitchcock horror films and B-grade horror films. Aesthetics determine my art. I painted the operations, but I didn’t go into the organic, I didn’t dig in the wound. In my case, something dangerous or painful can look nice and sweet on the surface.
Kasia, do you believe in happy endings?
I still believe in happy endings because my life is one big happy ending after disasters. I know, the world has gone crazy: we face anxiety every day because of the war in Ukraine, we are weighed down by the vision of climate catastrophe, we fear for our material existence, and yet I believe deeply, in light, I believe in art.
Kraków, 31 October 2022