Between the station, the church and the market

Sylwia Bielecka Interview by Sylwia Bielecka

You can no longer go anywhere much from the large Polish Railway station – Intercity and international trains bypass Częstochowa. For several years there was no cinema. Someone closed down the old one, promised a new, bigger and better one, but didn’t keep the promise. The one and only tram line was given the numbers 1 and 2 by some Municipal City Transport executive with a sense of humour. Not long ago there were 300 thousand inhabitants, now there are fifty thousand less. People flee to Cracow, Warsaw, Poznań. Because this is provincial.

Jacek Łydżba shows us around his places – ordinary and lacklustre; he discovers a charm in their ugliness and tackiness.

Photographs by Wojciech Prażmowski

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Do you like Częstochowa?

I love it. It inspires me. I like the people here and the places, even the ugly ones, because they make my imagination work – I think of how beautiful they might be. Like for example the Avenue, which used to be as pretty as the avenues of Paris, and now has lost all its lustre and is nightmarishly ugly. The Visual Arts Institute, where I work, is close to the Avenue, so I pop out for a coffee there every day. I wish the place was glamorous, swanky. There are a lot of young people who coming here to meet, to show off. Women in new dresses, in new shoes – it smells a bit like Milan.

Częstochowa is unusual in that it was not planned as a city; if it weren’t for Jasna Góra, it wouldn’t be there at all. 650 years ago the monastery was built on a hill, settlements started springing up around it, small villages merged into larger ones – and that’s how Częstochowa came to be, out of a jigsaw puzzle like that. The architecture is small-town and so is the atmosphere – I like that.

You keep repeating that Częstochowa is a provincial town. Life revolves between the station, the church and the market. What’s there for an artist?

Towns are made by the people who live there, and Częstochowa is full of people who are interested in art. They studied in Cracow or Warsaw, they’re twenty-something, with great ideas which they try to put into practice. New galleries spring up. The atmosphere of the town itself is also important – the surroundings, the architecture. To me, the most important place is of course Jasna Góra. The monastery, the ramparts, the winding streets. People crowding around. Different languages. The services, processions, mysteries held here are a fascinating spectacle. Jasna Góra has inspired me many times, but I’ve never painted the monastery itself. Others have done it already. It is my dream to have the place restored to its earlier character, so that it would look like in old prints, like in photographs from the beginning of the 20th century. Jasna Góra used to dominate the whole area. It should be like that again.

Around the monastery, architecture form the awful Gierek times: the repulsive concrete cuboid shops, public toilets, ice cream booths. In the kiosks selling devotional objects – plastic figures of Our Lady lit with little light bulbs, toy guns. Here it is market day 365 days a year.

The Old Marketplace, once the centre of Częstochowa, is surrounded by age-old tenement houses on three sides. The fourth side is occupied by the huge, ugly, brownish-grey “Puchatek” department store. But Łydżba stubbornly insists on noticing only beautiful things: hawthorns blossoming in the Armia Krajowa Avenue, chestnuts in Jasnogórski Park. By the exit of Targowa street there is an old inn, said to have been built at the beginning of the 17th century. It’s a pity its style was lost in numerous subsequent alterations. In Graniczna street there is no paving or cobblestones, so every spring thaw turns it into a little swamp – it must have looked pretty much the same a hundred years ago. In Siedem Kamienic street at number 21 there’s an angel standing on a pedestal; the shabby façade is crowned with wonderful mascarons.

See? It’s enough to look up, or inside.

You grew up in this town. Is all this dear to you?

Affection for the whole town developed over time. I was eight years old when we moved here from the nearby village of Włoszczowa with my parents and sister. There, in the countryside, there had been a house, a garden, friends, and here – a ten-storey block in a grey housing estate where trees would not grow. I didn’t like the place. What was there to like? Trams creaked and squealed, the only place to play ball was a sandpit, some maniacs kept setting fire to rubbish chutes so the fire brigade had to come again and again. Dozens of rats lived in the rubbish chutes. They were not dangerous, as they had plenty to eat. Fortunately, father soon started building a house in Kiedrzyń. There were fields there, hothouses. Where the Real supermarket stands now, there was an orchard, apple trees grew. They belonged to a friend’s father. It was my secret garden, where I met with my friends – a perfect childhood memory.

You studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, you lived in the capital, you became familiar with the big city lifestyle. Why did you return to the provinces?

Thirty five people graduated in graphic arts in my year. They all stayed in Warsaw: they work for newspapers, for advertisers. I’m the only one who paints. None of them dared commit such an act of folly, but I took the risk and left. If I had stayed in Warsaw, I daresay I would have ended up in an advertising agency too. I even tried that kind of job while I was still studyingt and I found it was not for me. You know you’re doing things that are not good, but you have to do them – what a nightmare. I thought I was going to have a breakdown. I lasted a few months.

In Częstochowa the cost of living is lower. I had my own studio, the opportunity to work at the Academy, I could risk it. When you’re living in a big city, you have to pay more rent, higher bills, spend more on food. Mundane stuff.

Co what does your day in Częstochowa look like?

I go to the Academy to teach, then drop into the Romeo and Juliet cafe for coffee, or to the Babie Lato, where I can always meet friends and talk. I spend a lot of time in my studio; sometimes I paint for a few hours, sometimes all night. I have perfect conditions. I couldn’t stand it if someone watched me work; in the studio I have to be alone. Painting is a form of exhibitionism.

Łydżba paints women a lot – some of them beautiful and majestic as statues, in flowing dresses, others observed in intimate situations, in natural postures, lost, maybe hurt, maybe unhappy… A cheerleader, a uniformed policewoman, a paramedic, a girl in a pilot’s hat, a woman with a boa, a woman with a head on a platter, and Karolina, Jacek’s daughter, in a first Communion dress, looking like a fairy. All the women and girls in the paintings are real, met somewhere.

I like being with women. I like looking at their hair, their legs, hips, bellies. I like to observe all the changes – hairstyles, dresses, eye shadows. I like talking to women, charming them, turning their heads, influencing them. I’m hooked on femininity.

Paintings also feature bikes, beloved planes (the favourite one is the Dakota), ships (sailing ships, of course), fire, a dove, a Pegasus, a wolf, broccoli and male friends (but not homosexuals, explains Jacek). There are also the stencils the artist plays with, using them on paper torn off from billboards.

Say something about these pictures.

I’ve already said everything; I painted them and I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe there are some symbols hidden there, maybe the bike means something, or the rose, or the red colour, but that’s really not important to me. What is important is the whole, the painting.

Photographs by Wojciech Prażmowski

Born 1949 in Częstochowa. Distinguished Polish photographer. He graduated from the Secondary School of Forestry in 1968. Fascinated by photography since his twenties. 1972-74 studied at the Škola Vytvarnej Fotografie in Brno. Lecturer at the Łódź film school, and earlier also at  the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań. Member of ZPAF (Polish Association of Photographers) His works can be seen at the Art Museum in Łódź, the Zamek Ujazdowski Center for Modern Art in Warsaw, the National Museum in Warsaw, and MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) in New York.

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