A shadow can have the force of illusion

Interview from Barbara Ziębicka’s 1998 book Najprostszą drogą. Rozmowy z artystami [The easiest route: Conversations with artists], published by Wydawnictwo Znak.

Do you feel like an academic?

Sławomir Karpowicz: Near the Art Academy Artist Retreat in Harenda, Zakopane, the locals call us ‘them academics’; I’ve heard the same word from people at Rynek Kleparski. However, the concept of being an academic is not necessarily connected to education. For me making installations and using non-traditional creative media can also be academic. To me academism is like being fossilised; it is a stalemate, as in chess, which influences form and content. The term ‘academism’ can be defined as not only the historical Academism of the 19th century but also the current Postconceptual or Postmodernist activity. In my opinion, all of modern art is formalistic. It is devoid of spirit or a metaphysical background. In this I see the greatest threat to contemporary art. Art is in crisis. It has begun to eat its own tail.

Ever since the war, Colourist art has been the doctrine of the Krakow Academy.

This is the second generation that teaches according to the Colourist school. Our academy is partially immersed in the Postcolourist trend. Today I’d call it ‘Romantic’. Before WW2 there were two trends. Constructivism arrived first from the East and then again from the West. Colourist art came directly from the West. Even now these two traditions seem to be binding: they are promoted, they have created their own didactics and they still persist. I am personally not fond of the fact that these two systems exist independently. There has been no creative conflict between them. Leon Chwistek tried to juxtapose both movements theoretically and practically, but… Nowadays I miss professors like Adam Marczyński or Jonasz Stern. The Academy would be more interesting if it was counterbalanced by Constructivists. Currently Romanticism and Postmodernism reign supreme, while the individual character of one’s studio is getting obscured. Yes, at the Faculty of Painting I miss a studio focused on Structuralism and Constructivism as well as others with a clear image. The undoubtedly great scholar Prof. Czesław Rzepiński, who spent his life continuing the tradition of the Kapists, once said to me, ‘You know, there is no modern art, there are only new people’.

I suppose that as regards art, you are tolerant.

Yes, I like situations when something intermediate can emerge out of two opposites, something of new quality. I appreciate an opportunity to see someone who is well-defined: I may like or dislike what they do, but this inspires me, it allows me to raise an objection. My tolerance is based on rational premises.

What do you find more important: the stage before beginning to paint or the painting process itself?

Both are important to me. However, when I have an important source of inspiration, the period of searching brings me much satisfaction. I am one of the painters who paint in the classical sense of the term and obtain their results in the classical sense also…

… do you mean simply on canvas?

I am a painter of adventure; on canvas and on the way a lot happens. Still, I do not let myself be seduced by a painting. (Sometimes the canvas just leads me places. I do not submit!) I could never understand Cybis and the ethos of a creator who is in torment all his life because he cannot make the perfect painting. I began to wonder: why did he paint if he was so tormented? This feeling of unbalance and unfulfillment would not suit me in my work. Artists paint in order to make at least several of their works complete (in their opinion). Let them have meaning. However, if the entire way is but resistance of the matter and, what I find inexplicable, making something valuable out of a struggle… Before beginning to work I know what I mean. Just recently I saw three paintings by Bonnard and they looked like they had just been finished. They had no patina, roughness, multiple layers or texture, but instead purity, freshness and clarity. That is something Cybis and others did not have. Few Kapists really understood the lesson given by Cézanne and Bonnard.

Is none of the Kapists worth being distinguished?

On the contrary. Czapski is, the least skilful one as regards finding artistic expression. But he dared distance himself from the Kapists and created his own painting. In my opinion, in the Kapist group the most creative person was Piotr Potworowski, though he used the French tradition. The best ones were those who took their own path. Others created this bizzare tradition of a painter’s imprisonment: Rudzka-Cybisowa, Cybis and Rzepiński. Perhaps they were convinced they were right by crowds of artistic Epigoni who were usually crushed. Those Epigoni had to have lots of strength in them to rebound. I often wonder why Cubism never made it in Poland. It did appear but only as a kind of styling. One needs to think whether Cubism is a closed movement. In my works I see an influence of Cubism: the construction of a painting, the issues of chiaroscuro and other complexities. My paintings are partly an attempt at a dialogue with this movement and thought.

Have you got a favourite painter who is representative of the movement?

Naturally. It’s Braque, and in Poland Tadeusz Makowski and Eugeniusz Żak.

For many years you were an assistant of Prof. Jan Szancenbach.

Yes. His teaching was intelligent, an artistic type of teaching good manners. His teaching at that time was watching his student carefully, highlighting his individuality and bringing its character to light. He did have his preferences when it came to colour… but he was not one to break people, he never forced anything on anyone. I continue this pedagogical tradition deliberately, since it is tested, the best one. One more thing: shaping the final effect in someone’s work at a painting was out of the question. I believe that there exists a continuation in passing on artistic experience.

For a year now you have had your own teaching studio.

Sometimes communication with students becomes a conflict, which is a tradition at the school. Even the way in which someone opposes the binding norms becomes traditional as time goes by. I definitely do not want to give my students my own mistakes. Teaching requires looking closer, seeing something that a student’s work still lacks. At times this is exhausting, but it is also inspiring. Still, there are more advantages to be found on both sides.

How does a still life painter feel in today’s complicated world?

I feel fine, because art is an individual thing. Everyone is different but if he or she can make an impression, whether by making still lives or in any other way, it seems to me it’s good. I do not claim that an individual outlook guarantees success, since much depends on the form, but individuality is of greatest value. I do not paint apples or pears for their aesthetics alone, not as a rule. That would be like the Kapists, or the Dutch, who paid tribute to an object solely by form. I, on the other hand, paint for a theatrum in which a group of strange objects meets on one plane. It is with pleasure that I select tin bowls and jugs, eggs, shells, pyramids and old bits and bobs. I treat objects in a metaphysical way. My intention is for my message, the expression of my paintings, to be metaphysical rather than merely aesthetic.

Grzegorz Bednarski, another painter from your generation, claims that art is form and nothing but form.

I think it’s not only form but also content. I am increasingly drawn by content, I am becoming more ‘literary’. Art is a meeting of two things, content and form, and then a painting can become a work of art. I put a lot of narration into the painting depicting a way of childhood, pat of a series dedicated to the memory of my Mother. I also included what I find connected to my fascination with Böcklin’s works. But I did not paint that alley only for the sake of its elusive beauty. That is at the same time a very particular road I walked along as a child and later, one that is very important in my life, filled with unease and hope. I wanted to include unease and hope in that painting.

What areas or places make you feel free?

The trouble with freedom! But freedom is a choice. If someone feels free, for the reason that they can choose so, that is some success. Ireneusz Iredyński said that there are two areas of freedom: art and love. (Though to be honest, he said so in round terms.) But a ‘free’ person – that doesn’t mean anything. There must be constant readiness to choose so, because one is not free forever. I think we’re enslaved even by our knowledge!

In your work you are interested in the shadow zone which ‘evokes atavistic fear and yet draws to itself with its mystery’. I am quoting your words from a catalogue.

Yes, this is my obsession. This comes from the fact that I like life very much, I really appreciate its beauty. And shadow is intriguing to me in both an artistic and a metaphysical sense. In the Bible first there was darkness or shadow and then light. I unconsciously yield to journeys into the dark, perhaps in order to see the light. I think a shadow can have the force of illusion, and it is like in painting: objects immersed in black lose form and original shape at some point. They acquire entirely new meanings. The issue of shadow appears only in the culture of the Mediterranean Region; it is absent elsewhere, for example in the East.

When will you begin to make black paintings?

I already have. Now I’m going back to light. There are borders that are not to be crossed, even in art. I think a painter sometimes discovers terrifying worlds, but I’m not sure he or she has the right to share that kind of experience with anyone.

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