My thoughts a like Phoenix i rise,
I don’t give a fuck about your dreams tonight
Liroy (Polish rapper)
Marcin Zawicki paints.
Which is not at all obvious.
First of all, the meaning of the verb “to paint” is not at all obvious nowadays. The notion of what “painting” is or may still be today and what exactly a “painter” does is unfortunately becoming increasingly fuzzy. There is no discourse on painting. There are just better or worse paintings, whose quality, due to the lack of critical discourse, is usually determined by the market. Yet, in the present global political and economic crisis, even the market begins to be overstrained.
The latest projects dealing with painting in theoretical and practical terms, such as last year’s Berlin ABC art fair entitled “About Painting,” the conference “Thinking Through Painting” organised as part of it or “The Happy Fainting of Painting” exhibition and publishing project currently on in Berlin, all attempt to define the “dispositif” of painting. What is meant by that is not the analysis of the product of painting. The floor is taken by the entire network of connections around the act of painting, the question of what exactly this act means, which tradition it follows and by what it is determined – according to the definition of dispositif introduced in the 1970s by Michel Foucault: “What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogeneous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regultory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions – in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the [dispositif ]. The [dispositif ] itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.”¹
Naturally, we have been catching up with the theoretics of painting time and again since the very beginning of the death of this medium proclaimed by Malevich a hundred years ago. This process has greatly intensified during the last 30 years. Precisely: since the 1980s, when the rise of post-structuralist and post-modern discourse, headed by Michel Foucault’s discourse theory, challenged such concepts as “author” or “authenticity” which had seemed inextricably connected with painting. How can one talk about the “death of the author,” since the trace of his gesture is clearly visible on the canvas? And although we now know that this question is trivially naive, the whole modern theoretical force is still focused on undermining the legitimacy of this question, rather than moving forward and looking for historical connections and interdependencies responsible for the creation of certain painterly gestures and media gestures in general.
Meanwhile, the death of painting, regularly proclaimed in the course of the last 100 years, and its continuous revival, its death and its rebirth, are an incredibly important aspect in the discussion on painting and media in general. Painting, as the only medium of visual art – and the only medium in the entire history of culture – time and again dies like a phoenix in order to rise from its ashes. It cannot be said for certain why it is so. There are no attempts at answering this question either. Why exactly is this exceptional ambivalence, this exceptional strength and weakness at the same time, attributed to painting? Unfortunately, the theoretical discourse on painting which began in the 20th century did not go beyond that century. It did not search deeper. It did not ask about the historical determinants of this medium. Perhaps this may be related to the heritage of abstract ambitions of the early 20th century avant-garde, proclaiming total freedom as well as liberation from history and its figurative, and consequently limited, narration.
The theoretical discourse on painting has been, and continues to be, a modernist one. The 1990s, famous for its anti-painting character, have been described by Yve-Alain Bois in the following words: “Yet mourning has been the activity of painting throughout this century. ‘To be modern is to know that which is not possible anymore,’ Roland Barthes once wrote. But the work of mourning does not necessarily become pathological: the feeling of the end, after all, did produce a cogent history of painting, modernist painting, which we have probably been too prompt to bury.”²
But what could all this have in common with Marcin Zawicki’s painting?
More than would seem at first sight.
Marcin Zawicki paints and it is not at all obvious. It is not obvious also because painting is a medium with a complicated and long history, a difficult and complex medium, in itself excessively evocative of associations. However, Zawicki is not concerned with that. He is not concerned with the do’s and don’ts, not concerned with the modernist burden of the avant-garde and the fact, mentioned in the Bois quote above, that in order to be modern one should know that which is not possible anymore.
Zawicki ignores this limitation. He turns his back on the above-described modernist tradition. And this is precisely where his strength lies. This turn constitutes his painterly gesture. A gesture which begins to form part of the gap in the discourse on painting that formed 30 years ago. It wakes painting from its avant-garde slumber. This waking gesture proclaims the death and rebirth of painting at the same time. It waves aside the fact that painting is as it is. That it is a very old medium, that it uses an older gesture than the written language and that it is by no means limited to the 20th century tradition. Last year, Werner Herzog reminded us of it in his 3D film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The selfconscious visual medium of thought which uses a painterly gesture emerged as early as thirty thousand years ago. The Chauvet cave, accidentally discovered 18 years ago in the south of France, holds traces of paintings dating back almost thirty thousand years – so far, the oldest known painterly gestures.
From his here and now, Zawicki turns to the distant past. Although he does not go back thirty thousand years, his historical direction does not preclude such a move. Meanwhile, Zawicki casts a shaft of light on the 17th century, as if there he has found painterly solutions he is lacking here and now. The time of seemingly unrestricted affluence, absolutist lavishness and splendour of the church, as well as political persecutions and a lengthy war. These were all historical moments, whose radical tensions and contrasts and the resulting political needs surely seem familiar in our times also.
Zawicki scours the baroque tradition for motifs, which place his painterly gestures more precisely in the here and now. Still life, skulls, masks, royal insignia, luxurious earthly goods, jewellery, decorative dishes and everyday appliances. All of them accessories and attributes of distant times, which then manifested the need to express the passing of time and fading of all matter, the deep rupture between appearance and being, illusion and fact, spectacle and existence. All of them motifs ultimately degraded by 18th century enlightenment to the domain of popular culture.
Zawicki integrates these motifs with the modern time. Hence, his vanitas is an artificial one. Artificial not simply because it is purely painterly, created, exaggerated, spectacular, illusionist, impressive in its realism and copied from baroque paintings. No: Zawicki composes his still lives from lives already still, from artificial, paint-coated plastic trinkets in order to create a masterly study thereof. This study, in its best moments, is far from melancholy, since the artist does not capture the passing of life in his paintings in order to forcibly retain it. Zawicki’s
best painterly gestures are ironic: he captures the signs of life which had already been captured, popularised and locked in its artificiality. He knows anyway that there is no life in the things he portrays. He knows that the only element which is alive is the painting itself. The painterly study, the trace of a brush, does not bring life to these things in themselves, but rather to the historical and currently necessary way of thinking about them.
In his monograph to “The Happy Fainting of Painting,” the exhibition and publishing event mentioned at the beginning of this text, one of the top German gallery owners, Christian Nagel, wrote: “Those who claim to be so intelligent that they do not have to paint anymore […] do not really have anything left to offer following their break with painting. On the other hand, there are also those who continue to paint, 95 per cent of whom are irrelevant, since they do not understand anything about painting apart from the smell of paint. There is no discourse on painting, there are still only better or worse paintings. Finally, it is not the price which is decisive here, but the question of the tension between form and content.”³
- Michel Foucault, The Confession of the Flesh [interview, 1977], in Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings (ed. Colin Gordon), New York: Pantheon Books, 1980, p. 199.
- Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Massachusets: MIT Press, 1990, p. 243.
- Christian Nagel, Insert, contribution to the exhibition “The Happy Fainting of Painting. Between Image and Book: Compilation on Painting Today,” arranged by Hans-Jürgen Hafner & Gunter Reski, Zwinger Galerie, Berlin, 3.03–28.04.2012 (http://www.zwinger-galerie.de). Translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska.