There is currently an exhibition in Chorzów Museum of your painting "M.B.Cz.J.B." (1998) showing the Holy Mother of Christ as a Barbie doll. It is stirring a great deal of criticism amongst right wing politicians and their followers who refer to the painting as „blasphemous”. What is your attitude to this crtiticism?
More precisely, the painting you are referring to in your question is the property and a permanent element of the exhibition in Chorzów Museum. And under the museum’s auspices, Galeria Jednego Obrazu (One Painting Gallery) located centrally in Chorzów, is now showing a reproduction of this painting. So far, works by Malczewski, Nowosielski, Duda Gracz, all from the museum's collection, have been shown there. Accidentally, I have been the first living painter presented there, and so we could all discuss the painting. I was inspired to paint „M.B.Cz.J.B.” by a fragment of the book „History of Colour” by Maria Rzepińska where she wrote about how Velazquez – who usually did not use the colour blue at all – was made to paint „La Infanta Margarita in Blue Dress” using this pigment to render the huge area of the girl’s dress. I saw the original picture and I decided to paint much larger blue dress without using the blue pigment. A round with Diego, as it were. My painting is twice as big as Margaret, so I think I didn’t do that bad after all. Regarding the criticism, let me say that „M.B.Cz.J.B.” played in the last scene of „The Brothers” film which was aired in 1999 by Polish public TV, and more precisely by the Polish Television’s catholic division whose director at the time was a Jesuit. I could say that this ends this discussion; but it could just the same start a new discussion. Anyway, the painting is nothing compared to white, pink and blue Lourdes water bottles where the Holy Mother’s head is used as the stopper, don’t you think?
You are not afraid of using religious symbols showing Christ on the bus or smoking a cigarette. Do you believe that the artist has an unlimited freedom to operate with such symbols?
„Christ on the Bus” could be seen in Würzburgu Diocesan Musem which bought the painting in 1990. That was just after an exhibition in Thomas Morus Akademie in Bensberg which was opened by cardinal Maisner. One of the texts for the catalogue was written by cardinal Macharski. Should I prove further that the Pope is a Catholic? Jesus turned water into wine at Cana and it was never said that he didn’t drink that wine, so… Whoever is appalled by Christ in contemporary clothes should not have slept at church when their priest was preaching about constant presence of Christ in our world. Or they could go to any of the doctors: the one for the Eustachian tube or the one for the head. Anyone, not only the artist, has unlimited freedom of interpretation. Why should somebody else’s conscience put limits on my freedom? asks Paul of Tarsus (1 Cor, 10,29). And besides all of this – I consider some of the paintings you are asking about to be masterpieces. In effect, I believe that this is exactly the reason why they bring about such emotions.
Elements of religion intertwine in your paintings with elements of mythology, these scenes are often set in the contemporary reality. Are these two worlds (religion and mythology) only fantasy for you, are they both only a concept of some illusive dimension?
Religion - myth. These belong to metaphysical or spiritual space which for most people is indispensable. Because even though – in the name of fight against superstition and tradition – they throw everything away, after that they often run naked in the forest and hug trees to connect with the cosmic energy or something like that. Art has always belonged to the same category. There is nothing more hilarious than an artist para-scientist who hardly passed their final school exams and for shit money carries out „research projects” on which established institutes and centers spend loads of budgets; or artists and politically engaged publicists who always lose with kids producing memes for smartphones. The artist should be somewhat of a magus, a wirewalker balancing on the edge of the real and the elusive. Like Jimi Hendrix or Francis Bacon.
You have been distancing yourself from Malczewski lately, but his impact on your paintings are clearly visible, especially in the older pieces. Fantastic elements, symbolisms, the way you capture a character, frequent self-portraits. Is your current attitude to Malczewski the effect of too frequent comparisons?
From Rafał*? I am not distancing myself from him. Like him, I paint sometimes in the background of my paintings industrial Chorzów landscape. And I only have two self-portraits in the literal sense: „Self-Reflection in Christian Dior Mirror” and the last painting in the series „Eugenic Variations of Two Greens and English Red”. If I happen to be on any of my other canvases, that is only because one of my models did not make it on time, and I – like some film directors – can nicely play any part on my own painting. I showed my attitide to Rafał’s father in two paintings from the 80s: „In Jacek’s Mode” and „Polish Video”. On the former, I rendered myself in a theatrical bow. I take the bow before Jacek clothed in my jacket and playing in a particular way an over-inflated baloon. The background landscape and cow’s behind are painted beautifully, in Jacek’s mode, so to say.
Your work has evolved from symbolism to currently conceptual art. Has this been a natural process or was this change caused by a specific stimulus?
It may be too much to say that I am now a conceptual artist. I have just bent with the wire a big part of the exhibition dedicated to the Themersons. The show was called „Blow Up an Idea” and it was held last year in Płock Art Gallery. Apparently, people left the exhibition smiling. You know, I play with the conventions because I can paint practically anything and in any way without losing my own idiom. That is why every time I try to choose the most appropriate means for a given piece. My favourite childhood cartoon is „Enchanted Pencil”.
You do monumental work. A person rendered on your canvases is natural size or bigger. When watching your pieces, you could have an impression of participating in a theatrical play or performance. Is this the reason why you do such big formats of the works?
In 1970 when I was ten, I was sent on a trip to Warsaw as a reward for good grades. There, I saw the paintings by Matejko and Wróblewski. Even today, I can tell you exactly where which painting hung. They both painted natural or almost natural size characters. When a crowd of people come to an exhibition, like the 1000 people in Łódź Atlas Sztuki, they start to intertwine with the characters on the canvas. And if amongst the public there are my models, even I get confused like the Bride from Wyspiański’s „Wedding” or as if in "The Vicious Circle" by Jacek. It is called performative turn in art.
*Rafał Malczewski - son of symbolist painter Jacek Malczewski; also a painter, did mostly Polish mountain, small town and industrial landcapes in watercolour.
Interviewed exclusively for MAK Gallery by Michal Begiert