This article is an introduction to exhibition catalog "Plastic gesture in photography"
D & K Bieńkowski collection from Lodz
Photography Biennale, Stary Browar, Poznań - 2005 r.
Photography and Media in the Polish Avant-Garde and Neo-Avant-Garde. Historical Essays as Side-Notes to the Collection of the Bieńkowski Brothers
The exhibition of the photographic collection of the Bieńkowski brothers, unique and exceptional among other Polish private art collections, is an opportunity to have a look at Polish art of the 20th century from a broader historical perspective. The works of which it consists illustrate the presence of media images in contemporary culture and many key historical phenomena that make use of them, therefore we shall meet with various artistic attitudes and the problems they create. One characteristic feature of the works by the artists who are represented in this collection is the fact that they have always been something more than just the product of artistic photography in its most classic aspect. The works of those artists are an integral and essential part of modern art in Poland, as they are deeply rooted in it and grow out of it.
20th century art differs from the art of earlier periods primarily because it has introduced media images into the sphere of fine arts of which they have since become a permanent element. At first, i.e. in the first half of the century, this process involved photography and film, while in the last decades of the century it had to do with video and digital images. The introduction of media into 20th century art was the result of a process which lasted for a whole century without a break. Its beginnings may be traced back to the avant-garde art of the first four decades of the century; it was later continued within the neo-avant-garde tendency between the 1950s and 1970s. Artists who arrived on the post avant-garde scene in the last two decades of the past century took advantage of the effects of the changes which had taken place in the world of art during both earlier periods I have pointed out above. They have enriched this process by making their own discoveries and marking out new spheres of artistic exploration.
Polish artists participated in an original and creative way in all the phases of this process, which is extremely important for 20th century art. Their contribution to this sphere of art has been significant and unique, although it remains little known and underestimated.
Photography of the inter-war period in Poland, in spite of its specificity - which I will discuss below in detail - underwent the same changes that were transforming world photography at that time. The Polish avant-garde of the period was not particularly interested in photography. The photographic image was reached for relatively infrequently, both in theory and practice.
An example may be the art of Władysław Strzemiński. His deep and detailed constructivist theory which aimed, after all, to build a complex programme of modern visualization that could trangress traditional art, mentions photography only marginally.1 Polish artists were concerned with the problem of the autotelic nature of art much more than avant-garde artists abroad. True, it was stressed – by Strzemiński, among others - that pure art was just a laboratory in which artists should produce art that was supposed to serve “the organization of everyday life”, but the accomplishments of our avant-garde in this respect are incomparably more modest than its achievements in the world of pure plastic arts.
A characteristic feature of our art of the period - which also confirms the approach of our avant-garde towards photography as an artistic phenomenon - is the fact that among different usages of photography Polish artists favoured most of all the photo-montage and the photogram, in theory and practice. Both those techniques were closer to pure art than any other form of photography.2
One of the first representatives of the Polish avant-garde who both theoretically and practically took up the problem of the photographic image – or, speaking more broadly, of the media image - was Mieczysław Szczuka, a constructivist. At the beginning of the 1920s Szczuka was interested in painting, but later he devoted himself to applied forms of typography, photo-collages and photo-montages. He belonged to those few Polish avant-garde artists of the 1920s who became more closely interested in mechanical images, photography and film – especially in photo-collages and photo-montages. He used them to design book covers and typographic book make-ups, as well as in posters and leaflets. It is a pity that Szczuka, who died young, never realized an interesting script of an abstract film, based on dynamic animation and movement of simple geometrical forms, resembling films by Hans Richter or Viking Eggeling.
Mieczysław Berman was another artist who had been working on constructivist photo-montages in the second half of the 1920s – since 1927. His works resemble those of Szczuka and Laszló Moholy-Nagy. Their construction is always similar, clearly subordinated to the pattern of vertical and horizontal dividing lines. All such works by Berman also frugally make use of fragments of photographs placed against a white background. They depict industrial motifs, labour, building sites and constructions. In 1930 Berman abandoned his earlier easthetics and began to produce vicious satirical political photo-montages in John Heartfield’s style.
The approach of the Polish avant-garde to photography I have described above is also confirmed by the art of Karol Hiller, a painter, graphic artist and author of numerous photograms which he called heliographs. Hiller, who invented his own method of producing photograms, wanted to use it as a new graphic technique, not to broaden the potential of photography as such. In spite of such an approach to the photogram Hiller believed that photography was a source of inspiration for modern artists, although he never dwelled on this reflection further. “Looking at the mystery plays of matter, observed and noted in various branches of science and micrographics, it is difficult for a modern artist not to succumb to the desire to drag these phenomena into the sphere of conscious plastic treatment.”3 His method was different from the one of Man Ray or Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Hiller placed a drawing done in, let us say, white distemper, on some kind of transparent material, and then exposed the photographic paper through a specially treated plate. Sometimes he scratched the surface of the plate or allowed the paint to dry freely in order to “push matter in a predetermined direction.”4 In reference to Moholy-Nagy’s and Man Ray’s photograms Hiller wrote: “they evidently broadened the scale of values of monochromatic graphics [italics L.L.]. (…) But still the photogram has remained an experiment since the artists have not succeeded in overcoming the chiaroscuro of photography and because no new kind of reproductive graphic art has come into being as its result. Beside those technical imperfections it was probably most difficult to work in those numerous instances when chance entered the game, threatening the very essence of a photogram as a work of art.”5
Pure photography is a rather rare phenomenon in the history of the Polish avant-garde as it was always practiced on the side of other photographic or non-photographic forms of art. Therefore, the works of Aleksander Krzywobłocki and Janusz Maria Brzeski are unique examples of this type of photography pursued by our avant-garde. Most of them were produced in the 1930s.
Janusz Maria Brzeski, connected with the Cracow avant-garde, was one of the few Polish artists of the inter-war period who could be called a truly modern, versatile visual artist, active not only in the sphere of pure art but also in mass visual culture. Not counting series of photo-montages and photograms he also produced pure photographs, characterized by very modern composition. Brzeski used unconventional foreshortenings of perspective and took full advantage of the potential of photography as a visual medium. The form and subject matter of those works is typical for the so-called “new photography” of the period – urbanism, the reality of a big city seen fragmentarily and dynamically, in close-ups, clearly and precisely.
Kazimierz Podsadecki, a painter who closely collaborated with Brzeski, especially in the sphere of experimental film, produced photo-montages which are slightly different formally and in terms of imagery. They are dominated by motifs of modern civilization and can be contained by the poetics of constructivist photo-montages. In some of them formal solutions resemble the mechanics of dadaist and surrealist montages. Podsadecki’s photo-montages prove how many different poetics were followed by our avant-garde artists of the 1930s.
Franciszka and Stefan Themerson used media images in their art in a similar way. Their artistic output is both rich and varied, as it involved exploration of such territories as visual arts, literature, music and theatre. Among the problems that interested them one of the most significant was the question of the possibility of transferring meaning from one kind of art to another, in other words, of transferring meaning between such branches of art as fine arts, photography, film, literature and music. In the works of the Themersons the word, images and sounds entered various relations and were combined in a single work in various forms, like typographic book make-up, photo-montage, film, visual poetry or semantic opera.
The Themersons belonged to the second generation of the inter-war avant-garde active in the 1930s, which often combined various motifs that had appeared in avant-garde art of old. Their works, characterized by intellectual and formal discipline, as well as the fact that their authors turned their attention to new media in art (film and photography, among others) were typical for constructivism which was a very powerful trend in Polish art. However, the play of meanings and inclination towards poetry and metaphor which engaged rather the imagination than the mind brought the works of the Themersons closer to dadaist and surrealist poetics.
The Themersons explored mechanical images, film and photography. They wanted to create a new kind of vision using the images registered by means of a photographic and film camera. In their films the photographic and cinematographic means, used in a versatile and revealing way, served to create a total work of art which evoked a certain vision in the viewer’s mind. This vision was supposed to resemble a visual experience people have when they come into direct contact with Nature - and Nature’s continuous performances.
Stefan Themerson combined his interest in film with interest in photography. His photograms and photo-montages from the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s were actually visual experiments which he also used in his films. What he considered especially fascinating was the photogram, an image that appeared on photographic paper as the trace of the shadow of a given object without the use of the camera. In Themerson’s photograms two contradicting suggestions are combined: the suggestion of the concrete as the trace of an object and the suggestion of the abstract, presented as a not always clear image. This tension between the concrete and the abstract may be also found in many other works by the Themersons.
In most of their films in which they used photo-montages and photograms, photography and film combined in various ways.6 For example, using special film techniques the authors animated single images of their photo-montages and photograms. They later returned to some problems of their photo-montages and photograms, especially Stefan. As far as the photo-montages go, he was interested in the problem of the semantic function that the fragments of photographic images play in creating the literary content of the whole structure of the image.
Outstanding among the few examples of surrealist art in Poland in the inter-war period are the unique and original photographic works by Aleksander Krzywobłocki, an.architect and a member of the “Artes” group from Lwów. He produced both pure photography and photo-montages. When he became interested in pure photography – at the end of the 20s and at the break of the 30s – he conducted various visual experiments and searched for the possibilities of evoking new, unusual surrealist images. His photographs that came into being at that time usually depicted selected fragments of reality, but sometimes the author used some specially arranged objects which he photographed and framed in a very unusual way. This method made it possible for photography used in the most typical and simple way - as pure registration - to produce surprising images which differed from the pictures of the world that we see every day. Krzywobłocki’s photo-montages, produced from the end of the 20s until the beginning of the 50s, laid the foundations for more complicated visual structures and fed on the experience the artist gained when working on pure photographs. Most of Krzywobłocki’s photo-montages from the first half of the 1930s are full of symbolic, persistently reappearing motifs and bring to mind mysterious, oneiric visions.
A completely different kind of avant-garde photographic practice, both formally and from the point of view of the problems it tackled, was the photographic art of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz who was interested in many branches of art. At first, in his youth, photography was but a means he considered helpful when painting. Initially his photographs were mainly landscapes, but later Witkiewicz concentrated on photographic portrait studies. His photographic career, like his artistic career in general, may be divided into two periods, separated by the critical point of the First World War. Until 1914 his most original and unique photographic works had been portraits and very unusual self-portraits. Both the portraits and self-portraits of this period are characterized by their revealing form. They show the faces of the models in great detail, as if seen through a magnifying glass, in extreme close-ups and unusually narrow frames. The face of the model is revealed, as is also - in part - the model’s personality. Witkacy produced whole series of such portraits and self-portraits in order to find in them otherwise invisible, fascinating details of his own personality or the personality of the model.
However, Witkacy’s photographic search for the “unity in diversity” of his own personality conducted in the 1920s and 1930s was formally different than in the first period and based on another method. Using the purely mechanical means of creating photographic images, Witkacy produced series of photographs in which he himself plays various parts in front of the camera and dramatically searches for the “unity in diversity” of his own identity, putting on different masks. These photographs were not taken by Witkacy himself, but it was not important in this case. What really mattered was what the camera registered. Those pictures were the result of Witkacy’s continuous performance which he himself directed and in which he played. His photographic art of the period was also a specific laboratory in which Witkacy documented his multiplied identity, tragically trying to defend his individuality even at the cost of appearing funny or as having a split personality. Witkacy’s photographic experiences clearly bear a relation to his dramas and novels.
Witkacy ought to be called a pioneer of this specific usage of photography, if we recall certain works of neo-avant-garde art in which photography was used in a similar way in happenings, performances and body-art many years later, in the 1960s and 1970s.
In Poland after 1945 art of the media based on the photographic, cinematographic or video image was closely connected with those processes that took place in the world of other visual arts. In the initial phase, i.e. in the second half of the 1940s, photography became a part of those modern tendencies which started to take shape in Polish art after the war.
Works of the artists who were the followers of the modern approach also heralded the later achievements of neo-avant-garde art. Although those artists sympathized with the avant-garde and often referred to it in their works, their generation did not belong to the art of the past. Those young people wanted to create a modernity of their own, reaching into the past only for the sake of arguments, but not in order to look for direct inspirations or impulses that could feed their own art. They did not want to continue the avant-garde but only to refer to some of its achievements when necessary. What made them similar to the avant-garde was the incessant desire to experiment. They – like avant-garde artists – believed in the progress of art and often talked about it in connection with social progress and political engagement.
This Polish march towards modernity was accompanied by debates and programme discussions both within the photographic community and beyond. Those discussions were devoted mainly to the place photography was to occupy in modern art. Around 1947 the modern tendency in photography begins to take shape in opposition to pictorialism which had been strong in Poland before 1939 and came back just as strongly after 1945. Pictorialism based its aesthetics and form on close relations with fine arts conceived in a very traditional way and often reduced its works to the imitation of the formal effects of traditional works. At first the representatives of the modern tendency did not reject pictorialism openly.7 They agreed with it as to the place photography should occupy in art and as to the characteristics that made photography an art – that is why they stressed its similarity to plastic arts. However, the reasons that made them place photography among other arts were somewhat different from the assumptions of pictorialism. Modernists claimed that photography replaced fine arts in their function of representing the world and that the photographic image was “a documentary, objective image that registered life in its every detail, in the process of continuous change”.8
One of the most active members of the modern movement was Zbigniew Dłubak, who was beginning his artistic career at the time. Analyzing the situation of Polish photography of the period he noticed its isolation from other contemporary artistic phenomena. In his opinion, the return of photography into the sphere of art was to take place thanks to its documentary nature – “its attribute was loyalty and directness in relation to an object.”9 Dłubak suggested that photography should transgress “the naturalistic convention” and refer to “the hitherto unused expression of forms of objects and their associative values” in order to make reality “an artistic raw material in the full sense of the term”. 10
It was Zbigniew Dłubak who put the idea of modernity into practice in the most consistent and original way in this short period of the second half of the 1940s. Between 1947 and 1950 a very important series of Dłubak’s photographic works came into being. It lies at the foundations of his diverse activities as an artist who uses both painting and photographic methods and as an author of probing theoretical texts on art in photography. In his first long series of photographic works he was trying to transgress the kind of representation that was typical for photography. The photographs of the series may be divided into certain problematic groups according to the degree of legibility of their relation to everyday images of reality. The first group consists of the works in which the author turns his attention to the revealing extraordinariness of the images of the world as seen in common perception. Unusual images and foreshortenings of perspective that appear in those pictures are a part of our daily experience, but we do not take any notice of them. We do not see them because we are overwhelmed by the pressure of the convention of seeing, a convention shaped by our visual culture – by art and photography, among other factors. In this way an interesting quality of photography is revealed, namely that photography may depict what we look at, but what we do not see.
Works of the second group are photographs that present real objects in unusual situations and systems, sometimes also in extraordinary takes. The author puts together certain objects according to the relations between them which are far removed from reality. The objects are clearly legible and can be used practically – like ball-bearings, wires, spirals or bottles. The sets in which they are found, their arrangement and the context in which they appear change their meaning and deprive them of their practical functions. Putting together dissimilar objects in staged situations is, of course, an element of surrealist imagery. Dłubak’s works did not aim, however, at achieving a purely surrealist effect but at pointing to the metaphorical possibilities of photography that may be an instrument of influencing our imagination, an instrument which is sometimes more effective than a manually produced painting.
In the next two groups of works a photographic camera serves also to penetrate the real world which is inaccessible in common perception. The first of those groups consists mostly of images of matter, the world of objects seen in extreme, almost microscopic close-ups. The relation of those objects to everyday images is extremely lax here, although it is never completely broken.11 In spite of the fact that those photographs show us a fragment of reality, their imaginative possibilities are greater. Our mind cannot find any equivalents of those photographic images in the previously acquired visual knowledge, so it must refer to imagination.
The images of the real world described above may be treated in ways that can make them seem unreal. Such images make up the next group of works, produced with the help of macrophotography and modified with the use of special techniques (like pseudo-solarization). Their graphic character changes the original appearance of the objects. Those photographs are marked by a condensed, heavy form, disturbing mysteriousness and intriguing strangeness. They resemble dream images, freed from the rigours of logic in which commonplace situatiuons and ordinary objects present themselves in surprising configurations, sometimes with unusual clarity, transformed and strange. Like in a dream, our experience and knowledge of the real world are of little use when we try to interpret those photographs. Their form that comes close to abstraction makes us wander about in this world without certainty that the discoveries made in it are actually those that we were looking for.12
One of the most important signs of the changes that were taking place at the time in the world of art was the Exhibition of Modern Art in Cracow, opened in December of 1948. It was a collective manifestation that summed up the first stage of modernity in Polish art of the times of the Polish People’s Republic. Not only the representatives of modern art active before 1939 participated, but also numerous young modern artists, including photographers like Fortunata Obrąpalska, Zbigniew Dłubak, Edward Hartwig and Leonard Sempoliński. Beside paintings and sculptures, spatial installations and photographs were also shown at the exhibition. Alas, even at the break of 1949 any kind of art that did not respect the rules of socialist realism was excluded from public circulation for as long as the first half of the 1950s.
The first half of the 50s – not counting the time of the Second World War – was the darkest and most difficult period in Polish art of the 20th century. The totalitarian communist regime exercised full control over art and imposed the doctrine of socialist realism as the only tendency that reigned in the public sphere. Therefore all valuable and original art disappeared from the scene.
This situation changed only after the October transformations of 1956. In the years that followed the stormy middle of the 1950s decade, artists frequently experimented and tried to catch up with the still fragmentarily discovered modernity in world art and photography. Their works are a continuation of the search conducted by the modern neo-avant-garde tendency which had started to take shape in the previous period. Beside Zbigniew Dłubak its followers at this time were, among others, Marek Piasecki, Zdzisław Beksiński, Bronisław Schlabs, Jerzy Lewczyński, Stefan Wojnecki and Andrzej Pawłowski. We can distinguish a few different approaches in the art of those authors.
Dłubak, Pawłowski and Wojnecki represented – each in his own way – an analytical approach which concentrated not on the literary, anecdotic contents of the image or its purely formal, aesthetic effect, but on experimenting with those possibilities of imagery that are specific for photography.
In Dłubak’s case the above could be seen in his long series called Existences, produced between 1959 and 1966. It could be situated between his photographs from 1947-1950 and the works from the 1960s and 1970s that probed the problems of “the language of photography” and conducted an analysis of the medium itself. Existences seem to stand beyond the sphere of those transformations that later made the artist undertake extremely intellectual discourses on the essence of the media message. Those works are concrete and real, and therefore differ from Dłubak’s works from the 1940s, although they share a common, specific poetics. They are large-format photographs that show close-ups of intensely real objects, ordinary and banal, sometimes even ugly. This was not a sign of “little realism” or of an attempt at the aesthetization of banality or ugliness. Those works were the result of Dłubak’s continuous interest in and fascination with the photographic image of the objects’ materiality, their modest and unseen existences that escape our everyday perception. Moreover, an image of a photographically treated object shown in a large picture is not only its representation any more but becomes an object in itself.
On the other hand, Pawłowski and Wojnecki were interested mainly in the photographic image as such, in its physical, optical character, not in what the image represented. Pawłowski, who was then ceaselessly broadening the range of his visual research, reached also for a photographic and film image. What interested him was mainly the problem of light as the direct source of a media image. In its most reduced form this problem appeared in his photograms and in a film entitled Cineforms, 1956. Also Wojnecki was primarily interested in the physical, optical aspect of producing a photographic image. Although the visual forms of his “photographic transformations” from the second half of the 1950s sometimes resemble photograms (for example, those by Schlabs), their main problem is not a surprising and mysterious form or an aesthetic quality but rather “transformation”, a kind of manipulation that deprives the photographic image of its verism and univocality.
Other representatives of the modern tendency in Polish art of the second half of the 1950s, like Marek Piasecki, Zdzisław Beksiński, Bronisław Schlabs and Jerzy Lewczyński adopted a different aesthetic attitude. One of the common features of their works is the working of a metaphor that sometimes comes close to surrealist poetics. It is especially clear in the manipulations of objects in the photographs by Piasecki, Lewczyński or Beksiński. In the case of the works of those two latter artists the metaphor sometimes takes on a strongly expressive form. Another common feature of their works from this period, especially those of Piasecki and Schlabs, is the definitive rejection of the representation of an object in a photographic image. This can be seen especially in their photograms whose form comes close to informel painting, very popular in Poland in those days. This strong connection of those works with contemporary tendencies in Polish art of the period was the reason that from the aforementioned group of artists only Lewczyński remained loyal to photography. The others gave it up at the break of the 1960s and started painting.
In the 1960s those of the above-mentioned authors who continued their photographic search – Dłubak, Lewczyński and Wojnecki – evolved in the direction that carried them farther and farther away from conventional photography. Dłubak probed the problems connected with the objectivity of the photographic image, arriving at the end of the decade at “spatial photography” in his photographic installation called Iconosphere, (1967). Wojnecki explored the problems that broadened the technological aspect of the photographic process. He used cameras he himself constructed specially for that purpose. He registered not only real objects but also other images, like those that appear in the screens of oscilloscopes. Lewczyński, on the other hand, developed his works from the end of the previous decade, namely photographic sets consisting of a combination of a few large photographs. They, among other works, brought him closer to the new sphere of art, to “the archeology of photography” that fed on the use and transformation of somebody else’s, found and anonymous photographic images.
A new and important phenomenon of the 1960s was the activity of the Zero-61 Group. It was founded in 1961 by the students of Uniwersytet Mikołaja Kopernika [Mikołaj Kopernik University] in Toruń and stayed together until 1969. The founding members were Roman Chomicz, Czesław Kuchta, Lucjan Oczkowski, Józef Robakowski, Jerzy Wardak, Wiesław Wojczulanis. Later some of them left the group (Chomicz, Oczkowski, Wojczulanis), but new members joined it (Andrzej Różycki, Jan Siennik, Wojciech Bruszewski, Roman Dąbek, Michał Kokot and Antoni Mikołajczyk). Among the most active and longest-standing members, from the beginning till the end of the group, were Kuchta, Robakowski and Wardak, later Różycki, and in the last years of the group’s existence Bruszewski, Kokot and Mikołajczyk. These seven members formed the nucleus of the group. They have always been strongly motivated and determined. They wanted to realize their artistic plans in spite of the circumstances in which they found themselves. They were not interested in the external situation, in politics (like Gomułka’s reactionary politics after the “thaw” of 1956) or in the artistic situation of the times - they wanted to start from scratch, zero, hence the name of the group. In spite of the differences between the works of individual members, the group as a whole was a strongly integrated and artistically explicit phenomenon.
Their art has a few features in common. First of all, they adopted a specific attitude towards photography as a medium. They made use of it without paying attention to any models, traditions, aesthetics or authorities. Opposition towards past forms, conventions and rules made them experiment and search ceaselessly. Therefore, since they interfered with the image registered on the negative, their works were non-veristic and favoured narration based on metaphorical and symbolic poetics.
Another characteristic feature of the Zero-61 Group was the fact that their art from the beginning crossed various borderlines, combined genres and conventions and treated artistic techniques in unconventional ways. The members of the group produced artworks-objects, objects, assamblages, environments and installations. Their unconventional approach was shaped in the everyday struggle with photography and in the process of photographic experiments. They employed various methods and techniques leading to the production of hybrid works that transgressed traditional photography. Most of their typical works of this kind combined photography and real objects. They were shown at the first exhibition of the group and their production continued until the end of its activity. The climax of this tendency in their art was the last exhibition of the group, organized in an old, ruined smithy in Toruń, in 1969. The space of the smithy was annexed by the members of the group and became, along with the objects left behind in it, a part of a total artistic installation based on photographic images. The exhibition marked the end of the group’s activity and at the same time heralded new artistic phenomena of the next decade of the 1980s.
A similar omen that forecasted the problems of the next decade - and at the same time presented neo-avant-garde Polish photography of the 1960s - was another exhibition entitled Subjective Photography, which opened in Cracow in 1968. Almost all of the artists mentioned above participated in it.
The situation in the world of media art changes radically at the break of the 1970s. The beginning of the decade is marked by the following events: the Film Form Workshop is founded in Łódź in 1970, an exhibition entitled Searching Photographers opens in Warsaw in 1971 and a symposium called Wrocław 70 takes place in 1970. All these events were very important for Polish art of the 1970s, characterized by a very strong and gradually growing interest of the neo-avant-garde – both in theory and practice – in such media as photography, film and video. It would not have been possible without the achievements of the previous decade, that is, without the art of Dłubak, Pawłowski or Wojnecki on the one hand and the art of the members of the Zero-61 Group on the other. A wide range of problems the artists probed at this time formed a necessary and solid foundation for future exploration.
In Poland of the 1970s an autotelic tendency dominated, based on conceptual methods. Its main representatives were the members of the Film Form Workshop, Zbigniew Dłubak and a few artists from Wrocław (Zdzisław Jurkiewicz, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Andrzej Lachowicz). Their art was diverse. Some of them concentrated on the communicative aspect of images produced by photographic, film and video cameras. Those artists most eagerly adopted a quasi-scientific approach to art, both in theory and in practice. Within the circles of the FFW it was represented mainly by Ryszard Waśko and Wojciech Bruszewski, outside of the FFW by Zbigniew Dłubak. The latter based his theory on previous explorations of the features of the photographic image which he discussed as a certain visual structure that could be given various meanings. From this point of view the image may be treated as a kind of linguistic registration which is not always univocal. These problems were the result of Dłubak’s interest in “the language of photography”, in the relations between an object that is represented and representation as such. It could be seen most clearly in his series Tautologies from 1971. Also currently in his recent Asymmetry series we can observe a similar element of play with an image and its meanings; with what the photographic image shows and with what we can read from it, especially when what we see is not connected with our everyday experience.
This analysis of the media could also serve other purposes, like the maximum broadening of the sphere of visual art or the internal integration of the media and their combinations that could allow the artists to reject conventional uses of photography, film and video. Józef Robakowski explored these territories at the time in question, combining pure media analysis in his photographic, film or video works – like in a series of photographs Mechanical Registration (1976-1978) - with physiological and biological aspects of media registration, like in his film I’m Going (1973) or in a series of photographs called Three Angles (1975). This aspect of his art helped him to survive the crisis of the neo-avant-garde at the end of the 1970s when many artists previously interested in the media lost interest in them.
On the other hand, Robakowski’s interest in the “personal” relation between the artist, camera and an image turned out to be very helpful in the new stage of his career in the 1980s, when he exchanged a film camera for a video camera. This relation was the basis of most of his video works produced during the decade. A video camera often became a witness and a partner of the author’s personal, sometimes intimate confessions or an intermediary in the manifestations of his attitudes towards important contemporary problems.
The experiments Robakowski has consistently conducted since the founding of the Zero-61 Group and which he later developed in the times of the FFW, aiming at the broadening of the range of the use of media images, influenced his recent media art in a quite different way. He came to know artistic borderland in the past and this knowledge lets him cross those borderlines now. Works which he produced in the last decade, like the series Thermograms (1998-2002) or the series called Images of Assumptive Time (2002), although they are the result of the evolution of Robakowski’s media art, do not belong to it any more as they have come into being without the use of any kind of camera.
A fine example of equally interesting evolution of visual art, rooted in the activity of the Zero-61 Group and the FFW, is Antoni Mikołajczyk’s art. Experiments with paintings, photographs, films or video works which the author had started in the 1960s and continued in the next decade, made him concentrate at the time of the FFW on the problem of light, space and time. Experiments with various forms of representation were necessary to clear the field for future exploration, as Mikołajczyk wanted to move from the registration and analysis of the images of the real world in photography, film and video (Total Registration, 1974, photography; Description of Space, 1979, video-installation, performance) to light registrations that did not render images any more but the structure of the world and its space-time continuum relations (his first Records, 1979, and City Scores, 1980).
The next step that liberated light as the raw material of artworks like light installations, projections or performances was the direct result of Records and City Scores. These works to a certain degree seemed to be the reversals of the situations they presented. The light of the instrument that directly described space-time structures became the element that constituted the given artwork itself, along with its spatial dimension.
Another example of the evolution of media art that has been initiated in the 1970s and is being continued to this day is the art of Zygmunt Rytka. Its beginnings were analytical in character. Rytka attempted the analysis of photographic registration conceived as the reproduction of a concrete object in a series of pictures that showed only its fragments – like in the series Definition of a Place (1978). At the beginning of the 1980s Rytka – like Robakowski – starts to use a photographic and video camera to register his personal relation with the world. His attitude evolves at this time from analysis to analytical meditation. In a photographic series Continuity of Infinity, begun in 1984, Rytka tried to find a way to describe “the boundlessness of being and my own nothingness” in the face of the infinite universe which is continuous in its infinity. Photography here is the instrument of the registration of acts that take place in nature, so the author goes outdoors and to the Sisyphean trouble of counting objects that cannot be counted as a category. This kind of infinity is represented by stones pulled out of a mountain stream, stones that the author sets in order, numbers and puts together in dubious sets. Pulling them out of the stream he puts a momentary end to their disorderly migration which they are forced to perform, pushed by the powerful current of the mountain stream. Photography lets the artist register a momentary pattern of the stones and numbers which can be changed any minute. A stone, the symbol of immobility, serves to capture a momentary situation that can change any minute and whose only witnesses are the author and the camera. The image preserves both the results and the traces of the author’s efforts. Rytka engages in similar problems in Momentary objects (1989), in which the traces of his activities are recorded simultaneously on a video tape, a photograph and in a drawing. In his last series of installations called Dynamic Objects (work on which has begun in 2002), static photographs serve to describe a dynamic situation. The author attempts to create a different dynamic situation each time, a different dynamic object, when he physically combines individual photographs in the space of the gallery. In this way he connects three space-time continuums: the one registered in the photograph, the real one in the gallery and the imaginary one, existing in our minds. Paradoxically, the flat and static photographic image serves to render something that is dynamic and spatial.
Those last examples bring us to the subject of current media art, although their roots are buried deep in the past. It turns out that they stand out against the background of the blurry phenomena of the art of today as continually valuable because they remain original and authentic. Moreover, they are strong with the strength of the tradition in which they originate and with the strength that results from consistently and persistently continued artistic exploration.
Translation: Maciej Świerkocki
1 Only two texts by Strzemiński are devoted to this problem: his review of Jan Tschichold’s and Franz Roha’s Foto-Auge (“Europa”, 1930, vol. 7) and “Fotomontaż wynalazkiem polskim” (“Europa”, 1929, vol. 1).
2 Those two techniques are actually also the object of those very few theoretical comments that refer directly to photography – by Mieczysław Szczuka (Fotomontaż, “Blok”, 1924, vol. 8-9), Karol Hiller (Heliografika jako nowy rodzaj techniki graficznej, “Forma”, 1934, vol. 2) and Debora Vogel (Genealogia fotomontażu i jego możliwości, “Sygnały”, 1934, vol. 12).
3 K. Hiller, Heliografika jako nowy rodzaj techniki graficznej, „Forma”, 1934, vol. 2, pp. 22-23.
4 Ibidem, vol. 2, p. 23.
5 Ibidem, vol. 2, pp. 21-22.
6 Between 1931(30) – 1945 the Themersons produced seven films. Only three last of them have survived: Przygoda człowieka poczciwego/L’Aventure de un bon citoyen (1937), Calling Mr Smith/Appelant M. Smith (1943) and The Eye and the Earl/L’oiel et l’oreille (1944/45). All those films were authorial in character. The Themersons were their directors, scriptwriters, cinematographers, editors and authors of the decorations and props used on the set.
7 B. Urbanowicz, O nowy program fotografiki, “Świat Fotografii”, 1947, vol. 4-5, p. 2.
9 Z. Dłubak, Rozmyślania o fotografii, „Świat Fotografii”, 1948, vol. 10, p. 2.
11 As it was in the case of Karol Hiller’s heliographs which were produced manually on light-sensitive material in the 1930s, when an image mechanics similar to the surrealist one was at work.
12 Reference to dreams and night visions may be also noticed in some titles: Agony of Hunger Haunts at Night; I Suddenly Wake at Night Thinking of the Far South; Children Dream of Birds.
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