The interview between Marcel Skierski and the artist, Jarosław Modzelewski, was one of the events surrounding A Country on the Vistula River exhibition on view in Ujazdowski Castle through 24th of April, 2022!

MS: Let us start with your inspirations. On the one hand, a professor of Academy – Stefan Gierowski, on the other – Andrzej Wróblewski and his art to which yours is compared to. To what extent these figures have really inspired you?

JM: I am not sure if one can call it inspirations. There is always some kind of space in which a person revolves, “feeds on” works of other artists. It is hard for me to trace what it looked like in the past exactly.

In my school years it was certainly Cézanne. Gaining first-time experience and knowing Janusz Petrykowski, who was preparing me for the Academy, heavily extended the areas of my inspirations. Yet, back in those days, Wróblewski and Gierowski were not figures. At the moment I started being interested in the Academy, Gierowski had grown famous. He was regarded as an acclaimed artist and recommended by artists close to me – mentors, such as Petrykowski. “Go to Gierowski – that is the best studio”, sounded the advice.

MS: What made Gierowski’s studio best? There is no way of telling which works of yours were inspired directly by him.

JM: I do not know if “inspiration” is the proper word in case of Gierowski…

MS: Let me paraphrase this. What did you gain, as an artist, thanks to Gierowski?

JM: The things we heard about this great studio.

MS: Why great?

JM: It was great because one could work on what is most important in painting. Simply put, we called it “good art”, a name that may sound funny for a description of the entire baggage of experience and the overall chemistry of the painting – the construction, the structure, one’s approach to colour etc. These were all very inaccurate terms. It was the very work at Gierowski’s that opened possibilities and made aware of the particulars. When first corrections came and the work on the painting started, I was gradually feeling more and more certain about my decision. Yet, there was no inspiration per se, these were always very substantive corrections about what is going on in the painting in relation to what one is looking at in reality. It was a studio based on work through observation. I liked the atmosphere, I did not feel any pressure nor incursion into my character or my painter’s nature. All focus was on what is going on in the painting, why certain decisions regarding colour and composition were taken. There was a mutual understanding with Gierowski and it worked. Of course attending studios means that you are overflown with new information, knowledge… It was less about travelling, because travelling was not simple, but occasional Dresden trips did happen. I also had an opportunity to go to London for two, three months back in my university days. That was when I experienced painting for the first time live. I verified the acquired information, for example: why Cézanne was fascinated by Poussin? I was looking at Poussin and trying to understand what it could be all about. Another huge discovery was William Turner, with the icon being next, also due to a trip (to Moscow and Bulgaria). At that moment, I was quite mature, a student going for the diploma, and the biggest influence for me was the icon as well as figurative painting. Gierowski, the abstract painter, never pushed anyone into anything, there was no attempt to do such a thing. What constituted the inspiration and the direction for an individual was a matter of said individual’s choice. Though he cared about those choices and wanted them to have some logic by themselves. Wróblewski emerged primarily because of notes, somewhere at the meeting point of this foundational work of Gierowski’s teachings and experiences with colleagues or life among relatives. A colleague of mine gave me handwritten notes with quite a lot of Wróblewski’s theoretical materials. I would read them and make discoveries.

MS: What was the most interesting thing about those notes? What do you remember? What was so gripping for the Academy student?

JM: I believe it had to do with the level of commitment, the zeal to treat the painting as a tool of transcendence. While I do not recall the notes themselves, the impression they made on me, I do. In particular, the profound dedication to the mission of painting, the worth of this tool and making art. I believe my colleagues and I were trying to organise something similar to a Self-Educating Group as we met the two, three, four of us and had some kind of discussions. These were the colleagues to have – one from Gierowski, the other from Dominik [prof. Tadeusz Dominik – author’s note] – they were more experienced and two years ahead of us at university. We were looking for some kind of engagement, not the social or ideological kind, but the one where the painting could recognise the world. We believed that the painting has its ways of giving a chance for a transition from the visible reality beyond, to invisible one. That is how I was inspired by Wróblewski. There were a couple of his paintings in museums, mostly the popular canvas, but they were few and far between.

MS: When talking about Wróblewski we will have to eventually mention the icon painting that shows something lying “beyond”. Have you found the equivalent of that in the Western European painting?

JM: I think that the icon is rather possessive. When it comes to the fascination with that kind of art, other options fade into the background, such as Western European, as they seem already recognised. One may like this or that, but this is a known territory. Sure, there is a chance you may discover something locally, and it happens all the time, but it is hard to be surprised by something. On the other hand, entering a different culture in which the icon becomes an intercessor between the divine entities and our reality is something that is especially striking and seems immensely engaging. Though all the time there is a sense that this is inaccessible. This world is formally codified to such an extent that either we have to adopt this language to become a nameless icon-maker or we can grab a little something for ourselves on the basis of the icon inspiration. Nowosielski’s example shows that it could be a source of inspiration, one can draw upon it, be close to it and, at the same time, make art functioning in a larger scope. In any case, as a theoretician, Nowosielski made this situation slightly different through what he wrote. He showed how the icon can radiate, so it was not about the orthodoxy here but the possibility of drawing from it and extending it. The icon was there somewhere, but somewhat out of reach because I was sure that I am not interested in being formally inspired by the icon. Rather, there was a need to realise, as well as make use of the fact, that the painting can be a crossing, something more than an artifact. So, it was certainly very romantic, mystical, an element that was very important to me in general. I viewed formal solutions as tools only. What painting should be, well, that kind of search could be done through the icon, although there was nonetheless something, a feeling of uneasiness…

MS: I am trying to get some names from you because in our journey into the past we reached Cèzanne and no further than that. With the exception of Poussin whose name was casually mentioned. It is my understanding that the sources of your painting should not be sought in Rennaisance or this way of thinking about the art – strictly rational, deliberately formal. Have you never been interested in such an approach as an artist?

JM: You may say that. As I already mentioned, in university we absorbed everything, a lot of things were discovered. One gains knowledge about many artists.

MS: You were not the one to study the paintings of the old masters with a piece of paper and a pencil?

JM: No, I was not, but in a sense I had such an experience as Janusz Petrykowski, a mentor of mine that was preparing me for the Academy, strongly insisted on using the old art and wanted us to copy it.

MS: Even before the university?

JM: Yes, I made these two lying figures – Dusk and Dawn – out of Michelangelo’s Tomb at Medici Chapel. It was a charcoal drawing, two or three meters long, that I was making bit by bit in my room as there was no place to do it differently. It was Petrykowski’s method to make such huge works anyway. Having too little space, I drew it one fragment at a time, moved the finished part and then proceeded with the work. I also made copies from Velàzquez, different things, mostly drawings. These were fantastic experiences, a little like confronting the old master’s craft, their formal language. I took tons of notes in London, I actually published them some time ago in the texts for our “Gruppa” magazine. I took notes in museums, galleries, jotted down reflections from my observations. Drawing inspiration from that great heritage was present, to a degree. However, there was no single fascination with something of particular significance, the fantastic. Some people had it – there was a colleague in our year who believed Leonardo da Vinci is the most important painter in the world. He painted his girlfriend’s portraits in Leonardo’s style and he did not care about anything else. That was a case of extreme you could observe there. In fact, tensions between the studios were high during my years of study. Studios were similar to schools: “those from Gierowski are this”, “those from Dominik are that”. For this reason, there were constant heated debates, even brawls, in the hallways or at the meetings of the science club.

MS: What were “those from Gierowski” like?

JM: Those from Gierowski must have been, I suspect, deprived of artistic zeal. We were very disciplined, had a rather rational approach to the painting. At Dominik’s or at Sienicki’s, that was just a bubble full of poetry above all and a lot of sensuality in painting as well as the approach to the paint, the texture. We used to be very emotional about these differences even though we liked each other very much and spent time together. The divisions those studios generated were very strong. I see that as a very good thing because we could review other opportunities, other concepts.

I think it is not a question of “the master or the inspiration” but rather “the figurative or the abstract image” which is important. In any case, it was a question “whether or not to paint”. It must be said that the late seventies, when, still being students, we were more aware, was the time of confrontation on the use of different tools, different media – it was all very uncouth, but took place nonetheless. Even in Gierkowski’s studio, colleagues who were one year older and were running Dziekanka Studio, stopped painting. Janusz Bałdyga was an absolute master for me, I was amazed by his canvas, I liked his ability to synthesise; I mean painting a model, he could be incredibly synthetic and precise. He was an ideal for me. Jerzy Onuch, who at one point stopped painting a model and focused solely on the backgrounds; he resigned from painting figures but his decisions were ideologically based. Or when Gierowski gave us tasks as a way to learn in his studio, for example “red-green”. Janusz Bałdyga, Jerzy Onuch, Łukasz Szajna would not paint any canvas, instead they would take various kinds of actions: Bałdyga would wear a red sweatshirt and pair of green trousers or Szajna would show a film. I guess they were consciously making their way to leave the painting and adopt other media.

MS: But you were not. What is more — the figurativeness…

JM: I was not, but we felt that the question about the painting was in the air. We could see that. We would go to Repasaż, Floksa or the very Dziekanka and something was happening there; it was a group of students connected to Lublin. There was also one community which was normally concentrated around Gierowski. He did not mind, really approved the use of various tools but with similar principles and values. He was always very open to that. Such things took place and Marek Sobczyk and I watched them happen. We were wondering – was the painting still efficient?

MS: Would you be a performer back then?

JM: You may say that.

MS: But you did not. Why?

JM: I think there are certain features of character that keep us “off the mainstream” and somehow guide us. We have this intuition that is always close at hand. A voice, saying: taking up photography or film – such attempts should not be made. However, the foundation of the painting that I created for myself was terribly strong, first of all. Secondly, I think because of my icon experience, it seemed to me there was a dimension, hidden in the reality, in the matter of the picture, but it was a reference to a different experience, other feeling. It must have been a strong conviction and kept me away from the possibility of using other media. Which does not mean they would not be suitable for the task.

MS: During the past interview with you, I made a note “the times of Inventive Dobromir”. I believe it is a term for 1990s critical art?

JM: I would not use that term for critical art specifically as there were things that might have moved someone, for whatever reason. Over time it is becoming more and more evident that it was a simple procedure, a kind of premeditation. It was a project. If we did a series of photos showing people without legs, or something similar, a kind of scheme, it would be obvious that the stir was underway. Inspiration is different – it is a type of premeditation of the use of shock which then becomes a mechanism, a vehicle for action. But this “Inventive Dobromir” rather refers to the post-critical wave. It is a well-known fact there is a spearhead, and then there is an entire herd of the followers. During the 1990s the change of camp took place en masse. I watched my friends who, making woven fabric or something else, suddenly began to waver and move on to what was well received in the exhibition spaces –the things “to display”. “Inventive Dobromir” worked on a principle according to which you had to knock yourself on the head, think hard, figure things out and something always came out of it. With variable outcomes, obviously. I do not claim that it is all worthless. Many things were very interesting and had their meaning, but in fact there was a craze for tinkering, especially with installations or spatial arrangements, of this and that.

MS: I am asking also because the mentioned art became a cannon. Step into a contemporary art gallery and you will see very little painting. Paradoxically, it can be said that post-art has dominated the world of art. Given this situation, how do you feel? Everything is “post-“ whereas you are “while” painting.

JM: It is hard to be bothered by this. I am not a overzealous receiver of everything that is shown these days. I simply carry on with my business as usual because the art mirrors the time that generates it, and there is no point in being offended by it or pursuing it. I guess there will not be any change there. I am in my own workspace, my own experience and this is my only foundation. I think I am lucky – thanks to experience with Gruppa and working with Marek – and, in my opinion, that makes us very much part of the extreme avant-garde. At the exhibition in Poznań [JAROSŁAW MODZELEWSKI, MAREK SOBCZYK TRYB ROBOCZY (SZOK) in SZOKART Gallery – author’s note], we had the feeling that it was an absolute breach. Generally speaking, these were old paintings, big formats from the 1990s, but displayed in the space of a classic commercial gallery it was an absolute breach. You will see nothing like this elsewhere, no chance. We fear it might be a bit self-righteous or something only few understand. It is about what is happening in the paintings as well. Not even the formats. The paintings we made this year, transcending the personal nature of the work, these are things not so easy to comprehend…

MS: That being said, do you sometimes feel frustrated by art criticism towards your works? Too superficial or, in your opinion, false?

JM: First of all, I do not think there are many reactions of that kind. I happened to read curious texts which occasionally phrased something I felt was more related mood, yet someone managed to encapsulate it in two or three sentences in such a way I would not have done it myself. You approach your own work differently, you do not think about a lot of things, you do not formulate them. We always have Jan Michalski or Marta Tarabuła “in store” – they have set a certain limit on analysis or entry into work. I do it myself, I have to admit, because when you make art, you do not formulate it.

MS: Isn’t that limiting?

JM: No, all I am trying to say is that I read some of Marta’s or Jan’s texts to remember things every so often – what I am doing at the moment or what is important in my works. I do not have all of that at the back of my head, but I use it, because it is solid wording and that is crucial to me. However, I am not particularly touched by this – whether it exists or not. Still, diving deeper into my paintings to understand them is not always successful. Although sometimes, there are sentences in reviews that make me curious, because a surprising side of me is presented. It happens.

MS: You are known for painting the reality, scenes from everyday life. How much of it is working with nature, observing and what part does the conceptual processing and studio work constitute?

JM: I think that a lion’s share is represented by paintings resulting from “sightings”. It is not a precise term as “sightings” are not like taking a photo: “click, we have it”. From time to time there are motifs that have to be caught by a camera as they are fleeting. Such an observation is always just a primary source. There are also paintings that you invent a little, you do it through memory, as in the case of “Images from Childhood” painted recently. Sources may vary. The “sighting” is what is closest to me. What is it? It is a start of a process. Sometimes the painting is already complete – all that has to be done is to sketch and paint. Very often it is just the beginning of the work, it must be submitted to different cleansing methods, synthesised, some redundancies are eliminated or a motif combined with another. This process is not direct, does not have studies of nature character.

MS: What is interesting about this “sighting” – emotional expression or formal staging of the scene, such as an interesting twist of the body?

JM: Again, it is not so clear-cut. Sometimes, there are observations which carry a huge aesthetic value – a specific colour or a clash of forms. That can be a point of departure. Often, this can be a gesture or an event. To a large extent, I look at it through my own paintings, as though in a feedback loop. You have this ideal painting in you, existing somewhere deep inside. Invisible, but influencing the way the world is perceived. Moments or states, that somewhat agree with the ideal, are drawn from this world. It could be a landscape, a figurative scene, a still life, it could be a number of things. Different scenarios can also occur. Back in the old studio, I used to not know what to paint – a frequent state – and decided to paint the studio I was sitting in at the time. I painted all four walls of the room. These were great paintings. I had fun painting everything which was in front of my eyes – a capot that hung there, a daughter’s picture, some old items such as a record player or dirty shoes – I was not interested in what I see. I just painted. Fantastic experience. This was the beginning of my tempera work, too. It turned out, that the way the paint worked enabled me to perfectly communicate the view of reality. In fact, the triviality of those observations, those motifs, did not prevent these paintings from being something more.

MS: And that can lead to allegations of formalism?

JM: By all means, it can.

MS: The content has no meaning?

JM: I think it is quite important how something is done. It forms a certain value that transcends the creation. Look at the group of the paintings that were observations from my workshop – there were objects, still life and nothing more. There is an armchair, a cup of coffee on the table, some paper figures or a piece of a saw. The prosaic things, and yet the way they were painted, what sort of light made its way into the painting and how it created this canvas – this was the means to transcend the pure visuals, the arrangement of motifs, painted things. I believe such things are inseparably bound in painting. The way you do something, what measures are used, they determine whether a painting is flat, underwhelming or it becomes something that had to be present in the world, had to come to life.

MS: In a way, you have just mentioned a creative method “What? With what?” developed with Marek Sobczyk. It is really a slightly codified painting formula, a kind of an exercise.

JM: Yes, it is formalism. The purpose of this table was strictly educational, anyway. We were working on plan of a painting studio for a future private university. The purpose of the table was to allocate tasks to students. One axis – “what?” and the other axis – “with what?”. What do you paint? What means do you use? Both axes had the same values and they generate incredible potential because what you paint, at the same time may be a medium that you use. As might be expected, headlong creations emerged from this table. But that was formalism indeed.

MS: How could you specify the term “creating the form with content”?

JM: Each of us treated that a bit differently.

MS: Because as an educational method, it served the professors more?

JM: Precisely, it served the authors, after all. On the “what?” axis there were the same elements as on the “with what?” axis. If there were some composition components – a frame, symmetry, contrast or a value – those were the tools, but they could also be a motif. Of course they were various puzzles, but what are paintings if not puzzles? There is no contradiction apart from the inspiration which forces a variety of efforts. The advantage of this graph is that it is infinite, you can expand it in all directions; this is what Marek did when he added the third dimension. Mutual questions derived from that table – I asked “what?” and Marek asked “with what?” totally randomly. Thus, there were many cases when I included my old paintings in the “what?”. Two jets that appeared in the picture were such an example, or something else entirely, these things happened.

MS: “Appeared” seems like too strong a word as there are no jets in “What? Two jets. With what? Technique and vegetation” painting.

JM: No jets, true. However, there were rough sketches that included them. For a long time, they were supposed to be there, it was the landscape that changed dramatically and rendered them obsolete in the visual layer.

MS: Thus, the visuals won over the concept?

JM: Over the holding onto the idea literally. If there is open sky, two jets can fit in there somewhere. In any case, those means derived from my observations regardless of the table.

The first edition of paintings made using “What? With what?” method was exhibited in Centre For Contemporary Art Laznia in Gdańsk, in 2001. I made a group of paintings that include, among others, depictions of church interiors – all of them have their explanation in “What? With what?” as the table had entries like “cult” or “culture”. It had a word “inspiration” as well. It is possible to juxtapose terrifying things and that can be a challenge for a painter. You may say that in the first edition, I was a bit rude for the table. I simply painted what I wanted and matched this “What? With what?” so it would fit. It was not impossible, it could be done. However, in the second edition [exhibition in CCA Laznia, Gdańsk "Tabela Co? Czym? [Polityka]”(2016) – author’s note] we took on these tasks to ourselves, they expanded the table. This element of a painter’s decision is strictly connected to what will be seen, to the source of the painting. Afterwards, what you use to paint influences whether the canvas turns one way or another.

MS: What you say about „What? With what?” method and the painting as a puzzle reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein. We spoke about this topic after the opening of the exhibition. At the start of your career, you were inspired by Heidegger and then by Wittgenstein.

JM: Well, I think these inspirations are not my number one. Heidegger began to appear somewhere in the texts – outside of the university. I had nothing to do with philosophy in a strict sense, of course, but his texts started to be there at some point. I remember a volume of his texts entitled “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” which for me was like a divine revelation. Although, I did not understand many things, obviously. But such are works of Heidegger – not understanding them is part of it. The feeling that something is there, almost visible around the corner… And the language, the obscure discourse – it made a huge impression on a layman like me back then.

MS: Was it the “esoteric” dimension of Heidegger’s works which seemed so appealing or was it something else? What do you remember about reading it? What did you find most inspiring?

JM: I think it was an opportunity to see the world we face – the world of objects, things, the material world – in a new and contemplative way. I believe it was like giving depth to a prosaic experience, to the materiality of the world – as naive as it may sound, I would put it like this. Again, these were the fascinations of a layman, the language that I did not know before.

MS: And was later work of Wittgenstein a matter of maturity? Philosophy is related to logic.

JM: It was my wife! As soon as I started reading books on analytical philosophy, I began to see Heidegger in a different light. It turned out, that it is possible to be profound, but differently. On the other hand, what I found most poignant in Heidegger’s works was his use of poetry. Thanks to him I found Friedrich Hölderlin or Rainer Rilke. And, suddenly, the wheel began to spin, engaged me and was important. That is how it happened.

MS: One cannot find your political or social commentary. Have you ever been tempted to become a mentor? It is really simple. All you have to do is to opt for one of the parties and, at a point, form the opinions.

JM: No, I have not. I have neither the aspiration nor skills to do so. Maybe because my educational experience confirmed my point of view, because as a university worker I was required to be present in various structures, faculty councils and similar elected bodies. There always comes a time when they choose you and say: “maybe you should be this or that”. I was offered a vice-dean and dean positions, or asked to run for a provost. I felt like it was not my cup of tea, I was not cut out for this kind of job. Too great of an emotional charge that could be present within me, too dangerous to have when performing the function. Generally, I had the feeling that making art absorbs me totally, it would be incompatible. At least I would not be able to make it compatible. Over time, you understand yourself more and more and I made myself sure that I will stay away from such matters. Once again we must look to Gruppa experience – it was like entering and facing the literally understood reaction to political and social reality. Once you went through that, your approach changed. You feel as if you have already been taught this life lesson…

MS: But the politics still concerns us. Now, there is a spectre of aggression from the East.

JM: Politicality is not present in what I do alone or with Marek – our exhibits often have “politics” in the title because the politicality is practically ubiquitous. It can manifest itself in various astonishing situations. Just like in 2014, during the Ukrainian crisis. I painted some canvas on the topic and now they convey something…

MS: Is there a plan for creating anything?

JM: Something is being created as we speak. Just today, I started a painting that concerns events happening now, though indirectly. Implicitly, as I mentioned, because it is through a 1950s relief I saw the other day. It was a very peculiar experience, I went there for an interview that I was supposed to tape on Chmielna street. I entered the building and there it was, over the door, a large relief of gypsum. It features two Soviet soldiers greeting the soldiers of the Polish People’s Army. A girl gives them a flower, or something like that. A typical scene from the years of “friendship”. That was a week after the Russkies’ invasion.

MS: History comes full circle?

JM: Yes, but it is nothing yet. I go upstairs and notice you can see the sculpture from the behind when you stand on the landing. It transforms into a theatre of shades, you cannot see the details, only the light from below. The same figures but simplified and somewhat mutated. It was a shock – the world gave me a motif, completely out of the blue. I knew I would paint it and I do so whenever there is time. It will be adequate for this ongoing event.

MS: A “final touch” of yours was when you stepped down and resigned from teaching at the Academy. Is there no longer any desire to pass on the knowledge?

JM: I was simply tired. I felt a little burned out and I was not so engaged anymore. I was not giving as much as I should have in this line of work. I noticed I was too detached. This is a rather demanding job, with each person being treated individually. I knew that I lost my ability to commit myself to this work, I also felt that there was an increasing distance between myself and younger generations. What these people do, what they look at, what is important to them is becoming stranger and stranger to me. I had a suspicion that I might become mean towards them. I did not want that. I always cared for the things “bouncing” in everyone’s heads to be recognised within certain framework that we learnt about. Still, I felt that it was difficult to bear for me and it led to my decision.

MS: But do young people still want to paint?

JM: Absolutely, yes. I actually sit on a jury for this contest in Poznań [“Nowy Obraz/Nowe Spojrzenie” – author’s note]. There should certainly be something to choose from (laughs)…

Marcel Skierski

Polski historyk sztuki, krytyk i kurator. Doktor nauk humanistycznych w zakresie historii sztuki. Zastępca Dyrektora ds. Programu w Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej Zamek Ujazdowski w Warszawie.
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