Marta Smolińska A Fractured Image?
Remarks on Krzysztof’s Gliszczyński’s The Last Words of Christ on the Cross.
“Painting” is an object that can be divided, that can be broken, that can be separated.
Divided into pieces, as if fractured, is Krzysztof Gliszczy.ski’s painting “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” (1994). This work comes as both representative and uncommon for the artist: it is typical in its rhizome of lines and meaningful play between the visible and the invisible, and untypical because of the physical fracture of the rectangular painting into seven pieces, distanced from each other by actual surrounding space, which now becomes an immanent element of the image. The inclusion of empty space between the elements of the painting generates new meanings, opening new opportunities of semantic creation within a work of art, involving invisible, empty, or missing spaces. As pointed out by Peter Weibel, modernity’s fondness for void and absence could be traced back to the blank piece of paper of Mallarmé, who, having liberated letters and words, has also made way for the following liberation of forms and colours. The French symbolist poet emphasised the significance of blank space between the lines which was supposed to provide a frame woven of silence. It highlighted the potential of what is “in-between”, which had so far passed unnoticed and was not considered to be contributing to the poetic message. It is a similar case with painting understood as fenestra aperta: the wall and the surrounding space used to be nothing more than an invisible background. It was only the fracture of the picture into pieces and the inclusion of physical distance between the parts which bluntly exposed the space between the forms. At first glance, constructing a painting from separate elements or breaking it into pieces may seem a destructive gesture, yet in reality it is a step towards greater potential of a painting, making way for redefinition of its status under entirely new conditions. The painting opens fully to the context and increases its power to involve the viewer, who is challenged with an (in)complete structure. The visual configuration does no longer consist solely of physically existing forms, but also includes spaces between them which are at once absent and present, and fascinatingly active in their contribution to the whole. This is the case of “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross”, painted in encaustic on wood panel. The vertical rectangle of the picture frame, measuring 160 by 120 cm, appears to have broken into pieces, whose irregular shapes can be interpreted as a result of an obscure logic of tectonic movements, which must have taken place on the surface. When viewers face the painting, they confront the force which has blown the surface from the inside and fractured it into separate elements carrying the memory of the primary rectangular structure. The once established and fixed picture frame, now denied and questioned, shaky and unfirm, remains subjected to the pressure of energy radiating from the inside. The viewer’s eye is helplessly trying to unite the picture into a whole, to close the cracks and restore the traditional, conventional image, but it turns out impossible: the space has annexed the “in-between” and changed it into an active element of the structure. Individual fragments seem to be floating in the air, levitating in front of the wall, and the impression is increased by spatial arrangement – they do not form a coherent surface, as some of them retreat while the others come forward. The fracture exists both on the surface and in space, which significantly dynamizes the whole configuration and boosts the energy of space which “swells” inside the structure. Shadows cast on the wall, too, become immanent parts of the work, as they change even further the outline of the frame, which does not correspond with the actual edges of material forms at any point. “The visible exists inside the invisible; as a result, the invisible decides about what is happening inside the visible; the palpable leans insecurely on the
elusive and the impalpable.” The structure “develops” in front of the wall, and unlike traditional representation, fenestra aperta, it does not allow to be captured wholly or be fixed by sight. The elements and their spatial arrangement generate a tense situation, where the painting turns out to be a process, and not a static image. The other rejected conventions are perspective and mimetic illusion, the foundation of the art of paiting since Alberti had come with the definition. Instead of them, real space and actual shadows enter the stage, as they have a role in creating the final message of “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross”. The impression of depth arises on the basis of the actual arrangement of separate forms and the play of shadow and light, also belonging to the real world, and not on the basis of painterly illusion. The distinction of levels of optical depth is also supported by colour: blue monochrome enhances the impression of lightness and levity of particular forms in this spatial context. As usual in Gliszczy.ski’s art, the surface is not smooth and homo-geneous. It has traces of cuts which uncover what is hidden inside. Among ultramarine lines, the lightest ones stand out, creating a dense, complex network which dynamizes the picture and is particularly active as a non-mimetic vehicle of meaning. The network of lines stores memory of the movements of artist’s hands. He made the drawing with great expression, with firm hand. The configuration of the lines encourages the viewer’s eye to trace their direction, and therefore to skip the zones in-between, (in)visible in spatial crevices so that the fragments unite into a whole. However, the paradox lies in the fact that the structure of the linear network contributes, too, to the effect of fracture, overwhelming the viewer with its disorder, disorientation, and chaos. Moreover, the drawing has not come along as a result of applying paint onto a surface, but as a result of removing it and uncovering the bottom layer, which unexpectedly reveals new spheres, seducing one’s eye with its ambiguity: substance and mystery in one. The edges of the grooves appear tactile, and blue colour is active on the optical level. The arising tension – another one generated by the very structure of the image – does not allow for putting order into or taming the work according to the habits and categories stemming from the tradition of painting. The drawing’s tangled web is completed by lines running along the edges of the seven fragments, whose substantiality is therefore emphasised, so that the structure becomes even more complex. The thickness and light colour, after the quality of wood panel, provide contrast against the ethereal carved lines, which are blue on blue. The explicit presence of wood – the material vehicle for pigment with wax – identifies the picture as a material object, as if revealing that the nuanced play of colours and lines takes place on a substantial, palpable surface. The thickness of paint, due to the use of wax, amplifies the impression of palpability. Enrichened with marble dust, it gains a velvet quality, giving an illusion of softness. In this context, the painting appears as an incessantly pulsating and ever-changing situation, which, despite its substantiality, goes beyond the matter and launches the potential to create meaning. The very effect of fracture seems to be particularly exposed through the unconcealed rawness of wooden edges. The retained cut lines let the viewer take a glance under the skin of surface, suddenly devoid of coherence and expanse. Explicitly present light-coloured edges of seven wooden pieces form wedges penetrating the web of blue lines, triumphantly announcing the disturbance of their flow. Just like in case of the uncovering of successive layers of paint with a chisel, it is about indicating something primary to the present structure. The painting must have once been a whole, a wood panel covered with blue paint, which was later carved in, and, finally, broken. The visual form of the painting allows us to restore the sequence of creative stages and processes, which make for the history of the blue monochrome before and after being fractured into pieces. The painting has not been constructed of seven elements – it has come into being through the destruction inflicted on a solid, rectangular, coloured panel. The implication of such process in the very structure of the work adds a dramatic undertone, which, in spite of being related to destruction, leads us towards new opportunities concerning the presence of the painting rather than towards destruction. According to Siegfried Gohr, who has brought this aspect to light, the fracture may be understood as a strategy to enliven the fragments, and, consequently, the dialectic tension arises not between the whole and a fractured part, but on the basis of the destructive force which craves to create something new. This is exactly the case of Gliszczy.ski’s painting: the destructive force takes up the task of creating a new quality, and the sharpness and precision of the cut seem to support the energy of the fracture and the collective memory of the previously existing whole, inscribed in the pieces. Gliszczy.ski draws a map of cuts in preparatory sketches – the visual record of decision-making process of how to introduce the cracks into the painting’s grain so their effect be most accurate. The topography of the fracture was supposed to gain quality of iconic necessity: “All is necessary and purposeful just how it is and not any other way, unless everything was meant to be another way.“ Despite the irregularity of forms, the fractured whole gives an impression as if “tectonic movements” operating within were indispensable for the extension of painting’s ability to present the invisible. One of the sketches is marked by such a tearing of a piece of paper that the edges are fluffy; this concept was not realized: the effect of rough edges would probably dominate the whole composition and establish much too unequivocal relations. The chosen method of performing cuts and their network gives way to set up tensions and ambiguities which enable the painting to carry a meaning and optimally utilize the potential of the “in-between”, indeterminate and free of any dychotomy. The attempts recorded on sketches also apply to the breakage, shape and number of parts which would come along after the rectangle of the painting has been destroyed. In the final version, the forms are polygonal and similar in size. The element situated just under the geometric centre of the frame has the most elusive status: it is the only piece which does not contact the outward edges of the picture, remaining inside the structure, decidedly directed backwards, toward the wall, which boosts the expression of the fracture. Human eye, accustomed to perceiving most of all the so-called positive shapes, is forced here to break its habits, as it is challenged not only by the forms, but also by the crevices between them and the contained space. The outline of particular pieces influences the specific quality and shape of the “rifts”, while the activity of the space between appears to react to it and to decide about the spatial arrangement of the elements. This ambiguity leads us towards the fact that – as Far Eastern philosophy puts it – “he who looks, sees stones, but he who perceives, sees the space between the stones (…)”.
Those spaces between the parts possess the most iconic density, thanks to which the painting is able to indicate something which it is not by itself. “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” is a non-representative painting, rendering symbolic meaning not only not through figurativeness, but, first of all, on the basis of interactions and tensions between the visible and the invisible. The painting’s symbolic meaning does not manifest itself exclusively in confrontation with the title, but it turns on in the process of perception, when an active viewer takes part in the creation of the meaning: “What cannot be seen, plays (…) a more important role, becoming more than a silent partner: the main protagonist. Here, the work of art retreats and is replaced by an act of awareness, imagination, or a specific information.” The viewer integrates the semantics of the work of art in their own minds, and the process is stimulated by the arrangement of non-mimetic vehicles of the meaning, including space itself. The undertone of “The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross” resonates in the viewer’s mind in a non-verbal way and – despite the silence of the painting – in the emotional sphere, stimulated by the drama and expression existing in the (non)material structure of the broken work. The destruction, tensions and colour connote a kind of “build-up of meanings”: the breakage of the surface is analogous to the drama of Passion and the suffering of the crucified Body, while the colour blue evokes spirituality. The symbolics of religious painting wins a new formula, whose nature consists in such construction of the visual body of the painting that the phenomenological experience triggers an act of awareness in the viewer. The process has emotional quality as opposed to the deciphering of imagery encoded in traditional iconography. The act of perceiving of Gliszczy.ski’s painting cannot be translated into verbal narration, as it rather “develops” on the basis of memory, imagination, knowledge and visual sensitivity of the viewer. Each time, this perception appears to be more individual and unique than a perception of a traditional symbolic image. “In The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross”, each part being an equivalent for one of the Words, Gliszczy.ski – apart from joining contemporary trend which challenges traditional formula of symbolic religious painting – raises the question about the condition of the painting rejecting the post-Albertian convention for the sake of connections with real space. As often in his art, he believes – after José Ortega y Gasset – that “painting is something more than what has been painted on the canvas”. We can feel the passing of time and the work of memory, and the quasi-destructive gesture opens new horizons of painterly activity beyond mimetic illusion. The painting happens as a whole during an act of awareness in viewer’s mind. The fracture applies to the material vehicle of the painting, which, what a paradox, only contributes to the integrity of its message.
Note: All the quotations, except for the motto of the essay, have been secondarily translated for
Reader’s convenience and are not original wordings.
1 Motto: A statement from 1987; quoted after: Richard Shiff, Robert Storr, Arthur C. Danto,
Nancy Princenthal, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Robert Mangold, London-New York 2004, p. 176.
2 Peter Weibel, Das Bild nach dem letzten Bild, in: Das Bild nach dem letzten Bild / The Picture
After the Last Picture, hrsg. von Idem, Christian Meyer, Köln 1991, pp. 183-190.
3 Idem, Ära der Absenz, in: Ästhetik der Absenz. Bilder zwischen Anwesenheit und
Abwesenheit, hrsg. von. Ulrike Lehmann, Idem, München und Berlin 1994, p. 11.
4 Arnold Berleant, Re-thinking Aesthetics, Rogue Essays on Aesthetics and the Arts, Aldershot,
5 The notion of non-mimetic vehicles of meaning is taken after Meyer Schapiro: Meyer
Schapiro, On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art: Field and Vehicle Image Signs, in:
Semiotoca, 1 (1969), p. 223-42.
6 Siegfried Gohr, Zerrei‚en – Eine geschichtliche Betrachtung, in: Die Kunst des Zerrei‚ens, Red.
Idem und Gunda Luyken, Bonn 1998, p. 9.
7 Max Imdahl, Giotto, München 1981.
8 Ching-Yu Chang, Japo.skie poj.cie przestrzeni [‘Japanese comprehension of space’], transl. by
Dariusz Juru., w: Estetyka japo.ska. Antologia. Wymiary przestrzeni, Vol. 1, ed. by Krystyna
Wilkoszewska, Kraków 2001, p. 207.
9 Günter Wolfart, Das Schweigen des Bildes. Bemerkungen zum Verhältnis von philosophischer
Ästhetik und bildender Kunst, in: Was ist ein Bild?, hrsg. von Gottfried Boehm, Auflage 4,
München 2006, p. 179.
10 Lambert Wiesing, Artifizielle Präsenz. Studien zur Philosophie des Bildes, Frankfurt am Main
2005, p. 69.
11 Urszula Szulakowska justly compares Gliszczy.ski with Yves Klein. In the context of reflection
upon non-representative painting carrying a religious message, one could also mention Barnett
Newman and Mark Rothko.
12 Alfred Berleant, op. cit.