Urszula Szulakowska

University of Leeds 2012

Iosis et leucosis

The paintings of Krzysztof Gliszczyński are concerned with the constitution of self-identity by means of the inter-action of personal memory with collective history. He employs the themes of time and history as evidenced in the processes of change, decay, death and re-birth. The materials of chemistry and the alchemical process of transmutation provide an allegorical structure for Gliszczyński’s working-practice which takes the form of a ritual. In his work since 2007 he has focused his reflections on time and material change through the creation of a series of self-portraits. In the making of these works he re-cycles the physical materials of his paintings, never permitting them to be entirely destroyed. He paints a surface, scrapes it back and collects the residues which are re-cycled and augmented with others in creating a new work. This procedure causes his materials to increase in mass and his paintings grow substantially larger. He regards his residues as being a volatile alchemical first matter that causes a transmutation to take place both materially and psychologically.

Gliszczyński is concerned primarily with two colours: white and red which are two of the three primary colours located on the colour wheel of natural light, as well as in the mixing of paint. In the preceding series of self-portraits the colour white, known in Greek alchemy as “leucosis,” was used to recover data lost in the making of the paintings, as well as metaphorically through the passing of time and the making of collective and personal history. In alchemy ‘leucosis’ was the penultimate stage in the making of the Philosopher’s Stone when a white crystalline liquid was created in which spirit and matter had become one substance, the Quintessence.

In Gliszczyński’s self-portraits (2007) the form of the head was constantly reworked so that the face became no more than a dense opaque field. Once the original iconic image had been lost in the process of over-painting, through the process of ‘leucosis’ he recovered the original image by covering the field of the painting with white paint, so that the original form re-appeared under the dense layers of paint. In Gliszczyński’s thought self-identity is constructed out of an infinity of layers of impressions caused by engagement with the external world. Alchemically this process is completed in the process of maturation, at a point of balance between interiority and exteriority when self and world come into harmony and the dichotomy of worlds ceases to exist. There remains only a dynamic union.

In his new series of paintings Gliszczyński regards the colour red as an expression of this desired perfect equipoise between matter and psyche, outer and inner experience. In the alchemical process the white stage is followed by the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone which produces a red crystalline tincture, the Elxir Vitae, or Panacea. It is symbolised in the ancient texts the “red king” which transmutes base material into gold.

Glyszczynski’s interest in the colour red with the series of paintings and made-objects in the series Mitologia czerwieni (1996) when he described his creative practice and its significance:

I prepare samples of red on canvas, fold canvas in rolls and submerge [them] in wax. Thus, the recognition of them is not completely possible, only a small trace, a mark being possible to see. This is the same as in case of truth which was hidden and its reading requires special attention from us …The condition of contemporary painting requires the reinterpretation of the past, the new look at and reading of old truths.

(Gliszczyński, Artist’sStatement (2005))

The production of the colour red alchemically is a healing process which affects positively not only the materials in the alembic, but also the alchemist and the world around him. Red is a colour associated with gold and the sun and it affects the health of the heart and the blood-stream. The 14th century French alchemist and doctor Arnaud de’ Villanova experimented with distilling human-blood in order to create the Elixir of Life. Another related process which was being explored in this period was the distillation of red-wine which produced volatile spirits. The alchemist Jean de’ Rupescisse regarded spirits of brandy-wine as the universal panacea which healed all illness, whether physical or mental and restored youth to the body. In his own work Gliszczyński has also worked with the distillation of blood to produce a series of residues with a powerful psychic and ontological significance for his project.

In medieval medicine the colour red was associated with the most important therapeutic substances of the pharmacopeia and these were retained in the public pharmacy right up to the 20th century. These wondrous substances that still exert a fascination were derived from mineral, plant and animal sources, most especially Sanguis draconis (dragon’s blood) – resin from African palms, especially the dracena palm of the Canary Islands. Other medicinal compounds included red arsenic, dark red-brown balsam, terra sigillata (red clay), bolus rubra vel Armena which halted blood flow, antimony pills, haematite (ochres from iron rust), oak gall, ox blood (sanguis bovinus). The supreme substance, next to gold itself, was auripigment, a mercury-sulphur compound also known as cinnabar which was produced chemically and had a mythical status in both Asian and European chemistry. Many of these substances were also employed as pigments in the art of painting which always had an alchemical connotation in the late medieval period. Chemically the colour red is linked with gold. For example, gold is the substance which gives the colour to ruby glass. Gold and the colour red are also qualities of the sun and, thus, are associated with fire, heat and the heart.

Gliszczyński has also introduced into his work an image of the constitution of the human physiology as expressed in a late medieval diagram known as the “Geometrica de Physiologie.” This ancient diagram represents visually what is a completely impossible feat in reality, namely, the squaring of the circle. It is impossible to draw a circle around a square in Euclidean geometry, yet the problem has always fascinated geometers through-out the ages. Eventually, the geometrical diagram became a symbol of the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone in which matter was raised to a spiritual substance, an impossible process that could only be achieved only by divine intervention. This set of concepts involving a spiritualised, or glorified, matter was an special interest of the German alchemist Michael Maier in his De Circulo Physico, quadrato…(1616). The square represented earth in its four elements of fire, air, water and earth, while the circle represented heaven and God.

Accordingly, Gliszczyński relates his four alchemical colours to the theorem of the squaring of the circle, following their alchemical sequence as “melanosis” (blackening), “xanthosis” (yellowing), “leucosis” (whitening) and “iosis” (reddening). He relates this idea to a quotation from the influential 17th century alchemical treatise, the Tractus aureus (1610).

Podziel twój kamień na cztery element … i połącz je w jedno, a będziesz miał całą sztukę …

Tractatus vere aureus de lapidis philosophici secreto… (Leipzig, 1610)

Gliszczyński employs in his work a geometrical diagram of a prism as devised by the English mathematician and optician Thomas Harriot (ca. 1600). He explains the purpose of the diagrammatic form as:

W tym przypadku, dla mnie jest elementem rozszczepiania czerwieni … Moje cztery kolory, których punktem wyjścia była czerwień z poprzedniej pracy, zostały wzbogacane przy kolejnym przenoszeniu o te czery kolory. Wszystko na zasadzie przeciwieństw. Póżniej w czterech kołach się mieszały, by na końcu znależć się w środku koła.

Gliszczyński’s paintings express in a simultaneous action the process of making and the process of thought. In that sense they follow the enquiry of Merleau-Ponty which seeks to invalidate Descartes’ dualistic description of subjectivity in terms of a thinking immaterial subject separated and distinct from the physical external world. In the same manner as Sartre (who based himself on the phenomenology of Hegel) Merleau-Ponty intends to transcend this Cartesian dichotomy of interiority and exteriority. He denies the value of dialectical enquiry in favour of a non-dualist mode of perception. Red as a colour intrigued Merleau-Ponty and he referred to it in his account of a process of perception which is not only a sensual process but also the consequence of interior psychic activity. The experience of the colour red becomes an example for Merleau-Ponty of the manner in which the perception of a world external to the perceiver is the result of an interior psychic economy. Conversely, since human-beings are embodied in the world, they rely on their interactions with that world in order to interpret their own behaviour to themselves.

With a similar concern Gliszczyński’s complex procedural alchemy in his paintings not only involves a phenomenological exploration of the visual and psychological effects of colour, but he also employs alchemical concepts of transmutation to produce a historical record of the psyche of the artist in his own subjective interactions with time and matter.

In the field of philosophy of perception and philosophy of mind the main issue concerning the nature of colour is the question of its ontological status, that is, whether colour can be considered an objective property of things, or whether it is a subjective state of the perceiver, or whether the object itself produces a subjective impression on the viewer. Merleau-Ponty speaks of the perception of the colour red as not merely the awareness of a quality belonging to an object. He claims that it is an experience of a field of red things whose different construction and context affects the meanings received by the viewer …

an encounter with a punctuation in the field of red things, which includes the tiles of rooftops; the flags of gatekeepers and of the revolution; of certain terrains near Aix or Madagascar. It is also a punctuation in the field of red garments, which includes, along with the dresses of women, the robes of professors, bishops and advocates general … and its red is literally not the same if it appears in one constellation or in another … A certain red is also a fossil, drawn up from the depths of imaginary worlds

(Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, VI, 132).

Similarly, the type of alchemy being referenced in Gliszczyński’s practice is not the dualistic sphere of allegories and symbols with forms distinct from the meanings that they embody. His work involves a material laboratory practice in his investigation of the chemistry of colour and the transmutatory effects of human sight as modulated by history, memory and the psychology of the artist in relation to that of his audience. Using the terms of Merleau-Ponty, Gliszczyński could argue that he sees no distinction between his creation of a painting, the materials of the process and the internal triggers that instigated the making of a work which does not merely image, or picture, his thinking process, but is that same process in action.

When seeing, I do not hold an object at the terminus of my gaze, rather I am delivered over to a field of the sensible which is structured in terms of the difference between things and colours, a momentary crystallization of coloured being or visibility …

(Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, VI, 132)