Gerdien Verschoor, The Witch and the Hermit About “something” and “nothing” in Jacek Sroka’s Works

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“To put it humorously, I would say this: artists, like Freemasons, possess a deposit of initiation, of having been let into a secret and of having gained knowledge which is not accessible to everyone.” 

 

It was one of the first works of Jacek Sroka that I have ever seen: the print Le Pendu - The Hanged Man (1986). The strange man, hanging upside-down, looked at me, fighting for his life, but nevertheless still having a kind of roguishness which made the death look less ominous. Le Pendu: one of the most mysterious Tarot cards, about which Sroka says: “it is an excellent starting point for describing, as well as creating, a symbolic and metaphorical world”. Le Pendu is the twelfth card in the major arcans of the card game, thus forming a link between the card of Power and the card of Death  – cards number eleven and thirteen. If you pull Le Pendu, you know that you still have time, that this is the moment to look at the world from another side.

 

Sroka’s world and its inhabitants

 

 

Once an artist has reached the respectable age of 50, his works may be called his oeuvre. Whom or what do we happen to come across when we visit exhibitions of works by Jacek Sroka, if we explore his oeuvre?

First of all, people and animals: bishops and headsmen, musicians and writers, his wife and himself, cowboys and Indians, beautiful and ugly ladies, swimmers and rowers, witches and butchers, bandits and outcasts, horses and rats, wolves and pigs. We see known and unknown personalities pass by: Geronimo and Lenin, the Spingalicz brothers and Stalin, or a man who is slightly similar to him, Proust and Pasolini, Restif de la Bretonne and the Marquis de Sade, Malewicz and Monet. 

Sroka paints numerous objects of everyday life as well, both nice and ugly: medicine wrappings and torture tools, radios and cars, cheeses and sausages, blues and rock guitars. He takes us with him to many places: graveyards and gardens, the city of Nowa Huta and the Polish country, the sky with birds, the water with lilies.

 

   (1 ) In the tarot of Marseilles

 

Jacek Sroka is a reader, a film spectator, an art lover, a music maker – an omnivorous person. In his works we find many references – to fine arts, to literature, to the stories he heard during his childhood.

We find Claude Monet’s water lilies and poppy flowers in such paintings as Death by water II (1992) and Harvester (1999). The Russian constructivism is visible in Filming a White Square (2006), and lives of famous artists are illustrated in works such as Tatlin (1983) or Trouble with Pasolini's Soul (2005). The heroes from Sroka’s childhood reappear in his grown-up life, such as the writer George Catlin, the illustrator of the book Mały Bizon (Little Buffalo) by Arkady Fiedler, which Sroka’s father used to read to him in his childhood. Sroka gets inspiration from Buffalo Bull’s portraits by Catlin in for instance Year 1957 (2001). The painting Don Quichotte  in the Kitchen (2001), for example, depicting a flat horse spread like a cloth, is also based on an idea from this period: the “primitive” vision.

In works by Sroka we can find numerous references to literature: for instance, to the stories by Nicolas Esme Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806), a French libertine. Sroka makes paintings, the titles of which he sometimes enjoys more than the works themselves (The Legend of the Flying Priest, Known as the Legend of the Red Priest). Sometimes his works refer to the world of Freemasons or to the alchemy. He is free in his use of such art trends as the German expressionism (in his early prints), the pop-art (series of medicine wrappings, cheeses and hams, television screens), action painting (Black Rain, 2004, 2005) and “matter painting”.

The stories depicted by Sroka are not always unrelated to his personal life. To the contrary, sometimes they are autobiographical, such as the numerous “foot paintings” (for example In Caso di Cattavi Odori), as well as the “little foot sculptures”, not meant to be exhibited, which decorate the bathroom and the antique cupboards at Sroka’s home. A series of self-portraits with medicine wrappings keeps us informed about his health. And then there are paintings carrying an explicit political message and dealing with the situation in Poland (Six Aspects of Oleksy’s Case, 1996, The History of Polish Flag in Last Several Years, 2007).

But, as a matter of fact, all the stories told by Sroka are related to universal subject matters: love and death, friendship and betrayal, beauty and fear, aggression and tenderness, life and death, God and not-God, our knowledge of traditions and our fear of the future, the things that we can see (the world) and the things that we cannot see, but which do exist (the underworld). These are great subject matters, served with a big dose of irony, a big blob of humour and the aroma of the grotesque, which soothes the suffering inherent to the human condition, puts it in a perspective, and makes it even ridiculous. Each time Sroka succeeds in conjuring great dramas into hilarious scenes. 

 

The heroes in works by Jacek Sroka are real novel characters, determined to achieve their goals and frustrated in their undertakings by their antagonists with whom they have to share their world - and voila! Their drama is born. Sroka’s total oeuvre does not resemble a traditional novel at all: it does not present us with any linear development or plot, but rather with a series of contra points or a sequence of concentric circles: themes, characters and techniques appear, disappear and sometimes they reappear many years later, often as an element of new stories. Sroka does not leave anything behind, he takes everything from his past with him, or, as he puts it himself: “It is good to keep notes or drawings and ideas from one’s childhood, to put them into your drawer, forget about them and find them after forty years.” This is how the Spingalicz brothers, fantasy characters invented by him and his little sister during his childhood, appear on canvas. Or the already mentioned Le Pendu, which was but a lonely figure in an earlier print, only to return after ten years in an oil painting in the company of dogs and surrounded by torture tools. Or that strange monkey, a weird specimen, which not only appears in the artist’s life (Double Self-portrait with Anthropoid, 2002), but also in the lives of two little girls (The Dilemma of the Six-year-old Girl, 2003, The Dilemma of the Five-year-old Girl, 2004), painted fiercely, hairy and fearsome. 

 

 

Peintre-graveur: about colours and matter

 

Jacek Sroka is a peintre-graveur in the classical meaning of the word. He started his academic education at the Graphic Arts Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, but in the course of time he also devoted himself to painting, and now there is an inextricable link between the paintings and prints in Sroka’s oeuvre. His drawings should be seen as an undercurrent: sometimes intended as independent works of art, but most often as a part of an enormous oeuvre as such: his sketchbooks in which he makes sketches, drawings and notes almost every day.

There is a continuous correlation between the drawings, graphic works and paintings. The characters appear in paintings and are afterwards multiplied in graphic works, while other figures first come to life on paper before they appear on canvas.

In the paintings we see the graphic artist’s hand in his attention to details, which sometimes degenerates into horror vacui, bordering on kitsch.

At the same time the graphic works present us with the artist’s way of thinking. Starting in the second half of the eighties, colour has gradually become more and more important and the prints have been more and more often the same size as the paintings, with Structure of the World (1992), measuring 170 x 100 cm (67 x 39.5 inches) and printed on paper specially produced for this purpose, as an apotheosis. Just in the prints the artist has the courage to leave big surfaces empty, monochrome, such as the water on which the Kayak Female Team from Pińczów (1999) is rowing.

While at the beginning of his career as a painter Sroka concentrated mainly on the subject and the colour, around the turn of the century the matter, the paint itself, has become more and more important. Take, for instance, Geronimo (2003, 2004), an Indian with a wild and fierce reputation, the legendary last Apache (1829-1909) who kept on fighting against white domination until his death. The figure of Geronimo, pictured in a mass of paint mixed with sand, is not painted with a paint brush, but by means of a thick layer formed with a painting knife like mortar. This produces an effect of brutality, tension and primitive force which Sroka wanted to achieve. In this way the material becomes more than only paint; the paint has become a carrier of meaning which expresses the “wildness which is inherent in everyone”. The material is also used in this way in Black Rain (2004, 2005). The seaside visitors who are spending a nice day on the beach are startled by the sudden fall of black raindrops which cover the canvas like black, thick, random spots of paint – the ugliness which disturbs the beauty.

Sroka would not be Sroka if he would not immediately comment on the matter as carrier of meaning and put us on the wrong track again. In 8 hors d’oeuvres (2001), the woman who is being beaten with a whip is depicted in an almost poetical way: the paint is very thin, applied in liquid form, so it seems almost transparent, and the figures merge with the pastel colours: this story seems so beautiful and fairytale-like! This is a nice example of an artist who takes it as a point of honour to be able to paint the beauty of the ugliness, while making very conscious use of materials: “It happened that I consciously used beautiful, sophisticated language of colour and matter while talking about gloomy and unpleasant things.” 

 

Sroka overwhelms us with images: there are too many of them to mention. He deluges us with paint and with colour. But: is this all? Or do the images tell us more than we can see?

 

 

The witch and the hermit: about “something” and “nothing”

 

The series Hammer Against the Witches (Malleus Malificarum, 1983), dating back to the beginning of Sroka’s career, with such graphic works as Devil’s Rotissery or Escape Over the Horizon, where we see a witch escape on a flying horse, is inspired by the famous medieval treatise on witches by the inquisitionists Jakub Sprenger and Henryk Kramer. The sheets from this series are little etchings, often in black and white, dating back to the period when Sroka was still mainly a graphic artist and much less a painter. This series is characterised by an overwhelming number of details, as if each square inch of space should be loaded with meaning.

The already mentioned work Le Pendu, dating from 1986, illustrates a totally different approach. It is not only a huge size colour graphic, but also one of the first works in which Sroka has chosen to express the “nothing”: we see an empty space behind the figure of the hanged man.

This “nothing” also plays a role in another, much later work which was inspired by the Tarot as well, the painting L’Hermite (1994), the hermit. It is just this card number IX in the major arcans, which tells us to withdraw into ourselves and reflect on our existence. The Hermit has become so ethereal in Sroka’s interpretation that his feet, arms and head have become invisible – only his robe is still material. The lamp, held by his invisible hand, illuminates his path. Above his invisible head we see the omnipresent eye of God. The approach in this painting is surprising for an artist who has enjoyed himself with filling empty spaces for such a long time. The things that attract our attention are not the details any more. In this painting it is no longer the presence, the “something”, that determines the meaning, but just the absence, the “nothing”: the invisible (the Hermit’s body, the proof of his earthly existence) and the things which we cannot understand (the objects and the mysterious signs floating above the floor and in the air).

 

It is easy to get distracted by the “something” in the works by Jacek Sroka, just because there is so much of this “something”. But it is fascinating that we can find so many forms of the “nothing” in his works as well.

The “nothing”, as the absence of the “something” that it should be, is present in the titles of a number of his works and as literally invisible elements in the painted stories, for example in The Man Who Isn’t There (2006). In this painting, as well as in The Nothing Combo (1999), some body parts are missing: the depicted characters are partly made invisible, as if they have vanished or got lost in the course of history. The artist said about this work: “The Nothing Combo is a nostalgic and personal painting, because this old world of one’s youth, full of emotions and eagerness to make music, leaves a sad, gradually fading memory. The characters, changed due to nostalgic feelings, are fading away and slowly slipping away into forgetfulness. And the action of a painter stops - conjures and beautifies - this sad process, just for a while.”

 

In Invisible Men (2004) the difference between “something” and “nothing” is stressed due to the use of contrasts of both matter and colours. The thick facture in warm orange and green tints, applied to depict the house and the visible man, contrasts vividly in respect of colour as well as the paint treatment with the thin, ethereal pink tints against which the silhouettes of the invisible men, the absent ones, are depicted. 

We also find the “nothing” expressed by means of merging into the background in the monochrome paintings by Sroka, which is the case with the lady in red, for example, who is totally immersed in the red colour, forming the background against which she is depicted (Untitled, 2000).

There is a terrifying “nothing”, the “nothing” of death, in all kinds of vanitas motifs, in stories in which murder and manslaughter play a role, but also in the series depicting Freemasons’ cemeteries, for example. 

There is also a frightening “nothing” which only seems to be “nothing” because it represents a world which is unknown to us, but which nevertheless does exist: the death of the underworld, our destiny (Girl on the Beach, 1999).

But the most special is the “nothing” in the matter of painting art, the “nothing” which we can find in empty spaces. Sometimes it is the space which surrounds the characters, like the peaceful “nothing” of the water on which the Kayak Female Team from Pińczów (1998, 1999) is rowing. A completely different tension can be found in the nothing between the characters, like the beautiful “nothing” in the sad space between the lovers in different versions of Long Ago.

 

A very special painting, in which “something” and “nothing” coexist, is the poetical and monumental landscape Rain (1997). Against the background of a blurred row of trees, under a high sky, a man is standing in water reaching up to his waist. The emptiness of the sky and the depth of the water are emphasized by a small strip of landscape which separates the air from the water, as well as by the man himself: he is bold and naked. We see him as if he is standing behind a curtain of falling raindrops, which are all the same size and are placed in a regular pattern. Full of rain: just this painting is a nice example of Sroka’s horror vacui. It is also a nice example of “something” – the raindrops – which soon will disappear in “something” much bigger – the water of the river – to evaporate afterwards into “nothing”, and will then turn back into raindrops, which will fall on the same man again. It is also just this painting in which “something” – the raindrops – seems to carry the message of the “nothing”. We do not know in which “nothing” the man is placed. Is it the Sartrian emptiness, the via negativa? Or does he experience a kind of Nirvana, a Buddhistic emptiness, the “nothing” which is “everything”?

The “nothing” in the early works by Sroka resembles this Sartrian emptiness, a deficiency, the “nothing” which has to be avoided because it means a lack of something, and maybe because of that it is filled up with forms, ornaments and decorations. But Sroka does not always let this emptiness influence him, maybe even less and less. On the contrary: it seems as if he gets into confrontation with it more and more often by descending into it. And then, as he is descending, it appears to him that the emptiness can open itself and expand into the endlessness. This is a totally different emptiness, which stands far apart from the Sartrian one: namely, the Buddhistic “nothing”, the “nothing” which is not marked by a deficiency, but is full of meaning.

There is plenty of “something” which we hope will protect us from the “nothing”, which we cannot imagine actually, but easily see as frightening and desolate. But the essence cannot be found in that “something”, as a matter of fact. It is exactly the other way round, or, as Patricia de Martelaere, a Flemish philosopher, puts it: “our deepest identity is not the identity of the images which fill our consciousness, but the identity of the emptiness or the nothing which fills the space between these images.” It is this creative “nothing” which we experience in the works by Jacek Sroka thanks to all the “something”. 

 

Sroka is a witch: he is constantly looking into his crystal ball, reading our past and predicting our future, seeing hell and damnation, using many words to make us believe in true and untrue stories, raising his finger to warn us against doom, memento mori, laughing up his sleeve if we really believe him. He offers us magic potions. He shows us the world of “something”: the world of beauty and ugliness, the world of objects and people, the world of cosy wallpapers and ladies wearing makeup, the world full of noise.

 

Sroka is a hermit: he is the man who follows the way lit for him by the lamp, the monk who prefers silence to speaking, the mystic who descends into the emptiness and lets us see “something” in “nothing”. He is an artist who already as a child understood that “art not only describes the world, but it also changes it”.

 

We are the spectators, keeping a card with new insights in our hand, the Tarot card number XII: Le Pendu.

 

Gerdien Verschoor

[translation Alicja Tol-Pawlowska]

 

Sources:

Conversations between Gerdien Verschoor and Jacek Sroka, 1986-2007

Interview with Jacek Sroka by Ida Smakosz, January 12, 2007

Patricia de Martelaere, Wat blijft, Amsterdam-Antwerpen, 2007

www.sroka.pl; www.sroka.fr; www.google.nl; www.wikipedia.nl; www.americanart.si.edu

 

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