Włodzimierz Borowski – a desymboliser of images

Marcin Lachowski

Warsaw University 


The article addresses the issue of the early period of Włodzimierz Borowski’s artistic development which coincided with his membership in the Zamek group. The pictures under discussion, distinguished by some earmarks of the style typical of informel finding purchase in the post-Stalinist thaw period in Poland, have been presented here in relation to the tradition of religious painting. This particular lineage of tradition was at that time championed by Antoni Michalak, who conducted draughtsmanship classes at the Catholic University of Lublin. However, these religious reminiscences were not along the lines of straightforward depiction in keeping with the tenets of sublimation and solemn elevation, but to the contrary. Borowski, committing himself to the pursuit of “matter painting”, accentuated degradation and dissolution of form, and his artistic credo is interpreted here within the framework of Yvas-Alain Bois’s heterology. This researcher, professing his subscription to the conceptual instruments advanced by Georges Bataille, demonstrated the dialectical process gravitating towards the obliteration of defined form among the practitioners and followers of the informel movement. The religious scenes insinuated by the titles bear testimony to a radical redefinition of the symbological conception of image and its departure in the direction of formless matter. The reinterpretation of those motifs signified an attempt to ride roughshod over a picture surface through the application of solid matter and decomposition of image; in the aftermath of that violation, the re-imagined drama bore no resemblance to the traditional solemn religious scenes and was completely subsumed by the disintegrating syntax of the image.

Borowski’s liberalisation in the realm of form, which was correlated to the artistic idiom of the post-Stalinist informel movement, may be perceived as not only a profound rejection of the social-realist straitjacket but also as a comprehensive program for a polemic on the truth residing in pictures.

Keywords: Włodzimierz Borowski, Antoni Michalak, the “Zamek”, de-symbolisation of pictures, heterology, religious painting, elevation, matter painting, informel


It was rather intermittently that religious themes and allusions figured in the creative endeavours of artists espousing novel post-WWII modernist paradigms for self-expression. Therefore, what stands out in stark relief against that backdrop and merits special consideration is the inceptive 1956–1958 stage of the experimental artistic journey of discovery embarked upon by Włodzimierz Borowski, who declared stylistic alignment with the manifesto of the artistic circle dubbed Zamek (The Castle). His early works, by giving increasingly short shrift to figurative representation, by venturing into the territory of the abstract, through recognizable compositional distribution and suggestive formulation of titles, signified an attempt to reach back to and creatively recycle the whole heritage of religious art.

The members of the Zamek group recruited from the Faculty of History of Art at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland and they made common cause for the sake of forging a more contemporary vision for visual arts, and ultimately they set their hearts on the objective of the materialization of the third dimension of pictures. One of the seminal individuals who offered initial tutelage and guidance to future members of the aforementioned formation was Antoni Michalak, who was in charge of classes on painting techniques and draughtsmanship.[1] This painter, a member of the antebellum Brotherhood of St Luke, had by then already become a household name, distinguishing himself as a portrait painter and stained-glass designer, whose expertise also extended to interior decoration of places of worship and restoration of old polychromy – the polychromy in the Leopoldinum Lecture Hall, also known as Auditorium Academicum, at the University of Wrocław in Poland stands out as a testament to the artist’s mastery of the last of the skills mentioned. Furthermore, the trajectory of Michalak’s artistic career revealed the artist’s overriding preoccupation with revivification and revalidation of religious themes in art. As regards this brand of art, Michalak’s sensibilities were dominated by a profound commitment to the perpetuation of the pedigree of self-expression which privileged depiction of religious themes in keeping with old masters’ styles, and that obviously entailed the cultivation of the traditional painting craftsmanship. Unlike Michalak’s, Borowski’s artistic agenda had no such affinities. His sympathies lay with a strident abrogation of the time-sanctioned convention governing depiction of religious topics and that lineage was to be superseded by deconstruction of any recognizable tropes or shapes. In his early works Borowski de-emphasised any evocative symbolism and put forward a new template – that of “the last picture”, which harked back to the experimental pre-WWII avant-garde painting.

To gain a deeper appreciation of the aesthetic and philosophical coordinates of the Zamek movement, one needs to turn to the marquee publication entitled W poszukiwaniu trzeciego wymiaru (In search of the third dimension)[2], where its author Mariusz Tchorek posits an interesting bisecting subcategorisation of the realm of the determiners conditioning the character of a contemporary work of art: firstly, paintings are beholden to geometric abstraction, and secondly to haphazard, action-based tachism, with those two being descended from constructivism and surrealism, respectively. The author is also emphatically explicit in his insistence that, given the tenet of the evolutionary nature of artistic forms, both traditions have a role to play as their synthesis underpins the emergence of a three-dimensional structure. This notion of “the third dimension” appearing in the title, apart from being defined as numerous variations on the theme of non-Euclidean geometries constituting the lynchpin tying up volume and the passage of time, becomes a framework accommodating a very complex occurrence implicating the beholder. Such a centrifugal effect, as it is, triggering off a peculiar brand of distraction and subsequently causing the viewer’s attention to ricochet away from the picture itself, is partly engendered by the volatile, pulsating vibrancy of the artistic content that transcends and ventures beyond the physical confines of the picture. As a result, that quality emanating from the picture colonizes the ambience incidentally inhabited by the viewers and transmutes them into participants in a performance.

There was another significant vantage point from which members of the Zamek group evaluated and interpreted the visual substance of pictures, one which warrants them being attributed with the label of “organicists”. The holistic objective concreteness of pictures was conceived of as the coalescence of elements captured by means of the visible and palpable tissue. It was also envisaged as a biomorphic shape derived from the internal core – it was the organic identity of the objectified picture that underlay and conditioned its dynamism, vitality and wholeness, and it was understood that that very material concreteness allowed paintings to assert their sovereign identity in relation to space and time. This very aspect of organicism seemed particularly salient to Hanna Ptaszkowska, whose critique of one of Włodzimierz Borowski’s paintings takes a leaf out of the movement’s book: “The viewer facing the black picture clearly hemmed in by the circular form is bound to make out the significance of the primitive structure of this protozoan. As soon as one begins to grasp the primordial pulsation of the white plasmic spots flying in the face of anything that is worthy of visual-artistic recognition, the essence of the production starts revealing itself – it signifies the interior of a cell animated by perceptible stirrings of life”.[3] Similar sentiments pertaining to such an animated and expressive character of objectified entities were emphasised by Wiesław Borowski: “The psyche and temperament unique to each artist find such a commensurate reflection in his work of art that the information revealed in the process is tantamount to the tell-tale message encoded in fingerprints”.[4]

Translated by Mariusz Szerocki

[1] Antoni Michalak was in charge of draftsmanship, painting and depiction techniques classes at the Faculty of History of Art at the Catholic University of Lublin from 1948 to 1969. In June 1955 there was an exhibition staged at the Faculty library showcasing works of students who later ranked among the membership of the Zamek group. The driving force behind the staging of the exhibition was Michalak. To find more information on the Zamek group, see: Grupa Zamek”. Konteksty–wspomnienia–archiwalia, eds. M. Kitowska-Łysiak, M. Lachowski, P. Majewski, Lublin 2009; Grupa “Zamek”. Historia–krytyka–sztuka, eds. M. Kitowska-Łysiak, M. Lachowski, P. Majewski, Lublin 2007.

[2] M. Tchorek, W poszukiwaniu trzeciego wymiaru (I), “Kamena”, 1959, vol. 11 (visual arts section “Struktury”, vol. 2), pp. 5–7; W poszukiwaniu trzeciego wymiaru (II), “Kamena”, 1959, vols. 13–14 (visual arts section “Struktury”, vol. 3), pp. 8–9.

[3] H. Ptaszkowska, Dobre malarstwo i art fiction. III Ogólnopolska Wystawa Sztuki Nowoczesnej, “Kamena”,  1959, vols. 19–20 (visual arts section “Struktury”, vol. 6), p. 15.

[4] W. Borowski, O aktualnych  zjawiskach w rzeźbie (III), “Kamena”, 1959, vol. 17 (visual arts section “Struktury”, vol. 5), p. 7.

[5] J. Ludwiński, Włodzimierza Borowskiego podróż do kresu sztuki, in: Grupa “Zamek”… 2007, as in fn. 1, p. 50.

[6] L. Nader, Włodzimierz Borowski – uśmiercanie obrazu, in: Grupa “Zamek”… 2007, as in fn. 1, pp. 72–73.

[7] Cf. R. Krauss, Horizontality, in: Formless. A User’s Guide, eds. Y.-A. Bois, R. Krauss, New York 1997, pp. 93–103.

[8] Nader 2007, as in fn. 6, pp. 75–83. Nader suggests that Borowski’s implication of motifs evincing some religious provenance establishes a unique liaison between such works and the visual heritage of the past. That special affinity is not diminished even by the fact that for the very discernment of those allusions and the retrospective attribution of the titles they are beholden to Jerzy Ludwiński. There is much in evidence that Borowski chose to follow in the footsteps of that noble and rarefied painting convention, except that he inverted the meanings, thereby challenging the anecdotal and visual character of old painting traditions and signaling his forays into modernist pictorialism.

[9] I. Kossowska, “Szlachetny realizm”. Postawa artystyczna Antoniego Michalaka, in: Mistyczny świat Antoniego Michalaka, exhibition catalogue, ed. W. Odorowski, Vistula Museum in Kazimierz Dolny, Kazimierz Dolny 2005, pp. 59–69.

[10] W. Odorowski, “Łagodny łuk obietnicy”. Antoni Michalak w Kazimierzu nad Wisłą, in: ibidem, pp. 71–79.

[11] Y.-A. Bois, Base Materialism, in: Formless… 1997, as in fn. 7, p. 53.

[12] Ibidem, p. 56.

[13] Nader 2007, as in fn. 8, p. 75.

[14] Bois 1997, as in fn. 12, p. 53.

[15] W. Borowski, Est-etyka. Autoportret, BWA Lublin, 1977; http://artmuseum.pl/pl/archiwum/archiwum-wlodzimierza-borowskiego/1174/77916 [accessed: 9 Nov. 2016].

[16] Ludwiński 2007, as in fn. 5, p. 50.

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