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Michał Haake


The purpose of the article is to discuss Via Crucis, a work by Marek Chlanda, which sets out to express one of the most important themes of Christian iconography in the language of abstract art. The author first asks whether the semantics of abstract forms can effectively convey the narrative and express the profound message of man’s salvation by God. A positive answer is suggested by the manner in which Marek Chlanda alludes to the oeuvre of Kazimierz Malewicz, one of the founders of 20th-century abstract art, who was fascinated with communism. Thanks to Marek Chlanda, the legacy of the Russian artist can be recognized as an usurpation, an attempt to replace the Christian conception of the absolute by an impersonal authority, by which we are no longer morally obliged. This is particularly suggested by panel XV (Resurrection), in which a Malewicz-like black circle attempts to cover the crown of thorns. Far from being a mere allusion to the iconography of particular stations, Via Crucis also initiates a reflection on the role of religious experience in our modern time.

keywords: Marek Chlanda, Kazimierz Malewicz, abstraction, religious art, Way of the Cross, Via Crucis


I would like the reflections on the relation between abstract art and religious content to be the starting point for considering the relations between abstract art and sacred art. I also adopt the narrow meaning of the term “religious contents”, understood as religious discourse (“discourse” being a logical expression). I do not deliberate, then, whether abstract art has the capability of making us realize the supersensual or the “surreal”. Even if we were certain of such a capability, we could only speak of evoking in the viewer an experience comparable with a religious one. Besides, if – as Leszek Kołakowski or Michael Brötje do – the capability of realizing the supersensual should be attributed to every work of art,[2] the reflections would soon need to reach beyond the area of abstract art. Neither do I inquire about the ability of abstract art to provide insights – through both visualization and intuition – into the nature of the absolute, identifiable with the sacrum, the ability which often causes abstract works of art to be placed in sacred space. Thus, in the present article I shall not deal with paintings (to speak of painting only) by Ad Reinhard and Mark Rothko,[3] nor those by Stefan Gierowski[4] or Jerzy Nowosielski.[5] I will not take into consideration stained-glass realizations, which – located in the church space – should perhaps be interpreted as co-creating or completing the symbolism of light.

I am interested in such realizations of abstract art whose relation to religious contents may be described as a relation of illustration to the narrative text. Among works of this kind, I will count abstract realizations of the Way of the Cross. Perhaps the best known example is The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani by Barnett Newman, created between 1958 and 1966. There are also Polish authors’ realizations which I find worth mentioning in this context, e.g. The Way of the Cross by Julian Raczko [Fig. 1] (several versions were created in the 1990s, in pencil, painting, and computer-assisted techniques) or Via Crucis by Marek Chlanda [Fig. 2].[6] These works obviously do not literally illustrate the text, i.e. they do not show the location of the past events nor their participants, yet they refer to the records of those events. Chlanda, commenting on his work, says that it is the result of attempts to actualize the way of presentation of those events.[7] In more precise words, neither Raczko’s nor Chlanda’s works are abstract works, but the language they employ draws on the 20th century abstract art. Although they contain elements that recall extrapictorial reality (Raczko’s presentation of the cross, and Chlanda’s presentation of the thorncrown), they also employ motives – such as vertical and horizontal stripes in Raczko’s work and a black square in Chlanda’s work – taken directly from the language of abstract art of Malevichian provenience, to which I shall refer further in the text. Therefore these works are not examples of such poetics in which representing the extrapictorial reality is performed in a language only similar to abstraction (such an example would be the frescos in the Church of Holy Apostles in Cologne, showing scenes from the Apocalypse, which were created by Hermann Gottfried in 1988–1993, and which draw, I believe, on Pablo Picasso’s style [Fig. 3]). Raczko’s work, or even more so Chlanda’s Via Crucis, though not abstract, do pose a problem in the relation between abstract art and sacred art.

I do not intend to assume that an abstract element in a painting is the appropriate means of actualization of the Way of the Cross only because modern art has gone, or is still going through the experience of the language of abstraction. Rather, I find it more important to consider – on the example of Chlanda’s work – how an abstract element can participate in illustrating events, how it can become a carrier of the narration presented in the Gospel. I do not inquire, though, whether it is possible on the theoretical plane, whether such a relation would be allowed by the analysis of concepts. Neither do I trace the symptoms of reception of such works, which might provide some knowledge concerning their chances of functioning in the church space. I do not reject these ways of inquiry, but I search for the answer through the analysis of the work itself.

[1] In comparison with its original text, the present article has been supplemented with remarks submitted by Dr. hab. Piotr Krasny, for which I am grateful. I would also like to thank Professor Renata Rogozińska for her remarks, which helped me to reconsider the concept of this article.

[2] Cf. L. Kołakowski, Horror metaphisicus, Warszawa, 1990, pp. 108–109; M. Brötje, Der Spiegel der Kunst. Zur Grundlegung einer existential-hermeneutischen Kunstwissenschaft, Stuttgart, 1990, pp. 52–54.

[3] Mark Rothko did not approve of religious interpretation of his paintings, but the very fact of such attempts justifies mentioning the artist in the context of sacred art. His works are often interpreted in the context of the Talmud and the Jewish mysticism. His works can be admired in a chapel in Houston (the Rothko Chapel), funded by John and Dominique de Menil.

[4] Cf. W. Suchocki, “Czy sztuka sakralna jest dziś możliwa?”, in: W drodze (1989), no. 7, p. 43.

[5] In the case of this artist’s works, rooted in the iconic tradition, we should perhaps speak not of actualizing the sacrum, but rather of referring to the sacrum. It would be a special reference, since it would consist in participating in the sanctum, understood metaphysically. Such differentiation is proposed by Władysław Stróżewski. Sanctum, the sanctity, „is at the top of the hierarchy of varied meanings referring to the sacrum.Sanctus „is the one who […] sanctifies, or to whom something is devoted that may become sacrum in the adjectival sense of the word.” The sanctified, e.g. a painting, “contains the moment of sacrum, corresponding to the sacrum in the nominal sense of the word. The moment of sacrum, understood nominally, sanctifies a given object, which becomes sacrum in the adjectival meaning, i.e. it becomes sacralized, or sanctified, but it depends, directly or indirectly, on some relation or reference to the sanctus”; cf. W. Stróżewski, “O możliwości sacrum”, in: Sacrum i sztuka, N. Cieślińska ed., Kraków, 1989, pp. 24–25, 36–37.

[6] Via Crucis, 1979 (reconstructed in 2000), graphite, acrylic on paper, 65,2 x 50,2 cm (each drawing), property of the artist. The starting point for the realization of this work Marek Chlanda adopted the version of the Way of the Cross by Piotr Skarga.

[7] M. Chlanda, “Uwagi na temat Drogi Krzyżowej”, in: Trzy tematy biblijne, Exhibition catalogue, Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej BWA, Katowice, 2001, pp. 62–74. Marek Chlanda’s postulate may be seen as consorting with the one made by Tadeusz Chrzanowski: “we pray with the same words as our predecessors in the catacombs, Gothic cathedrals, Baroque churches, and we direct our prayers to the same God, but they are not the same prayers, for they plough through a different, perhaps not better, but richer consciousness, while the art “in the service” of the church prays today almost in the same way as yesterday, retouching only the most external shape of these prayers” – T. Chrzanowski, “W poszukiwaniu nowej ikonografii”, in: Sacrum i sztuka, N. Cieślińska ed., Kraków, 1989, p. 21.

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