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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]


Włodzimierz Borowski, who figured large as one of the characters in Tchorek’s story about the generic nature of contemporary works of art, had two years earlier painted one of his last pictures – Kompozycja XIX (Composition XIX) – which was subtitled Oko proroka (The eye of the prophet) by Jerzy Ludwiński [fig. 1]. Executed by means of the nitrocellulose lacquer technique, the crack-covered rugged-surfaced picture is devoid of any overarching homogeneous compositional design. It strikes the viewer as a collage-like structure that is still a work in progress, and yet it already exhibits the giveaway signs of its character thanks to the presence of a compilation. The quadrilateral-shaped picture is fringed with serration-forming small regularly shaped triangles. The yellow surface of the background, which due to the uneven multiple layering of the lacquer shows a lot of textural and chromatic irregularities, features a mixed-bag assortment of unrelated elements subjected to random distribution. There is a right-to-left diagonally descending white line which branches out into five palm-like processes at the bottom of its length, and towards the bottom of the picture we see a black burn-like splotch that spills and soaks away freely. In the very dead centre of the production one can see a tiny black point rendered more conspicuous due to the presence of a yellow ring around it.

Perfectly in line with Borowski’s own attitude to this work as being his ultimate crowning glory, Jerzy Ludwiński additionally construed this picture through the prism of the sensibilities of unism envisioned and pioneered by Władysław Strzemliński. From this perspective, it merited being treated as a mythical watershed, heralding the arrival of a new form of creativity, where an artist made a point of embracing his art as “as an internal spiritual development whose centrality and ineluctable expansion he fully acknowledges. The visible fragmentary evidence of that inner process constitutes some incomplete material instantiation of a remotely distinct reality, which transcends the reconstructed purported equivalent based on the jigsaw pieces available to us”.[5]

That said, we must not lose sight of the fact that even though the production in hand itself was in its physical execution characterized by flatness, uniformly lacquered over and circumscribed by a simple border of black, its creation as such coincided with the production of Borowski’s diametrically different works. The latter were distinguished by varied painting materials and drew upon two distinct artistic narratives: the first was typified by the surreal explorations of Karol Hiller, and the second consisted in radically reductive renditions of religious motifs. The first almost monochromatic cycle, including among others Wariacje na temat Karola Hillera (Variations on the theme of Karol Hiller) echoed, albeit tangentially and loosely, Hiller’s experimental forays into the area of heliography.

As far as Kompozycja srebrna, Kompozycja błękitna and Kompozycja czarna (Silver, Blue and Black compositions, respectively) are concerned, they project amorphous, unorganized chromatic swathes of canvas, where the only contrasting differentiation comes from the varied degrees of coarseness and roughness courtesy of the specific application of paint. That richly varied texture constitutes the very essence of these three works, along with the fluctuations in the intensity of the dominant hues. In each case, the dominant chromatic feature lends itself to the gelling of the space of the picture together, but on the other hand it galvanizes the impression of pulsation, which causes the space to bulge and leap off the canvas. This dynamic spatial arrangement is enhanced by the static features geometrically inscribed in the pictures. The cases in point here are the vertical line in Kompozycja srebrna (The silver composition) [fig. 2] and the yellow vertical light reflections generating contrast with the irregular surface in Kompozycja błękitna (The blue composition). In the case of Wariacje (The variations) a similar effect is caused by the vertical and horizontal bands of white.

Ludwiński believes that the subjection of the paintings to such manipulations entails a subversion of their compositional integrity and diminution of their visual and aesthetic virtues, whereas Luiza Nader posits that this execution of pictures speaks volumes about the artist’s strivings to keep image-induced illusion in check. [6] Therefore the primary merit residing in those aforementioned pictures is that they establish themselves as fully-fledged members of the rubric of variegated chromatic surfaces. The spaces brought into being by Borowski derive their idiosyncratic character from the deployment of a highly-nuanced spectrum of shades and from subtle manipulation of the texture of paint. This creative strategy represents a riff on Hiller’s artistic explorations, as his heliographic prints, by dint of being thickly interspersed with blots, blotches and pellucid smudgy forms, conjure up associations with freely drifting biomorphic organisms. In Borowski’s elaboration, however, the fantastical visions forged by Hiller were jettisoned in favour of the production of a shimmering effect stemming from the texturally and laminarly differentiated layers of a given artistic medium, with all of this leading to the formation of an abrasive epidermis-like paint surface. Borowski’s monochromatic pictures dating from that period intimate the goal of his artistic pursuits: he had set out to champion the profound flattening of space and telescoping it on the very surface of his paintings. The Spartan frugality and subtlety of the chromatic palette used by the artist at that time afforded an optical experience that approximated the rock-bottom level of any spatial perception of a monochromatic picture surface. The deft deployment of tensions between smooth, flat surfaces and embossed patches, between the spontaneity of brushstrokes and a reductively altered geometry of forms, was geared to picking out simple, vivid shapes. The discernible trail of conscious mouldings, left behind on the surface by the artist spinning the visual yarn, nudged the viewer towards an impression of depth emerging from the flat picture.

The above structural and compositional hallmarks are conspicuously absent from the subsequent series of works espousing a different principle regarding the approach to picture surface and alluding to religious motifs. The above designation subsumes works most likely painted in 1957. This time the commonality uniting these pictures is the new way of tackling painting material in tandem with physical, three-dimensional objects. The chromatic gamut of these pictures demonstrates a clear affinity with shaded, tinted colours, tending towards near-neutrality. The artistic modus operandi in their case consists in thick and significantly multi-textured application of paint. Henceforth every subsequent overlay progressively smothers the effect of pulsation by stretching a rigid, congealed carapace over any residual chromatically variegated patch. Whereas the previous series of works were underpinned by dynamic interpenetration and interplay for the sake of spatialising a single monochromatic surface, productions from the cycle that followed were stagnant, stripped down to the hieratical bare bones and characterized by the lumpish, uniform solidity of a picture trapped by the set painting medium.

The works featured in this cycle dovetail with the lineage of religious painting on many levels. For one, such a liaison with that tradition is fairly warranted given the religious connotations of the titles the pictures bear. There is no gainsaying that the assignment of such titles was performed later by Jerzy Ludwiński, but at the time of their creation he was closely associated with the artist’s studio on the premises of the Royal Castle of Lublin. For another, the compositional arrangements of the new pictures were reminiscent of panel painting, as not only were they put together in the form of a triptych or polyptych, but the ritualistic positioning of physical adjuncts immediately brought religious connotations to mind. The peculiar pattern of placement of the objects set against the abstract backdrop legitimizes our predication of some allusion to the traditional composition historically replicated in religious painting. After all, the precepts featured in Michalak’s manifesto, where religious themes and painting craftsmanship are at the top of the totem pole, may be viewed as a creative impulse for Borowski’s reinvention and customisation of the vintage symbolology governing pictorial representation and composition, as he aspired to blaze a trail in the use of heterogeneous objects. Borowski’s desire to unshackle form and his reaching out to the aesthetics spearheaded by the gaining of traction of informel in that period of post-war political thaw, may be looked upon not only as a radical abandonment of the straitjacket of social realism, but also as a polemic debate challenging “the veracity of the picture”.

Thus, Zaśnięcie (Falling asleep) was envisioned as a juxtaposition of the black-dominated background, streaked with vertical bronze and yellow smudges, with the irregular embossed nodes and thin ribbons of some synthetic mass winding their way to the bottom of the picture. This relief cobweb of snaking pronounced plastic appliqués originated from the pitch black centrally-positioned irregularly-shaped motif covered in cracks. The effect of the shallow painting depth is stabilized by the foreground-positioned convex, irregularly-shaped raised pattern. Because the latter form nestles in the lower section of the picture and bears a close resemblance to petrified igneous rock, the viewer gets the feeling of the consolidation of the whole image due to this optical and physical accentuation of the bottom section. Such a layout naturally reinforces the impression of gravitational pull being exerted on the affixed material. The vertical composition of the canvas, creating an illusionary visual experience, is counterpoised with the horizontal-tending tactile apprehension of the plastic material.[7]

As regards the painting entitled Zdjęcie z krzyża (The deposition) [fig. 3], the artist follows the same technique as previously – the surface is the outcome of multiple-layering of painting mediums. The deepest layer, the background, has a smooth texture and the gentle vertical brownish smudges are lightened up by hues from the spectrum of yellow. Against this chromatic foil, the whole area of the canvas is cobwebbed with a synthetic-mass tangle full of spiky projections, bone-dry desiccated stalks, and craggy snarls. The uppermost quarters of the picture are defined by the diagonal line gently winding its way from the top right-hand corner to the bottom left-hand one. The snaking line is actually a length of thin flexible red plastic pipe. This last element, apparently being an extrinsic complementation of the picture, imparts structure to the otherwise amorphous character of the painting substance. It serves as a template for the evolution of this inertia, and it represents the trajectory and conduit for the dynamic propagation of energy throughout the substance of the picture. The rugged and knobby surface of the painting, diagonally exhibiting a measure of aggravated thickness, welcomingly lets the tacky, red plastic pipe weave its way in and out of the meshing maze of the abstract composition. This undulating red line gently succumbs to free fall towards the bottom of the picture. Additionally, perfectly in line with the power of gravity, the descending movement feeds into the empathetic impression of spreading desiccation affecting the relief substance of the picture. And apart from being the compositional mainstay, the red line doubles as a rudimentary encapsulation of the scene alluded to by the title.

Another picture, Uczta Nabuchodonozora (Belshazzar’s feast), whose creation is surmised to have taken place a little later, is suffused with a dark, predominantly black chromatic quality, which may trigger associations with Wariacje na temat Karola Hillera (Variations on the theme of Karol Hiller) painted prior to the preceding one. The compositional blueprint for Uczta Nabuchodonozora is anchored in the notion of symmetry. The bisection of the picture is heralded by the vertical line, vanishing as it extends downwards, but at the top it branches out into two lines stretching towards the two top corners. This geometric arrangement plots out a perceived, suggestive internal architectural framework of the picture, which is counterpointed by the convex objects – the symmetrically positioned plastic bowls in the bottom section, and by similarly laid out simplified five-pronged shapes in the top section. The reductionistic and hieratical composition, although made up of contrapuntal and incongruous elements, is nevertheless grounded in the thickly laid paint, characterised by a uniform chromatic quality enriched by a nuanced and rumpled variegation of tones. In the top section of the picture the crusted-over substance of the paint exhibits a denser and more meticulous pattern of cracks and superficial irregularities than in the case of the lower part. In the case of the latter, we can see three symmetrical trickle-like thick irregular bands freely flaring out in their descent to the bottom. These three spill stains seem to function as a superimposition hiding the lines purportedly creating a sense of depth. The biblical feast alluded to by the title is rendered as the uniform surface of the picture, which by the same token transmutes into a scene of a graphic metamorphosis. Still the transition proceeds from our imaginings concerning reality towards the reality that emanates from the picture and impinges on our senses. Slowly but surely, the process of concretisation materialises in our minds due to some prompts. Firstly, we associate the reductively altered five-pronged forms with menorah-like candle holders. Secondly, our thoughts have to negotiate the thick substance of the paint, and thirdly our eyesight, edging its way down the picture through the thickly laid paint, comes across the two affixed material objects.

The hitherto-discussed works of Borowski steeped in religious tradition pivot upon the effect of painting illusion, but no sooner does it arise than it is transformed. Unlike in the case of works from its forerunning series, here the painter experiments with convex forms and lays the painting substance thickly. He creates tension between the vertical composition of the picture and its bulky gravity, and the sublimation and metaphor residing in every representation is exploited to the elemental limits of the freely oozing substance, heralding their material character associated with the tactile dimension. Therefore, these works can be regarded as being tantamount to an incremental process of transcending both traditional forms of organizing the painting space and the deep religious significance of creativity.[8]

One of the contexts warranting that kind of take on Borowski’s art can be found in the form of his early artistic attempts in the 1950s; it is worth noting here that those experiments were not unrelated to the artistic sensibilities of Antoni Michalak. The latter, a member of the pre-WWII Brotherhood of Saint Luke, declared a commitment to resuscitate the old painting tradition incorporating the legacies of the subtle and rarefied Quattrocento school of draughtsmanship and the expressive and dramatic Baroque-period painting. One of this artist’s important artistic interests was religious painting. His hagiographic portraiture and the monumentality of his Passion-related renditions exuded a brand of expressiveness typical of the late-Gothic and Baroque periods. As Michalak had been artistically apprenticed and likewise beholden to Tadeusz Pruszkowski, he was also a fervent exponent of vintage cultural heritage and figural and realistic depictions which entwined religious content with contemporary realities, artefacts and familiar Kazimierz Dolny vistas. The artistic doctrine of “noble realism” championed by Pruszkowski and his initiates was antithetical to a journalistic, documentary reflection of life. It was implemented through patient analysis and emulation of works by Flemish, Spanish and Italian old masters, and as such it postulated that the surrounding reality should be filtered through the inflecting prism of the styles of yore, whereby this brand of realism would be imbued with taste and culture[9]. Michalak revelled in the production of elaborate Passion-related scenes, and the motif of “the deposition” was a frequently revisited subject of his renditions. In those almost theatrical iterations, the dramatic scene in the foreground is steeped in a very strong light, whereas the background is characterized by the presence of an expansive landscape filled with an aggregate orchestration of the landscape of rolling hills reminiscent of the surroundings of Kazimierz on the Vistula River. Those representational renditions had their various aspects selectively evaluated against heterogeneous benchmarks and period yardsticks: the medieval compositional layout, the Baroque mystical penumbra, early-Renaissance landscape painting – and were always amalgamated with human presences and paraphernalia typifying the local Kazimierz community. The subdued, deliberately darkened chromaticity of such pictures was employed with a view to dignifying contemporary religious art, which was intended to underscore its universal, therefore current, relevance. The artistic manifesto of the Brotherhood, and for that matter of Michalak, prioritized the virtue of lofty elevation and solemnity, which signified the desire to concern oneself with impressive high art, monumental in size and addressing issues of universal relevance. This devotion to the timeless was intended to unleash a lot of drama and demonstrate the unity of the subjects with the divine universe. This reimagining of the mundane sphere along the lines of the monumental, historical style was mandated by the irrevocable cosmic laws that resurrected the myth of a return to the primordial unity of man, nature and God.[10] And Michalak’s artistic output was a telling testament to the desire to return to the past in order to reclaim that fundamental unity. The mission statement decrying the kind of civilisational progress that diverted attention from worthwhile concerns and defied the true sacrosanct ordination was vital to Michalak and many similar artists of that day and age. It was a tool for the institution and promulgation of a new stance on painting: it repudiated colour-oriented aestheticism and the linear perception of time adopted by the avant-garde. Thus, the new-fangled postulates of “new culture” being addressed to “new man” were supplanted by the Arcadian unity of Christian symbols inscribed into the context of a small town.

Michalak’s artistic output, which vividly heralds the re-adoption of figural art, constitutes only one of the realms of reference for the circle of artists affiliated with the Zamek group, Włodzimierz Borowski included. Nevertheless, when it comes to the illumination of the more salient coordinates describing the behaviour of the post-war avant-garde, one must acknowledge the inflecting impact of a deep antagonism to the pursuit of socialist realism along with the expansion of colourist trends within the framework of Polish art institutions, associations and academia ushered in by the arrival of the post-Stalinist thaw. That aesthetic development prompted the aspiration to pick up and splice back the severed threads of modernity. However, for the sake of analyzing some of Borowski’s early works featuring a perceptible resonance with religious themes, it is advisable to note that it was Michalak’s legacy that emblematised the traditional concept of a picture embedded in the cultural myth of loftiness and solemnity. Borowski’s abandonment of the conventional painting mindset would have been preceded by a resolution of the central dilemma of the bonding connecting painted pictures with the sphere of the divine. His radically novel approach to compositional or colourist issues, due to the abolition of any constraints per se, represented a negation of any representational unity and gravitated towards understanding a picture as a materialized, concrete object.

Were we to evaluate the early stages of Borowski’s painting trajectory against the above backdrop, we could approach it dialectically – as an attempt to forge a completely different interpretation of utilized motifs. Availing himself of the scope furnished by tachism and formalism enriched by non-painting objects, the artist put a new construction on religious tradition. Even if we surmise that it was Ludwiński who ascribed religious significance to Borowski’s abstract pictures, we automatically point to plausible, multiple inspirational contributions stemming from Michalak’s legacy. Borowski’s anti-images assign completely different shapes to traditional motifs, thereby rendering null and void the motifs’ erstwhile lofty, solemn character. The artist imparts them with a very crude, rudimentary visual representation, and in doing so he performs the act of de-sacralisation through consistent materialization.

When Yves-Alain Bois reflects on Bataille’s notion of heterology, he fully recognizes the daunting challenge behind materialization. He persistently highlights the inalienability of materialism from its antithesis – idealism. Traditional materialism, addressing the issue of the definition of basic matter from the perspective of the presumptive “should be”, comes uncomfortably close to the shaping, abstracting and idealizing of an unspecific element of matter. Later the author adds that this philosophical stance is polarized with formless matter – informel, Bataille’s base materialism, which “resembles nothing, especially not what it should be, refusing to let itself be assimilated to any concept whatever, to any abstraction whatever”.[11] According to Yves-Alain Bois the proposition propounded by Bataille found fertile soil for nomen omen materialization in the wake of WWII, when the new trend burst forth as a violent backlash against figure, metaphor and multifarious manifestations of symbolisation. In the field of visual arts, the new idea manifested itself in pointed plainness and concreteness, which challenged the very core of modernist conventions, and as a result led to their degradation and de-sublimation. Bois notes that the hallmark of this process was not so much the post-cubist artists” desire to completely abandon the means of shaping forms, cubes, as the attempt to obliterate clarity and distinctness of delineation, which in turn ultimately led to the dissolution of form into formless matter. Therefore, even though informel’s point of departure was shaped forms, it replaced them with base matter, thus reversing the direction of the traditional creative process: now the direction was from formation to degradation. Thus, heterology does not implement the postulate of launching an alternative system, but it consists in the materialisation of the foundations of the existing one. Among numerous examples presented by Bois (Burry, Manzoni, Rauschenberg), Lucio Fontana’s output is accorded pride of place on that count. This is how the author describes Fontana’s work Ceramica spaziale (1949): “The general form is cubic, but this cube seems to have been chewed, ingested, and regurgitated. Geometry (form, Platonic idea) is not suppressed but mapped onto what until then it had had the task of ‘suppressing by overcoming’: matter.”[12]

Włodzimierz Borowski’s works dating from the second half of the 1950s were far from idealising reality and were in compliance with the strategy of suspending dialectics. Embracing the tenet of complete integration of a painting’s surface spearheaded by the tradition of Strzemiński’s unism, the artist made multifarious use of chromatically saturated rugged painting substance. However, as the surfaces of Borowski’s paintings were purposely intended to pass for unfinished works in progress, they gave him scope for the creation of shimmering, pulsating spaces, creating both visual and tactile resonances in the viewer. [fig.4] Channelling Mariusz Tchorek’s understanding of the trajectory of modernist form, the artist endowed his pictures with such a third dimension that it brushed against the very frontier of identifying the surface of a painting as a space for construction, beguilement and for the creation of spatial illusions. In this approach, tiny particles of matter gave the observer cues on the pictures’ composition. Otherwise, when Borowski invoked religious motifs, he immediately subjected them to de-sacralisation; he replaced the verticality of religious depiction with muddy, oozing matter, which transmogrified the image into the lifeless, dried-up substance of the paint, edging down towards the bottom of the picture. The top-to-bottom reversal of the order of composition, observable in Fontana’s legacy, may be interpreted as overlaying the outlines of form with primordial, formless matter [fig. 5].

The strategy underpinning the compositions dedicated to Hiller was focused on the sequestration of the picture: contrasting shapes, varied textures, hints blocking out any peripheral vision, the narrowing of focus, were all exclusively geared to turning the spotlight on the space of a given picture. However, in the case of paintings elaborating on “religious content”, the orderly, static substance directs attention to the process as such, a progressive disintegration of the graphic structure of paintings, and the bottom line of such an escalation boils down to chewed over and digested mounds of painting matter. These two complementary series in tandem crystallise the two fundamental issues residing at the heart of the modernist tradition of painting: the first concerned the reduction of space, while the other focused on the manipulation of time. Those two can best be exemplified by the legacy of Strzemiński’s theories and the treatment of transience in Hiller’s output, respectively.

And yet Oko proroka (The eye of the prophet), ranking among Borowski’s earlier pictures, prompts a different perspective. Here the artist resorted to lacquering the surface over, thus the smooth surface masks any textural tensions and subtle chromatic values. The background is gently filmed over with a transparent yellowish layer, whose intensity increases here and there due to the application of darker shades. These darker patches form irregularly shaped spills. Luiza Nader wrote: “The eye of the prophet is an anti-masterpiece, created according to the principle of anti-composition. By simultaneously placing incongruous elements in the compass of one picture Borowski sought to liberate himself from habitual composition in order to emulate nature.[…] The anarchy and aesthetics of Oko proroka were levelled against some painting traditions – pictorialism, tachism and geometric abstraction”.[13] That is the reason why the picture can be perceived as a sui generis commentary on both the painting tradition at large and the painter’s own parallel experiments with colour, texture and objects.

Using this surface, which could in our minds signify a pure sign, the artist proposes such a meaningful arrangement of the specific elements of the composition that it is illustrative of the fundamental painting-related concerns which were dealt with extensively in his other productions dating from that period. The edges of the picture are hemmed with a serration made up of triangles, which accentuate the border of the picture. In addition, these triangular elements impart a measure of schematic differentiation to the surface. The regular, geometric provenance of these shapes lends itself to the creation of some rhythm and insinuates elementary polarities relating to two different dimensions: figures vs. background, and representation vs. space. On a conventional level, the triangles correlate to the variegated, rugged, systemically cracked space inside, overlaid with a thick, richly textured substance: all features which are earmarks of structural painting. The white line diagonally descending from the edge of the picture to its centre constitutes a link between the serrated frame and the black irregular stain. This line represents the fundamental demarcation line, which bisects the composition into two spheres, thereby laying down the formula for the visual order. The line thwarts any figural associations prompted by verticality or sublimation of shape and perfectly clings to the surface. This linear motif performs the trick of inversion, directing the viewer’s eyes to the lower section of the picture and determining the weight, gravitational pull and level of de-sublimation for every form. The bottom section of the picture is dominated by the irregular black-paint blot, which bleeds into its irregular perimeter by means of tiny capillary seeps and frays in the bulging contour. The black spill is subtly counterpointed by the black point encircled with the yellow ring. As the point is positioned in the geometric centre of the larger scheme of things, it seems to be possessed of levity, which gives the observer the impression of its weightless ascent against the smooth swathe of the surface. Though tiny, the point speaks volumes about the need for scrutinising the painting’s quality and its nuanced surface texture in keeping with this precise degree of graduation. Finally, this black dot reinforces the formlessness of matter below in the guise of the black field drifting downwards.

It stands to reason that Oko proroka (The eye of the prophet) has been accorded special status amongst Borowski’s early works – its conventionality, schematic character, along with the flat and smooth texture of the surface do not legitimise the placement of the picture in the structuralist painting paradigm. At the same time its synthetic arrangement bridges the artist’s textural and compositional explorations. The heterogeneous, anti-compositional character of this idea testifies to a heterological interest in leftovers, waste and denial. Włodzimierz Borowski himself admitted that Marian Bogusz harboured such an aversion to Kompozycja XIX (Composition XIX) that he even wanted to put out his cigarette against the canvas. This peculiar reception tellingly illustrates the degree of rejection the composition in hand met with as well as its banishment from the modernistic inventory of modes of representation.

Among the staple buzzwords retrospectively bandied about in relation to post-Stalinist-era artistic pursuits were the notions of organicism, integrity and spontaneity of the image, updating of the rules for modern aesthetics after the period of subjugation to conventions and subordination of depiction to the interests of social realism. The visual-artistic and conceptual organism propounded by Borowski was truly unique in its character: it replaced the growth, shape, and multiplication of the cellular form of an organic embryo with a chaotic, indistinct contour, with a disintegrating composition of solidified, incongruous elements, and finally with a rickety, lame, crippled body of a picture. To quote Yves Alain-Bois once again, “for base materialism, nature produces only unique monsters: there are no deviants in nature because there is nothing but deviation”.[14]

Having the benefit of hindsight, Borowski reminisced about his early period in Est-etyka. Autoportrety (Est-ethics. Self-portraits): “I train my eyes on that time and they confront a stone. The stone allows me to gain a perception of past, present and future. I can decree that the object has a different significance each time. But beyond its sheer being, there is nothing more to it. That is what we call structuralism. If this wall is made from natural stones, it may very well just be what it is – maybe it does not obstruct anything?”[15] By the same token, Borowski reinterpreted his output, interpolating it into the lineage of those artistic manifestations whose main preoccupation was not so much with the aesthetic dimension of art as its ethical imperative of liberation from constraining conventions. Needless to say, this abandonment of restrictions approximated the promise of some paradise. Borowski characterised structuralism as a radical expression aligning artistic creation with the organic spontaneity typifying nature. From this vantage point, he highlighted the irreconcilable conflict between crude natural entities and culture-mediated conventions of designation and evaluation. When it came to that base existence, it was completely immune to any value judgements labelling things sacred or profane, dignified and tacky, form-related or matter-related. Autoportret (The self-portrait) bore witness to an ambivalence that had previously been discerned by Ludwiński: “In Borowski’s case, his artistic output does not boil down to a sum total of particular objects or specific occurrences; his creativity is an ongoing process transpiring inside the artist’s psyche and becomes a compelling need. Whatever bubbles up to the surface is but fragmentary, materialized scraps of a completely different reality, and if we attempt to piece these jigsaw pieces together, the result will be only a partial reflection of that internal invisible reality”.[16] Est-etyka (Est-ethics) subscribed to the permanent character of artistic expression, and that is why it attributed this process to the category of individual choices. Subjectivity was perceived through the lens of incessant confrontation with the realm of artistic conventions. The creation of artistic latitude depended on the artist flying in the face of existing conventions, even though the very same sanctioned norms catalysed the process of laying bare the primary experience, approximating the mechanisms underlying formless nature. If we approach Kompozycja XIX from this angle, we may construe it as the expression of a rethinking and recasting of a given area of art, which comes down to the re-conceptualisation and intellectual redrawing of the boundaries circumscribing the confines of the painting domain. Ultimately it represented a movement tending towards primordial chaos and de-sacralisation of the depiction in hand.

The enterprise of de-sacralisation was the driving force behind the forging of such pictures as Rzeź (The slaughter), Zdjęcie z krzyża (The deposition) and Uczta Nabuchodonozora (Belshazzar’s feast). The raison d’etre of the undertaking was to challenge the long-established conventional wisdom that any depiction of such scenes must in our reception bring to the fore terror, suffering and profound emotional upheaval. The modern re-branding of these subjects was defined as a violent interference with their traditionalism by means of ravaging the surface with solidified matter and through the decomposition of the image. In the aftermath of the process, the drama purportedly conveyed by the picture was taken hostage to the unravelling syntax of the image, thereby obliterating any vestige of the lofty elevation of religious depictions of yore. Borowski embarked on the abolition of the myth of rebirth permeating Michalak’s legacy. Thus, the promised reconciliation of modern man with God was eclipsed by the forlorn wanderings of an artist ruminating on the idioms of modern visual culture and trying to fathom the mechanisms of the laicised socio-political system prevailing in the Polish People’s Republic in the post-war decades. The structure of the collage-like picture that seems to exist for a reason, in actual fact hides the dissolution, dissonance and chaos of a frail body. Oko proroka (The eye of the prophet) does not blaze a trail in any new direction, but recycles a concrete, one-off anti-aesthetic experience. “My puny physique is emerging from the waters of a purifying bath. I myself may have shrunk, but I have blown up my world”, Włodzimierz Borowski wrote in Autoportret IX (Self-portrait IX). It may well be so that the diagonal line bisecting Kompozycja XIX (Composition XIX) may signify the artist’s frail hand suggestively directing our eyesight to the disjointed potpourri appearing below and ousting the merely symbolic order. Maybe there is some intimation of a paradise lurking in this section, but it is circumvallated by the picture.


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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