…I’ve been a bit knocked about by the world.
Of encounters with Antoni Rząsa
Encounter one: Zakopane
Someone said it was worth it.
Snow drifts, a trod-out, gravel path. A little, wooden cottage. We wait. This was supposed to be it, but the door is locked. We knock, it is quiet, smoke swirls from the chimney. No-one. In front, there are sculptures – ? – thickly-hewn wooden stakes with barely visible features. It starts to snow. We turn back.
Then: the Antoni Kenar High School of Fine Arts. Kenar, Rząsa, these names still sound alien, bring no associations, evoke no images in the mind. The school exhibits the works of one of the graduates: impressive little chests with stopped time. But the titles of the works and the name of the author evade my memory.
Next: The Cemetery for People of Merit in Pęksowy Brzyzk. Here lie Stanisławicz Witkiewicz, Kornel Makuszyński, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Władysław Hasior. Rząsa’s sculpture guards Kenar’s grave: a log with a carved-out cross, inside a strained Christ. The first encounter. The first embrace? Rząsa remains in my head, brushing on the “check out later” drawer.
Encounter two: Poronin
The Władysław Hasior and Contexts exhibition. Hasior, still incessantly unsettling. Bulging lightbulb eyes, torn pieces of fabric, deformed plastic dolls. Challenging art, evoking protest, at odds with familiar aesthetics. Nearby, Jonasz Stern and bones sticking out from the surface of canvas, Erna Rosenstein and albums made of scraps, Jerzy Krawczyk and strange pictures-collages babbling with the language of everyday slogans. With them Antoni Rząsa and again: wood carved as if by chance. All that threatening, pushing off balance, provoking, insolent. Art that cannot be measured with intellect; beyond comprehension. Because in comprehension there lurks terror and… insanity?
Sculptures by Rząsa: Christ as the Man of Sorrows, Pietà, a stooped wanderer. Coarse, basic. The first association: roadside, mountain shrines. But there’s something in the carvings that makes this “shrinishness” doubtful. Maybe it’s the contorted face, perhaps the twisted hands?
But there’s no more time, we’ve got to go, they’re closing up.
Encounter three: Warsaw
A lovely bookshop-café, a window table, right by a shelf with the reproductions of works by various artists. Roaming among the bookshelves. And then, Antoni Rząsa: Works. Somewhere in the back of my head a light flashes: familiar. Inside there are texts and photographs of several sculptures. I can’t resist and take a look; page after page goes by.
I’m lost for a good couple of hours. And then I return, to read again. And again.
I decided this could not go unnoticed, I just couldn’t not write. These encounters (strangely forming a single line) hold too much significance, they are too personal. And though I’m far from being an art critic, I take up the challenge. Because the sculptures of Master Antoni are too close to be left concealed in the darkness of my own mind. The closeness is a paradox: the works of a semi-folk sculptor touch my – city and non-artistic – consciousness. They leave their mark.
The story will then continue as a tale of marks.
Mark one: persistence
I cannot rid myself of the question, what power must have shone in this thin, wrinkled man that it does not allow for (my) indifference? I don’t know. Maybe it is a trait of every artist, or maybe a special feature of Rząsa’s? There’s a passage in the above-mentioned book that goes:
…my heart holds faith in my own strength, and rebellion against the surrounding reality; there is a huge, silent persistence, there is perseverance and a darn ambition; not to give up, not to give in, even if all the devils were to stand in my way; with this faith I built cribs in the bushes1.
It seems that persistence is one of the reasons which make us stop.
Antoni was consistently faithful to his art, despite criticism, incomprehension, financial problems, physical weakness, sickness… I don’t wish to erect a beautiful monument here (which, I presume, Rząsa would not have appreciated), but I cannot resist the spell of the strength and confidence I feel in his words. His incessantly taken up struggles with himself, with the resistance of matter, with the world, evoke my respect. The feeling is still intensified when I come across such words:
…an unrewarding profession, held in contempt by those around, challenging if one can work it all their life; the material side – lame; society – criticism, contempt; this profession requires much more devotion than that of a priest…2
It may seem strange that wanting to speak of art, I begin with life; to write of sculptures, I speak of the sculptor. I think, though, that in this case any separation of the two spheres would result in impoverishing both. This cohesion, entirety, and a clear awareness of purpose seem to be an unattainable ideal. From the perspective of my life’s disorder, a constant feeling of fragmentation and shredding into pieces, the image of fullness visible in Rząsa’s words and actions lures, but not without a tinge of anxiety.
Rząsa’s life and personality are also of importance because at least some of his sculptures cannot be analysed in separation from the events which really occurred. The cycle of Crucified Christs carved during the illness of Antoni Kenar, Rząsa’s teacher, could serve as an example. Witnessing the suffering of his mentor, he created figures in which, as he himself said, he wanted to lock the pain.3The feelings of individuals were not the only ones to find their place in Rząsa’s works: World War II events inspired him to carve sculptures about the Passion. Some of them are Pietàs, whose aim is actually not to depict the death of Christ and the sorrow of Saint Mary, but above all to convey the sadness of a mother saying farewell to her soldier-son.
Despite frequent reference to the teachings of the Church, Rząsa did not unambiguously declare his faith4; his sculptures also diverged from the canon of Christian representations. With the use of evangelical figures, Antoni tried to capture the pain of regular people; he treated them as allegories of human suffering. Perhaps that is why his sculptures were so controversial, contradictory to the smooth faces of Madonnas and benevolent countenances of the suffering Christs; maybe instead of touching what in the figures was divine, they touched what was so painfully human?
Mark two: deformation
The suffering of the carved people (as Master Antoni’s sculptures are mainly human) was often expressed in deformation5. The sculptures look out with huge eyes, their arms are twisted, their heads out of proportion; misshapen, they border on grotesque. And yet the deformations do not bring on an indulgent smile; on the contrary, they throw off balance, push out of a pattern. It seems Rząsa was aware of this:
Deformations evoke anxiety, because they disturb the limits of humanity, they alter the sphere of corporeality. Features marked with just a few cuts in the wood, contorted in grimaces of terror and suffering. The bodies of the sculptures are similar and yet different from human figures. Similar, because we instinctively identify the eyes, face, mouth, hands, torso; different, because such figures do not really exist. Deformity starts to appear as balancing on the border of humanity. It dehumanizes like pain, but at the same time it adds humanity, as it touches upon the extrarational, the most profound and intuitive.
The sculptures are moving not only because, as Brzozowski put it, “you hear the creak of tormented wood”7, but also because they reflect the emotions of the viewers. Rząsa will say, “…it seems to me that some see in my sculptures their own exhaustion and their own helplessness”8. The carvings cease to be remote images of imaginary agony, but become an experience in which one takes part, finding their own pain and their own loss.
Making the figures unreal does not consist only in overdrawing certain elements. Due to their coarseness and massiveness, the figures don’t resemble human forms at all. Their “block shapes” are predominantly a result of folk character. However, to avoid any doubt, it must be said that although the roots of Rząsa’s art are indeed of a folk nature, his art is not necessarily so. The sculptor himself described it in the following words:
Indeed, having graduated from art school and under Kenar’s eye, after his journey to Italy in 1962, he could no longer be a “naïve creator”; what he had seen and what he knew did not allow him for unreflective activity, unaware of its beginnings and goals. And yet the folk nature remained one of his main sources of inspiration. Rząsa’s sculptures, both in form and subject, make reference to the figures in roadside shrines: simple shapes, sharp features, frontality. Dorota Brajerska writes that “this results from the small surface of the room which he worked in. […] Sculpting requires a lot of room, perspective; that is why Rząsa’s compositions are frontal and flat.”10It could be that limited space was of such strong significance, though I consider the shape of the sculptures to be purposeful, resulting from a particular attitude Rząsa had towards the material in which he carved…
Mark three: touch
Antoni Rząsa had an extraordinary outlook on wood: it was not passive, obedient matter, but an active co-creator. Perhaps if not for the above-described encounters, I would never have thought that it could be live matter. And then I come across such words, “I like wood, because it has a smell, it is such a warm material, wood is alive. Life is already in wood itself.”11This breeds an incredible way of carving, subject to the shape of the wood, seeking figures, faces, gesture in root or bough, waiting for a revelation, open to dialogue:
Rząsa was obedient to the matter: he did not cut against tree rings and knots; he took care that the sculpture “fit” in a single piece of wood. Wawrzyniec Brzozowski said, “Rząsa’s sculptures are the same, once alive trees, just in a different form.” Wood during the entire process of creation does not cease to live; maybe here lies one of the sources of their endless effect: as live creatures, they enter into relations and dialogues.
Thoroughness and care characterized not only the time of carving, but also that of conserving. Rząsa coated the sculptures with wood stain of various colours, he wiped, then coated on; as if he wanted not only to secure the wood from destruction or external factors, but also to dress it anew, give it new bark, so that it wouldn’t be so bare, hewn, ripped of its previous secrets.
You may get the impression that he treated his material with an outstanding tenderness which left a mark in the sculptures, breathing in them a certain undescribed warmth. I sometimes think that the wood wants to repay him: it stretches, flexes, straightens to show its gratitude for the respect and closeness it has been offered, and for the touch that chips off, smooths, cuts, at the same time creating, giving life, turning a shapeless piece of wood into a figure, a body, full of feelings and emotions. Maybe that is why Hanna Łukaszczyk had the impression that “his sculptures can see”…
I guess that these encounters must be experienced personally: look in the eye of the Suffering Christ, discreetly touch the still-warm wood, inhale the elusive smell of wood stain, set out through the snow to that little, wooden hut which stands out of the way, without shouts and racket, but with persistence and dogged determination. Although now without Antoni Rząsa.
4„[…] I am a believer, my religion is simply my spiritual need. I will not call myself a Catholic […], but I feel that there exists a powerful world of spirit which is incessantly in conflict with the world of matter.” Source: http://www.culture.pl/pl/culture/artykuly/os_rzasa_antoni
5„A certain way of conveying symbolic content is deformation. It functions like a film frame: exposing these parts of the human body which are the most expressive […]. Enlarging them, overdrawing, automatically makes anatomy insignificant, and the entire emphasis is focused on expression.” Dorota Bajerska, source:www.antonirzasa.pl