THE BELL JAR
A bell jar town, isolated, cut off from the rest of the world- this metaphor, though not quite clear to me at that time, was used by a friend and art historian to explain the unique atmosphere of Sanok.
Isolation, lack of contact. The world in Szczepkowski's paintings is a world apart, something keeps us away from it. It is populated by individuals who, although realistically presented and not exactly imaginary, seem strange. They're believable and unreal at the same time, familiar despite being distanced and “not quite from here”. Why do they look like both apparitions and neighbours? It is because they're on the border, one foot on the other side, older by not one but two generations. Their outfits, one piece underwear, modest hairdos, in positions that remind those in a child's ABC book or instruction board. Finally - yellowish groundwork and faded colours. They come from the dark times of brown-coloured uniforms, shiny petticoats, and steel machine guns and radio transmitters. The times that, although not so remote, already seem unreal, made even more terrifying thanks to the grandparents' stories yet appealing thanks to what could be found in the attics and other nooks and corners. Safely hidden in the shade, we get a sneak peak of the complex rituals those apparitions are performing, appearing out of the dark background. We often witness oppression or even violence, that we somehow find ourselves guilty of, without actually being part of it. Looking at the Unspeakable that comes out of the dark background, we become a director manipulating the spotlight, and willing to hide more than to reveal… As if strangling? Maybe rescuing? Dark and suffocating pictures of Szczepkowski derive from the borderline of the existence and non-existence of: the proof – material props and recollection – a failing contamination. They can be both the presence that has passed or an echo of the past. A living shadow, a living dead.
One of the first associations here is Joseph Wright's nocturnes. Experiment with the Suction Pump where a group of observers are leaning over a bell jar with a fainted bird inside. A more obvious association is the New Objectivity and Leipzig school, it seems more convincing however that these paintings are influenced by the Austrians, like Xavier Winterhalter, Marcus Schinwald, Freud, and all that imperial past. It's not as much about the admiration of the past as the fear of the future: it used to be better. Not without importance is the place where the author works: the cemetery of Galician residential and industrial architecture1. Szczepkowski does not believe in progress, in his paintings the machines become the tools of self-destruction and doom, exactly the way it happens in works by Joseph Wright of Derby. In the paintings of English master , whose aim was to praise the progress of civilization with his theoretically optimistic visions, we see Romantic fatalism lurking. The same with Szczepkowski: the figures in his pictures seem completely immerged in performing their tasks, separated from us by silence, covered with a glass jar, under which the atmosphere thickens, and the shadow stifles the light.
These are recurring shadows: the changes are only apparent, the progress is in fact regress, and art is sublimation of our fears. Szczepkowski paints useless machines, dis-assembled decorations and an artist in his workshop. He uses the means that are Romanticism's addition to the classic academic rules : tenebrism, lack of careful finishing touches, allowing the sketch and groundwork or even raw canvass to show through, contrasting vast fields of colour with nonchalant and meticulous drawing, and finally Cozens' “new drawing method” which consists in achieving particular shapes from random blotches/blots sublimation Burke's “horror at a distance” (we're still protected by the bell jar). The anxiety is heightened by the surplus of props and crowd of figures that impose their unclear narrative, the way Max Beckmann used to do. The viewer is taking part in a play, being the director rather than bystander and onlooker. In the “Night Cinema” he gets the impression of being involved into something indecent, shameful, immoral, but certainly not for our eyes. Theatricality in Szczepkowki's paintings is of backstage type- what we're watching is not the actual performance but some backstage snaps, “work in progress,” rehearsals – more or less successful. Their draft nature results in more realistic impression than a finished work could produce. Almost all pictures seem unfinished, as if the pressure of recording was too big. This vision is only short-lasting and unique. All this makes the revelation faulty and instead of being full of objects, it's full of empty shadows. The occasional precision and unequivocality are fragile, the clarity of the narrative comes abruptly and is broken in an equally abrupt way, as if washed away with a wave of watering or washed down in the grey depths of the groundwork. This is also how our memory works: it's a mixture of sharpness and confusion, sudden although unstable certainty. The artist admits that achieving such non finito rough and raw destruct effect is something he cares about. We are then the witness of the process, the scene takes place mostly in a workshop, we can watch people concentrated on their work. We can see an individual surrounded by his artifacts as well as objects that he uses for making them, but most of all, for giving them meaning. The props gathered point to the lab of a “mad scientist” (Surrogate, New Meaning, Machine) or an artist's studio (Preliminary Draft, Paint, Sculpting, Workshop, Patterns). We're looking at the operation during which a person discovers the laws of nature, and submits the environment to his control: he names, uses and modifies. Like with Wright's, we have a feeling that the neutrality of science and knowledge is only apparent: we live in times when the ethical questions are not about the Earth being flat, but where are the limits of the external interference with the natural way of things, how far can we go in manipulating not only the world around us but also ourselves. In view of the dilemmas that modern bioethics faces, the physical theology of the Enlightenment seems trifle.
Fascination with death (and love- Szczepkowski is also the author is subtly pornographic miniatures) refers us back to the tradition. Szczepkowski is a graduate of Kraków Fine Arts Academy. He also might be the incarnation of his namesake ancestor, deceased a couple years before the artist's birth, Jan Szczepkowski, a distinguished sculptor of the interwar period, the author of Cubism decorative reliefs on the building of Polish parliament. What these two have in common is not only the classicistic-academic order mixed up with nonchalant dynamics of presentation. They both seem also to like sharp angles, in the vertically composed pictures of Szczepkowski the shapes of human figures are mostly written into a rectangle, the pyramidal composition (under a glass jar) and broad splashes of paint and drippings are often closed by a line composed with pieces of furniture. This is not all: Szczepkowski the sculptor was a student of Malczewski. This Fin de siècle artist, the author of Ellenai and other death scenes, comes to mind when we admire the skill and proficiency of Szczepkowski, the painter in showing the female body. However, the Slavic melancholy of Malczewski is replaced by Szczepkowski with clinically cold Germanic objectivism of Neue Sachlichkeit. His art is as dry as a pattern/scheme, at times with “Fascist” precision. Tracing back the origin, let us remind that the master of Neo Rauch and non-formal founder of the “Leipzig School” was Bernhard Heisig (born in Breslau), who, following the war experiences, similar to Bronislaw Linke, and then Zdzislaw Beksiński (born in Sanok), made death and macabre the leitmotif of hi art. Let us also remind that the ancestor of Szczepkowski was also the author of designs of 25 cemeteries from the period of World War One.
If we remember how big affinity Bronisław Linke bore to Heisig's paintings, we might ask a question: Could Beksiński be treated as the originator of the “Polish Leipzig School”? However, there are no vampires in Leipzig. There is no Cioran with his ultimate pessimism, and Romanian city of Cluj, with its circle of artists such as Victor Man and Alexander Tinei, is another important reference point for Szczepkowski.
Thus, we have, Sanok's catastrophism (Beksiński). We are on a verge of unpredictable self-destruction (Machine). In place of expected immortality – we get zombies, in place of civilization – dark abyss of Cioran's “countermodernism”. However, in place of healing disaster we only get “Incomplete End of the World.” Although we're lacking oxygen, we're still safely hidden under the bell jar.
1Jan Szczepkowski is employed in Sanok's Open Air Museum.