Antoni Malinowski: Light Sensitive Refleksions

by A.M. Lesniewska

The reason why we talk about how some meetings are pregnant in their effects is something that happened in 1967 in Lodz, when Italian director Luchino Visconti was travelling across Europe, on a tour which also included Warsaw (Alla Ricerca di Tadzio, 1970). His goal in a long and tiresome search was to find an actor who could embody the blond teenager Tadzio, the slender Polish boy, one of the characters from the Thomas Mann novel “Death in Venice”, who enchants the tired writer, its main hero. (1) The fascination awaken by an accidental meeting with the boy breaks the older man’s creative impasse and becomes the reason for action. For the film director this situation provided the impulse to create an unusual film, an intensely sublimated, densely layered and sophisticated movie.

Among those chosen for the screen test for Tadzio’s role in the Lodz Film School was Antoni Malinowski, who had previously been spotted among the boys of the school on Miodowa street in Warsaw where he was a pupil. This episode, and its associated memories, came alive when the idea emerged of the artist’s show at the Cinematography Museum in Lodz. For Malinowski this Lodz exhibition became a pretext for a mental time travel to the past, which is embodied also in the film that Renee Vaughan Sutherland made about Malinowski’s work, in which the film maker follows with her camera his work in Venice, Warsaw, London and, of course, Lodz.

The uniqueness of this Visconti episode from 45 years ago consists of the meeting between two completely disparate realities: Malinowski’s from drab Communist Poland and the famous film director’s from the affluent and open western world. Indeed this triggered Malinowski’s return to childhood, involving the few surviving pictures, hidden shreds of memories, with which he called back the multiple reflections in the darkened mirrors of the past, where also are glimpsed his ancestors from the world we have lost, now disappeared, now turned to dust and whose after-images stayed only in his memory.

One freezing December morning towards the end of the 1990s Malinowski began his Venetian adventure by tracing the movement of light on the ten-metre long “marmorino” wall in the newly build residence of the Swedish collector who had previously seen the artist’s exhibition at London’s Camden Arts Centre. Then Malinowski spent half a year in Venice. It was a winter and spring that bore fruit in his first big-scale painting located within Venetian architecture. Since then, he often returns to this city in March to admire the unusual white light reflecting in the Laguna’s water, the same light which we see in the paintings and frescoes of Gian Battista Tiepolo.

Venice, the city of cities which seduces and beckons, drawing you into its magical labyrinth of houses, streets and squares, all of which liberate in the artist the desire to look, which in itself is based on a dream to see all and to experience the elusive and deeply felt currents of life in Venice. This place requires you to sharpen your vision and take yet another look into the multiplied reflections which almost brush against the luminous elevations of the buildings. The multiplications and the changeability of experienced visual stimuli raises the eye’s appetite and the necessity of returning again to the same places. “The eye in this city”, writes Josif Brodski in “Watermark”, “acquires an autonomy similar to that of a tear. The only difference is that it doesn’t sever itself from the body but subordinates it totally. After a while — on the third or fourth day here — the body starts to regard itself as merely the eye’s carrier, as a kind of a submarine to its now dilating, now squinting periscope. Of course, for all its targets, its explosions are invariably self-inflicted: it’s your own heart, or else your mind, that sinks; the eye pops up to the surface. This of course relates to a ‘campo’ with a cathedral in the middle of it, barnacled with saints and flaunting its Medusa-like cupolas.”

Returning to Venice the artist always experiences the almost all encompassing feeling of unreality. The ephemeral feeds the imagination, which then can assemble the whole spectacle shown in the consecutive configurations of the observed fragments of the city.

The light sensitive installations which Malinowski creates during the span of many years in different cities and often in quite unusual places is something more than the sum of overlaying images of the spectacle. Time is the dimension which makes the whole, puts together the scattered fragments of the real and the multiplied reflections — time creates the unity. Through the interdependent relations of light, space and time, an ephemeral, intimate atmosphere is created. The activated complex structure of pigments allows visualisation of the phenomenon which according to the artist is “getting closer to the light of place, its Genius Loci”.

The sun’s rays glistening on the water of the Venice Laguna are like the light reflections in a Murano glass mosaic; subtraction of light in the old blackened mirrors becomes an echo of taboo, as touched on in the film about the artist. Malinowski constructs his tale about light, but in truth it is a story about himself which is made out of his own and his family’s life experiences. He perceives light captured both in painted pictures and in film pictures as a vital energy which is a necessary ingredient in making his introspective art. Light has the ability to reveal, uncover, and simultaneously a possibility to be immersed in it and thus to see oneself. The contact with light might be not only the sum of one’s experience and knowledge, but a new quality which becomes a glimmer of illumination. To see light, its constant transformations is to experience illumination — the unmediated contact with reality.

The colour of light, its intensity depends on the relations with other aspects which in this particular case are the exhibits from the Cinematography Museum such as the 19th-century Stereoscope (Fotoplastikon). Its functioning is based on the neuro–optical principle, the relation between the apparatus’s mechanics and the human eye, and this becomes the ideal companion for Malinowski’s installation. The museum’s objects help the artist to further research the phenomenon of light, the natural process of absorption, reflection and penetration of light of particular wavelengths which is then transformed into neuro-impulses in the viewer’s brain, and trigger the seeing of colour. These impressions differ because the individual abilities of the viewer determine the possibility of seeing the colour and then the intensity of its saturation.

The artist set out a precise plan of work for his Lodz installation in which the consecutive elements of his creative process are related to the phenomenon of light. In turn, this is the main axis of his work, becoming also the main thread of the Vaughan Sutherland film, which uses the notation of light effects in the shape of a triptych where the chain of the film’s images forms itself into the stages of the following phenomenon: dispersion, subtraction, refraction.

The best known example of light dispersion is the refraction of the perceived light through a prism. Isaac Newton first explained the essence of the phenomenon of dispersion. His experiments lead him to conclude that light is colour, but the colours of light are not what Malinowski is working with; the artist is working with pure pigments which behave inversely to the light colours. Working with the coloured pigments is based on taking away — subtraction of light. Malinowski creates his wall drawings and painterly interventions mapped by streams of energy in the self-designated space, invoking in the museum’s room a spectrum — the optical after-image, thus analysing light through colour, through light’s penetration into the micro-structure of pigments.

The result of these actions is the dynamic interactions between matter and light through which the artist paradoxically reveals the immateriality of colour.

The colours are achieved by using hand-mixed pigments prepared with the help of almost medieval recipes, then thanks to the variety of ingredients and sometimes even changes triggered in their inner structure, the result is the phenomenon of light refraction, when the light rays become distorted by their travel through diversified layers. The illusion created by the optical changes due to their strength of emission influences other spheres of creation. This phenomenon of nature suggests emotions through the movement of the rhythm of the subconsciously emerging music, metamorphosing into dance of gestures and signs.

Just as Visconti’s “Death in Venice” will for a long time remain an important element of our discourse about culture, history and human nature, so the work of Antoni Malinowski will also remain a constantly fascinating evocation of the light of reality.

1 The hero of Thomas Mann novel, Gustav von Aschenbach, is a writer, but in Visconti’s film he is portrayed as a composer.

© A.M. Lesniewska