Celestial Light: The Art of Antoni Malinowski

By Paul Moorhouse

Antoni Malinowski made his debut as an exhibiting artist in 1983. In the intervening forty years, he has produced an impressive body of paintings and drawings, some of which have been made on canvas and paper, others as temporary or permanent installations on the walls and floors of galleries and various buildings. The locations of the venues in which his work has been shown include Warsaw (his birthplace), Zurich, Hamburg and London; his numerous site-specfic architectural projects range from historic buildings in Venice and Milan to murals at the Royal Court, London, and the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford. On occasion, he has collaborated with dancers, his work being interpreted choreographically. The compass of his output is wide, its geographical footprint expansive. Yet, even though four decades have elapsed, Malinowski has remained essentially true to his original vision, and this he has articulated with disarming understatement. Commenting on the source of his art, he has observed simply: ‘I work with light.’

Evidence for that statement may be grasped in his recent painting Sleep Walker’s Orchard (2023), which is included in the present exhibition. The image is enigmatic, even though his ostensible subject is relatively ordinary: the painting depicts a group of chairs. However, Malinowski’s approach renders these commonplace objects, and the space in which they are situated, both mysterious and elusive. This impression flows directly from his distinctive treatment of light. Almost the entire surface of the painting is covered in discrete brushstrokes – small dabs of colour – which reflect and refract ambient light. The effect is to illuminate the image, and also to suffuse it with a compelling optical vibration. This unfolding performance is not, however, simply visual. Departing from artistic precedents, his chromatic recreation of light has a nervous, subjective quality, achieved through tiny, repeated marks, which have been committed to canvas over an unfathomably long period of time. Arising from the painstaking accumulation of individual units of colour, the painting’s luminous nature becomes inseparable from the expression of emotion.

As this suggests, Malinowski’s concern with light transcends the preoccupations of the Impressionist painters. Recreating the spectacle of objective illuminated nature is not his aim, nor is his broken brushwork geared to the kind of optical fusion sought by such Neo- Impressionist painters as Seurat, who employed a pointillist method. Unlike these earlier artists whose imagery was rooted in observed nature, the light that pervades Malinowski’s paintings has a profoundly ambiguous quality. Some sense of its intangible nature can, however, be understood in relation to the following lines from William Wordsworth’s great poem, Imitations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood:

The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and freshness of a dream.

Recollecting his youth, the poet evokes a world not only revealed by light, but illuminated – indeed, transformed – by its profound communion with his emotions and imagination. The experience of light becomes a bridge between the individual’s perception of the external world and his subjective inner life.

Wordsworth’s lines suggest the cord that connects the light of nature with a private world, and the seamless passage from one to the other. The light beheld by the poet is ‘celestial’ because it is inseparable from a ‘dream’. Something similar is conveyed by the title of Malinowski’s painting, which invites the viewer to pass beyond the surface of the painting and inhabit its interior virtual space, an imaginative domain associated with sleep-walking. The painting’s ambiguous nature arises from this merging of supposed opposites: the perceptual domain of colour, light and space envelope the viewer in the mystery of a dreamscape. This enthralling transformation from perception to imagination lies at the heart of Malinowksi’s art. In all his paintings and drawings, whatever their scale, we are presented with a visual field, which teems with colour, light and the intimation of shifting space – and fascination ensues. Prolonged looking animates the spectacle, the strokes of colour and light appearing to dance. With that progressive instability, the image unfolds, evoking myriad associations. Thus seduced, the viewer beholds, as Wordsworth put it, ‘the glory and freshness of a dream’.

What is the origin of Malinowski’s preoccupation with light? Unsurprisingly, he is reluctant to rationalise or explain a motive that evidently carries such profound personal significance. Even so, there are clues. Wordsworth’s poem evokes the imaginative splendour in the presence of nature that he experienced as a child – and he mourns the loss of something that he ‘can see no more’. There is a sense that such responses to looking, which elide perception with emotion, are uniquely linked with our earliest years. A similar sentiment has been expressed by Malinowski, who recalled his own childhood:

As a child, together with my sister we loved playing theatre. We would transform any area of the small Warsaw apartment into an imaginary world. One was under a round table covered on such an occasion with a leaf-patterned deep green and orange linen bedspread.

The world around him – his living space – was transformed by imagination, and, as his further recollections reveal, the trigger for such associations was a seductive visual experience concerning light seen through glass. Malinowski added:

[ … ] on the dark walnut table there was only an ash-tray bought on Murano [in Venice] by my grandparents before the war. It was an elliptically round, asymmetrically flowing shape. A particular cool pink shade, almost lilac at its base; at its wider circumference the colour almost disappeared in order to come back as a warm pink with a strange hue of almost burned caramel at its rim.

Transfixed by this object, with its innumerable lights, colours and reflections, the young Malinowski entered ‘a fairy tale world of miniature wonder and enchantment.’ In these words, we find the seeds of Malinowski’s art. Looking at his paintings yields chromatic sensations that assume shape and depth: changing impressions that expand and recede, soften and fade, as the process of perception does its work. ‘The dots were dancing, swirling, coming forward and disappearing’, he recalled of his childhood revelation. In similar vein, the pictorial visual arena of his paintings appears unstable as intuitions of colour and light are mentally synthesised, progressively forming and reforming an image. Precisely this experience is presented in Demeter (2023), the other major recent painting displayed in the present exhibition. By contrast to Sleep Walker’s Orchard, in which the depiction of recognisable objects is a new development, Demeter appears entirely abstract. Flecks of pigmented colour yield individual flickering sensations of blue, vermillion and yellow. Distributed across the surface of the painting, these chromatic units are contained within larger abstract shapes, their edges defined by sinuous lines. Visual instability is clearly a preoccupation for the artist, and this is encouraged by his use of special duo-tone pigments made available by nano-technology. Comprising micro-particles of colour, the brushstrokes reflect but also refract the light falling upon them. As the viewer shifts their own position, the dichromatic nature of the painted marks emerges. Light blue becomes dark, white shifts to silver, and so on. A surprising characteristic of Malinowski’s paintings is an intended susceptibility to subtle changes in their appearance.

Demeter evokes the kind of magically changing visual world that we associate with childhood. It is his singular achievement to bring such entrancing spectacles within the ambit of later life: confronting such works as adults, we reconnect with an earlier age of enchantment. However, as implied by the painting’s title, there are other connotations. According to Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of the harvest, who also had connections with the underworld, from where she sent up gifts. The notion of riches transferred from unseen depths is germane to Malinowski’s art. After engaging the viewer with its visual abundance, the painting’s subsequent power of inexplicable evocation becomes apparent. Colours, lines, shapes, space and apparent movement begin to resonate at a deeper cognitive level, inviting us to invest a beguiling abstract image with personal significance. Responding to sense impressions, we form unconscious associations with our own buried sensations, memories and indistinct feelings, which, like the goddess’s gifts, are brought to the surface of the mind from obscure depths.

In this way, the light within Malinowski’s paintings is never simply visual but, as Wordsworth intimated in relation to his own experiences, assumes a ‘visionary gleam’. It touches imagination and emotion, stirring manifold responses in the viewer that, though not entirely graspable, may be glimpsed at some profound personal level. Wordsworth put this well: ‘Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’ This is not to suggest an undertow of sadness beneath the surface of Malinowski’s paintings, nor some lachrymose affective potential. On the contrary, he has said, ‘I want my paintings to move and uplift the viewer’s state of mind.’ However, as he well knows, some feelings evade simple classification. Emotion is complex, unstable and intimately connected with vision. These are the qualities that distinguish his art, which appeals to eye, mind and heart. In so doing, it excites and moves us in wonderfully unpredictable ways.

Paul Moorhouse 20203