Detail, Scenes from the life of the Queen, Jerzy Skolimowski, 1999, acrylic on canvas
The Color of Blood
By Travis Diehl
Jerzy Skolimowski at his first solo show, n.u.u.d.berlin, February 2023
Like many artists who work across disciplines, filmmaker and painter Jerzy Skolimowski is often asked about the links between his apparently distinct bodies of work. He downplays the connections, and certainly his paintings and films look little alike—yet the question seems unavoidable in early 2023 as a major two-venue exhibition of his paintings in Berlin coincides with the wide distribution of EO (2022), his first film in seven years. The director and his collaborator and wife Ewa Piaskowska flout the conventions of narrative cinema, and give free reign to their cinematographer Michal Dymek, imbuing EO with a floating, inhuman (donkey’s eye view) quality that seems to align with the explosive but indistinct brutality of Skolimowski’s nonrepresentational canvases. EO is a series of visual shocks, strung together on the protagonist’s guileless journey across modern Europe. His paintings are, too.
Formally as well as practically, Skolimowski’s two practices—or better, these two categories of his oeuvre—have an inverse relationship. The films tend to be figurative and story-driven, the paintings, which he first exhibited in 1996, are often large-scale improvisations, abstract and punctual. There are few people in Skolimowski’s paintings—ghostly, looming, displaced—and far more vague intimations of human forms. Skolimowski points to gaps in his filmography: the seven years between 11 Minutes (2015) and EO, but especially the 17 years between 1991’s Ferdydurke and 2008’s Four Nights with Anna, in which he claims his love for cinema was revived. When he hasn’t been making films, he’s been painting. The relationship seems reactive, catalytic—as one genre draws energy from the other.
The paint was flowing, now it’s not. EO’s opening scene is red and strobing, and the donkey and her handler resolve only gradually from the confusion. In their 1969 anthropology of color terms, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay propose that every culture has words for dark and light, black and white; if a culture has a third color in their vocabulary, it will be red. It’s the color of blood, evidently—not just human, but animal, the color of the kill—and also the color of coursing life. I thought of Skolimowski’s paintings while watching a reality show about artists. The prompt was “justice,” and a skilled figurative printmaker attempted an abstract work meant to evoke the murder of Black Americans by police—a mostly black organic shape, overlaid with a bubbling cluster of red circles symbolizing bullet wounds. It was not a successful piece, because of the red. Without the artist there to state his intentions, the red wasn’t enough—too bright, too cheerful. Not a blood red. More Memphis or Target.
The red in EO isn’t blood red, either. It doesn’t have to be. It’s the red of emergency, of seeing red in anger or a wash of existentialism or a pall of tragedy—the red filter of a darkroom—an animalistic vision that returns to those first lights and darks by way of the third color, red.
Agonia, 1999, acrylic on panel
Scenes from the life of the Queen, 1999, acrylic on canvas
Skolimowski’s palette tends toward crackling grisaille, with the powerful effect of conflating shapes that could be human, or monuments, or doorways, or simply paint, and refuse to resolve; his color theory starts with black and white, introduces red, then golds and greens, the occasional blue or brown. I haven’t seen him use purple. An older work, the brutally titled Scenes from the life of the Queen is compelled by red. It’s an abstraction, although it starts with the blood-like shock of its central form, and the watery path the red makes through the wheat-gold field from the wan crinkled shape at the top of the panel does evoke a spilling wound. There’s been some violence here, we can sense it. A severed head? But that’s too literal. More like a wounded form, and the red here isn’t brown enough to be called blood, either, unless the color of living blood on a pale ground. It stirs memories of the hot red paint that dribbles down the sides of the London swimming pool at the end of Deep End (1970), signifying disaster.
Agonia has a similar size and orientation, although here the ground is red and the scrabbling, writhing marks on top have a muddy cast. It’s not a body, or even a picture of a body, but the gestural way Skolimowski paints always testifies to the presence of his body. It has an inverse composition, in terms of red, to Queen. Agonia invokes an epochal suffering, while the regal red of Queen seems tied to the blood of the victims of empire and conquest, less an abstract affliction than a specific, inflicted pain.
Or maybe that’s the fallacy of abstraction. What does it mean to see blood? Skolimowski paints on the edge of total abstraction and the plausible deniability of figuration. Maybe he wants to confront us with a severed head, or maybe a heightened hallucination of the white sun setting on the goldenrod water. Maybe it’s the snaps of cruelty punctuating Skolimowski’s films that prime me for the worst. I’m encouraged, too, by the brooding Polish relish of his work to see, in his elegant double horizontal compositions, what must be landscapes, the war-torn fields of Europe, a childhood in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, nature ravaged by mankind. In the double-panel painting Vantage Point, an imposing eight feet square, Skolimowski renders gentle hills and piercing sky with a mottled intensity that, indeed, evokes the churning monochrome scenes of EO, the darks still dark and the lights tinted. The painter laid down the blacks first, then built up the green ground, letting the dark underpainting show through in places to form shadows. The words we have for swathes of solid color, field or ground, are themselves disorienting in Skolimowski’s hands; I think I see grass, the shape of growth, a waterfall at the mouth of a canyon, but this “ground” feels flimsy and untrustworthy. The title, too, puts my own perspective in question.
If there’s a relationship between the 84-year-old Skolimowski’s films and paintings (not to mention his poetry, or his boxing) it emerges through a combination of the author’s sensibility and my willful reading. The sky in Vantage Point, by the way, is yellow—brighter than the limp, scratchy sun or moon swimming in the upper right quarter of the painting—although the ground is a reassuring green. It might as well be red.
Travis Diehl is a writer, critic, and Online Editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.
Vantage Point, 2001, acrylic on panel