The Art of Ryszard Orski - Jerzy Madeyski
The sculpture of Ryszard Orski arouses strong emotions-admiration or indignation, fervent applause or equally strong opposition. It provokes discussion and forces reflection, thus instigating reactions, as art should-any and all reactions, rather than cool indifference. This is good. The only measure of art is the reaction it provokes since it is true that art is at liberty to do much in order to achieve its aims, perhaps it even has the freedom to do anything at all. Anything with one exception-to be boring, as boredom is the death of art and denial of its essence.
What then is the deepest essence of art? It is a language of transmittal, of communication, but also the quintessence of emotions' thoughts, a crystallization of human striving and aspiration, and a field for the search for truth and for the way to perfection. Thus art is a visible form of philosophy and was recognized as such by the ancients in the Greek concept of Kalokagathia, with its marvelous philosophic precision encompassing the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty at the same time. Human thought is truly beautiful and it strives to find form for itself. Otherwise art, or that which ostensibly resembles it, is reduced to the level of a pleasant visual diversion, lacking the force of conviction, an amusement that is forgotten in the moment of averting a quickly sated glance.
Orski's sculptures fascinate and coerce a repeated contact with them, a repeated analysis and revelation of their subsequent layers of meaning. These works impress with their freshness and courage. And even more, with their heretofore never seen individuality and distinctiveness-so great that reviews and critiques of the artist's work appearing from Moscow to the USA, from Scandinavia to Sicily consistently apply the description "phenomenon"-"Orski's phenomenon"-in always positive contexts. Yet a "phenomenon" is unique and devoid of tradition. A phenomenon appears from nowhere, like a comet in the firmament, and vanishes with- out a trace in the cosmic vastness. Attributing Orski to artistic phenomena certainly appeals with the attraction of an easy understanding of his work and personality, as the word "phenomenon" settles everything on an axiomatic model, which you either accept or reject.
Of course, the work of an artist is an apparition on the firmament of our popular preferences for mainstream art, which are subjected to a steady seasonal stream of continually new artistic styles and theories. They disappear even before anyone is able to develop and bring to perfection their ideological and formal precepts. Though even in these-albeit many in the inexhaustible count of "isms" and the "new" of the last decade which arose solely from the desire to astound only with newness, since after all novelty sells best-a careful observer will find some element of the past.
The composer, Karol Szymanowski, a transplanted resident of Zakopane and self-proclaimed highlander, whom it is difficult to charge with traditionalism, in a letter to Zdzisław Jachimecki, was overwhelmingly correct in stating: "When will people finally comprehend that every artist is an aristocrat who needs to have the back- drop of the past twelve generations comprised of Bachs and Beethovens...if he is a musician, Sophocleses and Shakespeares… if a writer and dramatist, and if the artist does not realize this, or rejects his precursors, despite even the greatest talent, he remains at most a foolish bungler"
Ryszard Orski descends from generations of mountain people-highlanders. This holds much meaning. To be a highlander implies constant contact with wild Nature, a nature impossible to subjugate, thus still untempered. This in turn is equivalent to a simply instinctive need for a very specific type of beauty, since omnipresence of beauty gives rise to similar beauty. It is not a matter of chance that all, literally all objects made by the highlanders are decorated. When a highlander sees before him or takes into his hand a piece of worked wood-regardless whether it is a spoon or the footboard of a sled, he is compelled immediately to take out his knife and cover the object with ornament.
There, in the Skalne Podhale region (home of the highlanders) a vigorous art arises, full of the contrasts abundant in the surrounding landscape, a bold art, unhesitating in its use of color in the strongest combinations, yet an art fearing the void, to which the eye of the highlander is not accustomed. Indeed, the most significant attribute of this art is a horror vacui, together with a high culture of wood, as natural a material of the Podhale as marble is for people of the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, reducing this art to decoration would be simplification, a vulgarization of the issue. Highlander art, the genuine article, intended for one's own use, is loaded with many themes. It refers to ancient symbols of the sun and life upon which layers of the richness of Christian as well as national symbolism have been applied. This is evident over centuries, already encountered in the polychrome works in Gothic churches wherein the abstract symbolism is unified into a logical whole with images of the sacred and Poland's heraldic eagle.
The forebears of Ryszard Orski were musicians, organists, which does not appear at odds with his understanding of the function and in particular the dignity of art. Ryszard Orski's father was a wood carver and it is he who taught his son the craft. Orski was brought up amidst wood, which was transformed into beauty before his eyes, into a beautiful object. It may be however, that the no doubt advantageous familiarity with the material, familiarity with it and its treatment, is what brought him via an inherent paradox to an extreme situation. In wood carving young Orski recognized only a craft, an end in itself. He did not realize that this very craft and his masterful command of it opened the way toward art, that its secrets create a vocabulary, which in turn can formulate a rational and meaningful statement; that art, like words, can relate and transmit ideas, that it can convince and that it can justify its existence. Thus, at age fourteen upon entering the artist Antoni Kenar's school, Orski was convinced he is going to hone his skills and no more. At that time this was a renowned school, but different than today. Then it was overwhelmed by the forceful personality of its principal, Antoni Kenar, and was already unofficially named after him. He was a personality approximating the stature of Xawery Dunikowski, a master sculptor of the previous generation.
At the time, half a century ago, Kenar was accused of many things, among them of abandoning the instruction of handicrafts even though the school was named the Trade School for Woodworking, and thus was a vocational school. Perhaps there was grain of truth in those objections. Perhaps. What is true is that many excellent artists emerged from Kenar's school and it also is true that it was Kenar himself and his students who represented Poland in the Venice Biennale, the same venue where Orski was to exhibit years later. It was at Kenar's school that rising artists encountered other considerably older artists, as well as colleagues more deeply engaged than they in the discourse of art. They discussed the then fashionable Pablo Picasso and the great art still incomprehensible to Orski. It was all the more incomprehensible as one can imagine the ideological muddle reigning in the still very inexperienced minds, since even the contemporary generation of professional artists and critics had certain difficulties in comprehending the modern. It suffices that Orski recognised that he did not understand art and not understanding it knew that he should not attend the Academy of Fine Arts since he would not manage, realizing that it was not for him. Thus we arrive at the third critical attribute, besides ancestry and family tradition, a characteristic and serious attribute with which Orski approaches seriousness with which he approaches everything he undertakes. Art appreciates such an approach and is able to reciprocate.
A long the road to art with a capital "A" Orski learned how to inlay wood with thin, brass strips from a certain Kazimierz Leszczaniecki-a Hucul who carried to the Tatra region the technology and an aesthetic typical of the Czarnahora area in the Carpathian mountain range. He recognized something so very important in his later work-the effect of line, or rather of the glistening stroke which the narrow edge of the brass ribbon transforms itself into in the engraved or often carved surface of the wood.
At that time, in the early 1960s, he worked for the Polish folk art co-operative CEPELIA and was astonished at the reception for his work by the public. An expert accused him of applying Chinese patterns whereas they were Highlander motifs.
This search for Orski's inspiration in the art of distant continents by various unfortunate or insensitive critics was to recur periodically like a boomerang. It may be that this had some cause, since step by step, Orski was moving away from the iconography and decorative models of Highlander art. Most importantly, however, he retained its spirit, and this was already being noted. As was correctly observed by the Master Xawery Dunikowksi, "there are attributes which are constant in sculpture, namely the perpendicular, the plane, and gravity, as well as the variable elements. The greatness of an artist is measured by the amount of divergence and innovation achieved in the area of the variable elements." A long sojourn in the United States followed for Orski. These were difficult and productive years, above all years of developing maturity. Maturing is equivalent to recognizing ever new and distant horizons and equally significantly, to the establishment of a hierarchy of artistic values. In the climate of America, Orski discovered characteristics of his personality; optimism, strength, and faith in the future.
At first Orski was a wood carver and worked in the studio of Emil Greco producing religious objects. The artist recollects that Greco demanded "modernity" from his workers, not quite comprehending the meaning of this word or simply attaching originality of execution to it. At the same time Orski encountered the popular, playful, trivial, and gaudy pop culture and the art of the day that was subservient to it. And by the means of yet another paradox he encountered and instinctively rejected Warholian commercial-based art and opened his eyes to the art of Europe. He began to understand not only Picasso, but other great artists as well, even those as complex and full of subtext as Paul Klee-to truly understand, since for Orski approbation in art is equivalent to understanding it, uncovering meanings as well as the artist himself in the visible form of the work.
By way of an ensuing paradox, Orski abandoned Grecos atelier and became a highly qualified carpenter in order to finance the luxury of sculpting his own work. He gave up employment in the manufacture of artifacts in order to become an artist. But this was expensive. The cost of the material for one sculpture was $600, a high sum for Orski, attainable only at the price of major deprivations. Thus further attributes of the artist's personality come to light-the elevation of art to the highest level of meaning in his life and as his life's objective, and the crystallization, already then, on American soil, of the purpose he had assigned to art. It bears adding that this was an unusually grave aspiration: the formulation of truth and precepts, of conscience and morality-an area in which one justifies one's life, one's reason for existence, one's ethical standards, thoughts, ideals and the ensuing conclusions.
Orski accomplished a self-reckoning. It was also a warning and a lesson for others. As a result his art clearly became imbued with a premise, perhaps even with a mission. This was binding. It began with the formulation of elemental truths, those that are contained in the religious symbolism with which had already reached major achievements. These works were filled with symbolism. "Way of the Cross", 1962, utilized the techniques of encrusting metal in wood, polychrome, and singed wood; it received first prize at an exhibition and for 10 years served as a promotional piece to attract clients for Greco. Ten years later, in 1972 Orski's "Crucifixion" received first prize at the Annual Exhibition of the Polish Arts Club in Chicago. Religious themes continue to weave together with the secular through the artist's oeuvre to this day, and both currents interact with each other in the artistry, the manner of manipulating form, in symbolism and metaphor; they are alike in avoiding the vulgarity unworthy of art; both themes are filled with respect and esteem for the subject, creator, and viewer.
Orski recognizes "Początek Życia" (Beginning of Life) as his first mature work. It was exhibited at a group exhibition in Chicago and received third prize. More important than the receipt of the distinction was that this represented the first expression of his thoughts in adequate form and was perceived by viewers as such. Indeed "Beginning of Life" speaks through its clear composition with a distinct linear modulation and with an organic or even a biologically explicit metaphor, with soft and warm forms whose expressiveness are emphasized by white and yellow at the centre-life after all commences in the ovum-enclosed by a band of a lively rose-colored tissue, embraced by a layer of fleshy skin, which exists without a transition nor tone nuances with shadow-the hostile surroundings of the outside world. Already then, in the early years of his true artistic output, the artist developed a particular type of art in which sculptural methods of expression are one with a painterly manner of communication.
Ryszard Orski takes a long time to work on each sculpture, at times as long as a year or more. He cuts the wood and then polychromes it without utilizing any of the easily available mechanized tools. Is this a deliberate choice for the satisfaction of cutting a block with the light strokes of a chisel? The reason appears to be deeper. As previously stated, Orski's sculpture represents a formulation of truths, and truth arises and results from exact thought. Thought does not bear haste. One then can assume that Orski's sculpture, or more accurately, his work on them, is a form of thought, at the very least its locale and at times the ordering of thought. It is the definition of thought in the material, precisely in the act of chasing the wood with small strokes, as if appositions and the completion of reflections were executed with the chisel. The artist decides in advance only on the basic subject of the sculpture and the symbols to express it with-namely on the philosophical thread of the work-in agreement with the theories of Kant and Schopenhauer. The remainder is exactly that which flows from talent and artistry, wherein the result is a reaction to the cause.
"Wierność" (Fidelity) is an especially cohesive, monolithic composition of closed silent spheres, loyal lips as it were. Or of wedding bands, transformed into the links of a golden, brilliant, uninhibiting (since willingly put on) chain. Through his equally serene eyes. A pair of eyes, since everything in this sculpture is doubled, yet at the same time there is a oneness in the uniformity of the line delineating the forms as well as in the colors, that of pinks and blues underscoring the expressiveness of the form through their harmonious juxtaposition. "Zawiść" (Hatred) is a boomerang form, gaping rapaciously. It is a scream and hate returning to their source with redoubled force. Again color emphasizes the eloquence of the form-the whiteness of the teeth, the blackness of the lips and the redness of the background. Wasn't it Vincent van Gogh who wrote that terror and the feeling of danger are best expressed through the combination of red with black? Color, this vehicle for emotion, appears last for Orski. When undertaking a new work he does not have a concept of a color palette, but knows that it will appear in the process of analyzing the subject, in its symbolic and aesthetic, yet always expressive meaning.
At this juncture it bears remembering words of the already cited Dunikowski: "Sculpture based on feeling can enlighten; sculpture created from thought endures." Paraphrasing the master's thought, Orski sculpts from his intellect, and then paints it following emotion-no commentary required.
Each sculpture by Orski may be read-its narration and symbolism found-in the subject suggested in its title, as clearly seen in the examples of "Beginning of Life," "Hatred," and "Fidelity". This is seen also in "Pycha" (Conceit) which is blown out into a balloon shape, with its bright, somewhat foolishly haughty coloration, and with a forehead reminiscent of a rear section of the human body from which no wise thought ever emerged; in "Nadzieja" (Hope), with its fragile yet brightly and steadily burning flame in a quiet center; or in "Zdrada" (Betrayal) in which sincere and trusting, full and colorful lips of the deceived are entwined by the body of a snake, a portion formed by the pale and grimacing lips of the deceiver-the lips of Judas's kiss.
There is more that could and should be read in Orski's sculpture. It is necessary to experience and comprehend the work through its beauty, since beauty possesses great power to convince. Further, to experience the work through its magic, the magic of beauty which transforms everything into truth and allows endorsement of the themes transmitted by the artist, as well as through our magical state of mind which is deeply, atavistically rooted-this state of mind by which the identification and description of a negative occurrence removes its destructive force, whereas the appearance of goodness is equivalent to summoning and multiplying it.
What happens in Orski's work is what had to happen: the thoroughly mastered technique is transformed in the hands of the mature artist into a fluid language through which he is able to express everything-all of his thoughts and impressions in sculpture made deliberately, whether solid or perforated with openings, covered with equally deliberately juxtaposed color. On the topic of color: Orski's sculpture-or rather his "sculpted paintings" (as has been stated, the artist developed his own, particular style with which to communicate) is becoming more painterly, more subtle in the color juxtapositions which are beginning to dominate the sculptural relief. All of these factors are the reason that the very personal experiences of the artist and the accompanying commentaries assume a common and universal scope. For example, the Archbishop of Catania (in Sicily) as well as a simple resident of Moscow were compelled to write letters of congratulation to thank Orski for the emotions they experienced. Indeed, Fuat Pekin, member of the International Association of Critics of Art (AICA) was right when he wrote over thirty years ago: "The most human works of art, those appealing to the general interest, are at the same time those which are the most individual, which illuminate in a most specific manner the genius of the race through the genius of the individual. Art that is abstracted from its foundations, devoid of ties with the past and the traditions of a nation will not prevail and will not find resonance in the hearts and minds of men."
by Jerzy Madeyski, 2020
translated by Barbara Mirecki