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Balzac declared: "The world belongs to me because I understand it," and he proceeded to write an entire series of novels, The Human Comedy. Of course, that writer was referring, not to a world of physics and biology, but to the Theatrum Mundi, a world of human life and all its protocols. The French have always been particularly adroit about the social -- the de rigueur and comme il faut -- personal relations: public decorum and covert intrigue. Until recently in Poland, a political realite contemporain dictated that what was common knowledge privately, was rarely voiced in public. The Socialist Nomenklatura intrigued and strategized much like a French aristocratic court, albeit on a coarser scale. That a Polish artist should create art for theater inspired by the French Eighteenth century is no surprise. An artist, with deep human concerns, curiosity and wit, and a sense of human frailty, was well prepared for it.
In 1992, Polish artist Janusz Przybylski executed 16 hanging scrolls for a play based on Abbe Prevost's work, Histoire du Chevalier Des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut (1731). Innocence, intrigue; etiquette and the most of bestial urge -- everything a play, and art, could want -- a human theater. Prevost's Manon inspired operas by Massenet (1884) and Puccini (1893). True to Prevost's writing, Przybylski's is an art of clever wit, with serious intent, and a deceptive facility of expressiveness. Janusz Przybylski's 16 pendants for The Game for Manon, as well as seven renderings inspired by Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau, plus an added single rendering, Poeta (Poet), are now on display at Gallery 1112, the Society for Arts, 1112 Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago.
The story which inspired them is well known. Chevalier Des Grieux falls in love with young Manon and they elope to Paris. The opposition of powerful family and lecherous designs assault the course of their love, and in the end Manon dies in the arms of her young lover. Intrigue wars against natural affections, society conspires against innocence, an elan vital must struggle to survive and fulfill its possibilities. And innocence needn't triumph, nor is evil always punished, not in the societies of mortal men: it is the 'way of the world.' It is always personal as well.
Przybylski himself stated when the works were first presented:
Przybylski's paintings, The Game for Manon, parallel in visual language the dramatic action: two kindred works in tandem. In part, that may be as much from the artist's initial intent as from his subsequent procedures. In the opening statement cited earlier, Przybylski noted: "The painting 'acted' on the stage within its particular time. After the finished scene, the image would imbed itself in the memory of the viewers while another painting, chosen by throwing dice, would unroll to serve in the place of the earlier."
In overall style, the scrolls represent a somewhat more graphic mode of Przybylski's mature expression, terse and direct. Throughout this artist's work there are affinities with early Chagall, Picasso's 'Rose and Blue periods,' at times even a spirit of Picabia. In fact, Przybylski once cited Picasso's Guernica, as well as the Polish metaphysical surrealist, Jacek Malczewski, as inspirations for his cycle of paintings, "Vicious Circle." In The Game for Manon, Przybylski directs this toward a visual language of sign, gesture, abbreviated symbol. The artist, in a statement about these 16 unstretched canvases, asserted: "Painting is an art of silence, arrested gesture and not the actual motion." and adds: "Painting the chosen scenes I left some spaces undefined." (Warsaw, October 1996) When taken apart from the play, this work creates its own, open-ended narrative: a human condition to which multiple stories are possible. Its worldly wisdom transcends just style or specific convention.
Polish art historian, Grzegorz Sztabinski noted how Przybylski "believed that progress in art is not the most fundamental issue. He considered styles, trends to be 'the property of the groups,' something that has to be taken into consideration if we reflect upon the social context of art, when we approach it as one of the components of the altering culture. But there is still the individual aspect of the artistic creation which is timeless. This aspect cannot be deteriorated." (In Przybylski: Malarstwo, Rysunek, Grafika: 1937-1998.)
To fully realize why the narrative of these paintings is broad, but nonetheless speaks to each viewer, one draws closer to examine the artist's visual language: his motifs and component images. Przybylski does turn to certain connotations of color from European tradition. Black, somber umbers, dark hues in costume or image ground insinuate the threatening, the menacing, an eminence gris. Red or pink often accompanies allusions to lust or the arousal of passion. Przybylski's Manon series begins in foreboding -- a central monkish form serves as motif of premonition -- and reappears, full circle, in the final canvas as a moral admonition. Caveat spectator. And this play allows the artist broad potential in costume and its attendant roles, both social and as an aesthetic vocabulary. Clothes play a vital role in Przybylski's art. Indeed, even where there is little depicted of the human form, 'Clothes make the man.' Art historian Sztabinski observed: "Later, in Przybylski's paintings, clothes started to play a more and more important role. The artist often left headless bodies dramatically represented, enveloped in a crumpled suit or torn shirt. It was a 'presentation of suffering by means of the packaging.'"
Przybylski's paintings for The Game for Manon measure 160 by 120 centimeters. In a piece such as Manon 2, one notes the blue background. In the subsequent Manon 4, the background is pink. In Manon 2, a scene of approach, the male at right is more integral, petitioning, and the encounter is still tentative. The third party presence at upper right is yet distant. In the former, the blue adds an air of male presence, while the change to a more active, aroused pink in Manon 4 corresponds well with the overt receptivity of the young woman. But, in this latter work, the man's hand seems divorced from his increasingly sundered torso. An unjoined, projected hand, imparts a sense that the carnal deed, the grope, exists apart from a lustful and yet, obscenely, dispassionate intent. Catholic imagery is replete with parts standing in for a whole -- the isolated, blessing 'hand' of God, Sacred Hearts, the Eye of Providence. And the artist also takes its color symbolism: red for martyrdom and sacrifice, white for purity, the yellow of cowardice, the green of hope. In Polish post WWII culture, as in France on the eve of revolution, strong tradition met with secularized worldliness. Przybylski's art draws its strengths from that. And, as the artist noted, he "left some spaces undefined." Ambiguity significantly defines the 'way of the world' -- the human condition. Always.
Przybylski's paintings further employ telling specifics. A viewer notes echoes of the 'Wheel of Fortune' in carriage wheels; where the woman holds the cards, she displays an 'Ace in the hand' -- at times visual mime recalls a rebus of human character in play. But a viewer never senses a purely programmatic intent. And the artist melds insight with a purely visual instinct. In the seven renderings inspired by Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau, included in this showing, hair functions as both a framing and an image ground. And, as in Przybylski's Manon, it carries a sensual overtone as well.
In graphic terms, his work still strives toward enduring realities. In life, the elder lecher circles round what is at first a momentary seduction, only to become entrapped within a real and inescapable passion of the heart. The naive, dedicated to a lasting love, nonetheless doubts and fears that it will fly. And there are young lovers who will fight for love, making it a cause, and who forget its initial, and innocent discovery. Samuel Butler named it the 'way of the world.' It is real; artists are aware of it: the negotiations along the way, life's ambiguities, the give and take of heart and social conventionalities. Przybylski had sought a visual vocabulary to express it in a terse, immediate art.
That the Manon paintings bridge pre-revolution French societal protocols and Twentieth century sensibility are no accident. This artist had been well aware of the tensions between the personal and the public; what he termed an "inner voice" and the "heard voice." Sztabinski had quoted Przybylski as noting:
There is much wit, visual and conceptual, in Przybylski's art, but one discerns little bitterness or irony. The artist himself had told Sztabinski: "I never go into irony because it is followed by satire and in a fundamental manner distracts from the core of experience and vitiates the sense of the picture." In both the Manon paintings and the renderings for Diderot's semi-fantasy Le Neveu de Rameau, Przybylski does face the world of men in society. In all this work, one finds what P.W.K. Stone, translator and commentator of Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liasons Dangereuses (1782), observed of that precursor to The Game for Manon:
The twenty-four works now at the Society For Arts's Gallery 1112 reveal an artist who collaborates in a theater of the world. And who sought there precisely what Chicago scholar, Allan Bloom, noted:
Bloom added: "The tension between freedom and attachment, and attempts to achieve the impossible union of the two, are the permanent condition of man." Przybylski also noted it and concluded "Art has become the last and only chance of escape for man faced with the senselessness of existence." That the artist in fact did not truly equate the impossible with the senseless is evident in his art. Indeed, underlying these paintings is an echo of Przybylski's Diderot -- "...I like the genre -- it is moral painting. What! Haven't painters used their brushes in the service of vice and debauchery long enough, too long indeed?" (Denis Diderot in Salon of 1763).
Balzac declared: "The world belongs to me because I understand it." From his reading, and through his art, Janusz Przybylski also came to understand it. It now stands for examination by the gallery visitor. And it is a visual pleasure. "MANON by Janusz Przybylski" will be at Gallery 1112, the Society for Arts, 1112 Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago. until April 15, 2001.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: The Society for Arts bookstore offers two excellent publications on Janusz Przybylski: its own Janusz Przybylski: Vicious Circle: Graphics and Gouaches (1998) for $15.00; and Przybylski: malarstwo, rysunek, grafika, 1937-1998 (Miejska Galeria Sztuki w Lodzi: 2000), this latter with an essay in English by Grzegorz Sztabinski. Abbe Prevost's Manon Lescaut is available in English from Viking-Penguin (1992). Quotes from Diderot's Salon of 1763 are from The Genius of the Future by Anita Brookner (Cornell University Press: 1988). Choderlos de Laclos's Les Liasons Dangereuses is in print (Penguin Books: 1961). An excellent volume on Przybylski's aesthetic mentor is Malczewski: A Vision of Poland, selected and compiled by Agnieszka Lawniczakowa (Barbican Art Gallery, London: 1990: ISBN 0 946372 19 5).
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