Wladyslaw Strzeminski 1893-1952
Physiology of the
I have published numerous articles about Strzeminski. (1) In the quest for an artist's biographical and artistic unity, new investigations of his work do not necessarily have to complement previous ones. Assuming the existence of many different levels of discourse and potentially different interpretations of an artist's oeuvre, it is interesting to search for such lines of reasoning as cut across the many levels of his life and work in an inconsecutive, interrupted and oblique manner either focalizing the artist's attention and elucidated by him with a degree of evidence that excludes all doubt, or remaining marginal and self-contradictory. The history of the eye and the resulting evolution of vision is such a problem. One of the central issues taken up by the Modernist avant-garde, it appeared in Strzeminski's work in several contexts, and supplied theme and title for his last and largest, posthumously published historical and theoretical work. (2) I have hitherto reconstructed Strzeminski's concepts of art from the point of view of avant-garde utopias, attempting to define a systematic principle on which such a utopia might be based. Unism interested me as a definite artistic idea and as a vision of the world determined by it. Starting from Ferdinand de Saussure's interpretation of the sign, I thought to detect the specificity of Strzeminski's concept of art in his modification of the link between signifier and signified. I considered the evolution of Strzeminski's thought to be closely linked to the problems confronting the avant-garde and with the historical and theoretical notions adopted by certain branches of the so-called formal schools of the 1920's, which gave rise to a concept of the work of art and of the artistic process that though uniform was expressed in different terms. This concept was based on the assumption that it was necessary to formulate an anti-psychological interpretation of the plastic sign, allowing for the specificity of the language of plastic art to be grounded in its structure. Strzeminski too considered that what distinguishes art is its striving to make apparent the autonomous value of the sign as a systematic value among other values, in the context of "the purity of the various fields of art".
In his theory of Unism Strzeminski defined painting as a constant of the artistic discourse and stated that what we can certainly say about a painting is that it is a flat canvas surface covered with paint and limited by a frame. Earlier, dualist art was based on the opposition between form itself and "elements alien to art" that were the source of meaning and expression. Dualism masked the purely formal aspect of art. According to Strzeminski the way to an art "authentic in its very essence" leads through the refusal of dualism to unism, a system that shows painting "such as it really is", in an anti-illusionist unity of form. Space, emotion, narration, and finally illusion should be eliminated from the work. Creation lies in successive reduction aiming towards the unity of a system that in its most extreme form leads to the objective unity of world and art. "Abstract painting does not take its formative means and systems from the outside" , wrote Strzeminski, "by mutually adapting the plastic system and visible nature, but from the inside, out of the laws of its own logic, through observation and the study of the phenomena that link all the elements of a painting, giving it unity and organic quality. Abstract concrete realist painting draws its elements from a concept of plastic art that has the realisation of the painting as its objective". (3)
In its quest for the essence of art within a unified, rationalised system of form, Strzeminski's theory of Unism reached the limits of meaning. Defining the system itself as object, he absolutised its generic and consequently its artistic existence. The objective of a work of art, he wrote, is "absolute construction". Merging the conceptual absolutisation of art with the reification of artistic structure, Strzeminski seized the key problem of Constructivism - and involved himself in a modernist contradiction. Starting from a systematic interpretation of art as a sign, he went on to fuse the representer with the represented and undermined the notion of meaning realised by the symbolic structure. He transposed the discussion about painting as a form that participates in social communication into the realm of utopic considerations and proposed the utopia of an understanding situated outside the system - within the object. (4)
The painter who realised a Unistic painting ceased to be a cosmic medium mediating experiences. Instead he became the constructor of a reified world. Experience, which had hitherto been the groundwork of the creative process, was replaced by "mastery and systematic work" giving rise to the product - the result of constructive operations. This was the path chosen by Rodchenko and a group of Russian Productivists. Having realised the "last painting" they abandoned painting as such - and consequently reflection on form - and sought to find their place in industry as "engineers of production", rapidly becoming ideologists of political power. (5)
. Strzeminski, who did not renounce vision as means of communication, did not go as far. According to him, by losing its symbolic import the painting-object became something like a commodity - but without gaining a clear-cut utilitarian value. Insignificant in the world of signs, in the world of things the painting was an absurd object - an extreme situation, in which this object's purely theoretical status became apparent. It could undermine the entire concept of the painting brought forth by historical and artistic processes. By its extreme nature the Unist painting, as a thing-painting, "simply was". The fact of making apparent this state of being in painted paintings constituted the theoretical practice of the contemporary artist. In his practice as a painter and his strictly related practice of seeing Strzeminski tried to counter the idea of the end of art (presented repeateadly and in various version by Russian analysts of the revolutionary period and to overcome the avant-garde opposition between theory and practice.
Strzeminski belived that the specifitity of art, i.e. covering the surface of a canvas (painting) of situating a mass in space (sculpture) - its pictorial or scuptural character - is grounded in experimental practice. This consists of a permanent actualisation of the rules of vision extreme to all that is visible: rules shaped by the "consciousness of visual content" that developed alongside evolution and history. The history of vision and the corresponding pictorial practice were to reconcile the historic, objectified work with the conceptual absolutisation of art. Or, expressed in the categories used here: to reconcile the physiology of the eye and the abstract character of the mind.
The process of painting, the "eye at the end of a brush", played a particular role in Strzeminski's work. Striving for the visual truth contained in the unity of the pictorial surface of Unist paintings he covered the surface with an even layer of pigment. By means of varied tones, by balancing shapes and background, by the roughness of texture he rendered impossible the perception of action in time and space and torced the eye to see in a glimpse what was not: illusion eliminated by surface. Truth concealed in an absence, the vision of a surface condensed in non-perceiving. As a process of making the world apparent by plastic means, the process of covering a surface with colours and shapes became in Unist painting the destruction of representation. The role of the painter's eye in covering the surface was to constantly hide representation from the viewer's eye. (6) Paradoxically, Strzeminski in his Unist paintings treated the denial of vision as the only possible pictorial practice. Thus his "last painting", unlike Rodchenko's, did not lead to a denial of easel painting as such but to the historic and practical justification of its further existence. From a logical point of view Strzeminski's last theoretical work, Teoria widzenia (A Theory of Vision), could have been his first.
Strzeminski here divided all of art history into three fundamental periods. The first, lasting from the beginnings of Neolithic and Paleolithic painting to the appearance of perspective was dominated by the imposition of rhythm upon shape. The second period, spanned the Renaissance (prefigured by Hellenist art) to Impressionism, referred to three-dimensional vision and stressed the mass. "Without the highly developed ability to create complicated mathematical constructions", wrote Strzeminski,"without the mathematical projection of three dimensional space, its artistic representation would have been impossible" With the Renaissance, he added, mass in its three-dimensional form grew almost touchable. (7) Finally the third period, from Impressionism to the contemporary art, characterised by empirical vision, led through Futurism and Cubism to Unism With Impressionism, he insisted, artists became conscious that "seeing is not a fixed mathematical scheme but a mobile physiological function. " (8)
Strzeminski based his periods on the observer's position in the world and on his intellectual capacity to relate phenomena to each other. In the beginnings of art, Strzeminski claimed, the eye registered observations "instinctively", generalising them in everyday practice. Perspective was born with the advent of abstract thought. It was then that the eye (still deprived of its corporality and defined by a geometrical or metaphysical rule) began to view the world from the greater distance of a linear or chiaroscuro perspective. In Renaissance art the object on the canvas emerged as a result of "speculative and logical reasoning about the nature of the object and its shape". (9) The reasoning itself was expressed by mathematical means. According to Strzeminski it was Impressionism that first introduced the eye into matters of the body and placed the observer in the world. Already the observations of late 19th century artists were based on the conviction that "the matter of the outside world and the matter of the human body interact constantly". (10) The process that gave birth to the physiology of the eye was long. Painting progressed from inference through observation to empiricism since the 16th century. The moment when observation called for the creation of instruments to faciliate its work and its further development was particulary important. The instrumental observation of the world by means of an eye situated outside of the body found its fullest expression in philosophical and artistic Naturalism. This was the last stage on the path to empirical vision, a form of seeing that "is constructed not mathematically, but physiologically". (11)
What then is the physiology of the eye? The starting point is Strzeminski's unistic definition of the painting as a purely optical phenomenon:The painting, he wrote, is "a thing that is destined only to be seen. It is "a purely visual phenomenon". (12) Somewhat later, in the early 1930's, Strzeminski reflected upon the role of Impressionism in the history of modern art. He came to the conclusion that the discovery by the Impressionists of the importance of the afterimage and of the role of the retina in fixing and guiding it, brought about a fundamental change in our "notion of vision and of visual impressions". This in turn led to a new plastic form. Gaining awareness of optical continuity and the invisibility of colour as matter, the Impressionist abolished the local colour of objects, supplanting it with an optical mixture. This was a major step forward towards the creation of a unified pictorial construction instead of the earlier fragmented constructions of various parts of the composition, separated by line and colour. (13)
In the mid-1930's these considerations on Impressionism allowed Strzeminski to link his earlier concept of rhythm as the spectator's vision of a surface or of movement in space, with the principles of vision and the dynamics of the eye (described for the first time in physiological categories), this time in their relationship to Cubism and the "tendencies that spring from it". "The movement of the eye", wrote Strzeminski, "the nature of the line drawn by vision in movement appears as one of the major elements of the new visual content. The goal of Cubist vision was to overcome the isolation of localised objects. Vision in its new sense strives to overcome the isolation of and distinctions between elements of form, and to blend them into an optically unified though ever-changing whole . Each component of a form seen in nature influences and tranforms all the others. The movement of the eye, the trail of moving vision, the biological line of contracting and relaxing muscles combine with the elements of form seen in nature, creating a common rhythm of form. This rhythm is largely the rhythm of autonomous movements produced by the nervous and muscular systems, a physiological rhythm combining the content of different views. This rising and falling rhythm of a beating pulse and of the movement resulting from individual and biological muscular reactions subordinates the content of various views to itself and transforms it, creating a constantly changing rhythm of irregular symmetry". (14)
As I mentioned previously, in Strzeminski's concept the physiology of the eye had its historical source in the new Modernist concept of the world. The turning point came with the break from a static, perspective vision based on Euclidean geometry and the discovery of mobile, binocular observation of the environment. This evolution was not purely technical . According to Strzeminski it resulted from a new positioning of the observer in space and from the inclusion of the eye within the body . "The creation of linear perspective" - wrote Strzeminski - "results from the transposition from the realm of philosophy to the realm of vision of the fundamental opposition between the discerning individual and the world he discerns, between subject and object. It establishes their opposite and different character." (15) Instead of "external" subjects that represent or contemplate the world we are now confronted by a certain subjective-objective unity, the unity of eye and body in a world of homogeneous matter. "We are matter just like the matter that surrounds us - no artificial, isolating dividing line can be drawn. Matter is continuous and every one of its parts influences the others. .. If we admit that we are body we must base our consciousness of vision upon all the facts relative to the material process of seeing as observed by us". (16) It is due to an internal , material and human point of view that the world that is inseparable from it and "coexists with it in a rhythmic pulse", allows itself to be formed and that subject's passive role gives way to the creator's constructive activity.
The consequences of these considerations may be sought for upon two levels. Firstly, in a Modernist, often almost solipsistic, utopian vision of the subject constructing the world (which I have already discussed). (17) Then, in the concept of the eye itself and in the structure of the paintings realised by the artist.
In the 1930's Strzeminski distinguished clearly between his abstract and his "recreational" (or "experimential") paintings. Speaking of the former he had in mind his Unistic and Architectural Compositions. The latter category referred to several textured Still Lifes (18) that he himself described as Cubist and that were painted in the late 20's to the 30's, at the same time as his abstract works. Somewhat later he began to include his Seascapes and City-scapes of Lodz in this category.(19) He based this classification on the relationship between art and nature. Strzeminski thought that an abstract painting was the realisation of a certain plastic system, and that its optical homogeneity contradicted "the complex and accidental character of nature." This gave rise to the supposition that "every further abstract painting is justified only in that it conquers new givens as against its predecessor." (20) With nature, on the other hand, he thought it possible "to experiment", striving either to show the "rhythms of irregular symmetry" in fragmented objects, or the ordinary "rhythms of coloured spots" resulting from the power of colours. (21)
Matters did not remain as simple as that When formulating his theory of vision in his writtings on Impressionism, Strzeminski classified all his works of the 30's and 40's as having been "executed according to an empirical method based on the introduction of the effects of internal physiological rhythms into visual consciousness." (22) It is difficult to say whether Strzeminski also had his Unist paintings in mind here - in fact, he probably didn't know himself. This uncertainty is not the main issue however - I will return to it later. More interesting is the fact that he gave a new interpretation of a part of his work.
In agreement with his own definition of physiological vision, Strzeminski concluded that the fundamental problem, raised by the work he had done before the war, had been the break with perspective representation, supplanted by a covering of the canvas according to certain definite rhythms. His architectural paintings may perhaps be counted among the earliest examples illustrating the process of constructing a surface with a uniform rhythmic system and an "interdependent scale of rising and falling energy" determined by "the constant relationship of each preceding shape to the successive one", expressed in arithmetic terms. (23) This link between arithmethic and physiology should come as no particular surprise. After all, these paintings were created in the wake of the theory of temporal-spatial rhythms in sculpture and also as a result of the slightly different interpretation of body and eye in the work of Katarzyna Kobro. (24) With reference to painting Strzeminski was convinced that, as phenomena, after-images "offer a real, visual and demonstrable basis for the development of an architectonic method with its transposition of individual fragments of form from one object to the other. This method," Strzeminski, who situated its origins in Egyptian art, stated further, "is only the generalisation of experiences of after-images, their formulation within the bounds of certain definite and practical rules." (25) Evolution brought with it norms relative to the architectonisation of the work of art. Strzeminski's Architectural Composition of the same time is characterised by the fact that it also relies upon "the observation of the observer", i.e his physiological eye.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that we should look for the motives behind Strzeminski's physiological reinterpretation of his own work not in the Architectural Compositions but in the Seascapes, and in the series of works from the late 30's and 40's that were their plastic continuation. The Seascapes - still considered as marginal in comparison to Strzeminski's abstract oeuvre and viewed critically by the artist himself when he created them - should be reconsidered from the point of view of the theory of vision. This in turn will enable us to gain a somewhat new perspective on Unism. Paradoxically enough it is the Seascapes that realised the Modernist act of corporal vision unattainable in the conceptual ambiguity of the Unistic works. As Strzeminski commented his tempera Seascape of 1934: "The course of the waves and the shore's wavy line, united by the transposition of vision from one to other, create a line with a rhythm shared by the whole." (26)
This part of our considerations will profit greatly from the results of Jonathan Crary's investigations concerning the observer's position and the importance of optical instruments in the birth of the modernist discourse. (27) The similarity between this contemporary theoretician's reflections on the historial structure of seeing (observing) and Strzeminski's theoretical and practical experience is striking.
Crary's theory is that the Modernist revolution, which took place in the first half of the 19th century, was largely influenced by investigations concerning the conditions of subjective seeing that were being conducted at the time. They made it possible to set visibility as a phenomenon free from the incorporal relations of the camera obscura (which keep the observer from perceiving his position as a part of representation) and place it within the human body Like Strzeminski , Crary argues that it was at this very moment that geometrical optics were supplanted by physiological optics, resulting in the revelation of the "ordinary eye", determined by calculable norms. (28) One should not consider the observed phenomenon as mechanically separated from the observer, wrote Strzeminski. To reflect upon vision in isolation from the eye, as a material instrument, to speak of "real" colour as against "subjective" colour, i.e. colour independent of biochemical processes, is purest idealism. Sensual impulses are received and passed on not "in the incorporal world of ideas but in the world of real, existing matter, and through it. And man is matter too." (29) It was the rising consciousness of the fact that visual perception is indissolubly linked with the movement of the optical muscles and the physical exertion needed to concentrate with wide open eyelids, that led to the intimate association of biology and psychology in 19th century optical investigations, writes Crary.
The biological interpretation of the retina and physical descriptions of the afterimage proved that vision posesses great psycho-physiological variety and - above all - that it is an autonomous activity. Crary thinks also that investigations of retinally stimulated series of images led to the development of various instruments such as the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the kaleidoscope, the stereoscope and others. They were interesting in that they allowed for a "natural" vision of the world, and soon became very popular. In Poland for example, the stereoscope, used in so-called "photoplasticons", was a wide-spread phenomenon until well into the 1950's. In such a context, Crary continues, the evolution of the observer's position in the 19th century led to the adaptation of the rising "modernist eye" to rationalised forms of perception of movement and space (mass) under new conditions of the disjunction (abstraction) of optical sensation from the "real" referee.
The experiments of Duchamp or Ernst with the Modernist optic are well-known. (30) We know less about the experiments with the psychology of seeing and the psychology of vision that were certainly conducted by the Russian avant-garde and familiar to Strzeminski. Examples of these are such vastly different projects as Kandinsky's psycho-physiological laboratories, the biomechanical experiments conducted by numerous workshops of the Scientific Labour Organisation or the individual experiences of Matiushin and his students, known to us through the Zorvied manifesto and based on the conviction that "physiological changes in observation lead to a totally different manner of reproducing things visible. " (31)
To get back to Crary, however, he stresses the exceptional importance of the stereoscope in the formation of the Modernist observer's new position. According to him it was the stereoscope that definitely destroyed the "scenic relationship between viewer and object" (32) that was the essence of the camera obscura. The functioning of the stereoscope implies the absence of any mediation between eye and image. I would go so far as to say: the stereoscope proposed a form of "direct vision" akin to the idea of extra-systematic communication. The stereoscopic technique of seeing makes perspective impossible - mass is made concrete as a result of the physiological process of two images superimposing upon each other in binocular perception.
There are many similarities between Strzeminski's Seascapes and stereoscopic vision. He did away with perspective, relying instead on the dynamics of empirical, binocular sight that structured these works according to the repetition and imposition of contours and coloured spots. As in a stereoscope so in the Seascapes, sections of the image seen with the left and the right eye partly shift and partly cover each other, leading to an almost sensual materialisation of form. (33) The pure vision realised in these "recreational" landscapes (a term we now understand: it's a question of a "natural" relationship between the eye and the world, a "fresh view" instead of a calculated and conventional system) is totally subjected to the rhythms of vision, the pulse of the "viewing" body.
To better understand Strzeminski's stereoscopic vision, we must be aware of an essential fact; due to a wound he suffered during the World War I, he actually saw with only one eye. According to the testimony of his daughter, with his left eye he could "barely distinguish light". Thus it is hardly suprising that "when looking carefully at photographs of Father one noticed that he always had a characteristic squint. " (34) Strzeminski had no binocular perception, which did not keep him from constructing structured surfaces even before he formulated his theory of physiological vision. His infirmity became a problem, however, when he established the dynamics of binocular vision as a fundamental trait of contemporary art. The solution to this problem could lie in a special technique that would both reconstruct the results of a mobile process of seeing and analyse the process itself. Being incapable of binocular vision Strzeminski, first in his Seascapes and then in many other works up until the 50's, made use of a stereoscopic technique - the superimposition of two images and their displacement in relationship to each other. He obtained this effect by the use of tracing (35) - first metaphorically speaking, then in the literal sense - with two flat super- and trans-posed drawings of shapes creating the illusory binocular perception of depth and mass. The theory of rhythm - as both the principle of the physiology of the eye and, in paintings, the result of sequence and transfer of afterimages of colours and shapes, due to the complex movement of vision - justified the use of an equally complex technique that both reproduced the actual process (of seeing) and elucidated its mechanism Strzeminski would have said that what is essential is the truth of vision, which allows for the use of any technique. It may even impose a technique that renders this truth visible. Strzeminski's categorical declaration to Chwistek was certainly not accidental: "The Seascapes and City-scapes I exhibited in Lvov in no way indicate that I have moved away from abstraction and closer to reality in art." (36)
The reasoning and technique presented here (also, as we shall see later, Strzeminski's concept of the evolution of art) participate in the typically Modernist process described by Gombrich relative to Ruskin's Modern Painters (1843) which "conceived of the history of art in categories of progression towards visual truth." (37) In his Seascapes, Strzeminski reproduces the retinal, binocular process of vision. Replacing the observation of nature by the observation of the eye he hopes to attain the truth of seeing in its most essential dimension: rhythmic variety and structural identity. Mondrian used a similar technique in the seascapes he painted in 1909 in Domburg, enabling him to reconstruct the surface of the retina on the surface of the canvas by making use off the technique of Neo-Impressionist divisionism and treating both planes as isomorphic. Echoing what Rosalind Krauss wrote about Ruskin (38), the issue here was to transform all of nature into a machine for producing paintings, thus constituting an autonomous visual field characterised by two basic qualities with an exclusively optical import: infinite repetition on the one hand, simultaneous unity on the other.
In the search for a purely visual domain, the theme of the sea, the sea itself came to be the favourite medium of Modernist painters. It allowed for full isolation, tore vision away from social conditions and suggested introspection and a visual abundance that was noble and pure, extending endlessly and wholly uniform - itself becoming a kind of spaceless void. (39) "Everything came from the sea", wrote Strzeminski. "Organic being originated in the sea, the first organic cell and the entire animal and plant world that with evolution acquired its present shape. The sea is source of beings and the amoeba is the starting point for all further complications of the one and invisible being." (40)
The naturalism of Strzeminski's physiological vision, like the "philosophy of physiology" in Bogdanov's Empiriomonism (41) , (the cultural version of which was so popular among Russian avantgarde artists) stressed the biological nature of man and of the metabolisms that organise his life, as against the elemental and destructive character of nature itself. Strzeminski was convinced that in contemporary times the greatest danger lay in the abolition of this opposition and in siding with nature against man. Here, on the infinite progress of man "organising the world", we should found our critique of Surrealism as of a regressive form of "visual awareness" caught up in indefinite living matter, entangled in the irrational and accidental character of sequences of events. And further. "Today we know that as we penetrate deeper into the individual we discover ever more primitive strata of biological evolution. The direction leading into the individual represents the other aspect of the development of humanity. This transports into a night of blind instincts and savage reactions that are controlled but not diminished by the evolution of culture." (42) Terrified by Freud's discoveries of the depths of human psychology, Strzeminski was increasingly inclined to concede to Pavlovian psychology - with its examination of the complex activities of the human nervous system , or the mechanisms of the cortex and of the organisation of conditioned reflexes - a decisive role in the evolution of mankind and of the world.
The Behaviourist concept of man, evolved from Positivism and close to Strzeminski's thought, assumed that human nature is determined by the laws of homeostasy and regulation. It considered awareness of oneself and of the world - human culture in the social sense - the principal mechanism enabling man to know and act. The causes of all pathological developments were to be sought for in arrest, regression or the permanent adaptation of individuals to lower forms of evolution, in a culturally organised and motivated world (43) born of creative force, man is responsible for the world and for the process of evolution he creates through his activity. Thus it comes as no surprise that, according to Strzeminski, the physiology of the eye had to be subordinated to man, to the positive history of his production and his progressive "visual awareness". (44)
What role does the history of visual awareness play in Strzeminski's concept of art? The term visual content preceded visual awareness in his writings. And although in all his texts both terms were defined somewhat vaguely, and visual awareness only made it's appearance in 1947, the major shift in their meaning occurred between 1935 and 1936. This corresponds to the period when Strzeminski stopped showing his Unist and Architectectural works (1934) and comes just somewhat after he started painting his Seascapes (1932-1935). In a text from 1935 in which he commented the reproduction of a Seascape, Strzeminski wrote: "The evolution of aesthetic culture is the result of the expansion of the range of visual content, of an increased awareness of the phenomena that take place in the very essence of our vision." (45) This statement evidently still tries to define the concept in question within the context of a "pure retinal image" subjected to reconstruction by the artist. One year later it is not the image itself but political and economic history, "the conditions in which man lives that impel him to perceive a certain amount of visual phenomena. The totality of these phenomena are called visual content." (46) In 1947, when he introduced the term "visual awareness", Strzeminski stressed the process of rationalisation of data obtained from physiological vision and concrete history. "A child's eye or the eye of primitive man sees the same as we do. But it lacks awareness of its true visual content" (47), writes Strzeminski . Somewhat later, in Teoria widzenia (A Theory of Vision) he added: "In the process of seeing it is not important what the eye seizes mechanically, but what man becomes aware of in his vision. Increased visual awareness thus reflects the process of human evolution ." (48)
The general history of the eye presented in his Teoria widzenia (A Theory of Vision) is the history of growing visual awareness linked strictly to the progression of society's forces of production. (49) Although, as Strzeminski argued, the chronology of the eye did not always concord with external, eventual historic time - being sometimes slower, sometimes faster - it definitely corresponded to deep-seated social and economic structures. The coincidence and interchangeability of eye and world are determined by functional relationships, not genetic ones. Strzeminski's position on this way by no means original; he reproduced the theory of the evolution of art generally accepted by the post-revolutionary Russian avant-garde, at least its Constructivist orientation. Thus, extending our investigations to the "after-impressionist theory of vision" developed by Strzeminski in a number of earlier articles on Futurism, Cubism, Suprematism, etc., it will be interesting to note how the physiological eye of the empirical phase exits the body and begins to blend with the mind or penetrate the social space. In his Teoria Widzenia (A Theory of Vision) Strzeminski still claimed that: "Although the empirical method gives a true and full image of what is, it is not able to seize what is being created and changing. This is why it is limited, determined by both history and class. Change is discernible not by observation, but by action." (50) Abandoning its useless pretense to infinite "freshness" and the "responsibility" for its deviations, the physiological history of the eye became the history of the mind: a prospective utopia. As Crary says, the pre-history of Modernism linked to pure perception is linked to the corporal viewer, who made his appearance along with the 19th century. Its actual triumph comes only with the willingness to renounce the body, its pulses and phantasms, as the basis of vision. (51)
Hitherto, wrote Strzeminski in the 1930's, all paintings were painted as if man were an exclusively visual being, "one great eye", open and moving in agreement with the rhythms of the head pond the eyeball. We know that this is not the case - besides vision there is also the world of the other senses and of the mind. Thus, and in opposition to emotional Surrealism, he continued in a different text, "pure plastic tendencies make reference primarily to the active and intellectual components or the psyche, requiring from the viewer acapacity for abstract thinking, for linking phenomena that are far removed from each other and an active participation in the elaboration of concepts." (52) Viewed in the context of these statements, Strzeminski's repeateadly voiced and categorical claims concerning the corporal character of vision take on a slightly ambiguous character. We may go even further and say that his entire work is marked by this ambiguity, which gives a specific stamp to both his artistic practice and to his theory of art.
In the earliest textural works, created while still in Russia, the material concretization of the surface was so powerful that its haptic qualities could well rival the optical ones. Strzeminski wrote about texture that "The roughness, shine, matt finish, transparence, the needle-like sharpness, the fibriform character of wood, glass, wire-mesh, cast iron, whitewash and many other materials" (53) may be perceived in a visual or tactile form. The surface absorbed the "technical"reality of the world and emitted sequences of abstract meanings: it was a sensual interplay of "products" and materials. The surface represented the contemporary world.
Unist painting, on the other hand, put representation to doubt. The surface of Unistic Compositions obscured space from vision. What with the visual homogeneity of figure and setting, top and bottom, centre and periphery, what with the lack of vertical, horizontal and diagonal directions, the monochromatic monotony of multiplied coloured spots, the painting stopped being meaningful. Devoid of rhythms it "became a linear continuum, a collection of identical points occupying a field. It "became an object: a canvas on a frame, covered with paint. The surface concealed the "absolute purity of form".
The Seascapes opened themselves up to vision and established the psycho-physiological process of perception as the main problem of artistic practice. The complex rhythms of body and eye overcame the conventions of representation in the purity of an almost illuminative vision and reconstructed an empirically known world on the surface of the retina. The surface revealed the eye.
However, if the surface of Unist paintings concealed absolute form it did so only because it conceptualized the history of painting. In his search for the essence of form Strzeminski called upon the history of its autonomous evolution, the history of the following: the categories of time and space in art, overcoming the dualism of shapes and colours, the story of deformation and reduction, the laws of the organisation of form. In the final effect the organisation of visual content, a key notion in Strzeminski's theory, deprived the eye of its rights, subordinating it to consciousness and to the organisation of the mind.
In practice, Strzeminski's Unist paintings concretised the Constructivist opposition between painting as a natural process determined by the physiology of the eye and a cultural process of growing visual awareness. A historical discourse formulated in this perspective had to ensure the triumph of the mind's organisational functions over indeterminate instincts, the triumph of consciousness over irrationality, of Logos over Chaos. The corporality of physiological vision, fascinating in its purity, was defeated by the Cyclopean eye of the mind imposing a human order upon the disorder of nature. The utopias of Modernism were both its strength and its weakness. About Strzeminski's utopias I have written often, and may do so again.
Andrzej Turowski, Paris - 12 April, 1993
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