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In conversation with Andrzej Jackowski
Andrzej Jackowski - Brighton studio 1992
  Andrzej Jackowski
in Brighton studio
Photograph by
George Newson
Andrzej Jackowski - Brighton studio 1992

Interview by Gabriel Josipovici
Originally published Modern Painters Spring 2001

Gabriel Josipovici Andrzej, I want to start by asking you about a little etching you gave me back in 1977, when we'd just got to know each other and you were still at the Royal College. Do you remember? It's a tiny thing: a fireplace with a convex mirror above it and a long table in front of it flush with the bottom edge of the picture, and a man leaning against the table. It's in my bedroom and I often look at it when I wake up, and it seems to me there's a great continuity between that and your most recent work. Do you feel this too, or does it seem to you that your work's changed a great deal over the past twenty years?

Andrzej Jackowski I think since coming across the Italian Metaphysical painters Carra and Sironi, and Morandi, I've been quite consistent in using everyday objects like tables and beds in ordinary rooms, in a limited, austere repertoire. What has changed is the sense of how much detail to use. In my more recent works there's less detail and more of an evocation of place through colour, pattern and rhythm.

Gabriel Josipovici Was the discovery of Carra and Sironi a revelation, then? Did it suddenly help you see what you could do?

Andrzej Jackowski Before, as a student at Falmouth, I was interested in Tantra and in using graphic images as a focus for thinking. Then I broke away from that.

Gabriel Josipovici Was that when you turned to film-making?

Andrzej Jackowski That was even further back. At art school in the late '60s and early '70s there was this feeling that you weren't allowed to tell stories in paintings. There was abstraction and only abstraction. With the films - which were very simple, people in rooms, little things happening, the camera panning round, discovering objects in the half-light - I was able to start telling stories again. But then I realised that painting can do that as well. And painting has a stillness, an ability to plunge down vertically - you can let time unfold and bloom in a painting. And then later when I went up to the Royal College I began to feel that my work was too serious. I wanted somehow to get hold of my inner world from a different angle. I didn't feel authentic doing my Tantric stuff, so I tried painting with my left hand, and then I started looking at Dubuffet and art brut. Dubuffet was a revelation. But then I realised that sort of thing wasn't me either. I couldn't simply be naive. I couldn't cut out chunks of myself and return to innocence. It was amazing to see that art brut work in Lausanne - I'd gone there on a scholarship from the College - but it was coming back and seeing the Balthuses in Paris that was the really important thing about that trip. Just a couple of them, at the old Musˇe d'Art Moderne, but there was such a sense of space there and this elusive mixture of the real and the dreamlike.

Gabriel Josipovici At that age, at that moment in an artist's life, there's a desperate sense that somehow one has to find a way forward, one's so open to everything.

Andrzej Jackowski That's true. It was a kind of fever. I remember that desperation, trying to find the right way, rushing from one thing to another. I suppose Balthus and the Italians and Rousseau - Balthus was influenced by all of that, obviously - gradually made me feel I could use space again, put figures back into space, into a familiar environment. Dubuffet was all rather flat and decorative, and this was like coming back to myself, my world.

Gabriel Josipovici Can we go back to your remark about the stillness of painting, the sense of digging down vertically. I was listening the other night to a new piece by Judith Weir, it was part of a series of Millennia] concerts where a contemporary composer was commissioned to write a work in dialogue with some earlier piece. The piece in question here was a wonderful medieval work by Pˇrotin, and Weir said in conversation beforehand on the radio, that she felt plainchant was very important in that it allowed one to focus and concentrate, that too much later music was dispersed, it rushed forward too quickly and was swallowed up by time. That sounds very much like what you're saying about the possibilities of painting as opposed to film.

Andrzej Jackowski I suppose this went back to the Tantric images. But they were too alien, not close enough to home. With the discovery of Balthus and the Italian Metaphysicals I began to see that there are some figures, bits of furniture and so on, that could act like a lens for me and draw me on. They lead to a gathering of forces, of energy, into a few simple elements. I had a dream last night of a broken plate and things being put together again - that's also part of the work of painting for me. I had another image as I was driving here. It was like suddenly when the sea goes down and you see islands rising out of the mud of your thoughts - you can hop from one to the other. I see the figures and objects of my paintings as things I can use to stand above the chaos of unformed thoughts and anxieties which always whirl round me. But I haven't answered your question.

Gabriel Josipovici You've started to. Clearly the image and its setting are crucial. But how do you select the right image? Sometimes - perhaps your Fir Tree is an example - you seem to think that what you're after is some kind of Jungian archetype. My own feeling is that your work is actually quite odd and idiosyncratic, and that if it's archetypal at all it's not because the image is an archetype but for all sorts of other reasons. Take one of your most successful paintings, The Tower of Copernicus. This empty space. These odd items taken from photos of the camps, a perfectly ordinary stool, shadowy walls... Do you feel there's a problem there? I mean, do you sometimes think: great, this really is an archetypal image, and then the picture just doesn't work, while at other times you allow yourself to follow directions which don't seem very propitious at first and yet suddenly start tapping powerful sources?

Andrzej Jackowski I was quite keen on Jung up to the time of discovering Dubuffet and art brut. There was a feeling around at the time that the Jungian way was the right one if one wanted to deal with images. But then I realised that it was the ordinary everyday world, if it was cooked in the right way, that would deliver what I was after. The transformation was the important thing - what Freud called the dream-work. And, looking back, that was the big change in the mid '70s when I was in my second year at the College, this feeling that it was the concrete here and now, me sitting at this table, me drawing, if I could - this word cooking keeps coming to mind - if I could transform it through work on it, that would be the way to bring out this sense of being archetype is the wrong word.

Gabriel Josipovici But are there certain images which you've since started to work at with excitement and then found they didn't yield that sense of being?

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. Perhaps. The Flying Man. It's OK but it got too fairy-tale-like.

Gabriel Josipovici And too closely bound up with a literary source?

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. Bruno Schultz. An interesting example of what we've been discussing. You feel, I know, and perhaps I'd agree, that he's gone too far transforming the everyday into something too legendary and surreal.

Gabriel Josipovici It relates to what you were saying about Dubuffet. One can't go back to childlike innocence. It feels false. There has to be something tougher, some awareness of the adult world, its limitations, losses.

Andrzej Jackowski Perhaps that's what was lacking. When you can go anywhere and do anything it all becomes too arbitrary. When you have to work with this actual table, this bit of wood, with time, gravity, you and me talking, then it establishes boundaries, and that shapes it and moves one on.

Gabriel Josipovici Can you say something about The Tower of Copernicus?

Andrzej Jackowski That's where it really started for me. In one sense it too had a literary source, but it wasn't exactly that, it was Arthur Koestler's account of the early scientists, The Sleepwalkers. There was just one phrase there that struck me: 'Copernicus lay in his bed and watched the stars'. And it shot me back to my own lying in bed - I was seven or eight - and thinking about the overwhelming, frightening, but exciting immensity of it all. Why are we here? Where are we? What's it all about? And at the same time other elements of the painting were waiting in my notebooks. I had a photo of Rudolf Steiner's studio, and Steiner working on a sculpture of Christ. It was a closed space, I opened it up to the stars, but there was this sense of a huge figure of Christ, some steps... But then suddenly - the spark that brings things together - I emptied the studio in my mind and made it into Copernicus's tower where he worked. And I had this photo of a little hut on wheels used in a concentration camp by Jewish prisoners, used in mockery really, there was a man tied to it, soldiers standing around, a kind of mock sacrifice seemed to be taking place - but I saw this hut as a kind of container. Then, working on the painting produced the shadows - because initially there was Copernicus standing by the little hut and I had all sorts of cosmological signs - stars, planets - but in the end that wasn't relevant and it was the hut and the shadows and the sky that became central. So I took Copernicus out. It was just before Christmas, I remember, and after Christmas I came back to the studio and looked at it and I thought: it needs something else, it's all there but it needs something alive, wandering about this space - and we had a cat and I thought, that's it, a cat. But it had to be quite still -

Gabriel Josipovici That's what cats are so good at.

Andrzej Jackowski Exactly. The sense that all the world is in their stillness. Alertness. And that's what finally brought it all together. In about three weeks. And I sent it off to the Tolly Cobold and it won first prize.

Gabriel Josipovici It's because you remembered your childhood sense of wonder at the world and its immensity, and still retained it, because it still needed expression, that all these different elements were drawn into the painting and found their right home there.

Andrzej Jackowski It was a big picture for me. From it all sorts of things grew, for quite a few years. Gradually the hut became a boat, and the two big boat pictures were quite successful, I think. Originally the boats were used for burial, going into the other world, but for me what was important was the reverse, not dying but coming alive, it felt like a womb opening or a fruit shedding its seed - something exotic and sensual.

Gabriel Josipovici So the introduction of the hut was in a sense chance - you felt you needed it at that point and it was there - but in a sense, too, it had been waiting and there was a necessity about its introduction. And then its possibilities expanded. But didn't its introduction coincide with your new-found interest in your roots? in Poland where your parents came from and in the refugee camp outside Crewe where you grew up?

Andrzej Jackowski I'd been to Poland as a teenager, but you're quite right.

Gabriel Josipovici I remember your showing me photos of that camp. The snow. The wooden fences and buildings. And that little boy in his cap, dark against the snow. It could have been anywhere in Northern Europe, but you said: That's me in the camp outside Crewe.

Andrzej Jackowski But you know I never feel nostalgic when working with the past. I feel on the contrary that I'm more present when past and present are there together. When you forget the past you become a thinner person. I've always tried to bring the parts of myself together.

Gabriel Josipovici That's what you were saying the act of painting does for you. The image of the broken plate and the islands. And I couldn't agree with you more. My last novel was called Now, and it had an epigraph from Emily Dickinson: 'So instead of getting to Heaven, at last - I'm going, all along'. In other words the present moment is just as much Heaven (or Hell) as what we get to at the end, is in fact the only Heaven or Hell. But at the same time to live with no sense of the past is to live an empty present, which is what the heroine feels is happening to her. We need to be open to the present but not emptied of the past.

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. It's like with the boat. It's archaic, mythical, but it's also Brighton, the curve of the bay as you look down on it from the racecourse. So with the camp images, they're not just about the past, they're about the present too. Though the camp is in a sense the garden out of which it all grew, it Is itself being fed all the time by the present.

Gabriel Josipovici This takes us back to what we were saying about images, and which are charged and which aren't, and cooking them in the right way.

Andrzej Jackowski You can only use them when you're ready. I had this photo of the excavation of the boats in Denmark for years, and it was interesting to me or I wouldn't have kept it, but at a certain moment it became imperative to use it. Suddenly it evoked that tingle at the back of the neck that makes you know something is alive. Or take the boy standing by the altar - the table. It's a first communion. I'd had the picture for twenty years and liked it, as I had myself taken first communion as a child, but it was only then that I was able to use it.

Gabriel Josipovici Isn't it strange. I found this when I was writing the novel about Bonnard. It came very quickly, in one great surge, as if it had been waiting to be written. There was a daughter there who never existed 'In real life', but I always knew she had to be there, and pretty central. Where did she come from? Nothing autobiographical, certainly, and yet I knew her better than I knew myself, her sense of exclusion from her parents' closeness, everything. Of course, she has a function in the novel: her sense of exclusion mirrors the mother's, and both mirror the reader's. But why was she waiting to emerge? Would she and the rest of the novel have lain there unspoken and unspeaking forever if I hadn't chanced upon a radio talk about Bonnard and his wife's compulsive need to wash? I suppose one must make use of what one can and the great artists are those who are able to make use of more of what is there in all of us than the rest of us.

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. Kafka's letter about art being like the axe to break the frozen ice around the heart. Certain images or bits of writing free one, open one up, and then all sorts of connections start to take place. We create a new space in our heads to live in, which grows and changes.

Gabriel Josipovici I want to move now to something slightly different. So much art today is about using oneself, feeding one's art with one's life. What interests me much more is the reverse: what does art do for one's life? What I've always admired in you is that though you've been through hard times you've always just kept painting away, never complaining. How has the making of art helped you cope with the vagaries of life?

Andrzej Jackowski Well, as you said in that radio interview the other day, one puts one foot in front of the other and moves on. Art becomes like stepping?stones: one can move forward and avoid the water. As we were saying about bringing the past and the present together, I feel I won't sink as long as I paint, and will be able to live my life.

Gabriel Josipovici When ones dispersed and loses touch with oneself - that's what's so anguishing.

Andrzej Jackowski Did you see that programme about Tracey Emin? I found some of her earlier work quite interesting, but the notion of naming something - this is what I did, who I slept with - or pointing to the evidence - this is the bed I slept in etc. - doesn't evoke anything in me. As if it's the first image that comes to mind and it's immediately accepted; there's no work on it.

Gabriel Josipovici I suppose the answer such artists would give is that the whole notion of delving in, of painting as excavation, is somehow passˇ, a Western obsession with subjectivity that we've at last got away from, a mere massag ing of the ego.

Andrzej Jackowski All work on oneself is that, in one not very important sense. But all good art changes us in some small or big way. It's not just a mirror.

Gabriel Josipovici You presumably have a lot of students who work like this or produce videos of bits of their lives and stop there?

Andrzej Jackowski Well, because in Brighton we're a painting school, we don't have video students. But I don't think what we're talking about is primarily painting versus video. Seeing some of Bill Viola's work has been a moving experience for me.

Gabriel Josipovici Or Bruce Nauman?

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. I don't know if you saw the installation show at the Tate that Stuart Morgan did? With Louise Bourgeois, Beuys, Palka - he's Polish, marvellous. It connected on a deeper, more complex level. With a lot of English artists it's thin soup. The intent's nice, it's witty, but I need something more nourishing.

Gabriel Josipovici Do you get it more from writers and filmmakers than from contemporary artists?

Andrzej Jackowski Very few painters really speak to me now. Some sculptors, like Beuys and Bourgeois. But a theatre director like Kantor seems to give me what I seek, what I'm drawn to. He uses the past, of course, he was much more bedded in reality than Schultz -

Gabriel Josipovici Absolutely. I was bowled over by his last piece, about his father during the war. The entire cast under that black blanket at the end

Andrzej Jackowski The other person I've recently been excited by is Pina Bausch.

Gabriel Josipovici The boundaries are growing blurred, aren't they? Dance, theatre, performance art, sculpture

Andrzej Jackowski I've not seen Pina Bausch live, only a video of a piece called 1980. A boy with a bowl eating porridge, speaking Polish - she uses the stories of her dancers, blends them into something strange and powerful. The boy eats slowly and the dancers come in and it changes into something quite erotic and then changes again. Always the dialogue between childhood and adulthood, how our sophisticated dances have their roots in children's games, how our patterns of thinking, and moving even, are set very early.

Gabriel Josipovici And Tarkovsky? You used to be passion ate about his films.

Andrzej Jackowski I haven't seen any for some time. But many of his images have stayed with me. Horses in a field. Milk splashing onto a table. Mirror's my favourite. And lvans Childhood, about the boy going between regiments in the war. And Stalker

Gabriel Josipovici Which I couldn't bear. So solemn and pretentious.

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. It can get like that. But the images. Using a puddle with a few coins and photo graphs in it. The ride on the train as a way of passing into different time zones

Gabriel Josipovici And yet - and you seem to feel this too - the stories he uses don't quite work in many of the films. And marvellous images aren't enough. We're back to what you were saying about the need to tell stories and the difficulty. How do you feel about the connection between the stillness you say you seek in painting and the urge to tell stories?

Andrzej Jackowski That's a difficult one.

Gabriel Josipovici Yes.

Andrzej Jackowski It's something Bacon has talked a lot about. He calls it illustration. But there's good and bad illustration, it seems to me, and it's nothing to do with detail. Lucian Freud has some very elaborated images but very powerful. And Bacon, in his later work, which is very empty, very bare, still too often only produces illustrations. So what's the secret?

Gabriel Josipovici In fiction it's the tyranny of the anecdote. Yet of course fiction isn't about nothing either; it's not just a formal procedure, not even in Flaubert or Robbe-Grillet. It's again this mysterious thing of what makes one thing good, true, profound, and another superficial, slight. I went to see some of those short Beckett pieces at the recent Barbican Beckett Festival. And they were just like late Bacon - parodies of Beckett. Yet if he hadn't done them then perhaps the better work, magical pieces like Footfalls, would never have surfaced. There's a biographical element in Footfalls, of course, Beckett's mother walking up and down, up and down, at the top of the house, but transformed.

Andrzej Jackowski That's it. It's not whether it really happened or not - as you said about Bonnard's daughter. Sometimes you have to invent something to take the place of something else, something that wont or cant be said. It's sensing which images to use. There's a warmth about the right ones.

Gabriel Josipovici Does that call forth a corresponding warmth in you? People have often talked of the richness and vibrancy of your canvases. Are the two related?

Andrzej Jackowski Yes, of course. And it doesn't come straight away. It has to be worked at. Slowly. Eliminating the initial image. Getting rid of what's false. The first one's just the door into the room. Then you enter the room and find another door and another room beyond it. Sometimes it gets too complex and you have to go back to something simpler - you've overcooked it and can't save it, its lost. This is what I envy writers for - you can always go back to an earlier draft; a painter can't, the earlier draft's lost for good.

Gabriel Josipovici On the other hand what I feel with writing most of the time is its thinness. You can't show the work on it as you can in painting. But sometimes I feel that the tension between the form and the material does generate a kind of density, richness, and sometimes one has to accept that thinness is what the thing is going to be about, and try to convey through that a sense of what is missing - as I was saying about Now. Then what the piece is really about is the silence at the end, when you've read the last page and put it down but not closed it. Could we move on a bit, though, and talk about the larger context? About English culture? We both feel like resident aliens here, belonging and not belonging. We've talked about this often enough. And about our sense that there's something missing in current English culture. Why do you think that is? You've grown up here, after all, and I haven't. Yet I sense in your work something that for want of a better word I'd call a European quality, that I warm to.

Andrzej Jackowski There was a review of my work recently by John McEwen, in which he talked about my Polishness. As if that somehow made it safe, other, of no relevance to what was going on here. By describing me like that I felt he was avoiding any real engagement with my work. He'd labelled me and that was that.

Gabriel Josipovici Jackowski has nothing to do with us. But art is a human activity, not a national one.

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. In Europe certain things are accepted as a way of thinking, a basis from which to start. Whereas in England they're dismissed, if they're seen at all, as 'avant-garde' or just uninterestingly foreign.

Gabriel Josipovici Why, do you think?

Andrzej Jackowski I really don't know. It's true I was brought up in this country, but living in the refugee camp till I was eleven makes me feel more Polish than English. I'm pretty much bedded down in something else.

Gabriel Josipovici It's funny, we both live here and work here but don't feel particularly at home here. Yet we wouldn't be more at home elsewhere. Were not exiles, like Nabokov. You may feel more Polish than English but you don't feel Polish. But why do you think England is so resistant to the things that really interest and move us?

Andrzej Jackowski It wasn't the case in the time of Shakespeare, was it? When did it happen? Is it the war, do you think?

Gabriel Josipovici The Napoleonic wars, perhaps, and then the industrial revolution. I feel English literature up to Wordsworth is a European literature, though it can be extremely local, and all the better for it. But from 1815 on it becomes 'English' in a new sense and it loses me. And these 'Victorian values' are what people want to go back to today, not just Thatcherites but all those novelists and readers who hanker after Dickens. I'm sure you're right about the war though. The trauma of that led to a kind of pulling back. They'd protected their shores from invasion. The only country in Europe not to suffer the horrors of occupation, collaboration, all the rest - Switzerland is a different case. Those horrors forced people in Europe to think more deeply about what it is to be human. Of course it was wonderful what Britain did - without that neither of us would be here to talk about it. But culturally what seems to have happened is that a sort of Little Englander feeling gained ground. And an embracing of American culture that has remained innocent and locked into an ideal of Progress that denies the tragic. Graham Greene caught that wonderfully in The Quiet American. So perhaps in both countries there's been a sort of cultural amnesia. A rejection of all that modernism stood for, a nostalgia for Victorian values and Christmas puddings. And when Dada is regurgitated in present?day art everyone here is amazed and impressed - what a sensation!

Andrzej Jackowski What we're upset about is a cultural climate which ignores or belittles the things we're interested in or feel to be part of us.

Gabriel Josipovici I don't want to go along with the Alvarez theory that only repressive regimes produce great art. But there is a sense in which English culture, post-war, has repressed the tragic. I love the work of Israeli writers like Yaakov Shabtai and Aharon Appelfeld, not because they deal with the war or the Holocaust but because they have a large vision of man, they are concerned with what I feel are serious things. And they don't moralise. As the current Iranian cinema, for instance, which, strangely, is so vital, doesn't moralise. English and American artists, on the other hand, can be funny and clever, but it's all so ironic and so moralistic. In your terms it's too thin to be nourishing. But let's not end with these generalisations. A new millennium has dawned, but for you as for me, I suppose, there are only the old problems you've been struggling with all your artistic life?

Andrzej Jackowski Yes. I've recently started doing some drawings where space is being pushed back more. I feel I have to bring in the street somehow, to diversify and let new images carry me, and a more open space.

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Cooking the world and putting it into images
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