Extending the Domain of Reception. "Paint, also Known as Blood" in the Context of Cultural Competences

"Paint, also known as blood. Women, affect, and desire in contemporary painting", view of the exhibition, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2019. Photo: Daniel Chrobak

While writing about the recently closed exhibition Paint, also known as blood, I would not like to go through each and every painting to talk about the problems everyone reading this text is familiar with. The questions posed by Natalia Sielewicz, the curator, were raised many times in the field of art (which does not mean they shouldn’t be raised again!). States of Focus (Wroclaw Contemporary Museum, 2019, curator: Małgorzata Miśniakiewicz), Niepodległe: Women, Independence and National Discourse (Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2018, curator: Magda Lipska), Dziewczynstwo & COVEN Berlin present: BEDTIME (Municipal Gallery Arsenał, 2018, curator: Zofia nierodzińska), Body works (State Gallery of Art, 2019, curators: Gosia Golińska, Romuald Demidenko) are just a few examples of the recent exhibitions concerning the issues of female and non-standard bodies, the power over their representation and the view, the right to pleasure and sexuality and talking about it. The increased work performed in this field by women: artists (such as Iwona Demko, Justyna Górowska, Katarzyna Kukuła, Liliana Piskorska), academics and students (e.g. Kariatyda Collective, Ewa Domańska), Internet users, our friends, sisters, co-workers, and mothers, cannot be fully listed.

In this context Paint, also known as blood does not seem to bring much new ideas, but I do not think Sielewicz prioritizes this aspect. In my opinion, the curator’s aim was not so much a new content-related deal as it was a popularization of what is still not familiar outside the circle of regular consumers of modern art. In the case of Sielewicz’s exhibition, it is something different (than just the problems proposed by the curator and the artists) that seems to me to be worthy of an in-depth analysis: an exhibition strategy and a surprising, untypical emphasis put on the medium of painting, which together constitute an extended domain of reception. It is an invitation to the society, and not only to the world of art, to participate in a political exhibition, firm in its statement, but expressed through the most familiar medium.

The exhibition included works of over fifty artists from Poland and abroad, similarly to the abovementioned Niepodległe (artists from all over the world) and States of Focus (artists from Poland and Central and Eastern Europe). What is more important is the key of the medium – Sielewicz’s exhibition consists solely of figurative paintings. Piotr Policht, who wrote an extensive essay concerning Polish painting1 for the “SZUM Magazine” several years ago, looked closer at the curator’s decision. However, he did not exhaust the topic2. To me, an exhibition consisting only of paintings is a difficult subject. The reason is that, first of all, I simply do not enjoy it and paintings in large numbers put me in a state of “discomfort”3 mentioned by Policht. Second of all, when faced with exhibitions featuring only paintings, I experience the unrecognized feeling of taking away the possibility, of closing the domain through the elimination of other types of media. Where does the idea that one medium is better suited to make a deeper or more relevant statement on a given subject come from? Sielewicz herself justifies her decision in the following way: It [painting] requires time, a massive amount of work, as well as a long reflection. Painting is also strongly rooted in a bodily experience. If I was to point out an art medium mediated by body to the greatest extent, I would think of performance. Painting can, but does not have to, engage body more than sculpture or graphics. Unless we think of the shamanic dance over the Jackson Pollock’s canvas – but this is a patriarchal founding myth of the American modern art, dripping with testosterone. Therefore, I believe that in her text and press materials the curator does not tell us the whole truth. The above statement reassures me in what I suggested a few paragraphs earlier – it was constructed for the extension of the domain of reception.

Belonging to a large extent to the neo-avant-garde legacy, post-conceptual photographs and videos exhibited during States of Focus, required – in Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology – certain cultural competences, lack of which is systemic in Poland, leading to situations such as recent censoring of Natalia LL’s Consumer Art in the National Museum in Warsaw, or boycotting of plays at theatres. For the same reason – systemic gaps in artistic and cultural education – figurative painting seems to be the reservoir of the “real art” among people not related professionally to the field of art and culture, that is the full spectrum of the Polish society.

"Paint, also known as blood. Women, affect, and desire in contemporary painting", view of the exhibition, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2019. Photo: Daniel Chrobak

“Art world” has always been, and still is, a bastion of patriarchy: the whole history of art was written on the basis of the male authorities, heroic topics, myths, ideas and expectations constructed by men. Men constitute the majority of the rectors and deans of artistic universities, but, at the same time, within the same group (“art world”) these problems are named, described, and analysed, as shown by the examples of the abovementioned artistic and political initiatives, exhibitions and publications. We face institutions and public space constructed in a patriarchal way, but at the same time we have the tools that enable us to name these processes, so also, in a way, control them. We do not need to convince our friends, curators, academics, artists. It is those who do not have such tools, who do not know how to use them or how and when they can be useful, who are at stake. Modern art is not the best form of popularization of political content in our country. There are, obviously, many reason why, some of them being “a history of long lasting”, analysis of which is beyond the scope of this text, but the neglected artistic and cultural education surely influenced the fact that photographs and installations of artists from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have less chance of earning approval of the society than figurative painting. This is why I believe that what is the most important in the case of Paint, also known as blood is greater availability and accessibility of art concerning important problems that should concern the whole society (“women’s rights are human rights”), and not only a part of it. This is kind of a “work at the grassroots”.

James McNeill Whistler, "Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl", 1861-1862, Source: (public domain)

Exhibition strategy can be approached in a similar way since paintings were simply hung on the walls, although much more densely than in MOCAK. A natural association in the case of figurative paintings on the walls are nineteenth-century French salons. The annual exhibitions presented only paintings painted by men and concerning respectable themes: religious and mythological scenes, scenes from wars and battles. A woman was presented predominantly as a metaphor or a mythological figure. She was (usually naked) impeccably beautiful or terribly ugly, if so required by the convention, she was also tame, passive, and exposed to the recipient’s gaze. The rebellious and reactionary nature of the Salon des Refusés (“exhibition of rejects”) is also a myth. The formal freedoms pushed by the art in the end of the 19th century were also the freedoms of the patriarchal bourgeoisie. In 1962 James McNeill Whistler, as a “reject”, exhibited Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl. The painting show a portrait of a full silhouette of a woman in a white dress, standing on a wolf’s skin. Although the skin is dressed, there is a subtle red line on its margin, suggestive of blood. Salon des Refusés, as it is known, was liberal in its approach to the painterly manner and the respectability of the themes, thereby allowing to represent a woman not only in disguise of an ancient metaphor. Nevertheless, McNeill’s painting – even though “rejected” – did not emancipate the depicted woman from the power of male imagination, authority, and control. It is an ethereal, delicate nymph, whose dangerous and unpredictable sexuality and wildness are implied by the presence of the wolf’s skin. However, the same object was used to tame her, since this wolfish wildness remained a projection of male desire. This problem was noticed by the curator, who, in the opening text, points out– 

A non-standard woman, from the perspective of the Romantics, constitutes a personification of a dangerous, irrational world that is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. Fascination, fear, and disgust towards a woman constructed as the Other, are narcotic feelings the Romantics are not willing to be released from. They justify their admiration for the tortured beauty by the need to expand the limits of taboo.4

Honore Daumier, 1965 Source: (public domain)

Sielewicz reversed this pattern by constructing an exhibition of female paintings depicting women; paintings in which female violence is not a perverse male fantasy, and a woman is aware of it as much as she is aware of her own sexuality. Traditional painting used to be a male domain. In the case of Paint, also known as blood, the convention of the salon reverses the pattern not only on a direct level, i.e. on the level of a female painting salon. This is also (or perhaps mainly?) a manifestation of traditionally “unrespectable” themes – allowing the affect, women’s own bodily experience, sexuality, pleasure, narcissism, violence and the private sphere.

My first diagnosis does not conflict with the second one. These nineteenth-century salons were also publicly available. There are countless graphics, satirical press illustrations, showing the visitors admiring the paintings hung on the walls. There are women and children among them. However, the women’s presence in the salons was marked by an enormous load of symbolic violence. The paintings they were admiring constituted reservoirs of male power, gaze, law and morality. Sielewicz mentions female revenge many times in the text cited above. I think that elevating the affect, narcissism, and wild sexuality not ruled by men, to the status of a salon, is quite a successful revenge on the male history of art.

Daria Skok is an art historian and a PhD candidate at the Wroclaw University

1 P. Policht, Ornament to nie zbrodnia. Horyzont młodego malarstwa [in:] „Magazyn SZUM” no. 16, 2017, p. 57-73.

2 P. Policht, Ornament to nie zbrodnia. Horyzont młodego malarstwa [in:] „Magazyn SZUM” no. 16, 2017, p. 57-73.

3 “The sight of a painting created with paints on a canvas causes some kind of discomfort and the need to re-invent the wheel in some people; the need to step outside the flat representation of a classical canvas” P.Policht, ibid.

4 N. Sielewicz, Rozpruwaczki. Kobieta, afekt i pragnienie, między figuracją a abstrakcją [in:] Farba znaczy krew. Kobieta, afekt i pragnienie we współczesnym malarstwie, ed. N. Sielewicz, Warszawa 2019, p. 9-10. 


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