Olga Lewicka´s Vivisections of Vision

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Through her paintings, texts, collages, artist's books, installations and performances Olga Lewicka - as a theoreti-pracitical artist - has brought up several problems in recent years. Mainly by interweaving various discourses in bricolage form, or by exposing 'diverse points of narration'.1 Especially intriguing have been her analyses of the idea of panoramic paintings and her own production of panoramic paintings - along with the implications of what seemed like renewed fascination with illusion by the end of the 19th century. These analyses have lead to, among others, the project ATLAS - presented several weeks ago at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin.2

Olga Lewicka, “No. 2” (z cyklu “Recent Developments in Base Superstructure Relations”), 2013, fragmenty płótna, olej, akryl, ble
Olga Lewicka, “No. 2” (“Recent Developments in Base Superstructure Relations” series), 2013, pieces of canvas, oil, acrylic, silk screen, staples, stretcher, 175 cm x 200 cm

As a proponent of the idea of expanded painting and a theoretician of textuality in images, Lewicka drew attention to the role of all-embracing (or circular) images embodied by the panoramas. After being quite forgotten during modernism, panoramas (widespread chiefly in the 19th century) appear to be alluring in our era of post-media art. We perceive them (as does Lewicka) as particular accumulations of paradoxes and dualities hidden behind colossal, but often tawdry and carnivalesque paintings which primarily embraced the tumult of large scale battles as an appealing motif for a circular narration. It concerns both evoking erstwhile dreams of genuine art available for everyone and testing the extremities of painting itself. Ideological reasons are also of great importance: the positioning in the very center creates the sensation of beholding every surrounding scene at once, thus, giving the observer a glimpse of omnipotence.

Olga Lewicka, “No. 3” (z cyklu “Recent Developments in Base Superstructure Relations”), 2014, fragmenty płótna, olej, akryl, zsz
Olga Lewicka, “No. 3” (“Recent Developments in Base Superstructure Relations” series), 2014, pieces of canvas, oil, acrylic, staples, stretcher, 180 cm x 165 cm

In her analyses of panoramas, Lewicka reminds us that the viewer - when facing the panorama - has an 'absolute' vision (like Svantovit)3, but also resembles a prison guard of a panopticon (referencing to Michel Foucault and his description of penitentiaries). With stemming the excitement from the central position of the viewer, comes the realization that this omnipotence is in fact an illusion. The twofold illusion conjured by panoramas (the ostensible reality and the illusion of the viewer's position) can be described in Thomas Lawson's words: 'clarity obscures'4. Needless to say, this offers possibilities to manipulate what can be seen (Napoleon Bonaparte knew that back in his times), hence the considerable quantity of 'appropriate' patriotic and heroic themes in what panoramas conveyed in the 19th century.

Olga Lewicka, “Bez tytułu” (“The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces”, rozdział “Motyw”), 2013, c-print, kolaż na pap
Olga Lewicka, “Untitled“ (from “The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces”, Chapter “Motif”), 2013, c-print, collage on paper, 21 cm x 29,7 cm

Despite occasional comeback attempts, the artists of the 20th century were not eager to span illusory vistas in every direction because the very means of illusion was not crucial for them. Instead, they aimed to convey and unveil - without any of the additional devices, which had lost their usefulness since the wake of photography and film - what they perceived more clearly than others. They choose to accentuate the freedom of the artistic individual in lieu of submerging themselves in all-ism. But coming back to the 19th century problems, there was a noticeable tendency to endeavor an absolute vision - not only in art, but in different areas of life. Especially prominent were the 'common' passions for expositions, flourishing since The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations at the Crystal Palace in London (1851). The rise of panoramas (nowadays treated more and more explicitly as the first mass medium5) went along with perceiving the entire world as a condensed, industrialized mutation of a village fair. People had the impression that wherever such expositions were organized, the whole globe was encapsulated in them. In his poem 'Passage to India', originated in the context of The 40th National Industrial Exposition of the American Institute, Walt Whitman wrote in 1871: "O, vast Rondure, swimming in space! [...] Now, first, it seems, my thought begins to span thee. [...] Thou, rondure of the world, at last accomplish'd."6 The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris presented "everything" - i.e. first of all the colonial success of France. No wonder the exposition attracted 32,2 million visitors. Among them was a young man with a fire in his eyes, who was on his way to become one of the revolutionaries of art - Paul Gauguin - fascinated with the exotic and channeling his enthusiasm in his expedition to 'real' Oceania. And it is also worth mentioning that one of the true enthusiasts of the Mesdag Panorama in 1881 was a certain Vincent van Gogh. But despite his admiration for the Hague panorama and the discovery of sharp lighting for his own paintings through it (without the drizzle and the whooping cough of Impressionism), van Gogh ascertained that he - the artist himself, not the means of pictorial illusionism - is the core of profound perception (a kind of 'svantovit').

Olga Lewicka, widok instalacji, “The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces – an Artist Book in Progress”, KW Institute
Olga Lewicka, installation view, “The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces – an Artist Book in Progress”, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, Studiolo, November 2013

Today, in the twilight days of post- or meta-modernism, the omniscient vision can once again be fascinating for us, even though this time around we seek divergent roots and forces. Olga Lewicka's reference to the forgotten, nineteenth century panorama extracts anew what modernism of the 20th century found inspiration in and questioned at the same time in its solipsistic direction. Now we are interested in perceiving the world not necessarily through us, but through others (as in relational aesthetics), which leads to a critique of modernistic universalism (being in fact an utopian attempt to focus on one's own role in changing the world). The stance and approach of modernists in the 20th century can be recognized as astute and sensible, as it fought for autonomy not only for the artists, but people in general. Now, however, we live in different times and environment, yet some commemorate modernists and their utopias while others search for new inspirations, also in this peculiar 19th century.

Olga Lewicka, widok instalacji, “Cloud Studies. Mapping a Prospective All-Embracing Structure #2”, Verein zur Förderung von Kuns
Olga Lewicka, installation view, “Cloud Studies. Mapping a Prospective All-Embracing Structure #2”, Verein zur Förderung von Kunst und Kultur am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz, L40, Berlin, March 2012

Delving into the idea of an 'all-embracing' vision7, Olga Lewicka ponders panoramas, displaying the full spectrum of ideas regarding circular images in her numerous collage drafts. She compiled some of them in a form of 'liberature'8 - browsing pages, viewing illustrations and reading passages bear resemblance to a kind of roundabout. Thoroughly examining the Racławice Panorama, she revealed not so much the theme of the patriotic composition, but what makes it work in an abstract sense of images. Even today, viewers of such grand panoramas are enthralled by the ingeniously conceived effects, which Lewicka dissects in a series of drawings, multiplicity of collages, as well as lectures, performances and installations. Looking back at the road travelled by the artists creating installations (from Kurt Schwitters, Mona Hatoum and beyond), one can't help but notice that panoramas envisioned and foresaw a number of effects essential for the makers of environments and spatial arrangements - since the essence of every panorama as a bi-form is a strong contrast between walking through a dark, spiral corridor (often oppressively claustrophobic) on the one hand, and a ramp which 'suddenly' bursts with light and reveals the entirety of the painting on the other. As we reflect on the corridor installations by Bruce Nauman (on the turn of the 60s and the 70s of the 20th century), we can observe their role to 'lead towards something', the manipulation of light and shadow or the tendency to divert perspective from an absolute all-embracing vision towards stalking and surveillance. Olga Lewicka takes into consideration these effects (and many others) to generate an induction field for creativity. She probes the essence of paintings such as panoramas. Seemingly, they were utterly utilitarian, but in fact they incorporated groundbreaking solutions.

Olga Lewicka, “The Seeing #2”, 2010, c-print, ołówek, węgiel, kolaż na papierze, 50 cm x 70 cm
Olga Lewicka, “The Seeing #2”, 2010, c-print, pencil, charcoal, collage on paper, 50 cm x 70 cm

By invoking supposedly forgotten forms such as panoramas, Olga Lewicka refers to the constant impulse of disbelief accompanying her when it comes to the status quo of contemporary art, but also towards the entrapment in politics or common ideologies. This disbelief, often disguised as irony, goes along with Lewicka's investigative approach towards recycling ideas and issues. At the same time, although her premises belong to elaborately erudite projects of high art, they are often conducted to descend into what is low and pop. In her projects, the binary connection between seriousness and irony, between high and low comes to life and becomes a fertile ground for induction. The Swarovski jewelry brand accompanies a discourse about the role of painting, references to rock music overlap with philosophical theses. As it turns out, pop-idols have a lot in common with mythical heroes, aesthetic treatises are accompanied by inkspots, and behind them do lurk the world of Rorschach tests and a myriad of possible interpretations. Exquisitely molded, but at the same time garbage-like agglomerations in her images seem to put into question the context - the esteemed institution of the art world - in which they are exhibited.

Olga Lewicka, projekt stron do książki “The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces”, rozdział “Substancje spajające”, 20
Olga Lewicka, page draft for the book “The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces”, Chapter “Binding Agents”, 2013

In her work Lewicka employs a strategy of avoiding exaggerated succumbing to the old but for some reason fecund phrase 'the medium is the message', coined by a certain adorable Canadian professor. For Lewicka, the medium is just... a medium. As a painter, she chooses the 'multi-narrational' (to cite again Dorota Monkiewicz) ideas of what makes an image an image as central for her theses. They are interwoven into her discourses, printed texts, artist's books (of nonlinear structure), performances, audience participation. Lewicka analyses the ways paintings were used in the past, and methods in which they still may be used. It's like in the case of panoramas. As she points out: "I believe that painting is a medium, therefore it cannot be acknowledged a priori as 'good' or 'bad', as 'progressive' or 'conservative'. It can only be used 'progressively' or 'conservatively'."9 The word 'used' is worth noting because in the context of Olga Lewicka's creative movements, it also means reconsidering the judgment of the paintings declared as 'bad'. And that would make sense especially with all-embracing formats, since during the last century they were regarded as remarkably 'bad painting'.

Olga Lewicka, projekt stron do książki “The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces, Wstęp,” 2013
Olga Lewicka, page draft for the book The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces, Intro, 2013

The very exhibitions become verification time for Lewicka, an investigation in what turned out bad in the past, but could have developed towards significant illuminations. The Aurora Project referred to Romantic dawn, but also to a warship. Lewicka adapts Samson - a glorious and valiant biblical hero as a metaphor for contemporary art. An Israeli armored recovery vehicle and a chain of health-and-beauty treatment centers also share the name Samson. Olga Lewicka invoked this brave warrior through a text10, as well as through an image adorned with colorful plastic tubes, ropes, strings, chains - all those attributes artfully imitate the quasi painterly gestures of 'Samsons' and ridicule the bygone pride of the irate abstract expressionists. She seemed to add here: art squanders its power if it subjects itself to usurpation and duress from the outside, for instance to the pressure exerted by ideology. As we know, revealing the secret of his power proved fatal to Samson. Likewise, art faces dangers of its own and is restricted when its power lies in the hands of political puppeteers. The studies of panoramas only deepen the point of this dilemma. By the careful theme selection, Lewicka shows culturally and illusionistically exhilarating sources as well as the danger of inducing a sense of claustrophobia and surveillance (see: Foucault).

Olga Lewicka,  “No. 50 (z cyklu Showdown)”, 2005, olej I silikon na płótnie, 80 cm x 90 cm
Olga Lewicka, “No. 50” (“Showdown series”), 2005, oil & silicon on canvas, 80 cm x 90 cm

Lewicka closely scrutinizes her own exhibits during their exposition - they are like spectacles supplying conclusions, which she later uses as theses for new solutions. They evolve into subsequent stages in the process of induction, bearing significance as a visual realization of what previously existed only in a verbal realm. Each idea gains, terminology-wise, a thought-provoking expression. For instance, the installation/performance entitled Gwiazda/Star (2004) featured the artist lying on a bed (like Tracey Emin), impersonating a celebrity while a sampling of a Madonna song and an Adorno lecture especially produced for this performance was played from an offstage sound recording (here a disparity: the British star probably doesn't know this philosopher), or her white images in which she paints with words, ambiguously entitled Showdown (2005). These images are stuffed with quotes of 'conneisseurs', scrawled whimsically with silicone. Taking up an entire wall of Entropia Gallery in Wrocław, Large-Size Abstraction Against Theory & Politics (2006) is a rich painting in an all-over style, like a deconstruction of abstract gestural painting, but also a visual essay about the possibilities of painting and its threats. One could observe how Lewicka dismantles stereotypes and symbols in the exhibition entitled Now 3000 Years Are Coming... (I don´t know which ones exactly but I ponder on this) (2009). Apart from paintings, she displayed the text of Tadeusz Kościuszko's last will, Works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels or a statuette of King Stanisław II August. Donning an incredibly fanciful replica of Kościuszko's hat, she presented a tableau vivant performance during the opening while the commander's last will was recited from an offstage sound recording. This abundance of references was described by critic Magdalena Zięba as "authenticity intermingled with a conscious, parenthetical reference to the past, with the grandiloquence of history and its demons"11. In a series of important essays (published in 2010 in major newspapers in Austria and Germany) concerning the domain of myths and symbols emerging from public life in Poland, Lewicka points out the irrationality that stems from the confluence of seduction and propaganda, and how progressive paths of history can turn into fatal aberrations.12 Since stereotypes have much impact on social behavior, avoiding them is what became the main theme of an essay written by Lewicka and Kryst Gniew 13. We find here: "In the relation of art to power, the unambiguousness of art means the death of art."14 This unambiguousness can be understood as credulity towards stereotypes, easily turning into kitsch.

Olga Lewicka, “Samson”, 2007, różnorodne materiały na płótnie, 55 cm x 80 cm
Olga Lewicka, “Samson”, 2007, diverse materials on canvas, 55 cm x 80 cm

Although not a great number of artists would favor the statement ut pictura poesis 15, there are no works of art that would not correspond with our thoughts expressed verbally. Except that there is (as Foucault mentions, among others) a huge discrepancy between words and images. Aristotle's concept comes to mind ('between the mouth and the morsel'), modified by Maria Rodziewiczówna ('between the cup and the lip') or Leopold Staff ('between the lip and the chalice'). The phrase illustrates the abundance of sensations and ceremonies in the space in-between. Olga Lewicka is also the author of a thorough study on Jackson Pollock 16 (which argues that in the panoramic quality of Pollock's paintings an utterly new writing within modernism became visible and readable for the first time), and starting with this book she herself has verified time and again a widespread lack of sensitivity for the said space in-between what is publicly presented in visual and verbal forms, in art, critique and beyond. As an explicit counter-movement in almost every single of Lewicka's projects this vast and rich space in-between is penetrated. As a consequence, her work is often challenging for the recipient. With Gniew she wrote, in addition: "The difference between art and political activism is in the moments which force the recipient to WITHSTAND THE UNCERTAINTY."17 And due to the multiplicity of narrative references in her work the degree of this 'uncertainty' is sometimes indeed remarkable. And even though Lewicka is able to breathe with finesse a sense of purpose into the simplest figurines, screws or charred banners, at first sight one may feel confounded by her works. Then, the afterthought enables the dialogue.


By investigating both various aspects of all-embracing vision and stereotypes arisen around painting, Olga Lewicka examines through doubt, amazes through irony, and constantly finds new challenges and paradoxes. They can, as Carsten Zorn pointed out, cause a clash of "the burden of triumphant power" (biblical Samson as the personification of the contemporary artists' approach) and "invincible lightness"18 (as it is with peacock feathers or strokes of silicon on the canvas). These (and other) untranslatabilities result in bi-forms and in their room for interpretational potential, they seem to refer to Ricardo Basbaum's concept of the creative role of heterogeneity.19 Probing the sources of panoramas and both artistic and social mechanisms hidden within them, Lewicka gained an insight into the utopia of omnipotency of painting. Furthermore, her art is an ongoing vivisection of a continually interesting question regarding the relation of the very all-embracing vision to the ways in which this vision can be represented.

Translated from Polish by Kacper Paszke & Marta Błaszczak

Photo credits: Tina Wessel, Carsten Zorn

  1. 1. The multinarrative character of Lewicka's work has been emphasized, among others, by Dorota Monkiewicz. Cf. her comments in "THE NEW SUMMITS", a documentary by Wrocław Contemporary Museum covering a one day long artistic performative event by Olga Lewicka and Carsten Zorn (THE NEW SUMMITS - Mapping a Prospective All-Embracing Structure #1, Wrocław, 13-Feb-2012). The long version of the documentary was shown on TV (TVP Kultura, 19-Dec-2012). A short version online.
  2. 2. For information on the artist book project „The Painting Atlas, or Unifying Fundamental Forces" see: www.kw-berlin.de. The project was presented at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin on 10-Nov-2013, preceded by a series of workshops designed by Lewicka. For info on the workshops see: www.kw-berlin.de.
  3. 3. "Svantovit" is the name of a multifaced ancient Slavic god. [translator's note]
  4. 4. T. Lawson, Time Bandits/Space Vampires, „Artforum" January, 1988, p. 89.
  5. 5. Cf. S. Oettermann, The Panorama. History of a Mass Medium, transl. Deborah Lucas Schneider, New York 1997: Zone Books.
  6. 6. W. Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1892. Reprint, New York 1993: Random House.
  7. 7. Cf. O. Lewicka, PANORAMA. Materials for Mapping A Prospective All-Embracing Structure, Poznań 2011: Morava. Selected pages and more info on the book at: http://www.mottodistribution.com.
  8. 8. "Liberature" is a term coined by Polish writer Zenon Fajfer for literature in which the material form is considered an important part of the whole and essential to understanding the work. [translator's note]
  9. 9. O. Lewicka, [text without title], in: Enter/Escape. How Does Painting Shape New Spaces? Comments by exhibited artists, Sztuka i Dokumentacja No 2, spring 2010, p. 82.
  10. 10. O. Lewicka, [text without title], in: Enter/Escape. How Does Painting Shape New Spaces? Comments by exhibited artists, Sztuka i Dokumentacja No 2, spring 2010, p. 82.
  11. 11. M. Zięba, Kiedyś malarze malowali z przeszłości, dziś musimy przewid. przyszłość, 8-Feb-2009, www.obieg.pl.
  12. 12. Cf. O. Lewicka, Wie Polens Königsweg nun zum Irrweg wird, Der Standard, 22-Apr-2010, as well as Die Tageszeitung, 24-Apr-2010: http://derstandard.at / www.taz.de.
  13. 13. "Kryst Gniew" is a pseudonym; 'gniew' means anger, rage, ire. [translator's note]
  14. 14. K. Gniew / O. Lewicka, Rules that matter, unpublished script (2007).
  15. 15. Literally translated: "as is painting so is poetry". [translator's note]
  16. 16. O. Lewicka, Pollock. Verflechtung des Sichtbaren und des Lesbaren, München 2004: Fink. [Pollock. The Intertwining of the Visible and the Readable, translator's note]
  17. 17. K. Gniew / O. Lewicka, Rules that matter, unpublished script (2007).
  18. 18. C. Zorn, There ain't no Second Chance against the Thing with Forty Eyes (exhibition text, lokal_30 Gallery), Warsaw 2009, http://lokal30.pl.
  19. 19. R. Basbaum, „Within the Organic Line and After", in: „Art After Conceptual Art" , ed. A. Alberro, S.Buchmann, Cambridge Mass.: The MIT Press 2006, p. 96.