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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Leon Chwistek

Fencing, 1920, Leon Chwistek--Futurism with a touch of Cubism.
Leon Chwistek Self-portrait
It's no secret that, now and in the past, painters have frequently relied upon photos for their source material. Moreover, any point in discussing this fact usually revolves around how they're used rather than that they're used. Likewise, it's usually assumed today, and in the past, that painters of Realism have tended to be the primary users of such visual aids. That's probably true so long as the key word in that assumption is "primary." Running alongside this topic is the question as to what degree artists use photos--not just how, but how much (or how many). And, in the final analysis, the discussion comes down to how well they use them. Perhaps more than any other artist "tool" photos are often subject to missuse. Leon Chwistek's Fencing (top), from 1920, is based upon a photo (below, possibly several of them).
Chwistek (on the left) fencing, 1914. Compare the photo to the painting above.
Futurism involved the attempt to convey the multiple realities of movement.
Strangely enough, what makes this Polish painter, philosopher, and mathematician interesting and important to the general study of art is not his paintings, or even his use of photos to some degree, but his elucidation of the other key word in my original assumption--Realism. Leon Chwistek, born in 1884, came up with what he called his Theory of Multiplicity of Realities. Whoa, don't stop reading here, this gets interesting. In fact, Chwistek not only makes a good deal of sense of a rather complex subject, he actually simplifies it. Chwistek breaks down reality into four different types: (1) popular reallity, (2) physical reality, (3) phenomenal reality, and (4) visionary/intuitive reality. Best of all, he ties four of the most common painting styles to each of his four realities. Thus, he not only simplifies the concept of reality, but painting as well.
Parrish, Leon Chwistek
--physical reality.
Popular reality is what we might deem "common sense" reality. Much of our definition of reality is not so much based upon what we see in the real world but what we know about it. You might say it's how we've homogenized what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, and thus how we feel about the world around us. This Chwistek equates this with the style of painting we call Primitivisim--Grandma Moses at her best. The lady didn't paint what she saw, but what she had seen, and more importantly, what she'd digested. She painted what she remembered and how she felt about what she remembered. It's a common sense approach to painting unfettered by academic rules and often even aesthetic principles.
Physical reality is dictated by physics. The sky is blue, due to the atmosphere around our planet and the way in which sunlight passing through it to create certain color wave lengths which the eyes perceive and the brain processes as the color we've come to call "blue." This Chwistek equates to good old, run-of-the-mill observed Realism. The artist sees, the hand paints, applying learned rules in replicating the scene or object in a manner which is largely unbiased by what the brain "knows" about the subject. I "know" most cars have four wheels, but if I can't see all four of them, then I only paint those which I can see.
After Dinner Reading, 1919, Leon Chwistek--not exactly Impressionism,
but as close as Chwistek ever came to phenomenal reality.
Phenomenal reality deals with all the senses, not just sight. It deals with what the eyes see, but also that which the brain instantly processes upon seeing. The grass is green, but the brain reminds the artist that green is composed of yellow and blue pigments, which can be mixed for a uniform mass, or applied separately to create a visual texture, probably more akin to the appearance of grass than some great, green, glob of Pthalocyanine. Phenomenal reality treats the observed world as a phenomena to be analyzed. Chwistek equates this to Impressionism. Monet observed nature, but he was not a slave to a precise recapitulation of it. This attitude, this analysis, this flexible rendering of reality is what gives Impressionism it's brilliance, excitement, and sensual appeal.

Poland, Warsaw, Industrial City,
1920, Leon Chwistek--Futurism,
visionary/intuitive reality
Visionary/intuitive reality does not directly involve the five senses. But that's not to say it is totally divorced from the real world. It involves dreams, hallucination, and the subconscious. If you've ever experienced any of these mental states (and who hasn't to some degree) then you know they can seem as "real" as anything you can see, touch, smell, taste, or hear. This realm of reality is also based upon feelings, but you might say they are feelings run amok, feelings on steroids, feelings that result in temporary (hopefully) insanity. They are feelings over which the feeler has little or no control. Did you ever try to "direct" a dream? Chwistek equates this to Futurism (his own favorite style of painting), but it could be tied to Surrealism, and applies equally well (or better) to Expressionism, also to a style of painting that hadn't really been invented yet when he died in 1944--Abstract Expressionism.
Leon Chwistek's Theory of Multiplicity of Realities was never intended to be a new metaphysical theory. It's not a theory one can "prove" or disprove. Perhaps it's a misnomer to even call it a "theory" in the traditional sense. It might be better served to consider it a hierarchy, even though doing so tends to impose value judgements implying that each level is somehow "better" than the one below. This is manifestly not the case, especially when painting styles are attached to each label. The beauty of Chwistek' its simple logic. It make sense, and better still. makes sense of art.


1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr Lane,
    greetings from Germany. My name is Peter Schiffer, Phd student in Germany.
    I found on your website the picture of Hansons drug addict (1975). I would like to inquire who has the rights at the picture, because I would like to use use the picture in my dissertation. I hope I could reach you with this message and my own e-mail adress is
    Sincerely peter Schiffer