Roman Cieslewicz (1930-1996) was an artist with a steadfast vision who combined visual wit with stark disturbing imagery that transfused angst into eloquent visual communication. His skill juxtaposing images, words in startling combinations, using a simple cut and paste collage technique is extraordinary. Even today we might look twice at these memorable, even scary designs. It does not surprise me to find that these images expressed people’s innermost conflicts and feelings. So, while his work teeters on the edge of disturbing, nightmarishly surreal, it is also revelatory, with hints of grim humour.
Karl Gustav Jung had great foresight in putting art at the centre of psychotherapy which was highly unusual at the time – the early 1920s – yet his understanding of art has since borne great fruit, spawning the field of art therapy. One of Jung’s key ideas was that it is the power of the unreconstructed image alone that heals. That it simply appears in your mind at any given point of your life should be honoured. That is its visual language. Whether it morphs or not after that is immaterial. The image resonates like sounds vibrate.
Some might argue that harping on images of conflict, pain and trauma, the split self, opens itself up accusations of obesesing with the negative. These are after all the materials thrown up by the dark recesses of our minds. I would say that if it’s done badly, perhaps, but, ultimately: great art is never depressing. Quite the opposite, it is cathartic and quite good for us, like a lot of things we don’t like. It is also what you do with it that counts.Cieslewicz also used a mirroring technique but his posters seem to well up with a self conscious dream like quality that echoes Surrealism. Should we therefore look away or look more closely to come to terms with the uncomfortable? Is it better to paint pretty flowers and trees or paint the otherwise inexpressible stuff that constitutes the the psychodrama of self? I think you know the answer. Both are needed.
This exhibition of posters at the Royal College of Art is a reminder that some artists characterize an attitude of grim survival which seems very 20th century to us now, although we are still not free of oppressors. Poland was under Soviet rule when Cieselewicz did his early work. Later, in Paris, his work exhibited a more sophisticated Pop Art element. These posters demonstrate the livid, torn, and mirrored faces. His poster for Dziady (1967) a play with political overtones at the national theatre, expressed the profound pain and anguish of a repressed people. Thus a sub text emerged. The image of an encrusted man with his heart and soul frazzled to the empty core came to stand for David versus Goliath – Poland against the Soviet Regime. People knew what it meant deep down.
The need to understand why disturbing work is necessary is still relevant today. We are still in need of imagery that sublimates both inner and outer conflict. To overlook art’s purgative function might just be throwing out baby with bath water.
That great art is cathartic goes some way to explaining why we love to see tragedies played out over and over in Operas and great dramatic plays like Hamlet and MacBeth. In seeing that the fates of opposed characters can be locked in battle in such a way that the inevitable happens follows a logic way beyond just being nice. The resulting work, the dramatic clash can ennoble and enhance our knowledge of who we are. To turn away from what scares us dooms us to forever repeat it.
Many recent exhibitions at the Wellcome Collection have given witness too show that it is people on the edge who are possibly in the greatest need of art as the transformational tool. Yes, it creates powerful emotions and those are difficult to handle, yet, strange to say, it is by nailing the images that obsess and confuse the mind that we can become free of the troubling emotions.
This is true of all the arts from words to music. We have at our disposal the tool to transform our scary bits, reintegrating their scattered fragments back into a semblance of order and meaning.
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