Jacek Sempoliński left an artistic legacy of over eight hundred paintings and several thousand drawings. His best known compositions – painted in dark azures and violets, with cold and ash greys, on canvases rubbed threadbare, with holes in them – reveal dramatic eschatological themes, of ‘final things’. And then his paintings with bright backgrounds are stenographic records, traces, reflections, almost elementary marks of emotions and fears. ‘Today I must draw what is almost nothing,’ the artist wrote down in his diary. And this ‘almost nothing’ is dominant in the works on paper and canvas from his final years. Both touch fundamental problems of existence, religion, and culture.
Sempoliński painted the same motifs over and over again, studying them relentlessly: landscapes (places that he visited many times: Mochnaczka, Męćmierz or Kamianna), skulls, faces, and crucifixions, creating series of paintings ‘about himself’. As noted by Jacek Waltoś, ‘he probably understood creative endeavour as it is fixed on his canvases and papers: as my own, one and only, unique existence.’
Indeed a lot has been written about these abstract, extreme, incomplete (maimed) paintings, and each of these interpretations brings us closer to the phenomenon of his art. Sempoliński’s statement through painting is total, all-embracing, seemingly enticing with its abyss, and his pictures gaze at us from above this abyss. The threadbare canvases, with their surfaces brushed vehemently with simplified gestures in an almost Far Eastern manner, attract and rivet our attention, our gaze, trading places with us.
The exhibition ‘Jacek Sempoliński. Gazing Pictures’ prepared by the Manggha Museum shows over one hundred paintings and drawings from the years 1958–2011. Following the retrospectives of Andrzej Wróblewski, Andrzej Wajda and the WPROST Group, it is yet another attempt at demonstrating the phenomenal developments in 20th-century Polish art. Sempoliński’s pictures indeed gaze, ‘for here there is no place that does not see you, and you must change your life’.
I cared about painting. But the dictate of plastic artistry as such was so alien to me that it cut me off from all art movements whose objective was the ‘development’ of a language. Am I supposed to spend my life looking for artistic solutions? No. I have but one treasure of life: irrespective of how heavy a burden it is to carry, nothing compares to it. There is a paradox in it because all I have been doing is painting. I have, however, always felt that I care about something else and that all my moves as a painter have to be subordinated to that ‘something else’ (Jacek Sempoliński, 2002).
Sempoliński formulates yet another astounding observation on the nature of painting in his diary. He writes that not only we gaze at pictures but also pictures gaze at us. ‘And they are capricious: sometimes they gaze, and sometimes they don’t.’ This thought is particularly fecund to him: it is this mysterious ‘gaze’ of the painting that should be the artist’s objective rather than formal perfection, or even power of expression: ‘The mindset in which the picture is supposed to gaze at someone rather than just be “viewed” explains the certain reflex one has when painting. It is supposed to gaze, so the “gaze” of the picture is the most important thing. Quite often I identify my own “error of art” and, after a check inspection the following day, I do a kind of calculation: will it pay to leave the error just because the painting has a “gaze” or should I correct it at the risk of depriving it of this “gaze”? I often decide to leave the error there: let it be as it is.’ (Emilia Olechnowicz, 2017).
Jacek Sempoliński, born in 1927 in Warsaw, was a painter, drawer, critic and essayist. He studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he also tought from 1956 onwards, and obtained full professorship in 1988. From 1953–1957 he worked as part of a team reconstructing polychrome decorations on the facades of townhouses in Warsaw's Old and New Towns (the team received the State Prize and the Gold Cross of Merit). He took part in the legendary 1955 National Exhibition of Young Art in the Arsenal building in Warsaw (receiving one of the main prizes). A selection of his writings was published in 2001 in the volume entitled Władztwo i służba. Myśli o sztuce. In 2002, the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw held the largest of the numerous retrospective shows of his painting, entitled 'A me stesso'. His most notable accolades include the Jan Cybis Prize (1977), the Kazimierz Ostrowski Award (2004), and the Gold Medal Gloria Artis (2012). His works are included in several major state-owned collections (e.g. the National Museums in Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Poznan, and Gdansk) and in numerous private collections. He died in 2012 in Nieborów.