200% met with the Polish artist Marcin Maciejowski as he gave us a private tour of his new show, ‘Could Renoir Really Be Wrong?’, at Wilkinson Gallery.200%: With the title of this show, you wanted to initiate a dialogue between the French Impressionistic painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir and yourself. Why Renoir?
Marcin Maciejowski: From the beginning of my career, I always thought that the subject of my work should be motivated by political and social engagement – there must be a reason to paint. I painted when I felt that there was something about which I could comment.
When I was a student at the Academy of Krakow, the professors asked their students to paint in a similar vein to Renoir, which is one of the reasons that Krakow is regarded as a conservative Academy. At that time I didn’t respect Renoir’s work and I didn’t think much about his art; in fact I thought his art was about ‘nothing’. Then, last year, I read a biography about Renoir by Henri Perruchot that enabled me, through studying Renoir’s work and his history at a later age, to gain an appreciation for his work. From this, I realized beauty as a subject matter in itself is sufficient reason to paint.
200%: In hindsight, do you think the Academy in Krakow was correct?
MM: It’s not that I disagree with the people of the Academy. With this show I tried to ask myself the question ‘Could Renoir really be wrong?’ or ‘Could I [Marcin Maciejowski] really be wrong?’ The title of the show is a quotation from Renoir’s biography and Renoir didn’t need strong reasons, such as politics, to paint as, for him, beauty was reason enough to paint. The show tries to initiate a debate as to whether beauty itself is sufficient reason to paint.
In hindsight, I believe that being a student at the Academy of Krakow was good for me as their conservative ideas about painting offered me an opportunity, as a young aspiring artist, something against which to fight, to rebel. I consider my education to be the pre-text as to how I think about painting, process and subject matter.
200%: Does your political and social interest originate from your time at the Academy?
MM: Yes, it does. I was asked to paint beautiful things and to paint in a style after Renoir, but I started to rebel against that. I didn’t like, and couldn’t paint, beautiful things such as landscapes, nudes – classical stuff. I tried to find my own way and started to search for subjects for my paintings in newspapers. As a consequence, political and social issues seeped into my work. In my paintings I tried to comment on what was happening in the world, to bring political issues and social aspects of society under discussion. Every week, for ten years, I drew a comic for a weekly magazine ‘Przekrój’ on whatever happened during the week in Poland in which I tried to comment.
200%: Usually the colours in your paintings are subdued, almost monochrome. You seem to have a preference for blue and greys. Is there a reason as to why you paint in these colours?
MM: It just happens. I don’t consciously think about, or control, the colours. After I finish a work, though, I realize that there are a lot of blue and grey colours in my work. It might have to do with the fact that my work was based on images from the newspaper and poor reproductions of images printed on a home printer that are usually black and white. Whilst every painter has his favourite colours, for me, the subject of the painting has always been more important than the colours or the aesthetics.
200%: ‘Overwhelmed by the great tradition of the city, 2012’, [above] is a painting that features four people at a home party. Although you don’t see their faces it is still an intriguing realistic painting to view, such as the low angle – which makes you able to see the chewing gum stuck underneath the table, the simplification of the scene, the flashlight of camera and the desaturated colours.
MM: The things you mention about the painting is exactly the reason as to why I painted it. It is based on a photo that a friend of mine took of a home party. When I saw the picture, I noticed that everything is hidden, but the composition is still interesting enough to paint and think about it.
200%: Is ‘Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear’ your homage to Van Gogh?
MM: Kind of. It’s an association with holy paintings as it has a similar composition of the ‘Maria’ paintings with a woman putting her hands to her heart. This image is based on an old photo that I took when I was at the Academy. During his life, Van Gogh wasn’t regarded as a good painter, and his life was quite sad. In my picture, the girl carries his picture like a treasure, thereby giving him respect. My intention, with this painting, just like Renoir, was to make a painting about the girl’s beauty, with her hands tenderly holding a little catalogue of Van Gogh. When I look at it, though, other associations do arise.
200%: Such as?
A woman holding the portrait of her missing child, or relatives glasping to their chest pictures of those whom have been killed. There always seems to be a deeper hidden meaning in my work – I can’t make a painting that is just about beauty in itself. [laughs]
200%: When we interviewed you a few years ago I recall you said, “You don’t need to paint well to be an artist”. Do you still believe that technical skills are no longer required?
MM: Yes, I still believe that what an artist has to say is more important than his technical skills. It is, however, a relevant question in relation to this show, as this show asks the same question you ask: is it enough to just paint beauty in itself? Is it enough to be a technically great artist?
Last month, I found four paintings that I made in 2000 – I regret I can’t paint like that anymore as I have developed myself as a painter and my technical skills have improved. My assistant said to me when I expressed this regret: ‘But you can always paint as you painted ten years ago’. Yes, I can, but when I paint like I painted then years ago, it would feel that I have to pretend.
200%: As those paintings have some spontaneity, perhaps rawness, and lack of inhibition to them?
MM: Yes, I developed my skills and I lost that austerity and roughness. In my earlier paintings there is a wilder energy when you compare them with my paintings nowadays. The energy of my newer paintings is different.
I like my old work very much and I think it’s really good. For example, one of the paintings I recently found was of a football match between Poland and England at Wembley. It’s a painting of a radio on a white background, with a text balloon containing football commentary.The comment in the text balloon referred in some way to the painting as it described all the colours: “… flashed in the rays of this wonderful sunshine here at Wembley and white T-shirts of Polish footballers were reflected from bright green grass.”
200%: Could you indicate a painting in this show in which you believe you have succeeded in capturing beauty?
MM: I don’t think in terms of, here’s is an example where I managed to capture beauty. This show is meant to be seen as a dialogue with Renoir’s ideas about painting and traditional painting. There is, however, a lot of classical beauty in this show, for instance, the pose of this girl reading [points at ‘Girl Reading’ first picture of this post]
The girl in this painting with the quotation, ‘She did whatever she wanted’, is, in a metaphorical sense, a representation of art. It’s not the artist who orders what he wants to paint; it is art who imposes that on him.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.Paintings (From top to bottom): Marcin Maciejowski, Girl Reading (Alone in her march towards intellectual challenges and new points of view), 2012, Oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm, WG/MMAC00149; Marcin Maciejowski, Overwhelmed by the great tradition of the city, 2012, Oil on canvas, 170 x 130 cm, WG/MMAC00147; Marcin Maciejowski, Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 2011, Oil on canvas, 60 x 40 cm, WG/MMAC00158; Mecz, Polska Anglia 2_4 110 x 126cm, 1999; Marcin Maciejowski, She did whatever she wanted, 2011, Oil on canvas, 110 x 80 cm, WG/MMAC00152. Copyright the artist, courtesy Wilkinson Gallery, London.
Until 17 June at Wilkinson Gallery, London.
Upcoming article: Reports from Frieze London 2019, an interview with the artist Bernard Piffaretti on the practice of his ‘duplication method’ – abstract paintings that appear to be two identical halves, split through the vertical axis. Also articles on Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates and Ai Weiwei.