Book Lovers: The Novel as a Form of Art
Covers of the novels written by artists from Poland, photo: Culture.pl
The Book Lovers is a systematic attempt to study the phenomenon of artist novels, curated by the Spanish artist David Maroto and Joanna Zielińska, the director of the Cricoteka in Kraków. The central question for their project is: what are the consequences when we accept the novel as an art form in its own right? Culture.pl presents you with the Polish picks in this innovative series
There are a number of questions that this project wants to pose: Has literature become a new tool for creating expanded narrations in visual arts? Is it justified to talk about a new phenomenon in contemporary art? What are the consequences for the production process when adopting a purely textual form, moreover a narrative? What link remains to visual arts? Is it possible to find a relation to conceptual art, relational aesthetics, or is this an entirely different artistic form? Collective writing, fictional artist/authors, ghost writers…what are the issues raised in relation to authorship and re-skilling of art practice?
Even more questions follow, such as whether there is a clear and recurring difference between books written by writers and those authored by artists.
There are some examples of novels written by visual artists in the 20th century, but it is only in the last ten or fifteen years that an increasing number of artists have begun to choose the novel as an artistic medium. Surprisingly, there is a lack of research on this subject. This circumstance gives rise to a situation in which artists who write novels are not aware of others doing the same. With The Book Lovers Zielinska and Maroto are intending to create public awareness of a silently widespread artistic trend. The project develops in a number of different stages. Its base is the creation of a collection of artist novels with a parallel online database, which is complemented with a series of exhibitions and public programmes, a pop-up bookstore and a publication.
The collection which is a result of the two curators’ research includes a total exceeding 285 titles. It has been acquired by M HKA, to be part of the museum’s collection. Click here to access the artist novels database hosted by M HKA.
There are numerous Polish artists, ranging from early 20th to the 21st centuries, whose works make up part of the collection.
Wojciech Bruszewski: Fotograf (The Photographer), Big Dick
Wojciech Bruszewski, a pioneer of Polish video art, a photographer and performance artist, took up documentary fiction in his experiments towards the end of his life. First he created a book entitled Fotograf (The Photographer) which was published in 2007 by Ha!art, Bunkier Sztuki. It was a collaged of happenings that were pertinent to his time. A comment on the cover explained:
(…) any police officer would question the investigative value od this book. The events are described by someone who has an ambition to tell the truth, but their 'tape' is unwound from memory, and not a taperecorder. Literature, even if it is documenative, remains literature, and life is life.
Shortly before his death Bruszewski wrote a multi-themed novel entitled Big Dick, which was published in 2013 by Ha!art. Its protagonist is Richard von Hakenkreuz (the German for a swastika), and the action takes place throughout the 20th up until the early 21st century. Between the historic events of which the protagonist is an active participnat, Bruszewski inserts codes that take the reader to a specially created intenet site (www.bigdick.pl), which presents a library of encrypted audiovisual files and photographs.
Norman Leto: Sailor
Norman Leto is the pseudonym of a young self-taught artist who has abandoned school education in favour of learning graphic design software. In 2010 he created a literary and film dyptych, which is key to understanding his graphic works and his digital simulations. Sailor - the title of a book released by 40000 Malarzy - is also the protagonist, a scientist-computer engineer and the author's alter-ego. He speaks about being captive of his own drives, illnesses and about life as a sum of biological and chemical reactions. The stories of two Normans which appear in the book and in the full feature film are different from one another, and they are bound together by the figure of the real author as well as the reality of the circumstances against which the action is set.
The film Sailor can be viewed via the website of the Film Archive of the Museum of Modern Art Filmoteka MSN.
Krzysztof Niemczyk: Kurtyzana i pisklęta, czyli Krzywe zwierciadło namiętnego działania albo Studium chaosu (The Courtesan and the Chicks or the Crooked Mirror of Passionate Action aka the Study of Chaos)
A legendary figure of the Kraków avant-garde, a controversial painter and the creator of artistic happenings, Niemczycki is also the author of some 20 short stories and the counter-cultural novel Kurtyzana i pisklęta, czyli Krzywe zwierciadło namiętnego działania albo inaczej Studium chaosu. Written in 1968 and called by Niemczyk the work of his life it was often compared to the work of Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz and Witkacy. In spite of the critics' great interest, it was not published at the time. Only after the author's death, in 1999, it appeared as part of Le Differance publishing house, raising huge interest in France. The Polish edition of the book came out in 2007, published by Ha!art. It appreared together with a book about the artist, edited by Anka Ptaszkowska - a friend of the artist and one of the founders of a legendary Polish art institution, the Galeria Foksal. It is a humoristic story, written in a quick and highly stylised fashion and it conjures up a grotesque vision of Poland of the 1960s, as it alludes to the scandalising life of its author. The titulary courtesan, an aged prostitute leaves a home for the elderly and marries a professor of the regime, a friend from before the war, her past lover...
Bruno Schulz: Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (The Hour-Glass Sanatorium), (Sklepy cynamonowe) The Cinnamon Stores
Before Bruno Schulz – a teacher working in the Drohobych junior high school - took to literature, he created illustrations for books and etchings in the rare technique of cliché verre. The writer Zofia Nałkowska played a big part in the transformation of a humble forty-year old into a writer, who was to later fascinate the whole world. Nałkowska corresponded with Schulz and he visited her in Warsaw.
Schulz's literary oeuvre is intertwined with his biography and it comprises reviews of other works as well as two collections of stories Sklepy cynamonowe (The Cinnamon Stores) (1934) and Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (The Hour-Glass Sanatorium) (1937). In each of the collections, the main protagonist and narror of the stories is a teenage Józef, who lives in the provicial Galicia town. Thanks to Schulz Drohobych, next to Dublin and Prague, become one of the magical places, a destination recorded in literary masterpieces. Reality mingles with fantasy here, and objects frequently take on a living character, while animals seem to be human. Both of the collections include the author's drawings. Jan Gondowicz, a literary critic, claims to trace influences of Asta Nielsen's famous erotic dance - which appeared in the 1910 film The Cliff - in the drawings.
Maria Stangret-Kantor: Pamiętnik Dziadka (Grandpa's Diary)
Pamiętnik dziadka is an experiment in prose by the painter and actress of Cricot 2, privately the wife of Tadeusz Kantor, Maria Stangret-Kantor . She began writing a "novel with no end" in 1962, printing fragments in catalogues for her exhibitions. The work takes on the form of a neverending collage of scraps of old guides, pamphlets, fictitious stories and the author's own descriptions of insignificant, banal situations. These scraps take on a form that is evocative of the author's light gesture in her style of painting. She says "I am fascinated by the aesthetics of childish, school play with paint, ink, with the flooding and wiping out of paper" The book was first released in 2002 by the Łódź-based Galeria 86.
Władysław Strzemiński: Powieść (A Novel)
The painter and a pioneer of constructivist avant-garde in the 1920s and 1930s, Strzemiński was the author of a theory of seeing, and the concept of unism. Together with his wife, Katarzyna Kobro, he instigated the construction of the Art Museum in Łódź. It was thanks to the couple's efforts, that one of the largest Central European collections was gathered at the Museum in Łódź. Powieść survives today only in a fragmented form, and it was first published in a monumental work devoted to Strzemiński's oeuvre in 2012, Powidoki życia. Władysław Strzemiński i prawa dla sztuki. Most likely, The Novel was created towards the end of the 1940s and it describes the changing times and the way that a sense of national identity changed from the late 19th century up to the Second World War. It stretched from an expanding capitalism and the industrial revolution through to the offense of humanity brought by fascism.
Stefan Themerson: Wykład profesora Mmaa (The Lecture of Professor Mmaa)
One of the most original Polish filmmakers and writers, who always collaborated with his wife, the painter and filmmaker Franciszka, is also th author of some of world's most highly prized children's stories and avantgarde books. His novel - published by WAB in 2013 - was written during the Second World War and it is at once a political satire and a philosophical tale. By bringind together little humorous moments and dead-serious issues, Themerson describes the story of a termite community. One of its dwellers and an authority, professor Mmaa, conducts research on the homo sapiens species, one that poses some difficulty due to its size...
Witkacy: 622 upadki Bunga, czyli Demoniczna Kobieta (The 622 Falls of Bungo, or the Demonic Woman )
One of the most universally talented artists of the interwar period began to write his first plays at the age of eight. He became known for the Portrait-Painting Firm that he ironically founded as a resignation from art. His debut and authobiographic novel came out in 1911, under the title 622 upadki Bunga, Czyli Demoniczna Kobieta. It describes the tumultous love affair f the artist with the fantastic actress Irena Solska. The book was never published during Witkacy's lifetime, for personal reasons and overly covert erotic scenes. It was first published in 1972, and became a best-seller in no time. The last edition of the book by PIW company also presents dozens of drawings, paintings and photographs by Witkacy, whicih refer to the action of the novel as well the people it portrays.
For the contemporaries of Witkacy, his real debut was the novel entitled Farewell to Autumn (1927), which dealt with coming of age, sexual and drug experiments and the fall of a young decadent Atanazy Bazakbal, whose wife - just like the real spouse of Witkacy - commits suicide. Mariusz Treliński created a film based on this novel in 1990.
The last novel by Witkacy is Nienasycenie (literally meaning Insatiability) (1930) which is often described as the best piece of prose by the artist. The main character Genezyp Kapen bears a typically Witkacian name. It is a Polish adaptation of the French je ne "zipe" qu'a peine, meaning I am barely breathing, and its story unfolds according to the previous schems of homosexual experiences, an affair with demonic woman and experiments with drugs. But Genezyp goes further that the preceeding protagonists from Witkacy's prose, enriching his life with murder, insanity and succumbing to complete mechanisation.
Author: Agnieszka Sural
Translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser, 25.10.2013
Sources: thebooklovers.info, own material