Sun’s Afterimage – Władysław Strzemiński
An afterimage is an internal picture that appears on the retina after gazing at an object reflecting light or at a source of light itself.
In the post-war years, Władysław Strzemiński analysed how the phenomenon is perceived, both in his paintings and theoretical works. In his book with the significant title A Theory of Vision, he attempted a synthetic explanation of the issue, but interpreted it on different levels. He showed changes in perception as the outcome of changes in the mentality of society, with economy and politics as their main factor. But apart from those theoretical circumstances, Strzemiński also took the trouble of actually explaining and analysing the mechanism of sight, using terms such as binocular vision, contrast, composition keys, and sight zones.
The eye was given a special place in the artist’s post-war works, as the organ enabling perception. Seeing ceased to exist solely in the domain of mathematics and geometry, a result of cultivating Alberti’s perspective tradition up until the 20th century, but was introduced by Strzemiński to the flesh and gained a strictly physiological dimension.
An afterimage is an internal picture that appears on the retina after a moment of gazing at an object reflecting light or at a source of light itself. Strzemiński underlined the importance of the eye’s movement, which creates a vibrating line, as a result of a moving glance. The vibration is a result of muscle tension and release. Therefore, an attempt to save an afterimage is futile from the very beginning. Strzemiński’s works, trying to captivate the movement on a canvas plane, are an optical phenomena in two ways: as an object to be perceived, and an object recreating the process of perception.
Afterimages introduce new aspects to the problem of time and painting. Physiologically speaking, the retina saves the image for a longer time period than it has actually been perceived, it ‘remembers’ it, even though the viewer has already stopped looking at it. This is crucial for the process of perception, as the eye constantly superimposes and combines images, leaving the viewer with images that are still on the retina (even though they are not being perceived at the given moment), and the ones perceived at present. Therefore, the outcome is highly subjective and impossible to reconstruct.
Strzemiński’s solar paintings aren’t merely an attempt to project the artist’s theoretical findings onto the canvas, but are actually rooted in his early landscapes. The early 1930s was a time of artistic discoveries and seeking new forms, but Strzemiński simultaneously worked on unistic compositions, which the artist himself described as ‘leisure painting’. Pejzaże Łódzkie (Łódź Landscape) and Pejzaże Morskie (Sea Landscapes) contain biomorphic shapes. The paintings present coloured spots and their slightly shifted contours. The characteristic vibrating line also appears in Strzemiński’s drawings from the war period: Wojna Domowa (Civil War, 1941), Twarze (Faces, 1942), Deportacje, (Deportations, 1940) or TanieJak Błoto (Cheap as Mud, 1944). The biomorphic line motif also became an important element in the Moim Przyjaciołom Żydom (To My Jewish Friends) series of collages from 1945, and at the same time – a testament to the artist’s experience.
In afterimage painting, the aforementioned line is filled with a clear tint in contrasting settings, to give an effect of a pulsating rhythm of different colours and forms. Powidok Słońca (Sun’s Afterimage) is a two-part composition, where the border line runs through the vertical axis leaving about a third of the canvas on the right hand side. In its bigger part, on the left, the artist used vivid shades of red and blue, evoking the feeling one gets after looking directly into the sun. The right, with toned-down colours, is dominated by orange and light blue. The contrast between the two parts is deepened by a difference in the texture – the left side shows thick impastos, the right – delicate brushwork.
The two parts of the painting seem to be representing two phases of perceiving an afterimage. Initially, while directly observing the sun, it has been transformed, according to the laws of optics, into its complementary colour – blue. With time, the vivid picture starts to dissolve, as the colour’s intensity changes accordingly to the amount of light passing through the less or more opened eyelids.
In Sun’s Afterimage Strzemiński attempted to define the undefinable in a double sense: it is impossible to recreate the blinding effect that occurs when looking directly at the sun, just as it is impossible to show the ephemeral image that appears in the eye right afterwards.
• Leszek Brogowski, “Powidoki i po...” (editor's translation: Afterimages and after...), Gdańsk 2001
• Władysław Strzemiński, “Theory of Seeing”, Kraków 1958
• Władysław Strzemiński: w setną rocznicę urodzin 1892-1952 (editor’s translation: Władysław Strzemiński: on the centenary of his birth 1892-1952) edited by T.Treliński, J.Jedliński, Łódź 1994
• Władysław Strzemiński: 1892-1952, catalogue of the exhibition, Museum of Art in Łódź, Łódź 1994
Article originally written in Polish by Magdalena Wróblewska, Dec 2010, translated by WF, Nov 2017
oil on canvas, 73 x 61 cm
National Museum in Warsaw