I'd Like to Have a Goat Someday: An Interview with Aleksandra Waliszewska
#photography & visual arts
default, I'd Like to Have a Goat Someday:
An Interview with
Aleksandra Waliszewska, Anna Dębska, Aleksandra Waliszewska & a bird, photo: Monika Bereżecka / courtesy of the artist, center, waliszewska14.jpg
We spoke with artist Aleksandra Waliszewska about real, carved, painted or dreamed animals – and about Mitusia, the painter’s cat muse.
Aleksandra Waliszewska: I don’t like discussing my work – I won’t tell you anything about it. Instead, I can answer more technical questions, like what kind of paint I use.
Filip Lech: Actually, I’m more interested in your first experiences with animals.
AW: My grandmother, Anna Dębska, reportedly has memories from when she was a foetus. I can’t remember that far back. My grandmother had a horse farm, but do I remember anything specific about this farm? My first real memory is about how I slammed some boy’s fingers in the door and how everyone was screaming at me. I was surprised by that. I also remember [Bolesław] Leśmian’s book about Sinbad the Sailor. And about animals, no specific first memory is coming to mind. There was Yeti – a schnauzer, my grandmother Anna Dębska’s dog.
Aleksandra Waliszewska’s Family Museum
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The dog Yeti, from the book ‘Samo Życie’ by Anna Dębska, photo: courtesy of Aleksandra Waliszewska
FL: What does a schnauzer look like? I don’t know a lot about dog breeds...
AW: Big, black – like the devil. Incredibly disciplined; he would, for example, take the hamster for a walk. He watched it, so that it wouldn’t run away. Imagine: a schnauzer, an aggressive breed, taking a hamster for a walk. We also had a large flock of sheep, this breed that has spots. I fed them grass; Yeti would stand next to me. I began feeding him too – I thought he would like it the same. He was drooling exceedingly. I almost choked him, but luckily someone came and saved the poor dog. There were many different animals. I remember lots of little kittens.
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FL: Goats often appear in your works.
AW: But I don’t have any memories with goats; I just like this theme. I would like to have a goat someday. I would like to just theoretically, because I would have nowhere to keep it – besides, it’s a big responsibility. I organise my life in such a way so that few things distract me from my work. I would have to have a shepherd to look after the goat.
At my other grandmother’s, there was a garden where I would pick blackcurrants. This garden was adjacent to the pasture where the goat lived. I was told to avoid him, made to believe that he was exceptionally dangerous. He stank, but the stench didn’t really bother me. I don’t think I even ever saw him, that’s how frightening they made him out to be. I was terrified of him. As a child, I was very well-behaved.
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Set photo from ‘Capsule’, directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, inspired by the art of Aleksandra Waliszewska, last in the row: Aleksandra Waliszewska and the goat, photo: promotional materials
FL: Did you ride horses?
AW: I’m not exactly passionate about horse riding. My grandmother wanted to teach me, but I could never get into it. I liked riding ponies because I could safely fall off onto the ground. I was afraid of falling off a big horse. I don’t like adrenaline.
My grandmother had one of the first private Arabian horse stables in Poland. In the five volumes of her autobiography (Life Itself), she describes how she breaks successive bucking mares, onto which earlier, ten men, known jockeys, had tried unsuccessfully to climb. But my grandmother whispered in their ears: ‘Now little mare, be good’, and the mare was enchanted. It’s true, my grandmother was a terrific rider – riding for a very long time. Apparently, it eased her back pains. Apparently, if you don’t angle, and you just sit straight when trotting, it’s good for your spine – although terribly uncomfortable.
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FL: Your grandmother’s sculptures are all around us – do you have any favourites?
AW: I like almost all of my grandmother’s old works. I really like this fox, he’s beautiful. It should be put on a platform, but I’m afraid that it will fall. Sometimes I dream there are other sculptures, which in reality don’t exist. I really like those too. I dreamt about some wild cats... My grandmother once carved running cheetahs. It was something similar, but in the dream, they were lounging.
My mum and her friend were once making ceramic lambs – I really liked them. I don’t know if I would like them today, but back then, I absolutely adored them. They were probably great. They made so many of them, sold them for a really low price instead of leaving some to keep as a souvenir... I remember their little butts. My grandmother made similar ones, and my mum always copied her. I mean, she admits it. Mum also sculpted a lot of animals. But she doesn’t feel like doing it anymore now.
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FL: Your mum wrote the novel ‘Sowa w Kominie’ (Owl in the Chimney) about a young woman discovering the charms of horseback riding and love.
AW: My grandmother was furious, because she thought my mum had written the book based on her life story. And on top of that, the mother of the heroine was killed on the first page – so it also offended my grandmother. There is a character in the second book – my mum hid from me that she was writing it, it’s called Pszczoły w Zimie (Bees in Winter) – that is supposed to be me. When I read it, I understood that my mum considered me to be a completely different person than I really am.
FL: Which animal was your first true friend?
AW: Dodo, a female dachshund. Black, tan and short-haired – fat, an aggressive little wiener dog. I trained her to be very aggressive, to sic people – this amused everyone. But once one lady got very scared, which surprised me a lot, because she was just a little dachshund... I made comics about her, in which she would eat skinheads along with their dogs. In one of the comics, she meets an old lady, eats her, and says: ‘Old meat, but still very tasty’.
Dodo was mainly interested in food. A walking gastrointestinal tract. When I would take her out for walks, we would always pass a rubbish dump in front of the gate, more or less where the Foksal Gallery Foundation is today. And then the fun would begin. We walked, she sniffed around, did her thing, but when we approached the rubbish dump, the atmosphere would become more anxious. Dodo started her sprint, running very quickly – you had to catch up with her so that she didn’t eat anything. Several times, she crawled into a rubbish bin behind bars, where I couldn’t enter. She would return full after a few minutes, staggering. Once, she found a huge piece of meat, larger than her. She ate it so greedily that still I don’t know whether she ate it or vomited it, because it was so big...
This was where Helena Uszac lived – my mother’s friend who made animations, including Jacek and Placek. Maurycy Gomulicki’s first girlfriend. She seduced Krystian Krajewski, built him a recording studio in Hollywood for a million dollars; he gave her the rights to the songs of the band Czerwone Guitary. The widow of [Krzysztof] Klenczon believed this to be a kind of snatching of a national treasure – I read about it on Pudelek [a popular Polish online tabloid]. She was such a femme fatale – I was fascinated by her when I was young. She had a poodle named Mały (Little). Dodo would bite his ears all the time, returning home with white lint in her mouth, looking at me with an innocent face. She would also bite Helena’s door, but she never bit a human.
We had more dogs. I loved Dasza the schnauzer. I was once playing with other children, she saw it through the window and tried to jump to defend and save me even though I wasn’t screaming horribly, but Dasza was a guard dog. There was also Asta, my mother’s boyfriend’s pointer.
In the Polish text it says Krystian, but I can’t verify this. Maybe Seweryn?
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FL: What about cats?
AW: There were a lot of cats. First, there was Puszynka. A black cat who hated everyone. She hated people, despised them. Being able to stroke Puszynka was something worth celebrating. During one of my birthdays, she was dreadfully nice to me – she was fawning over me. I was terribly happy that she gave me such a sweet birthday present. After a few years, I realized that she was simply in heat. I called her tortoiseshell daughter Mruczynka; she was quite fluffy – like her father, a Persian. When I would throw a cap, she would run after it and catch it – you could almost say we were playing fetch. Unfortunately, she did not survive her first delivery; out of fear, she put her head in a hole, and she suffocated. Fortunately, I didn’t see it happen.
Later we got a black Persian cat – Tootsie – from Kora. We took him with us to the village, to the forester’s lodge – after that, fluffy cats appeared all over the village, as he was a quite the Cassanova. He would leave for a week and came back unbelievably dirty, with tangled and dreaded fur. We had to comb him, trim his coat, otherwise he would stay knotted like that...
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The cat Tootsie in the hands of Kora, at right: young Aleksandra Waliszewska, about 1983, photo: courtesy of the artist
Then my mum bought a tortoiseshell kitten at the Olimpia bazaar. Her name was Mimi. She was with us for a long time. She had a daughter – Mruczka. She was the youngest female from the litter, an eccentric nutcase. When she wanted to drink water, she would take it with her paw. Our cats would jump out the window to walk on the roof. Mruczka did it only once, but she was terrified; she clung to the ground as if there was a harrowing windstorm. She preferred peace.
There were more cats, but I don’t know what happened to them. I think I was spared the information, but I suspect that a lot of kittens were killed here.
FL: Hrabal, in the book ‘Auteczko’, described – with remorse – how he had to get rid of excess kittens himself.
AW: Unfortunately, some people haven’t figured out that you can castrate cats.
FL: Your grandmother not only carved animals that we can find in Poland, but also the more exotic ones. And did you dream about more unusual animals?
AW: When I was a child, I really liked hyenas and wolverines. Wolverines are ultra-cool, awfully brave – I was attracted to their charisma. I liked hyenas physically, they were beautiful. When I went to the zoo, I was frightfully disappointed; all the animals were very fat...
Now I love manuls. They are beautiful, wild, and they detest people. They’re great. A few years ago, my partner, Jacek Staniszewski [a musician and music journalist] found an article about them on a Russian portal – they were calling them ‘funny cats’ [smeshnyye koshki] I found a YouTube video from an American Z zoo. I watched it 500 times. It was an epiphany. I made a piece then with manuls, and it appeared in Playboy, in a ranking of promising artists or something like that. The painting was signed ‘Manul’. Then I got a letter from a gentleman saying that he really liked my piece ‘Manul’ (laughs). At that time, few people knew about manuls, but now they are quite popular.
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FL: Recently, your beloved cat, Mitusia, died. How long was she with you?
AW: Eight years. Earlier, she lived with our friends for eight years as well. She had a different name then, but I won’t say it – it’s not nice. Whenever I would come and visit them, I devoted more time to her than to people. She was like a little ghost, a dame, who would appear. Actually, she would hide, because she didn’t like people. When I petted her for the first time, I felt as if I had received a wonderful gift – I was delighted.
Mitusia was a pacer. She had a husband, Fosfor, but he died. Then she had a new husband, what was his name?... Doesn’t matter, he was stupid – no reason to recall his name. When Mitusia came back from the veterinarian after the operation, she must have smelled strange, and her new husband – a young idiot – began to beat and stalk her because of it. They kept her locked in the bedroom, as she was very stressed. They asked us if we wanted to take her in. Jacek said that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the cat, but somehow, I succeeded. At first, she hid under the wardrobe – she was afraid of everything – but later, slowly, she became less and less fearful.
FL: You commemorated her in many of your works. Do you remember when you painted her for the first time?
AW: When she began living with us, I told my friend that I would be painting her often, but it wasn’t coming out at all. I wasn’t feeling it, but I was obliged by my promises. I made one piece, though it wasn’t exactly outstanding – a stretched Mitusia walking around a stump; you might think there are two cats there, an axe was stuck in the stump. You know, that kind of nonsense.
FL: Then you began painting her regularly.
AW: Sometimes, I thought: ‘I’ll never get any more ideas, what am I supposed to paint?’ and then Mitusia would come with her beautiful face, look at me, and I knew what I would paint. Mitusia was incredibly beautiful; it’s easier to love a beautiful cat, especially one with a nice personality – she was very kind, an incarnation of goodness. This is amazing with cats – you can be dirty, stinky, you can fart, have a big pimple on your forehead, but it doesn’t bother the cat. You can be completely repulsive, but if you are gentle with a cat, then the cat will accept it or at least tolerate it.
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FL: In the end, Mitusia became a media personality.
AW: I was afraid that if I set up a fan page for her, she would eventually have more fans than me, but it failed... I don’t know why. I ordered a portrait of her from Gracjan Roztocki. There was also some fan art.
FL: Do you sometimes dream about your animals? I dream of cats very often: sometimes they are defending me, sometimes I see them running and jumping down the stairs.
AW: Jacek had those types of dreams. I had once a dream that I was having sex with a horse. A really nice horse – it was great. It was near my grandmother’s apartment, under the arcades, where the constituency offices are today.
FL: It’s said that on Christmas Eve, animals can communicate with humans. Have you ever talked to animals?
AW: Mitusia always made sounds that sounded like: ‘brrnie’ and ‘nieju’. When we asked her where she would like to live, she answered: ‘brrnie’. She answered ‘nieju’ to other questions; she was very assertive. Later, she began to make these very quiet and low meow-barks: ‘mwe!’. She didn’t meow so much in her previous home...
Once, a friend came over who didn’t like cats. She inadvertently said to Mitusia: ‘meow’, and the kitty ran up to her terribly interested. I was so jealous of her, because she rarely ran up to me...
FL: Your latest album, ‘Nauka i Praca’ (Science and Work), published by Ha!Art, was dedicated to Mitusia. You seem to enjoy making albums.
AW: I do. Earlier I did more classical, more ambitious things – I wanted to be a great master. During that time I also published a few albums, one was rather big, published with money from the Young Poland scholarship. Later through the French publishing house Timeless, I published the albums Problem and Solution – this is where you could actually find all the things that I painted from the moment I began doing more unforced things. This is the most significant showing of my work for me. My publisher says that he has learned a lot from me, because at first, I was very harsh with my criticism towards him. Now we have come to perfection, at least I think so.
I recommend my new book – it’s cheap and good. I’m really very happy with it. For me, it has a large print run – 2,000 copies. French editions are limited editions. The title is taken from the title of one of my works – a girl with pitchforks and a book, with a goat above her head. I don’t like titles that say too much, and I actually even prefer if they confuse people. For a long time now, I’ve had the idea to publish a book in yellow and black binding with black and white reproductions.
FL: Albums are your favourite way of showing art?
AW: I also like showing it on the Internet. This motivates me to work every day. I’m trying to be the only judge of my works, but I do like to get a lot of likes. Galleries are a must: sometimes I have to show up and sell something to make money.
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FL: You are an avid album lover and book collector. What do you like most about them?
AW: First of all, I look at the quality of reproduction. I am the type of person who will buy a book because it has a nice cover and has been published well... And when my teacher of Polish told me in high school that she had heard that I was a bibliophile, I shouted, offended: ‘Not at all!’
Recently, I acquired my favourite album, which I remember from my childhood, but it got lost somewhere. It’s The Life, History and Magic of the Cat by Fernand Méry. Almost everything that is good can be found here: ancient cats from Greece and Egypt, Louis Wain. I was afraid of some of the images; there is a frame in there from the film Beauty and the Beast by Jean Cocteau – I tried to look through the album by skipping those pages. I would tell my mum that I really like this image by Wain – such a dreamy cat. She said it was bad art and that I have bad taste. That’s the problem when you have parents who deal with art and have their own opinions on the topic... Now I can like it. Sorry mum, I have bad taste.
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FL: Which artists are the authors of your favourite animal representations in art?
AW: I don’t know. My grandmother did fantastic work. I like, for example, the horses in the paintings of Jean Fouquet, the one who painted Madonna with a giant breast. I love the horse from David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. I liked this croup so much – it’s perfect, no trace of paint on it. But you can’t say that David was a painter of horses… if you told him this, he would be offended. Or Uccello’s horses, like squares – I love them.
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FL: You’ve been using coloured pencils lately.
AW: During the summer it was extremely hot, and I couldn’t sit in the studio, I was lying on the sofa. I was listening to Rihanna all day and drawing with coloured pencils. I felt like I was on vacation, because I rarely go anywhere, and I sit in the studio every day.
Coloured pencils are cool, but your hand really starts to hurt because you have to press down on them. It’s physical work. The only problem is that you need to rest... A brush, you hold gently; you don’t get tired as much, especially if you’re not making large-scale oil canvas paintings. I was once making a painting like that with oils, 1.5 metres by 2 metres – this is physical work. I don’t like physical work.
FL: Do you ever dream of returning to large-scale oil paintings?
AW: Sometimes, I have an urge to paint a great battle scene. Then I paint some smaller scene on a piece of paper and I’m satisfied. Recently, Karolina Jabłońska painted an image on an oval canvas, and I really liked it. I was once corresponding with a gentleman who sold oval canvas boards. He didn’t reply to me once, and I thought it was a great excuse not to do it.
I’ve been keeping really great oil paints for a long time now. I am keeping them until I feel that I can paint well. For now, they are waiting... After Mitusia’s death, I started buying lots of different paints. It’s like this, that when I feel like I am losing the will to live, I buy a lot of paints – after all, I can’t die until I use them all.
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FL: Where will Mitusia be buried?
AW: At the old animal cemetery in Nowy Konik. There are a lot of beautiful souvenirs there. You can see that people made them themselves. A lot of tenderness there. My dad brought me this huge sandstone from some chimney. Yeti’s headstone, the schnauzer I mentioned, was carved from exactly this stone. On the other half there will be a stone for Mitusia. With Jacek, we carved the inscription with a chisel – it still needs some work.
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contemporary polish art
contemporary polish artist
Interview originally conducted in Polish, translated by Agnes Dudek, Jul 2020