“Human imperfection is a prime mover of people’s lives… The world is built upon imperfections. However, imperfections shouldn’t be considered as nature’s errors that should be corrected, but the essence of life that moves it forward.”Iwo Zaniewski
The following interview forms part of a series where I invite a number of contemporary artists to each reflect on their personal history, meaning and philosophy, and how those are expressed throughout their creative process.
This week I talk to Iwo Zaniewski, a Polish painter and photographer. Zaniewski tells me how his personal and cultural history are embedded in his works, whether he believes there are limits to human creativity, and which work of art he would erase from his mind just to experience it for the first time.
Being from Poland, how would you say your personal and cultural history are embedded in your works?
I was born in Warsaw, and after graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in 1981, I was solely active as a painter. In the mid-1980s, I began creative work in commercials and photography. I lived in Spain and Germany at that time. Upon my return to Warsaw, I became a commercial director and later founded my own advertising agency. Although I have worked in various capacities, it is painting that has always been at the core of my creative practice. Even though I have been making art for over 40 years now, I have never felt a need to fight for my career in the art world. I’ve just been painting. That’s perhaps the reason why I’m still a rather unknown artist.
Revolving around scenes and themes from everyday life, my paintings have no distinctive regional features—geographical locations are usually only encoded in the symbolism of the colours and the character of light. Despite numerous changes in the contemporary painting conventions concerning the portrayal of reality, my paintings’ characteristic feature has essentially remained that of composition. My use of composition rests upon an arrangement of forms wherein every potential alteration breaks down a cohesive construction and leads to a deterioration of harmony. As such, my paintings are not readily ascribed to trends in the history of contemporary art. I think that the key to my works lies not in their contexts or themes but in my approach to composition.
You write that your project ‘Composition Matters’ is “not an attempt to subject art to soulless, algorithm-driven science”. Does this speak to some concern, regarding the direction in which the art world is headed?
In 2018, aesthetics scholars as well as visual psychology and neurology researchers contacted me with an idea to conduct interdisciplinary research into the mechanism governing the phenomenon of visual harmony. I gladly joined the team, and we carried out extensive theoretical and practical research into relations most likely occurring between all elements of a composition (e.g., shapes and contrast), which make a composition reach a perfect state, wherein an introduction of any change would make it perceptibly worse. I named the project Composition Matters. Over many months, we investigated the role of composition in the state of perfect visual harmony as perceived by human beings. The research went beyond examining harmony achieved through golden rations and other well-known proportions. We were specifically interested in a state where any perceptible change means reducing the value of the work’s overall aesthetic expression. I did not want, however, to make evaluative judgements about art.
Generally, human beings are more sensitive to other forms of art than visual art. At the same time, visual stimuli lie at the heart of communication—visual communication is the present and the future of communication. Paradoxically, even artists from different fields of art (literature, music, dance, etc.) are least sensitive to purely visual art. What does it mean? For example, while music is perceived solely emotionally, visual art is perceived through its content and context. The experience of beauty—the one that has preoccupied me for decades—is purely emotional. I perceive painting in the same manner as I experience dance or music.
Composition Matters presentsharmony as a set of relations between forms leading to the impression of beauty, directly related to emotions and feelings. At first glance, Composition Matters mayseem soulless science because our research has discovered that beauty can be achieved through certain levels of dissimilarities and evenly distributed maximum diversity. It is the first time in history that a theory about beauty has been described in such a rigid, non-poetic way. While the equation is only illustrative, it reflects the theory’s concept and has enabled many scholars to better understand the mechanism governing visual harmony. More details are available on the project’s website: www.compositionmatters.com
Which work of art do you wish you could erase from your mind so that you could relive experiencing it for the first time?
When I browse the Internet, Instagram in particular, I stumble upon various images that sometimes surprise me. Although I come from a family of artists and extensively studied art history, I regularly discover paintings by Picasso or Matisse that I have never seen before.
Every experience of harmony is unique. Thanks to users sharing so much content on Instagram, I come across paintings that delight me. The works that I discover are by both great masters and artists who are still alive. Therefore, the very experience of re-living a moment of introduction that you ask about occur to me when I discover new beautiful images. It all happens when mediocre contemporary art is promoted aggressively around us. I have to admit that my Instagram discoveries—encountering people with extraordinary talent and sensitivity—give me a sense of security amidst the turmoil of the contemporary art world.
Do you believe there are limits to human creativity?
I am an extreme determinist. I firmly believe that whatever we do—even when the effects of our actions surprise ourselves—is already determined and is not at our discretion. We only get an impression that we make an effort, but the boundaries are not that of our will; everything is already given to us.
Every time we put an effort into something and we succeed, we get an impression that we have just crossed a threshold. In reality, however, it is an illusion because certain limits and the potential to exceed them are already within us. It all boils down to one condition: if we possess an internal strength and determination, we act.
If you were to design a new artwork that emulated your current experience of the world, what might it include?
It would look exactly like any other painting that I create and whose final effect I like. I have to admit that not all of my paintings appeal to me, though. The world seems a chaotic place, but it is not chaos. Harmony—an appropriate relation between elements—reflects our world. The pain of the world creates an illusion of disharmony. Despite the fact that the world consists mainly of sorrow, it is that pain that drives the change, interactions, and progress. In this gloomy way, it constitutes harmony.
We live because we act to confront and oppose discomfort. It is all about that mechanism that makes us suffer versus us fighting it and gradually improving ourselves. All over the world, human imperfection is a prime mover of people’s lives. If everything and everyone were perfect, we wouldn’t live because we wouldn’t need anything. The world is built upon imperfections. However, imperfections shouldn’t be considered as nature’s errors that should be corrected, but the essence of life that moves it forward.