Interview

No Hell for Beauties. In conversation with Rector Andrzej Bednarczyk.

Dobrosława Nowak: Our conversation will be published when future students of various Polish academies will be deciding on the most appropriate academy for them. Could you describe the greatest strength of your school? What can determine that the future student will choose this one and not another in a different city or abroad?

Rector prof. dr hab. Andrzej Bednarczyk, The Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts: It sounds like an incentive for self-advertising; I’ll do my best (laughs). The first and fundamental reason is that the candidate becomes an actual member of our community from the moment they become a student. We don’t gather human material to shape according to our will. We do everything to make a young person filled with dreams — not necessarily fully formulated yet — our friend. Of course, we share our knowledge and competencies, but, for God’s sake, such an animal as a one-way transfer of skills doesn’t exist (at least in arts, I don’t know in other fields). This position — treating people as members of our community — takes specific institutional and moral forms. 

We go out with students to view art together. We had a program called “Back to the Source.” We travelled to European museums and cultural centres to admire artworks together. Seeing a masterpiece with your teacher/master is one of the most profound ways of learning about art; I remember it very well from my youth. This powerful experience has nothing to do with curricula or ECTS credits (laughs). For me, it’s the core ― the bowels of being together with all kinds of art. We have recently completed conservation work on the Veit Stoss Altarpiece together with a powerful team, from young people to professionals from all over the world. Joint reflection on developing a heritage piece or solving a task is also the most graceful way of learning. The goal of our academic activity is not only to obtain good diplomas. Who cares about it six months after graduation if someone got an A and someone else a B+? (laughs). I do teach composing, painting, and formulating an artistic idea, but it’s not enough. One day people will have to leave this “greenhouse” that we’ve created in our Academy and go into the real cultural space. It’s my bounden duty to prepare them to stand on their own two feet during these five years, to stand up against me, saying: “No, no, now me! Now I have something to say!” No nice aunts are waiting out there to stroke a girl’s or a boy’s head. On the opposite, one will get an instant shot between the eyes ― either criticism or admiration. I am always somehow more afraid of the latter. You have to take the burden of this risk. 

When it comes to other practical forms, we are strengthening the programs that prepare for real life. Together with the Career Office, which works perfectly thanks to Barbara Siorek, we have written an educational program. It focuses on economic education, navigating the business world, and dealing with cultural and art institutions and galleries. We have signed a contract with the University of Economics. The head of the Krakow branch of the National Bank of Poland encouraged us to write to them. Their mission is also to spread economic education. As you can see, we benefit from our neighbourhood at Matejki Square (laughs). In this way, we want to support people to stand by their actions in the art market because it’s crucial. We establish funds to support our students. Recently, we created a new budget for the first time since I’ve taken over the Academy’s management. We set a reasonably significant amount (but still utterly insufficient in my opinion) to the participation of students in international competitions and similar events. I know that young people don’t have money, and I care about them being noticed globally, so I support them. Santander Bank offered us cooperation. We created a fund and have already distributed 20 scholarships due to an open call. As a result of cooperation with another office space operator, we will present our students at their venues. We have also created a support program for the best fine art, design, and conservation projects. We have an excellent vice-chancellor for student affairs. Professor Robert Sowa meets with them every week, talks, and asks them for their opinions. We invited students to become full participants in the joint reflection on what the Academy should become; we want to give shape to it together. 

photo by Edyta Dufaj
photo by Edyta Dufaj

D. N.: Sounds like heaven on earth.

A. B.: This is heaven on earth because there is enough trouble around already anyway. I keep closing the school, then opening it, then half closing and then half opening. I let someone in; I kick someone out. The pandemic is gruesome. As I said, this is a “greenhouse”, but we’re not good uncles. We just live in symbiosis with the students.

D. N.: I feel it’s heaven on earth for one’s development because I know that I missed what you mentioned as an art school graduate. I experienced first-hand what a student is left with after graduating from art school, where these practical matters are neglected.

A. B.: Wait a few more years. I only started in September. Many of the things I have told you are new initiatives. In this public announcement ― we are a community of people, from boisterous, malicious turning everything upside down young adolescents to greybeards cultivating the tradition ― I see the power and indestructibility of this school. Academy, seen as a facility of “distorting” young people’s personalities or moulding them like plasticine, is a nightmare. You mentioned heaven on earth; this is hell. We are not allowed to give anyone this hell. Within five years, a visual artist, a designer, or a restorer must learn to make terribly tricky, responsible, and often painful decisions.

D. N.: Do you think that art in its academic face ― sitting together in the studios after hours, smoking cigarettes, reluctance to weave pragmatism into the artist’s life ― may suffer from it?

A. B.: It will suffer if we lose sight of our primary goal. We have to keep a delicate balance not to produce very clever business participants who have nothing to say in art. In our conversation, I put a lot of pressure on the other leg that every artist stands on because we’ve always been doing better with the first leg, while the second leg has been weak. Many young artists went into life with a passion for creation and with their vision of the world. Sometimes, three or four months of working in a corporation is enough for a person to be unable to concentrate on a bare canvas or a piece of matter or ideas after this muddle anymore. I want to strengthen their weak leg, support them, but you are right ― never at the cost of producing clever dodgers.

D. N.: I feel that it’s precisely this non-commercial dimension of Polish art that is especially appreciated abroad.

A. B.: I am in touch with colleagues from major artistic circles in various European countries. I have run exchanges and cooperation programs, and I know how people react to what is happening in our studios at the Academy ― what a powerful force this is! On the other hand, do many Polish artists make it in that world? I would like my students to enter into it explicitly, so I boldly draw on those methods. In the studio, which I have been running for years, I organise meetings called “The Alien Eye.” We invite people from outside of the school to talk about the work of one or more students ― it’s the only strict rule. They must be outsiders because we, as teachers, suffer from some degree of blindness; I am not malicious here. We are simply part of this process, emotionally involved in it. The results of all these meetings ― and I’ve been running them for many years ― are excellent. Students hear statements that I would never dare to make because we are too close with each other. And there, bam, new leads appear. What was once unthinkable ― because, at the Faculty of Painting, the correction at the easel used to be individual ― I made “social” adjustments. Now, we close ourselves in the studio and agree to a confidentiality clause. We promise ourselves that no one will gossip around or reveal who said what. We give freedom to even the stupidest statements. I ask fellows to share their comments with the author of the work. It’s not my idea. I bought this practice from the outside.

D. N.: I believe that “The Alien Eye” is a great concept. Such a situation listening to the external opinion about a work of art usually occurs only during exhibitions. It turns out that the artist is faced with it only once a year or several years. It’s a pity because this kind of outer impression can sometimes greatly influence the creative process.

A. B.: You’re right that it’s essential, but it also teaches another tricky thing: to verbalise things that are impossible to say ― to translate the intentions and visual effects of these inventions (often in progress) into verbal phrases. It’s terribly hard and has to be learned; it’s not given.

D. N.: Isn’t that the role of a curator?

A. B.: So that I would not be able to talk to my friend about what I am doing? Do we need a curator for this?

D. N.: I often wonder if an artist must be able to talk about what they are doing. Weak artworks by young artists are often the result of over-theorising their artistic interests. Yet, academies tend to emphasise this practice.

A. B.: It’s another pathology of artistic education; when the artist stands next to their painting and tells what it represents as if the picture couldn’t tell itself. Yet, on the other side of this extreme, this most natural form of interpersonal behaviour is disturbed to the point that one can’t talk about what they see or share problems and relationships with fellow artists. This situation terribly weakens the core of creativity, which is, apart from the artist, his closest friends he trusts. Primary and secondary education in Poland inhibits us from learning to talk and share our views. My personal comparative analysis of young people from Great Britain, Switzerland and Germany shows that high school students there can speak and write better. They learn creative writing and creative speaking, which we don’t. For Erasmus students who visit us, it’s much easier to enter into a collaborative discussion about what they are doing. Of course, some suffer from the disease you mentioned, i.e., peasant philosophising over artistic failure. 

It’s not required that the artist knows how to talk about their work. They may not have the slightest idea of what is going on with them. It’s not the requirement of artistic professionalism. In general, the issue of artistic “professionalism” is a somewhat shady concept for me. It is easy to recognise in a designer or a conservator, but it becomes perilous in fine arts. My observation shows that young people are very sensitive; I would say allergic to this “professionalism” of emptiness. They run away from arrogance and executive equilibristics. They come to me as such after the pre-academy training, and they remain like this for the first year when they are tortured at school. I think that it’s good that they are tortured because later they will face something different. They come with this executive equilibristics’ training in their background and hear from me: “Fine; you’re doing great. And so what?”. And here comes the shedding of layers, the phase of unlearning these forms of being an “artist.” This is the treatment from being a “true artist.”          

photo by Klaudyna Schubert

D. N.: I have the impression that it’s a never-ending inner conflict: one would like to be it and not at the same time.

A. B.: It’s not easy, and it doesn’t pass with age. It only gets weaker because a person already has many of these things behind them. Seven thousand times, one asked oneself, “who am I?”. I work with young people who are at the beginning of this path. They cease to be members of a family or a domestic community; these are the first fruits of emerging, standing in the face of the world. It’s always painful. I don’t act as a backyard therapist here, but I share my insights with them or tell them what the next steps will be. Reaching a dead end, a wall, a breakdown of ourselves and dissolution of the image of the closest world ― the image that each of us takes out of the community we came out from before individuation (slightly overusing the Jungian term) ―  is always painful. I often recall these wonderful breakthrough moments of young people, who are today, so to speak, important figures in Polish art. For a while, I had to hold them, give them a moment. I had to recognise that it wasn’t laziness but a tragedy of a person who had fallen apart. You have to protect them at this point. You need to put an umbrella over them so that they come out of this dead-end and stop hitting their head against the wall, painting worse and worse, hating showing their works, and refusing to analyse them socially (because they are aware that this is just shit and nothing else; yet, they know it rather than the others do). These are the most incredible moments for me.

D. N.: You graduated from the Faculty of Graphics and, later, Painting at the Academy in Krakow. For many years, you ran your own painting studio. It would be impossible to dissociate yourself from the sympathy for this discipline. Will this preference translate into the formal importance of painting at the Academy; will it become its showpiece? If someone wants to study painting, should they automatically connect it with the Academy in Krakow?

A. B.: We have great traditions, but I don’t think the offer of the Faculty of Painting in Krakow is exceptional compared to other schools. I won’t give empty promises. What’s great about our Academy, though, is that we have a tremendous variety. Painting units’ structure is designed so that the student can shape their path freely during these five years of study, starting with painting. They will be free to follow what will be revealed to them as the most adequate of one’s budding artistic individuality. In addition to painting and drawing, there are interdisciplinary studios available. We strongly support the formation of individual study programs, with the possibility of using studios at other faculties, often in graphics (not only graphic techniques workshop) and sculpture. We launched the course “Painting in an extended space” led by my former PhD student Michał Sroka, a graduate of the Faculty of Painting and previously a graduate of the Faculty of Architecture at the Cracow University of Technology. The point here is to support students in their more general painting reflections, not only regarding the arrangement of colour forms on the surface. Suppose their creative flow carries them somewhere beyond the surface. In that case, if they create works that somehow annexe, infect, mimic in space, go out into public space or create any other contextual relationship with it, they are not left by themselves with these urges. It’s not that I will only say to them, “Sir, the colour of this carrot in this still life doesn’t match”. Who cares?

As you can see, we are adjusting the painting programme’s offer so that a young person, graduating from the Faculty of Painting, doesn’t have to pretend that they are interested in painting with a brush on canvas, whilst their soul has found its language in video art. We give absolute freedom. Teaching painting in isolation from everything no longer works, such as thinking about a white cube, where a minimised space surrounds the image with a contextual diversity close to zero. Students don’t think this way anymore, and we neither. It’s essential that painting has the freedom to shape. Among interdisciplinary studios is the one of Zbigniew Bajek, which is the closest to painting. It’s an “extended painting” with many painting installations and painting interventions in the object. In another studio, run by Grzegorz Sztwiertnia and Zbigniew Sałaj, the correlation between painting and photographic or video images provides professional service. If someone flows utterly towards animation or video art, we send them to Robert Sowa at the Graphics Faculty, to the animated film studio. A student receives thorough professional training (apart from artistic freedom, we also must consider the need to control the tool skillfully). Painters who remain pure painters for many years are rare today, and we value them very much (laughs).

The painting offer at our Academy is not special enough to say, “if painting, then, only with us.” On the other hand, I can say that necessarily with us because the painting will remain authentic. We will never, ever force anyone to paint just because they are in the Painting Faculty. I will say more: you can get a diploma in drawing at the Faculty of Painting. Each of the master’s workshops, i.e. drawing, interdisciplinary and painting studios, has the right to end with a diploma. It all comes from the manifesto that painting is not art. Art sometimes walks through the paths of painting. Art is above disciplinary or media affiliations. You can paint pictures and have nothing to do with art. Art is not about being successful at painting a jug standing on the table. Art follows its own paths; I have to provide students with the opportunity to follow art ― neither me nor painting.                  

photo by Klaudyna Schubert

D. N.: Many of your students and graduates are active and recognisable; they work with galleries or set up galleries themselves, in Poland and abroad. What is the vision of the current administration of the Academy for the further development of this aspect of students’ activity?

A. B.: Our new project aims to introduce them to such behaviours that I am already delighted to observe among young graduates who set the paths of their activities regardless of anything. We stopped organising the so-called “end-of-year exhibitions,” where teachers compose their students’ presentations. Starting this autumn, we’re organising the Art Festival, which includes an open call for our students. They can take part in it (there is no obligation) to show what is happening in our environment. This year will be the first time, so it might still be imperfect. I got the entire post-hospital building in the centre of Krakow for it. It’s heated, with several hundred rooms on a few floors. We’re giving it to artistic projections, providing small financial support. Students can take a room and write, “Bednarczyk is an idiot.” I just want them to do it well. This is an educational element that we haven’t had yet. We always showed our students at exhibitions organised, planned, and curated by us. In the case of the Art Festival, we will continue to watch over and support it, but no professor is allowed to decide who will take part in it.

D. N.: The essential advantage of end-of-year exhibitions at art academies is that everyone has to take part in them. They may not be excellent or particularly inventive, but even the least interested student has an impulse to work; they know they will have to show their work.

A. B.: It often happened that I entered the studio and saw a professor hanging a student’s work in the author’s absence. Over my dead body, will I allow this to happen! This case is a pure form of pathology. Someone scribbled something, they don’t care whether they will be shown or not, but the professor has to exhibit it so that everyone is present. It’s criminally forbidden. Of course, the dean or the professor may still decide to present their students’ achievements at the Academy regardless of the Art Festival mentioned above. 

We are now documenting the achievements in electronic form because the Faculty Councils and the Senate are obliged to familiarise themselves with the didactic achievements (we have to take care of the quality of education and identify dangerous situations). The annual exhibition for the city was always somehow flawed, simply because it’s a school review. Now, a student can approach a friend, saying: “Listen, maybe we could create such a thing.” Moreover, I invited a theatre and music school to participate. I want to share some of these rooms to work next to them or even together. I cherish the interweaving of fields, and there is not enough of that. It’s not good that it’s every man for himself. There are three art schools in a small town like Krakow, and we have very little in common. We have already signed a cooperation agreement, and the contracts that I sign are not empty; implementations follow them. We did it together with the rector of the University of Economics. He gives us the campus space, four months for “beauties,” as I like to call the Fine Arts students (laughs), four months for actors and four months for musicians. He wants the students of economy to start thinking about economics as part of the culture. We have a wonderful mentor here, professor Hausner, the former deputy prime minister and minister of finance from years ago, the founder of the “Open Eyes Economy Summit,” an annual conference in Krakow. We join the great machinery of this festival and, in cooperation, create the “Open Eyes Art Festival” ― from the old living masters to the young artists full of their craziest ideas.             

D. N.: Do you also establish contacts with other art academies in Poland?

A. B.: I know there have been talks. Two young female curators from Warsaw proposed to create an exhibition of students and graduates from our two cities. We don’t close ourselves to other Polish art academies. On the contrary, we stop closing ourselves. I have to operate in a network of connections—only this way. Inbreeding isn’t good.

D. N.: How do you recollect the experience of online teaching? Does this new skill, which we all had to acquire quickly, have a chance to change something for the better in the context of academic life?

A. B.: I won’t talk about creating and implementing new procedures and customs. Let’s focus on whether the experience we have been forced into can bear fruit in the future when I hope we will work in a new style. I avoid the term “when we get back to normal” on purpose because I don’t believe in an automatic return to what was before. The mental, spiritual, intellectual, ontological, and identity gash that has taken place over the past year is so deep that the question is: what will art, culture and teaching look like after, and not whether we will come back; there is no such possibility. There is a specific limit of a cataract, catharsis ― or some other “cata-” a breakthrough ― which is irreversible. I am not saying that it’s like before and after the war, yet, everything has changed. We are already rethinking how to work, what is art, what questions we will ask anew because the old answers are outdated. Reality forced us to take specific actions, and the only sensible attitude, in my opinion, is to consider what profits we can obtain from this. Learning sculpture online looks goofy; learning how to work on a historical object as part of conservation is completely pointless ― but you have to manage somehow. According to professor Dorota Segda, the Theatre Academy’s chancellor, on the one hand, learning acting online is pointless, but on the other, recently, we’ve talked about previously unthinkable things. For example, she mentioned that she conducted classes and played Wyspiański’s “The Wedding” on the Internet. The first actor was in Łomża, the second in Ciechanów, the third in Wrocław. She talked about what a wonderful experience it was; a detachment from the community of place, without this blockage, without the direct, physical resonance between people. We must learn to use these experiences.

In terms of development, a lot of satisfying things happened. The necessity to operate the school online turned out to be a good thing and significant to keep. We’ve been doing Open Days online now, and their reach obviously cannot be overestimated. We had to learn to conduct online consultations for candidates. Of course, we’ve lost something irretrievably, but we’ve gained certain ease as well. I stopped the “ASP News” paper edition and turned it into an online magazine called “Restart.” This evolution is brilliant; I won’t go back to the paper edition anymore; it makes no sense. I prefer to spend this money on an English translation than on a printing service. The second online magazine, “Elements,” will be fully bilingual, with several printed prints for legal reasons. Furthermore, there are changes in the way we present art. All the exhibitions we are doing now are visited virtually. We have scanned exhibition spaces; now, we scan the rest of the building and invite people for virtual walks. We also learned to work online on this regular clerical job. These are some enormous benefits. Of course, visiting an online painting exhibition is not an experience comparable to visiting a gallery (laughs). Online presentations are a necessity that we have been forced to by the pandemic. It’s like wondering if the catalogue of a painting exhibition is comparable to the originals. The web also teaches you to build better catalogues. I have often been to exhibitions mainly devoted to new media, video art, or performative events and received a description and a dull photo. The relation of the Venice Biennale catalogue to what I can see in the original is very minimal. Art has already gone in such a direction that pressing these silly books on paper is far from the needs of the real world. Art that feels wonderful on the web is Internet Art. The Internet is its background and ritual space. Insisting that it has an equivalent in the analogue form is pointless. And vice versa. Nothing can replace standing in front of the original painting. However, it’s obvious that before we get to the original piece, we usually approach it gradually, digging up everything on the web. “Oh! I have to go there!” ― and off we go. We are not going now, but we will start going. I must say that the hunger for direct contact with an artwork turned out to be shockingly immortal — students, professors, fellow artists, curators, and art critics confirm that. I know art critics who have suspended their activities. They say they won’t fool around without seeing the original. I’m not the man who says, “Okay, it turns out you can do it online, so let’s forget it all.” 

photo by Klaudyna Schubert

D. N.: I’ve recently talked to the academic teacher who admitted that she had never had such good contact with students before. They were afraid to speak in a large forum during the lectures. Now, in the intimacy of their private houses, it is easier for them to overcome their shyness and participate in discussions.

A. B.: It’s a too far-fetched generalisation. There are situations where being in your cocoon and the lack of face-to-face, direct contact ― not breathing the same air ― activate the courage to speak up. Some people feel more at ease during these seminar meetings; you can always turn off the webcam, etc. Yet, others cannot speak, it’s still strange for them, and they are terribly ashamed. From the tutor’s point of view, not seeing the students’ faces blocks us. We cannot allow even 15 faces on the screen if they have low bandwidth. Raising hands live, in-class evokes an instant reaction, creates dynamics, resonates ― there is a string, a box, I play a sound, someone plays another in response ― it’s not always about words, often it’s about a melody. I feel that this distance is a dire necessity. On the other hand, I never dared to smear over my students’ paintings. I always refused to make corrections based on what the student showed me on the phone screen, arguing that it’s pure idiocy and makes no sense. I cannot analyse the glowing screen and judge on this basis, seeing neither the scale, materiality, nor the accurate colours. This is only a linguistic transposition of the surface. Now I dropped such an image into Photoshop, and by sharing my screen, I tormented the student’s painting. Thanks to this, I sometimes show what happens to a painting in front of a student if I interfere with it. This is a great benefit that I had never utilised before, as I was used to dealing with the original. Last year, we did three “The Alien Eye” meetings that I mentioned before with guests from several Polish cities. It was easier to organise; they didn’t have to come. So there are several benefits, but we have lost touch with the original and the ability to talk directly to each other. On “The Alien Eye,” everyone interested ― it’s never an obligation, you rather have to dare to try ― had to prepare a portfolio preceded by an artistic statement. The presentation had to be corrected with my assistant and sent one week before the meeting to all guests. It’s also a good practice. Then, unfortunately, the author scrolled through this pdf and talked about himself. This conversation in front of the painting was already lame. But it’s a give and take. Benefits are there, waiting for people ready to learn and implement them.

photo by Edyta Dufaj
photo by Edyta Dufaj

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About The Author

Dobrosława
Nowak

Independent writer, curator, and visual artist based in Milan. Works as an art curator and a member of the residency selection committee at the In-ruins Residency. Graduated in arts (BFA) and psychology (MFA).

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