An Excerpt from “MEMORIES OF STAROBIELSK ESSAYS BETWEEN ART AND HISTORY” by Józef Czapski, translated from the Polish by Alissa Valles, introduction by Irena Grudzińska Gross
“We paint only one percent of contemplation.” —CYPRIAN NORWID
What is vision? A certain synthetic, singular way of looking at the surrounding world. A moment of such vision always comes unexpectedly, like grace. Sometimes without any preparation, without means to give it a proper embodiment, sometimes after many years of work, as a reward—always incommensurate and even incongruous with the effort we put in. Sometimes it arrives inconspicuously and manifests itself slowly and more and more effectively in a work begun without vision, or virtually without vision.
If we read the medieval mystics, we find striking analogies there with the artist’s vision, the paths leading to that vision and the paths that lead to states of ecstasy, to what Saint John of the Cross calls contactus Dei. I don’t want by any means to collapse the infinitely more sensual, material experience of the artist with the ecstasies and states of prayer of Saint John and others, but nevertheless the analogies are so striking, the graph of these states is so often identical in its fits and lags, in the conscious return to more matter-bound prayer, that even the most secular artist should give it some thought. Prayer techniques, methods for bringing oneself to these higher prayer states, were elaborated by mystics of very different religions. I’ve never made a more thorough study of this, but it’s enough to read the life of the Spanish Saint Teresa, or Saint John of the Cross’s Summary of Mystical Doctrine, published in Saint Maximin, to see how much that reading has to offer a painter. That dry handbook, written almost in the style of a high school textbook, what an aid it can be in distinguishing in oneself real from artificial, delusory, induced fits and inspirations, which result in opaque, falsified art. I want to be understood well: I’m not talking about religious art at all, in the sense the phrase is usually employed. I mean art in general, in contrast to nonart, to everything that in the guise of effects, tricks, originality, or plain imitation gives itself out to be one or another art form. I’m talking about the art of both Dürer and Cézanne, Degas or Gierymski.
It seems to me that the paths to inspiration are infinitely varied, that there aren’t and can’t be any binding theories or methods, that every new experience grows from innumerable new combinations of feeling, genius, consciousness, work (as far as religious inspiration goes, how many mystics have not been suspected of heresy?); nevertheless, coming to know the varied paths involved in the creative mechanism that in others brings these states to another, higher plane, can help us and purify and deepen our work. Artists who build everything on talent, waiting in cafés for inspiration, unbound by awareness or any more profound tradition, can very easily lose the potential for any development, just tread water and thus regress.
It was Norwid who said that we paint one percent of contemplation. Thinking through, carrying through the analogy between religious contemplation and, for example, Cézanne’s contemplation might be a point of departure for art’s use of the whole treasure house of knowledge about contemplation that we can find in mystical literature. But who reads it? Priests, monks, maybe psychologists and pathologists, for whom art is a largely alien world—painters don’t read much, and if they do, it’s not the mystics.