How They See

By Piotr Jastrzębski

How They See - Issue #41: Paulina Litwin on what does it mean that you are not allowed?

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How They See

May 1 · Issue #41 · View online

How They See will help you to meet artists from all over the globe and understand their perception of art.

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Published weekly on Saturday.


I remember very vividly the first time when I saw the photo of the painting of a dead fox from the “Still life” series created by Paulina Litwin. This painting as well as other from this series is brutal. I remember that I was scared and at the same time I felt a strong fascination with this work and the bigger idea behind its concept. And it was only a photo.
Paulina Litwin and her works appeared on my radar. I couldn’t imagine that nearly 2 years later I would have a chance to exchange emails and be able to ask my questions. Then receive very detailed answers about a variety of topics, including concepts hidden behind paintings, her new series, creative process and a few areas connected with life.
Paulina told me that: “the answer is not complete as long as there are questions”.
You can find more information about Paulina Litwin as well as her other painting on Instagram.

How much is the life of an artist living in France different from that in Poland?
Just as the life of a man living in France differs from that of a man living in Poland. Artists are very human people :) It is also different if you are French from birth living in your country, and different if you came here with all your experience acquired elsewhere.
When it comes to my experience, these differences are subtle and fundamental at the same time, because in Poland, in my home country, I was simply at home, and what is more, I was on a straight path to successively build my brand. Here I start from scratch, amidst strong competition, but also on a market with much larger demand. After all, Paris is Paris, maybe not so much during a pandemic, but still is full of culture. The feeling of accessibility and closeness is wonderful, with museums - works of art - that I have learned about in school so far, or seen only in books and films and with living art, the one that our children and grandchildren will learn about.
The first painting of your authorship I came across was “a still life”. I saw the picture on Łukasz Wiącek Instagram profile, even before I started publishing the interviews. Then I discovered more images in this series. What was your inspiration?
You mean the painting “fox” from the series “Still Life”, which is in Łukasz’s collection. It is the last in a series of 6 paintings created in this series. The others are “bird”, “hare”, “cat”, “dog” and “roe-deer”, each painted on a 1: 1 scale, where the bird base is 16x10 cm and the deer is 200x140 cm.
The question of inspiration is generally not easy for me because the answer is woven somewhere in the entire creative process and struggles with greater sensitivity, so this answer cannot be framed.
The name of the series is a wordplay, a play with their literal meaning: the animals presented in the pictures are part of nature and they are dead. In this way, this project refers to the subject of still life in Dutch and Flemish painting, because it was there that in the 17th century it had its beginning and flourished as a separate genre.
Everyone knows it, some flowers, kitchen utensils, a few bottles, a book and fruit arranged in a composition, almost casually - it’s still life. Among them, seafood, fish and other animals often appear. Sometimes it is a lurking cat, but even more often it is a dead hare or pheasant. Interestingly, sometimes there is also a human skull and other vanitas symbols to remind the viewer about the vanity of life and the accumulation of goods, about passing and finally death.
All this is very aesthetic and does not surprise anyone.
However, when we put aside the entire staffage and leave on the stage only this dead, full-size animal, with nothing else in the background on which to hang our eyesight in order to escape from confronting this performance, the subject becomes uncomfortable, even unbearable, and the image - repulsive.
Why? The answer seems simple, but is it? What is going on inside a person, what psychological processes take place, that the first reactions appearing at the sight of such a performance are protest and indignation? What’s behind it? Is it compassion? Sadness? Or maybe hypocrisy? All these and similar issues interest me a lot.
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series
I remember that at first I was surprised by the brutality of these works. However, after spending more time with them, I realized that they do not represent a situation or experience that an adult person has never encountered. I began to wonder if dead animals were a pretext or a prelude for a much deeper dialogue. An attempt to tame death maybe?
Exactly. I have already answered this question to some extent, but the answer is not complete as long as there are questions. And I ask these notoriously. Also or mainly to myself. Back then, as a 24-year-old: Why do I want to paint dead animals? Do I want to shock? But just why “shock”? Because they represent death? And then what does that say about us as people, about society?
And here I am reminded of a dialogue with one of my teachers when I was in art gymnasium that everything is allowed, what is not allowed .. the question is how and why (?)
That’s it. Because what does it mean that you are not allowed? So I set myself the task of presenting simply and beautifully something that, through questions and looking for the answers, will give you an excuse to look at yourself. As you are accurately guessing, I wanted to provide space for a deeper dialogue, to take up a topic that turns out to be socially repressed and difficult for all of us. Apparently, what’s easy is just not interesting for me :)
On the other hand, I have the impression that the works from the series “Gorzkie Żale” (eng. “Bitter sorrows”) preceded current events in Poland by several years.
“Gorzkie Żale” is a project that was created in 2016, and interestingly, it was created as part of the scholarship of the Mayor of Lublin, i.e. from public funds. It was less than 5 years ago, but I’m not sure if at the moment in which Poland is - today - I would have received a grant for it…
In its original foundations, the theme and style of this painting series were to refer to medieval and renaissance sacred representations. In an unconventional way, but still very balanced.
However, none of my design is ever rigid - it lives with me and naturally evolves as it arises. This spontaneously evolved towards LGBT+ themes. And in this way, under the tree of life, in the Garden of Eden, instead of Eve and Adam, there are two different Eve’s (neither of them has a face, to protect their orientation and identity at least a little).
Another image depicts a unicorn hunting theme, and another one presents a virgin with a unicorn. These motifs date back to the times of pagan mythologies, but medieval theologians adopted or even appropriated them to sacred ones, where the virgin is Mary and the unicorn is Jesus. Symbolism likes to play tricks, and as it turns out, completely without mutual connotations, but the unicorn is also one of the symbols of LGBT+. Finally, this series consists of 7 paintings, imitating the altar system or iconostasis, with their size and shape, as well as their arrangement. Unfortunately, due to the delicate religious feelings of some people, it is perceived more like iconoclasm.
It has happened that the time of the creation of this cycle coincided with the return to power of the current ruling party, the deplorable effects and consequences of which we can observe in Poland today. It also coincided with my health problems and burnout that lasted for some time, so this series has never been shown in public before. However, this topic remains vivid and interesting for me, and I may come back to it one day.
Paulina Litwin's studio
Paulina Litwin's studio
At what age did you start creating and when did art really draw you in for good?
In fact, I still have not decided who I want to become when I grow up haha;)
I don’t know what other artists are used to answering this question, and maybe it will be a similar answer to others, namely: I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember (but probably like most children). Another thing is that my grandfather (from my mother’s side) is a sculptor - a woodcarver, so I had access to materials and tools since my childhood. So I was constantly picking, glueing, cutting out .. and also sewing, embroidering, designing and decorating, and drawing and painting, of course. But I also danced, directed and played a role, and for several years I even sang in the Ensemble of the International School of Traditional Music.
To this day, I like and even need each of these activities and areas of expression. Honestly, I don’t know why it was a painting that I have chosen as a profession.
The most important thing, however, is that my parents did not take a stand about what I should do in my life and, a bit by accident, but mainly because it was so natural for me, right after primary school I immediately got to the General School of Fine Arts in Lublin, where I spent six consecutive years. Then there were no more questions, and since I wanted to study in the countryside, I folded my portfolio and successfully passed the exams to the College of Fine Arts in Kazimierz Dolny - anyone who knows this charming Renaissance town in the eastern part of Poland, also known as the Padua of the North, can guess that it was it’s an interesting time in my life.
Until now, my relationship with art is very complex and I do not know if we’ll ever get married, but it is very likely that in this cohabitation, we will survive together for better and for worse until the end of my days;)
Small-format colour compositions are one of the methods of your work. What does the preparation of such works help in?
I am extremely pleased with this question because it is a quite new area of my exploration.
In the painting series, I’m currently working on, the colours are vivid, intense and ubiquitous. Their choice and arrangement in the painting are of key importance because they are closely related to the given composition of body figures and objects that I use to show movement - emotions and the type of relationship. It may sound complicated, but the effect is supposed to be quite simple, harmonious and purely painterly.
I do not aspire to the full abstraction, I like figurative painting, but I am tired of realism and finally want to completely break away from mimicry.
This is not that easy again, because as a child I was a great copyist haha. I imitated nature as best I could because adults liked it. “Oh, did you draw it yourself? It’s beautiful! It looks like a picture! Such a talent.”
Like the photo, yeah… ;)
So now I’m going back to the beginning - drawing from the inner child. Crayon - pastel and paper is my first tool, the most primal and intuitive. The small format helps with the pace of work and not reflecting on the result - “it’s just a sketch”, it has every right to be unsuccessful, it is not of great value and does not take much time. Nevertheless, this process brings a lot of unrestricted joy, and what’s more, thanks to the intuition and many years of practice, the results are really pleasantly surprising. They are, but they don’t have to be, and that’s the key.
Sometimes I know right away what and how I want, but often these small painting sketches are very helpful in creating a full-size picture, because when in doubt I know what to put together and what is not worth it.
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series
While looking at your Instagram account, I got the impression that the painting is the result of very meticulously planned work, a well-thought-out effect of many decisions. This is an approach I don’t see often. Can you tell a little more about it?
It is interesting how you perceive it because, in my honest meticulousness, I am also very chaotic.
Painting and the flow that accompanies it is like a state of being in love … difficult and beautiful at the same time. And just like in love, also at work - I have to feel a challenge, a strong fascination with the subject in order to want to go further and persist in commitment. I cannot work without it, because such work would bring neither satisfaction nor effects. So the selection of topics and the way they are done must be well thought, it must be a pressing need. Such a capricious romance is very consuming, taking a lot of time and energy, especially considering my innate analytic, but it also gives, even more than twice.
My paintings, what and how I paint reflect me, my concept of beauty, my way and intensity of thinking and experiencing, as well as the issues that bother me at the moment, which has already been mentioned a bit. It is not always visible, especially at first glance, but for me they are personal, sometimes even (in a sense) exhibitionist. However surprisingly and interesting for me, most of the time I have no problem with parting with them when they are finding a new owner. I work something out and then I let it go to ‘work’ for someone else.
The recipients are also kind of a mirror for me, and if they look openly and attentively, I am always interested in what they see in it, and sometimes also, and maybe often, it is a mirror for themselves. So it is interesting to me what you conclude from the observation of my works published on Instagram. How much it is me and how much are you, as a person?
This may sound therapeutic:D but there is some truth in your remark. When I was attending painting classes, I often heard from the teacher that I approach work as thoroughly planned and I need to have everything arranged, etc. However, this question appeared in my head when I saw photos of small forms with colour compositions or body arrangements on your Instagram. I had the impression that you start to work with a well-planned vision of the final work:
As for my observation, I will immodestly say that I am a better observer than a painter, which does not exclude the other, but on the contrary, hence I am not surprised by your answer either ;) Your observation is true that I also approach my work quite methodically, however, to paraphrase a well-known saying - there is also chaos in this method… because it should be - after all, everything what and how I plan to paint can be changed - I think the success of development and discovery lies in the accident and the ability to pick it up and use it consciously.
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series photographed in the studio
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series photographed in the studio
I would like to quote Mr Łukasz Wiącek: “Waiting for your works is one of the best forms of contemplating them”. One has to wait a long time for your paintings. What is more important to you, the process itself or the finished work?
Is that a question or a statement? :)
Either way, it’s often true. My works are not created from under the machine. I am also not a titan of <commonly understood> work and I cannot answer questions like “how much time did you spend on this painting?” Because what does that actually mean? How many hours did I stand over the easel?
The creative process, as the name suggests, is a whole process, and it does not start or end with touching the canvas with a brush. Sometimes it’s sitting in front of a painting with a brush the whole day without a single stroke, and yet the work/process continues despite the frustration. Sometimes it’s also sitting in the park and staring at the rays of the sun breaking through the leaves of the tree in the wind. And it is not just staring into the distance, but an important observation of the relationship between light and matter. The creative process is life, unusual but also quite ordinary things, it is about sensations. Absorption, digestion and excretion. Poetry and prose of life. I like to experience it and carefully go through the stages of work. The painting which is created as a result, has a chance to be valuable and contribute something innovative to art. Painting - an object as a complete and finished record of a path of some sorts and conclusions drawn from it. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to catch the moment when it is necessary to put the last dot, which also sometimes means that this journey is not finished and the process is still going on.
It sounds a bit like some claptraps and idyll, but whoever was not there does not know that an artist’s work is often hard and multidimensional measuring with oneself. Me too, I can pluck in the car’s engine or put several bricks on top of each other as a hobbyist and determine that it is great fun. However, I would not say that the work of a mechanic or a construction worker is claptrap and idyll :) or that he works too fast / too slow because I do not have the appropriate tools/competencies to judge it.
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series
Paulina Litwin, a painting from "Body movements" series
What advice would you give self-taught artists?
You should ask my grandfather about that :)
I’m far from giving advice, although I’m probably lying because a big part of me wants to be a teacher, but maybe not necessarily a painting teacher.
But here it is - gets on the bull and ride (!)
To break the rules, it’s worth getting to know them first, so you have to observe a lot and try to analyze what you see. “Much” is the keyword. Draw a lot, paint a lot, preferably quickly and widely. Practice, practice and practice again. Show your work and talk to competent people about it. Expose yourself to criticism. It is also worth making a lot of mistakes. Allow yourself to enjoy the process, not to think about the effect, just do your own thing. Do not be discouraged, do not overdo it, do not imitate anyone - except the greats! Give up the daydream of the artist’s romantic myth, and give up your ego. Do not overthink, it comes in handy before and after work, however, it is mainly disturbing during the process.
I don’t know, I probably don’t follow half of them myself, haha, but that’s how it is with advice.
What is your favourite colour?
The simpler the question, the more difficult the answer.
Once upon a time, I had a saying that among all colours I like grey the most, and there is a certain perversity in it because grey is not a colour, but the lack of colour, possibly a hue. There is something ordinary about it, and at the same time infinite and noble.
Gray can be a combination of white and black in different proportions, which makes it quite crude. But it can also arise from a combination of complementary colours, and then we obtain its noble shades, from warm to cold, in an infinite amount.
I didn’t like colours for a long time… but I have such a trait that the longer and more irritating something is to me, the greater sign that it will be my passion soon. And that’s what happened with colours in general. Because there is no one I value above the others, everything depends. Colours are about their temperature, tone, shade and the relationships they create with each other and how they interact with each other. I’m playing with it right now with childish excitement.
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Have a great week!
Piotr
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