A “pseudopoem” of Chaos
One of the crucial themes in the Polish history of art in the past 25 years is the process of re-writing and revaluating it.
It is surprisingly seldom that psychedelic art and Katowice-based countercultural circles, including the Oneiron group, the Buddhism community and the hippy community are mentioned. Their legacy can be one of the foundation myths of another Silesia or diverse Polish culture – defying established homogenous conservative models.
One decade ago, Tadeusz Sobolewski wrote about the phenomenon of the Katowice “underground”: “The People’s Republic of Poland had its artistic underground.
And it was not less interesting than the one in New York. This underground has not yet been studied enough. We do not realize how vast the non-official area in the culture of the 1950s, 60s and 70s was. It was not only Warsaw […] but also Katowice that had its underground.” The comparison is, of course, grossly exaggerated but there was such a community there – a significant phenomenon not only in the field of visual arts but also of general counterculture (it has recently been discussed in Kamil Sipowicz’s Encyklopedia polskiej psychodelii [Encyclopedia of Polish Psychedelic Movement]). The heart of this artistic underground was in the attic of a tall tenement house in the middle of Katowice. The address was Piastowska 1 and its many-year animator and main figure was Andrzej Urbanowicz, a legendary artist who died in 2011.
When I returned to Silesia for professional reasons in 2003, one of the motives behind my decision was the intention to look for independent origins of art in Silesia. I had the opportunity to spend quite a long time on preparing a publication entitled Katowicki Underground Artystyczny po 1953 roku [The Artistic Underground in Katowice after 1953] for the BWA Gallery in Katowice and, luckily, Urbanowicz’s studio – the archive of the artistic life in Upper Silesia in the 1960s and 70s, was situated right opposite the venue. I could thus avoid getting bored behind a desk in a formal institution; instead, Andrzej would greet me every morning with a light joint, strong tea, while some music oozed from the radio and we would start looking through stuff from the past. Our conversations were far from complaining about the present day. Andrzej was full of energy. For me, it was an important introduction into Silesian art world. When he died, a journalist asked me for a short characteristic of the artist and I said: sex, drugs & rock’n’roll.
The weak point of all memories is the fact that, in the end, we write about ourselves. There are as many versions as there are people writing them. Besides, every witness and participant tries to be the only depositary of history. And history, as the past always is, tends to be a field of fantasy.
“In Poland, there was no surrealism because there was Catholicism” – Tadeusz Kantor once said. Surrealism was an attitude and a viewpoint, rather than a purely artistic movement. It is in the context of these words that the Oneiron group and Andrzej Urbanowicz may constitute an exception. His activity did not fit into two regimes that dominated Poland: the party and the Catholic Church. This eulogist of chaos and gnosis, who refused to believe the dogmatic structure of ideas and power hierarchy, failed to belong to either of those two ideological orders in Poland. He managed to found new centres. It was then that the Śląska Gallery (later known as the Katowice Gallery) or the Galeria Bez Miejsca were established. The meeting point was all the time in Piastowska 1.
It was there that the Oneiron group, also known as the Liga Spostrzeżeń Duchowych (LSD, League of Spiritual Observations), was started on the evening preceding Christmas Eve in 1967. Besides Urbanowicz, its members included Urszula Broll, Antoni Halor, Zygmunt Stuchlik and Henryk Waniek, amongst others. The artists took a creative approach to Carl Gustav Jung’s theories, including those on dreams, and iconography of Far Eastern art. They focused on interdisciplinary actions, e.g. creating a collective work titled Leksykon (Encyklopedia symbolu) [Lexicon. (Encyclopaedia of Symbols)], also known as Nowy Bezpretensjonalny Chaos w Obrazkach [New Unpretentious Chaos in Pictures] made up of thirty boards and displayed for the first time in 1969. The boards were covered with sophisticated drawings penetrating the meaning of symbols and cosmogonies of the world originating in different cultures. The cycle was an expression of the formula of chaos, later advocated by Urbanowicz who referred to the concept of the world as being sacred, which was to be conveyed in symbols varying at cultural and historical levels, in which eroticism as positive creative energy was strongly present.
Already at that time, numerous of his works were full of perverse eroticism. They also contained psychedelic elements; the artist’s paintings from that period may be the best example of the trend in Poland. In 1970, Urbanowicz experimented with LSD. Under its influence he created the painting entitled Dwie doby i później [Two Days and Later] but there are more such paintings, e.g. Lucy in the Earth or Dom Boga [God’s House]. The artist wrote: “One of the most narcotic paintings is Kingstone, created much earlier, without any trace of connection with the outside world. I want to stress, however, that these experiences, especially later ones, were substantial in terms of transforming consciousness.”
Soon after that, in June 1970 Urbanowicz and Andrzej Janicki, a physician, organized an exhibition of works by people suffering from schizophrenia at the Katowice Gallery. It was accompanied by a text written by the artist: “DOCUMENTA PSYCHOPATOLOGICA?? – excerpts from human life in pictures! […] An exhibition is staged not only to be viewed or to cause sensation but also to draw attention to the fact that: sometimes concepts are arbitrary; their limits may be blurred; opinions are revised in time; emotional attitudes to people and their affairs change; pessimism may turn into optimism.” Like most manifestoes, texts become outdated rather fast on the linguistic level, but back then they achieved high impact in the context in which they appeared. Obviously, the event failed to be greeted enthusiastically by the authorities or the art world.
At Urbanowicz’s exhibition at the BWA Gallery in Katowice in 1970, paintings were displayed along with candles, mushrooms, plants, stones, bones and a group of hippies. The critic Andrzej Kostołowski was in awe: “This is a version of psychedelic art, even though Urbanowicz reveals the ecstatic and kaleidoscopic nature of visions brought about by hallucinogens only in some of his works, but these are significant works […] Cartoon-like faces are next to most serious captions, alchemic rhetoric is mixed with obscene challenge […] Paintings are works executed under compulsion, are specifications for work to which the artist is a captive because of his role as a medium. And the medium is a means – rather than an objective […] His works remains only as phantom traces of transmission.”
The Oneiron group discovered a lot for Polish culture, including the myth of Prague. In 1968, in response to the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact invading Czechoslovakia, the artists issued five copies of a magazine (today it would be called an artbook) entitled OUROBOROUS, revolving around the city of Prague – featuring, for instance, a map of the world with the Czech capital in its centre and an unknown short story by Kafka, written by Waniek, etc. This is another subject to be explored within the field of the history of Polish culture for which significant occurrences of 1968 included not only March events or Kazimierz Dejmek’s production of Dziady. In December 2015, the subject matter was represented at the collective exhibition Pismo, combining different approaches of the Oneiron group and Yan Tomaszewski, the then artist-in-residence within the framework of the Place Called Space project at the Kronika Centre for Contemporary Art in Bytom.
The late 1960s were particularly busy in the studio in Piastowska Street. Allen Ginsberg visited the place; Jerzy Prokopiuk lecture there, Mariusz Tchorek (who cofounded the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw) was a frequent guest, Jerzy Lewczyński and Zofia Rydet, amongst others, recorded what was happening in the studio. Andrzej Urbanowicz maintained relationships with Polish hippies, including Misjonarz [Missionary] – Jerzy Illg, Dziekan [Dean] – Andrzej Szewczyk (this eminent but rather forgotten artist is another reason to confront various stances) or Tadeusz Sławek. It was in the Piastowska studio that the first community of the Buddhism Sangha Association in Poland resided.
In the mid-1970s, the Oneiron group split. Each artist followed an individual path. Urbanowicz devoted more and more time to Buddhist practices (the teacher of Zen Buddhism Philip Kapleau was his guest in 1975), translated Zen writings, and finally left for New York where he spent more than ten years.
In the 1990s, Urbanowicz returned to Poland, where he staged several exhibitions in Silesia. Run by Urbanowicz (and a group of his friends), Towarzystwo Bellmer (the Bellmer Association) contributed to the reappearance of the artistic output by the Katowice-born artist Hans Bellmer. The studio in Piastowska Street became lively again. In 2004, the figure of Andrzej Urbanowicz and the Silesian community were featured in the publication Katowicki Underground…. [The Underground in Katowice…].
In that period, two ‘accumulating’ cycles of many created by the artist – Kolekcja [Collection] and Chaosu świętość niewyczerpana [The Unexhausted Holiness of Chaos] – were significant. Compulsively collected by the artist, used objects in black boxes (Kolekcja) – like black boxes in airplanes, fitted the popular artistic discourse of hoarding or cabinets of curiosities. At the same time, he used them to compile a diary to save the past. Urbanowicz said: “As they come to me, they gain eternal life, longer by a few centuries than the one they have been destined for. This is without a doubt a symbiosis, they get immortality (up to a point at least) and I get new letters, ideograms in the diary I keep.” It was these works by the artist that were displayed at exhibitions, including a solo show hosted by the Sektor I Gallery, which sadly no longer exists, in Katowice (2006) or the international exposition titled The Flowers of Our Lives at the Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu in Toruń (2008). He was thus again part of the Polish world of art. When, in 2008, the Kronika Gallery in Bytom ran its programme accompanying the Fifth Berlin Biennale, one of the events took place in the attic in Piastowska Street and was hosted by Urbanowicz.
On the other hand, displayed at the exhibitions Je brule Paris at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris and Dzieci szatana in Jasny Dom in Krakow, the long-running cycle entitled objets oniriques, began during the artist’s stay in New York and continued after his return to Poland, was exhibited in its entirety only once in the artist’s lifetime. The display in Paris is the first posthumous presentation of the cycle.
In 1992, the artist explained: “I started doing these things more than 25 years ago. To be honest, I had no idea where I was heading. I don’t deny this was compulsory to some extent, but never unpleasant. Cutting and arranging fragments or certain wholes of printed pictures, found by me or torn out (more or less secretly) from magazines and books. Back then, I only showed them to a few people.
This series has been created in recent years, using materials collected over a period of 15 years. Although it has never been exhibited, it was to be seen in the studio on many occasions, provoking a range of reaction from enthusiasm to uneasiness. When the organizers of the Jestesmy exhibition visited me in New York, they were utterly terrified by the thought I might insist on displaying this collection […] Other people who viewed them felt so uneasy that they suddenly started to name the fragments they saw in a magical belief that knowing the name would relieve agitation.
For me, these images, simple and obvious sometimes, highly complex sometimes, frequently well-known, rare at times, were similar to letters or syllables but not to words of a long and complicated poem. This ‘pseudopoem’ is a continuum, or better a chaotic coexistence of images, like a daydream in fact.”
There is a publication dedicated specifically to the cycle, accompanying the above mentioned display, discussing the work through the prism of the theory of chaos, cataloguing, atlases, but also the need to endlessly shape new forms of alternative life and artistic creations…
This is a short version of the essay published in the book accompanying the exhibition of Andrzej Urbanowicz’s cycle within the framework of the projects Place Called Space: Je brule Paris at Cite Internationale des Arts w Paryżu and Dzieci szatana at Jasny Dom in Kraków.
SEE MORE WORKS SELECTED FROM THE SERIE – “The Unexhausted Holiness of Chaos” by Andrzej Urbanowicz
More / credits
Curator, art historian, author, book editor, lecturer.