To Move Mountains – Beata Zuba’s Painting

Krystyna Czerni

Men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains (…),
yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.

St. Augustine, Confessions

Jacek Woźniakowski, the author of an unparalleled study of mountain landscapes in Mountains Unmovable, wrote about the particular difficulty of painting mountains well: How in paint, in watercolour to render the crystalline resistance of rock, the jagged line of a ridge, the dazzling whiteness of snow, hard contrasts of light and dark, how to close in four frames colossal differences in size? Yet, the subject of mountains – with their rich symbolic imagery and picturesqueness – has for long tempted artists and from the beginning has been an ambiguous motif: inspiring awe and dread at the same time.

For the ancients, the wild mountain landscape, shapeless and barren, stood in opposition to classical ideals of beauty. Mountain peaks – remote, somewhat crude – broke the harmony of perspective, were a sign of disarray and chaos. The world “beyond the earthly garden” seemed to be overwhelming and untamed. Rocks and mountains the surface of the Earth is bristling with were seen as unsightly outgrowths – tumores terrarium: the story of the planet written in fossils. It was thought that the deluge and erosions had wrecked the Edenic youth of Mother Earth, burying sinless smoothness of the globe with “great ruins”. They were looked upon with fear and uncertainty – as rubble and debris, a portent of an impending disaster.

At first they were painted safely and from afar: mountain ridges filled the horizon, like a fossilized sea, creating a decorative background, merely an accompaniment to important matters happening in the foreground. Also on the boards of Byzantine icons: oddly layered and steeply piling colourful rocks built the scenery for biblical scenes imitating theatrical stage sets. Yet, the artist – guided by curiosity, seeking thrill – didn’t want to only admire from the distance, they wanted to climb. They discovered that the world of the mountains is a liberation from worldly crampedness and hum, clean air, the space of light and silence. They noticed a landscape of freedom in the landscape of mountainous Arcadia, they began to travel, draw from observation, from up close. Peter Brueghel kept coming back to those wild Alps. His contemporaries, in no uncertain terms said that while being in the Alps, he swallowed all those mountains and rocks and upon his return home he puked them up on canvass and boards – he could get that close to nature. The picturesque decorativeness of alpine nature – shrouded in fog, full of mystery – was also appreciated by romanticism. High in the mountains where the air is pure and subtle – Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in “New Heloise” – one breathes more freely, one feels lighter in the body, more serene of mind; pleasures there are less intense, passions more moderate. Meditations there take on an indescribably grand and sublime character (…) an indescri- bably tranquil delight that has nothing acrid or sensual about it. It seems that by rising above the habitation of men one leaves all base and earthly sentiments behind, and in proportion as one approaches ethereal spaces the soul contracts something of their inalterable purity…

Painting that aspires to portray and tame the mountains – has to take notice of all their symbolic imagery. A vertical perspective of summits, a rock wall rising before the eyes keep the gaze – get the sight to move upwards. Towering, enormous massifs uphold the vault of the sky, creating an illusions of infinity, suspension in time. For a good reason the Alps were compared to Gothic architecture and the Creator’s secret hie- roglyph could be seen in their secluded loftiness, a symbol of the covenant between heaven and earth. Mircea Eliade wrote: Mountains are the nearest thing to the sky, and are thence endowed with twofold holiness: on the one hand they share in the spatial symbolism of transcendence – they are ‘high’, ‘vertical’, ‘supreme’, and so on – and on the other, they are the especial domain of all hierophanies of atmosphere, and therefore, the dwelling of the gods. All religions and mythologies have their own sacred mountains: the Greeks – Olympus and Parnassus, biblical Jews – Mount Sinai and Tabor; Christians – Mount of Olives and Calvary; for the Japanese – the highest prayer is a hike to the summit of Mount Fuji.

Sacrum has always inspired ambiguous feelings: mysterium fascinans and mysterium tremendum. The fearful beauty of the mountains attracts and repels at the same time, amazes, but carries in itself some kind of fate. The mountains are demanding – they require a man to be physically fit, respectful and to have a strength of character. They will not let him fully tame them. As everything Sacred – they guard their secrets. For the most audacious, and that also happens, they become a burying ground. Karłowicz’s pompous plea: Respect the silence and majesty of the mountains – sounds dramatic when one remembers that the composer died in an avalanche in 1909.

The mountain landscape has also its own interesting tradition, connected with the Tatras, in Polish painting. From the first Staszic’s “Tatra countryscapes”, through Jan Nepomucen Gło- wacki’s topographic motifs, Wojciech Gerson’s rocky ravines, Witkiewicz’s snow storms to Rafał Malczewski’s dancing mountain panoramas. The subject of mountains has been explo- ited, not very often though, by modern art: Andrzej Wróblewski’s touching, monochromatic mountain cycle of 1952 exudes horror, carrying a premonition of death. Szancenbach’s rainbow, shimmering visions of Morskie Oko, in turn, are a record of changing parts of a day and weather, an echo of colourful harmonies. Still more evocative, Trzetrzewińska’s and Groma- da’s gloomy mountains, full of tensions and the primordial fear of the unknown. And Kulisiewicz’s and Kenar’s expressive cycles of drawings, or A Tatra Portfolio – Krystyna Wróblewska’s cycle of woodcuts.

Today the group of mountain landscape painters is joined by Beata Zuba, a painter from Kraków, who especially for the purpose of the exhibition in Nowohuckie Centrum Kultury prepared a new cycle of paintings My Mountains. Beata is a late painter, she earned her degree from the Academy when already in her forties. Yet, her painting has passion and ardour, as if she wanted to make up the years lost for art. In a catalogue from 2011 she admits that painting is an intimate activity for her: The world of my paintings is very important for me, the possibility of expressing myself through a colour spot, a line or a stroke of a brush on canvass, almost invaluable.

Earlier – in her cycles of paintings from Zofiówka or Sketches from Travels – she painted desolated and deserted interiors: windows, gates, dark corners. Whether they were dilapidated rooms of a former hospital or streets of Lisbon – she was interested in the motif of transgression, boundary situation. Her past work experience related to psychiatry and rehabilitation and she subconsciously circled around the subject of human frailty, fear and dangers. In one of her interviews she says: In essence my paintings are a story about people, not always shown explicitly, but often through the prism of a place, light and shade. I’m fascinated by people’s choices, zones in-between, the process of making decisions, the light we want to reach… Thoughts and images put on canvass become independent entities, they create reflected worlds, at the same time they enter into dialogue with the places in which they are shown. They are open to interpretation, everyone can find in them their story and look at them through the prism of their own experiences.

If we were to look for artistic progenitors of these paintings, it would probably be Leon Wyczółkowski and his series of Tatra masterpieces: the mountains painted almost monochromatically in black and white, at different hours, with changing light. Monumental, decisively framed views of rock massifs masterfully use scale and chiaroscuro, almost reaching the borders of abstraction. Rocks and boulders crammed into small space pulsate with a hidden, mighty energy. Asked “how to show immenseness in a small format” – Wyczółkowski answered with simplicity: You put only a small part, because the whole would ruin the immenseness. Tadeusz Jaroszyński wrote about his cycle Tatra Legends in 1904: Stunning simplicity of means and, at the same time, power of expression. (…) what is it made with? A dozen of smears of grey chalk, a dozen of black and grey and that’s it. (…) Despite those sloppy, seemingly accidental touches, there’s such an excellent sense of form there.

Similar words come to mind in front of Beata Zuba’s paintings. Usually painted with oil on paper – which creates a unique effect of calcareous roughness – they astonish with the illusion effect they achieve, maintaining, at the same time, the expression of a spontaneous and irrepressible touch. Walking down the gallery stairs in Nowohuckie Centrum Kultury we immerse ourselves in the mountain world, we step into the painter’s alpine theatrum. Vertical rock walls construct an amphitheatre around them, they create something akin to a high-mountain chapel. The Alps in different variations – sunny, cloudy, stormy… in moonlight, in thick fog, at pink dawn… Amazingly varied: once proudly sparkling in the sun under the blue sky, then dark and anguished. Now they radiate cold, now blue ice glistens in the sun and a spring thaw uncovers rusty clay from beneath grey snow. Mighty blocks of granite sunken in fog, icy, precipitous peaks, steep drops, naked slopes – the archi- tecture of canvass is constructed from the blocks of light and shade, wide smudges of oily paint, grained texture, anxious at places, a line etched in pigment draws a sharp edge, a ski trace, like a scar in fluffy snow. The whole structure of the painting – apparently chaotic and haphazard – watched from the distance, after stepping back, creates an impression of illusion, of almost photographic shots; yet, this is not a mimetic and highly-detailed hyperrealism. The painting is ascetic, understated. A ceremonial, as it were, solemn nature of these works is underlined by their large formats and the form of diptych in some cases. The effect of silence.

Stark, silent mountains raise before us. A shadow falls on the mountains, light glides on a rocky ridge. In her vision of the mountains Beata managed to express and resolve con- tradictions: bold touch and adherence to reality, humility and courage, mortal fear and amazement, feeling of permanent robustness, but also of danger. Full awareness of risks. The mountain landscape – a subject apparently innocent and impersonal – however, under the crust of ice and granite brims with emotions. My painting is terribly autobiographical – Beata admits – I always process my world into what is in the eye. In order to paint I need to feel, I don’t take up something that hasn’t been processed by emotions. These mountains are really mine. I’ve been spending a lot of in the mountains since I was a child. They’ve always hugely fascinated me – but, on the other hand, instilled a terrible fear, because everything can happen… That’s why the mountains are so extraordinary for me. They are a place with absolutely extreme emotions… Because behind them there are emotions and experiences. The fact alone that I took all these works out of me in less than three months… And I would take them out all ready! None of them was based on photographs, these are the mountains taken out of me, really! Our subconscious records a great deal of information, though… For me it’s a kind of settlement with the mountains, but also – I don’t know – maybe a homage to them, a desire to pay respect to their immense strength. That’s how I see them, as a locus of power. In a way, it’s a return to the roots.

My Mountains – Beata Zuba’s personal and deeply experienced paintings just HAD TO be painted. That alone is their fundamental reason for being. The mystery they hold may not be entirely clear to us, people form the lowlands, strangers to mo- untain adventure. However, the gravity and the hidden energy of these paintings rub off on us. Joanna Pollakówna, writing once about Jerzy Nowosielski’s green landscape, asked: Is this a mountain? Is this a veil? And answered: You can’t paint what’s sacred – that what’s unreachable, not captured by human imagination. But you can paint a veil and paint it so that the presence of Sanctum that is beyond our power of comprehension could be sensed behind the veil.

High-altitude climbers when asked: Why, despite risks, are they going there again? usually quip: We climb mountains – because they are there. Asked: Why do I paint? Beata could answer with Tadeusz Różewicz’s words:

Why do I write?

sometimes “life” conceals
which is greater than life

Sometimes mountains conceal
which is beyond the mountains
so the mountains must be moved
but I lack the necessary
technical means
and the strength
and the faith
to move mountains
so you will not see it
I know
and that is why
I write

from Tadeusz Różewicz’s new poems, 2007
translated by Bill Johnson