Contribution by: Marianna Leszczyk
Editorial supervision by: Polish Studies Working Group
“To call the knowledge of Zbigniew Herbert’s drawings even among Herbert scholars ‘humble’ would be optimistic”, writes Tadeusz Żuchowski in the influential edited volume on Herbert’s relationship with visual art, Zmysł wzroku, zmysł sztuki: prywatna historia sztuki Zbigniewa Herberta [Sense of Sight, Sense of Art: Zbigniew Herbert’s Private History of Art]. Since the volume’s publication in 2006 the interest in Herbert’s drawings, located in over 250 sketchbooks stored at the Zbigniew Herbert Archive (AZH) at the National Library in Warsaw, has slowly been increasing. A couple of fascinating selections of drawings have already been published or temporarily displayed in various locations around Poland (among them the Łazienki Park in Warsaw and the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków ). These recent publications and exhibitions of Herbert’s drawings are grounded in the desire to draw public attention to the multidimensionality of his oeuvre, which is too often viewed solely through the lens of Herbert’s political poems, such as “Przesłanie Pana Cogito” [The Envoy of Mr Cogito].
This multidimensionality of Herbert’s artistic and intellectual production is the focal point of my own doctoral research, which examines the reception of antiquity in his prose corpus within the framework of reception theory, highlighting how Herbert constructs his own model of classical reception based on a unique conception of temporality and its relation to the materiality of both past and present. To enrich my analysis with a consideration of Herbert’s drawings as a distinct body of visual reception, I recently visited the AZH to work my way through the sketchbooks, focusing especially on the drawings Herbert made of ancient objects in various European museums. Although this type of object-drawings has been comparatively underrepresented in the aforementioned exhibitions and publications, they still allowed me to go into my archival encounter broadly familiar with the appearance, style, and overall feel of the drawings (which comes across beautifully in two online selections by the National Library and the Zbigniew Herbert Foundation).
Yet, what immediately struck me was the apparent resistance of the fragmentary, almost fragile sketches to be transformed into solid academic discourse, or to act as mere document to Herbert’s study of ancient objects – it surprised me no longer that the drawings have never been the objects of analysis, only of display. Then there was also the duality of the AZH, recognised already by Herbert’s biographer Andrzej Franaszek. The archive constantly vacillates between a sense of fragmentariness, overwhelming the researcher with its composition from flimsy disposables (business cards, exhibition flyers, newspaper clippings, or even cut-outs from cigarette packets), and a clear preoccupation with capturing the physicality, the singularity of a life in a way that Herbert’s impersonal literary style does not. This opposition between the archival body and writing, together with the elusiveness of the drawings, made me attentive to the tension between the rigour of academic inquiry and material which eludes it through its very form, or perhaps exactly its lack of a clearly defined form. In Classical Reception Studies, an openness to looking to other forms of expression capable of housing this tension has resulted in a great emphasis on integrating the voices of creative practitioners (such as actors, poets, visual artists, composers, choreographers, etc.) into the realm of academic knowledge production.
Due to the interdisciplinary profile of the TORCH Polish Studies Working Group, one of our aims this past academic year was to spotlight such intersections between research and creative practice within Polish Studies. The result was our online event with the Polish-British photographic artist Ania Ready, who discussed her first book I Also Fight Windmills (VIKA Books, 2023). The work, described by the artist as a “literary photobook” due to its blending of text and photography, emerged from Ready’s encounter with the archive of Sophie Gaudier-Brzeska (1872–1925), an undoubtedly talented writer of Polish origin with the lifelong ambition to become a well-known author. The physical fragmentation of Gaudier-Brzeska’s writings, scattered across four geographical locations (the University of Cambridge, the University of Essex, Kettle’s Yard, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts d'Orléans) and, more metaphorically, three languages (Polish, French, English), mirrors the fragmentation of selfhood they testify to: a fragmentation caused not just by Gaudier-Brzeska’s constantly changing identities, taken up and dropped as required by the job market (a French tutor in America and an Austrian governess in France), but also by her unstable mental condition, nowadays likely to be diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
Ready started exploring photography’s potential to express the anti-textual nature of madness already in her past project Hysterical Women, which later also came to co-constitute the photographic corpus of I Also Fight Windmills. Drawing on the performative aspect of behavioural patterns pathologised as “female hysteria” in the nineteenth century, with the help of her models and the sharp, contrast-heavy aesthetic of black-and-white photography, Ready recreated the extreme, disjointed emotional states present in the unfinished text by Gaudier-Brzeska (originally entitled Histeryczki) that inspired the project. Ready’s choice of the mixed-media format allowed her to make the presences of text in I Also Fight Windmills similarly reflect the fragmentation defining the body of Gaudier-Brzeska’s archive. Of the brown-tinted pages of text interspersed among the photographs, some are printed upside down, mimicking the disorder of the long-forgotten, uncurated archive, or given the appearance of having been cut with scissors, mimicking the disorder of Gaudier-Brzeska’s racing mind and her frantic attempts at curating her oeuvre for the literary break-through that never came. While some textual fragments are transcribed in their original languages to preserve the exceptionality of the archive’s multilingualism, Ready translated others, mindful of rendering Gaudier-Brzeska’s “experimental” or even “erratic” prose style as closely as possible.
It is only in the essay closing the book, “Sophie’s Story”, that Ready turns to a linear mode of storytelling to narrate Gaudier-Brzeska’s life, hitherto overshadowed by that of her husband, the French modernist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Yet even this closing piece remains open to the disturbing, affective nature of the material, with Ready not shying away from exposing her emotional investment in her subject matter and making Gaudier-Brzeska’s life resonate with stories of Eastern European migrant women today. The variety of avenues of engagement opened up by Ready’s creative transformation of her archival findings demonstrate the enormous potential of allowing creative practice to intersect with academic research.
My own encounter with resistant archival material – a personal instance of archival aporia, so to speak – highlights the continued necessity for spaces where researchers and creative practitioners can learn from each other, exchange ideas, and develop new ways of engaging with culture and its material artefacts. I am thankful for having found such a space in the TORCH Polish Studies Working Group and would very much invite everyone interested in similar questions of intermediality, cross-disciplinary research, and the intersections between Polish Studies and creative practice to join our upcoming online workshop sessions.
I would like to thank Ania Ready for offering me to use a photograph from I Also Fight Windmills to open this post.