The Gothic by Tomasz Sobecki

It was in 1969 that J. Kossuth wrote in his article titled “Art after Philosophy”, one of the most significant theoretical texts on the modern art, that there had come the time of post-philosophical art. The time of borders' exploration and studies on the very term “art” has come. People started talking about the post-artistic epoch (J. Ludwiński). As it appeared, in the seventies, the neo-avantgarde formation has created the next utopian artistic theory. The art and the essence of its matter has not undergone any change since it could not do so. Its sense always leads towards the basic questions focused on the meaning of life, existence, suffering and passing: the essential philosophical questions. Even the most significant examples of neo-avantgarde art, such as the previously mentioned Kossuth's works, also tackle the enumerated problems. In other cases, we do not deal with art but with plastic works or artistic production, such as in the times of social realism, that employ the basic aesthetic signifiers: the line, the hue, chiaroscuro, etc. However, all this happens without the intellectual foundations of the real aesthetic experience and the inner necessity of creation.

I have not got the slightest doubts that the photographic works of Tomasz Sobecki belong to the sphere of art. He is one of a few modern Polish photographers working under the influence of spiritual and intellectual values resulting from his religious experiences, everyday knowing of a temple. He expresses the existential experiences of a believer. The majority of his photographs present the interiors of the three Gothic churches in Toruń, namely: św. Jakuba, św. Jana and Najświętszej Marii Panny. His current attitude to life was influenced by the Catholic upbringing and, what is more; most significant contacts with the Jesuit Władysław Wołoszyn during the time of studies. Wołoszyn exerted a great influence on the intellectually receptive student. These were the beginnings of the interest in existential phenomenology and theology, which extended the religious sensitivity and shaped it differently. It was an extremely important year during which Sobecki made a transition from the youth sensitivity, sensibility and the emotional way of experiencing the world towards the intellectual and more mature understanding of the religion.

Sobecki took his first few photographs (“The Meeting”) in 1975, but he did not get interested in photography until 1980. Gathering the photographic experience entirely on his own, since there is no college of artistic photography in Poland.

The photographer's experiences, which take place in the temple, are of great importance for understanding his works. He is fascinated by the magnitude of space. The church is not a material structure or an architectural body. For him, it is the place where in each and every stone, brick and artistic object there is the powerful spiritual energy enclosed. It was created as an outcome of the work and efforts of numerous artists' generations and the age lasting presence of the people visiting the temple. According to Sobecki, the interior of the church is “the space of God's presence protecting human contact with God himself”. In this space, in Sobecki's opinion, exist the conditions favourable to the intimate contact, contemplation trespassing the limits of matter and senses. This was the place, where the artist has found the ideas of beauty and purity of the spirit.

In 1980, the author began the reportage series entitled “The Prayers of Women”, which was dedicated to women praying for the others. The photograph from this collection that I favour is “Prayers VIII”. In the foreground, it presents an empty catafalque covered with a cloth, which is waiting for all of us. Next to the catafalque there are blessed candles burning. In the depth of the photo there are some women sitting in the pews and praying, which are fulfilling the role of the staffage in the composition. Here we deal with an obvious everyday situation, the expression of which is very symbolic. In the other, equally interesting work, “The Entrance to the Choir” from 1980, the artist arranged a symbolic situation. By the ogival portal, on the right side, there is a cross hanging, which was put there especially for this very photography. Behind the portal, there are some steep stairs visible, on which the candles are burning. For Sobecki it is the last way of a Christian expressed in a symbolic way.

Sometimes, when taking photos, the occurrences taking place go far beyond art or otherwise, are equally important as art. The example of a photographed woman, who started to pray for Sobecki, the photographer, is a perfect illustration of the theory. On a different occasion, willing to take “The Crucifix of the Rainbow Arch” photo, the artist waited three years for the natural light falling through the upper windows, just to seize the exact moment of the sculpture's illumination. He believed that the architecture of the church was designed in a way to light up the vault together with the crucifix. So it happened. The photographer, in order to adore the figure of Christ, lit the candles on the altar below the rainbow arch, which was revealed in the photography.

The first period in his creativity, of which I have been writing, ended in the middle of 1983, during his stay in England, where Sobecki spent a long time on studying the photographic literature. After the visit to England, he got extremely interested in the stained-glass and their essence, which is light. In 1985, there was an individual exhibition created on the basis of the subject, titled “The Gothic Stained-glass.” The sole light, according to the Christian theology tradition, in Sobecki's opinion, stands for God. While penetrating the church, the light enlivens it in an infinite number of ways, in every moment giving it a new expression, creating a unique visual beauty. It is worth mentioning that light is the key to the afterlife in many religions, beginning with the religion of the ancient Egypt and finishing with Buddhism and Christianity. It is light that shapes the transitory architecture, decides about its mysteriousness or brightness and clarity of the interior. Obviously, it is necessary to perceive it first and believe in the sense of our own proceedings and finally stop in time. For all those purposes, photography serves the best.

In his own realizations, the artist poses himself various questions and problems, which he tries to solve. He is interested in the light of a stained-glass falling underneath the other stained-glass, therefore, he is concerned in revealing the tautology of light. The inspiration for further consideration over the essence of light was the fact that the light falling on the wall is not mirror flat but “it yields”. Sobecki perfectly realizes that it is the light which is the essence of the Gothic architecture, its quintessence.

Apart from the interesting stained-glass images, there is another collection titled “The Processional Banners”, in which the light, so characteristic for Sobecki's works, creates extremely interesting forms of banners, commonly forgotten by the people who stand in remote places in a church. Covered with linen, they seem to be the sign that someone still takes care of them. The author also noticed the ladders standing in the corner of the church, which turns to be the reference to the events of Golgotha and reminds of the Lord's Passion. Sobecki noticed the symbolic significance in common, everyday objects. Photographs from this collection, and the others, could be rated as interesting examples of the Polish Photography of the first half of the 80'ties. Due to the operations with the detail joined with the interesting visual of the form, the photographs fit the tendency that some critics call „visualism”. In the case of Sobecki's photographs, it is not a conscious or purposeful reference to the tendency. The artist from Toruń, through the use of the religious passion got closer to the thing called “visualism” in some of his photographs.

His photographs of crucified Christ are not just images focusing on the accurate presentation of a fragment or the whole work of art. Most of all, Sobecki in his individual way reinterprets the pain and suffering, highlighted by the nuances of the shadows and lights emanating from Christ's face in “The Face of the Crucifix” from 1985, which is a perfect example of the reinterpretation. Through the expressive image, the artist is looking for a personal contact with God.

The artist whom I describe, due to his own spiritual necessity and the intentions of sharing his experiences with others, tries to “decipher” the essence of the Gothic. He also attempts to reach the mentality and spirituality of the cathedral builders and the philosophers of the époque, which is an extremely difficult task, even for the great historians of the idea, such as E. Panofsky. The artist came to a conclusion that the light of the stained-glass symbolizes God and belongs to the divine sphere, the candle light presents human condition, while electrical light is an artificial product which cannot compete with the divine nor human light. As opposed to the sun light, electric light is powerless in comparison with the space of a Gothic temple and with the greatest difficulty brings the interior of the church closer to the human scale. He is interested in light studied in all sort of aspects, which forms various forms on the walls, falling through the portal to the interior of the church, the tonal disparity between the bright external light and the “mysterious”, unexplored interior of the church. Or alternatively, he tries to realize the idea of a bright interior of a church through the means of photography. In 1987, the author began using his negatives from 1981 with so called recordings of light, in order to investigate its essence and reveal its variety and changeability, taking “The Light of the Stained-glass” as an example. The artist joins his metaphysical experience of the Gothic temple with the usage of technical means, typical only for photography, such as wide angle lens, specialist cover filters, in order to discover a new form which would make him capable of reaching the metaphysical essence of light. While he was becoming acquainted with the inaccessible recesses of the churches in Toruń, the artist got fascinated by the old bells. What was important for him, was the experience of the several hundred years old wood matter, which was the component of the bell-tower construction. He was pondering upon how to translate the strength and sound of the enormous bell “Tuba Dei” into the language of photography. The artist obtained the effect of the sound „pouring out" of the tolling bell, through the flash light multiplied inside the bell. The light reflections imitating “the sound” of the bell took on the shape of “crystals”.

Temple is the house of God. “The House of God” was built by man with the purest and most lofty intentions. However, human is also an imperfect creature, a sinful creature. In the triptych entitled “Matter Put to Death” from 1984, the drama of the Crucifixion enlivens. Somebody's hand has profaned the image of Christ's face by carving “a furrow” in the precious Medieval frescos, which was used for the electrical wire placement. Christ's spectacle has been spoiled thoughtlessly; however, it has been premeditated. The triptych “Matter Put to Death” states a besetting question on the topicality of the drama from Golgotha.

On the photographs by Tomasz Sobecki, the time effect is visible. The most noticeable example seems to be the work titled “The Stoup” from 1984, on which “the inflexible, hard rock lost its sharp shapes under the influence of thousands of fervent hands reaching towards the holy water.”

In the collection titled “The Gothic – Light and Shape”, apart from the photographs of the churches of Toruń, there were also several photographs taken in the ruins of a Gothic church in Świecie, by the river Vistula. According to the author's intention, the photographs refer to the Bible verse J 2,19 “Jesus answered them, 'Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days I will rebuild it'”. The ruins in Świecie, reconstructed nowadays, according to Sobecki have multiple symbolical meanings. The ruins are a certain warning of the catastrophe of war, or even further, the destructive force residing in a human being. In some of the photographs from the collection “The Ruins of the Church in Świecie”, the luxuriant flora embraces even the interior of the temple. The thing which was created out of the spirit's force and human efforts, was destroyed by human himself and left for nature to interfere. At the same time the signs of life like the luxuriant green, birds in the ruins, are the hope for the prompt resurrection of the temple.

How can we evaluate the hitherto search conducted by the photographer in question, which lasted barely several years?

The religious inspiration gave many of Sobecki's photographs the expression, their spirituality and strength. Obviously, some of his works are not as interesting as the previously described, they lack the “metaphysical tension”. I am thinking of the winter landscapes taken during one of the plein-airs organized by Wroclaw “Medium-Art” Gallery, or the still life photographed with the use of flash. I find neither the strength of the spirit nor the creative passion in those artistic proposals. They all vanish on behalf of the aestheticism and formal search.

I wish that Sobecki stayed with his Gothic, continuously penetrating its essence, which has already led him to the noteworthy aesthetic solutions and helped him develop spiritually. The artist perceived the vivid inner life of Polish Church and its authenticity. The photographer is not disturbed by the praying women, flying birds nor the people entering and leaving the church.

To paraphrase the well known saying with reference to Sobecki, I dare say that “faith makes the art”.

Krzysztof Jurecki
Art Museum in Łódź
Department of Photography
Więckowskiego Street 36

The text was written in cooperation with T.Sobecki.