How to Paint in Wartime?

Values Unlimited Foundation » Projects » How to Paint in Wartime?

Zofia Lipecka on the Anniversary of the Outbreak of War in Ukraine for L’Opinion

Ignore the war? Try to capture it in art? Protest against it? Those were the questions that troubled me on the day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, 24 February 2022. Suddenly, art seemed to be something of little importance. I wondered if I should help Ukrainian refugees instead of painting. I admired my friends who did. Refugees were arriving in Paris, and the city hall was looking for people who could serve as interpreters. Since I speak Polish, I could be useful. Nevertheless, filled with uncertainty, I decided not to abandon my studio and to continue to paint. However, I lost interest in the projects I was working on at the time. I couldn’t get my mind off the news on the situation in Ukraine. The awareness of war completely occupied my psyche and imagination. I felt I had to find a way to express that tragedy in painting, to manifest my hatred of war and support for Ukraine.
(publication in l’Opinion)
Zofia Lipecka
Source: personal archive

The Validity of Art in the Face of Barbarity

It wasn’t my first confrontation with the validity of art in the face of barbarity. I had faced it before when addressing the subject of the Holocaust. Challenging the famous statement by Theodor Adorno that one cannot write poetry after Auschwitz, I affirmed the indispensability of art as a form of resistance. I understood that art is soft power that can influence the mind. Although it cannot stop the war or prevent crime, it can be critical, therapeutic and cathartic. Rather than ask myself, ‘why represent the war?’, I should have been asking myself, ‘how to represent the war and what effect may that representation have?’

I tried to avoid two mistakes: realism and propaganda. The former would compete with horrifying images from the media and documentaries. Moreover, I don’t trust the aesthetic of horror and transgression, whose aim is to shock or provoke the audience. The latter, albeit on the right political and ethical side (e.g. the blue and yellow symbolism signifying support for Ukraine), cannot be reconciled with art. Propaganda affirms and tries to convince while a work of art poses a problem and provides food for thought. Consequently, I had to find a transition between the aesthetic of evil and the aesthetic of good; a form that raises a question without being spectacular.

Creating Meaning Through Art

While rejecting realism, I didn’t abandon figurative art. While avoiding slogans and bellicose messages, I didn’t give up the use of writing. I created mixed compositions of ideograms, symbols and words, as well as puzzles. Paintings became a sort of boards to be deciphered, inviting the audience to create their own meaning. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, they are cool media that engage the audience to participate. If their interpretation depends on everyone’s sensitivity, there is no doubt about their political meaning. Blast was created on the day of invasion. That English word made me think of the word oblast, which means a ‘province’ in some Eastern European countries and would often come up in reports about Ukraine. Then came Rysować nieznane, Pewnego wiosennego dnia and, lastly, Bucza. It would be superfluous to describe, comment on and especially decipher these paintings. They should speak for themselves.