Critics Back

Natalia in Natalia, Zofia Gebhard, 2011

„Art happens in each moment of reality; every fact, every second is the one and only for every man and never repeats itself. That is why I register ordinary and trivial events, like eating, sleeping, copulating, resting and uttering” – wrote Natalia LL. Natalia, the subject and object, the cause and effect, the originator and the origin, creator and her work.

She made photography her tool, and herself – the model and the topic. She wrote: “Photography is an exceptional medium. I noticed that the secret of photography hides in our mentality: our vision resembles a certain continuum, so visual reality is a continuous process in space and time. But photography can summarize this continuum, it somehow notices individual phenomena, it is a space/time synopsis. This particular feature of photography enchants me in artistic practice. […] Many years later I must say that photography employs wonderful magic and power, and that I cannot free myself from it. It is my drug.” She betrayed painting, sculpture, graphics and even artistic glass design because when she was studying at the Glass Department of the Wrocław PWSSP [National Higher School of Fine Arts] its rector at the time, professor Stanisław Dawski, established a Photographic Workshop there which was administered by a wonderful pre-war artist from Lviv, a friend of Witold Romer, Bronisław Kupiec. It was supposed to help the artists learn documentation and design but it seduced Natalia because it made her realize that photography allows banality to become something unusual and that it changes the everyday into a holiday, a feast. And when in 1962 Natalia Lach received the main prize at Festiwal Fotografii Studenckiej [Student Photographic Festival] in Toruń, she made a choice for life.

At the time Wrocław was a very active centre of avant-garde art. A few artists, among them Natalia Lach and her husband, Andrzej Lachowicz, founded a creative group – the Permafo gallery – so called to signify “permanent formalization”, to understand art as a process, to document a concept. Photography was an ideal medium to this end because it gave the registration of the world an objective character and at the same time itself was an unobjective medium due to its voyeuristic nature. Natalia preserved and developed this kind of use of photography, though whatever one might think, the intimacy of the photographic process is well posed and stylized by her, while nudity – which is confirmed by the exposing of the body touched by the inevitability of time – is merely nudity, the proof of individual experience, the instrument of knowledge, not a motif, content, provocation. “I” ceases to be “I”, it actually completely ceases to be, it becomes anything. “Art enchants the body and conducts its Transfiguration” – wrote Natalia. It happens in a disturbing, though motionless space, in which passions, memory and desire wake, in a space she called “between sleeping and waking…”. Art for her I the means of reflecting on the meaning and mystery of life and death, of creating and passing, of the miracle and the spirit, of their mutual relations and transfigurations, it is the story of herself and of each of us.

Art – also for Natalia LL – is the means of communication; a game; a system; conventionality. The journey from banality to expression is possible due to technical virtuosity, an extremely important aspect here, especially since Natalia started to produce compositions of many overlapping photographs, like a palimpsest, when she started to produce mirror systems, multiple systems, when she started using deformation, matting, digital treatment. And not counting all that – an apparently ordinary photograph of a peeled banana or of an anthurium with its tongue sticking out; how much expression these photographs gained thanks to the skillful use of proper lighting, takes and vividness. It is precisely thanks to this perfectionistic, precise techne that art can come into being. It is the means, formula, form that created this extraordinary disturbance, uncertainty, incredibility of rationality that pervades intuition. Like in a multi-layered work, significant as far as I am concerned, called Birds of Freedom. Birds of freedom without freedom. Pinned by fear and geometry, the system of belonging. A sketch of a featherless bird done in colour pastels – like a technical project, a baste. And beside it she herself – Natalia-bird who obviously needs air, since there is an oxygen mask next to her, a prop of fearful reality. When she showed this series at an exhibition in Poznań, it was removed by the organizers. Her art lost to the tension it caused, not for the first time.

She owes her fame and recognition to Consumer Art – it was supposed to be a play with reality and the viewer, a registration of a certain ordinary situation, but it changed into a play with the female model and became a manifesto. From the conceptual documentation of eating a banana, a hot-dog or jelly it grew into a feminist work whose eroticism and provocativeness have been stressed many a time. Twenty years later she demolished this attitude, recalling what she now named post-consumer art, in which she gave a deeper meaning to the act of “eating”. She transformed everyday banality and sexuality into a mythical story, into the settling of accounts with metaphysics. In the film and photographs entitled Brunhilda’s Dreams she herself is the model in a black, low-cut dress, in a wreath of white callas, she cuts a banana with a sword in a wild, lush, green garden, she maltreats, massacres and crushes the fruit – and in the final take it lies cut up on a shield. Brunhilda defeated Odin.

Brunhilda and Odin often engaged Natalia’s imagination. Dependence and indepenedence, the transformations of one into the other, even contrary to the stream of time – as she showed it in a moving triptych where an old man becomes young again thanks to the powers of a woman, a causative force placed in between them. A literal and metaphorical change. Because Brunhilda and Odin are not just he and she – a couple in life and in art, but they are also god and man, the wizard and the witch, two warriors fighting each other, most of all.

In the series of photographs entitled My Private Magics she is surrounded by props that tell the story of extra-rational cognition and experiencing of the world – through magic, secret knowledge, the Cabala, faith, disbelief, heresy, trance, transgression. She wrote: “…photography in spite of its apparent mirror-like nature does not have any features of a mimetic instrument of imitating nature. Therefore we can say that photography is a unique cognitive method. […] True, in order for it to come into being a photographic/optical procedure is necessary, but its phenomenon is based on the self-sufficiency and self-definition of photography. Through multiplications and continuous emergence it creates a new iconospheric world which does not have much in common with the real world.”

Communication with the world is complicated, manifold and indefinable, Natalia seems to say with the Sphinx’s smile, drinking her tea.

Zofia Gebhard

Translated by: Wiesław Maciejewski