The painting, Vicious Circle, was created by Jacek Malczewski
from the years 1895
The work itself can be viewed at:
I chose Malczewski because he comes from a period with which I have been fascinated for quite a long time, and because it gave me the opportunity to research an artist about whom I have only recently heard. Malczewski himself was a Modernist, who created a Polish identity for the art of the antiquity.
I chose this work specifically because of the particular dynamic that I found in the work, and because of the beautiful composition of the normally cold, academic anatomical sketches.
I used a formalist approach to art analysis as my method for Malczewski’s Vicious Circle, discussing the elements of composition, as well as the iconographic significances.
The oil painting, Vicious Circle, is on exposition at the Muzeum Narodowe (National Museum) in Poznan, Poland. It is suspended, as are the other paintings, on the wall, and is to be viewed from the front. The global form of the work as a whole is rectangular, and oriented as a landscape. Being presented in this manner, there is little shock to a contemporary connoisseur of art, and there is an established stability in the horizontal placement of a rectangular frame.
The work measures 240 x 174 cm, roughly the height of a person, and as wide as six people standing shoulder to shoulder. Despite the size of the work, it is best viewed up close, due to the level of detail, and the much smaller size of the many (20) characters in the work. A reasonable patron would be certain to take an initial view from 2m, approach the work to take in the scope of its detail, and then retire again to a few metres distance to reincorporate the detail into the whole.
The size of the work would be inclined to slightly crowd the spectator, but again, because the many subjects in the image are each smaller than a child, there is a sense of intimacy, and of observation. In a museum, and for many other works of the period, this work is recognized as a normal, regular installation.
One would assume that due to its period in history, Vicious Circle would be surrounded in a frame. However, unable to assume whether the work is framed or not, we would in any case be able to distinguish it from its environment by the nature of its presentation. With a fixed image size, and it’s placement on (rather than in) a wall, there would be enough sense of the physical limit of the work.
The dominant chromatic of the work is cold, and in blue and grey. The next most present tone is brown, which is both hot and cold. Malczewski uses a very full palette of flesh-tones, ranging from a pale white-blue to a deep red-range black, and the entire compliment of oranges and browns in between. The composition of colours is well-balanced in that the blends are both bright and matte, and that even when one tone contrasts with another, there is still a certain gradation of saturation.
Based on the lighting of the piece, the complimentarity of colour highlights the cyclical composition of the work; this is to say that the brightest, warmest colours featured at the upper left corner of the work make a slow progression to the dimmer, colder colours as the eye passes to the right side of the work. This, again becomes warmer, and takes in some of the light as the eye heads down the page, and again to the left. The colours are local to the objects they are made to represent, and the only use of arbitrary colouration is that of the iridescent blue mist which seems to come out of the leftmost wall, and suspend the circling forms. The chromatic organisation of the piece serves to highlight the circle which Malczewski created, and put focus on the central figure of the boy atop the ladder.
The texture of the work is blotchy paintbrush marks placed one over the other to create the effect of subjects with varied lighting sources and a great deal of movement, and dimension. The use of highlights creates an oily, fleshy surface on the human figures, and the blue and brown backgrounds have the texture of mist and of dust, respectively. Being somewhat of an anatomical specialist, Malczewski has been able to reveal the texture of human flesh, muscle, and bone effectively. The carpets, animal skins, and draping clothing are given such a texture as to seem animated in their own right, or given such force from the currents of the figures which make their cycle about the room.
The tactile effects which can be drawn from the textures present in Vicious Circle are dependent on the specific subject. There is a roughness to the whole, but this manifests itself in contrasting softness and hardness; the softness of the leopard skin, the mist, thighs, calves, breasts, hair, and fine linens all about the hardness of the satyr’s hooves and staff, and the rough texture of his back, and arms and body hair. On this same side, there is a firmness, a stiffness in the carpet which billows in the wind, which meets its contrast in the dusty, flaccid, and tattered carpet on the right, spent and lifeless on the floor. In the same vein, the human figures develop a dryness, and hardness exceeding that of the satyr, shown in the tawny roughness, and corded muscles of the largest central figure, the raggedness of his beard, and the bluntness of his feet. The cloth in this “later” part of the circle seems to be of burlap, or canvas, or denim, and stripped into ragged strings.
The only literal lines which have place within the piece are present in the ladder, and the perspective of the room. The ladder is composed of straight, vertically-oriented diagonal lines, running symmetrically from the top-centre of the work to the bottom middle-third. There are ten horizontal slats, upon the topmost of which is seated the young observer.
The most important line however, is the nearly complete circle that the artist created using the line of human figures, and the perception of depth within the work. In that the circle does not fully connect, there is a sense that there is a spiralling outward; that as the circle makes its tour about the ladder, it is less and less tight, and that the forces will send the people out of the orbit entirely.
The idea of an orbit or a ring has an iconic message, as well. There is, of course, the obvious connection to the cycle of life and death, of parent and child, of pleasure and pain. Too there is the ring which symbolises betrothal, and community. The broken nature of this representation of the ring sends an implicit message of an irreversible end. Further, the ladder offers up another interpretation of the path of life; an ascension taken step by step, based on principled processes leading to personal growth and achievement. It may be by no accident then that the artist has incorporated a vertical (and traditionally male) form of thought, and a horizontal, (traditionally female) form of thought, into the same work. Again, the ladder has its place, upright in the centre of the work, as a phallic bastion contrasting and complimenting the round form of the ring which surrounds it. There is an undeniable sexuality in the form alone of the painting.
The smaller symbols present within the work serve to reveal the overall themes of sexuality, and the passage of time.
The satyr, a symbol of hedonistic liberty, is bedecked in greenery, telling of fertility, and holds a staff, which is another phallic symbol. Leopard skins add to the virility and opulence of sex and youth. The nudity and red hair, breasts, buttocks, thighs and calves of the women all lend to recognized symbols of Eros.
The apparent aging of the ephemeral human forms, coupled with the degradation of quality in clothing, the dust which replaces the light mist, and the relative stillness of the carpet add to the sense of time, and to the eventuality of death.
The old man featured at the fore of the piece holds a key ring, with a single key. The key is an icon for understanding, and the ring to which it is attached can be seen as a smaller version of the circle formed by the participants. The countenance of the old man appears close to agonic, and it seems as though his understanding is what causes his misery.
Atop the whole situation is the boy, looking at the scene displayed before him. His is lit by the same light as the youthful figures to the left of him, and yet is looking to our right, at the colder, darker future. This could well be an expression of the artist’s own understanding of sexuality and mortality at once in his life, as a boy.
Node Your Homework, Baby.