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Cooking the world and putting it into images
Standing Figure - 1997 - Click to enlarge
  Standing Figure
Oil on canvas
152.4 x 142.2 cm
Standing Figure - 1997

Originally published in the Irish Times by Brian Fallon, Wednesday 26 July 2000, to coincide with an exhibition at the Butler Gallery, Kilkenny, Ireland

Andrzej Jackowski, an artist well known in London but previously unseen in Ireland, has suddenly come into the orbit of Irish art-lovers, with two simultaneous exhibitions in this country: one at the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny and the other at the Rubicon Gallery in Dublin, which has Just ended. He is not an easy painter to describe or label; the pictures are spare and figurative, with an odd, dreamlike or even faintly surreal quality, and they appear to inhabit a very personal world of memory, fantasy and association.

Jackowski was born in 1947 in Wales, the son of Polish emigrˇs who had survived the Second World War, during which they met each other while serving with the Red Cross at Monte Cassino (captured, incidentally, by the Free Poles). His mother's first husband, a radio correspondent, had died on the Russian Front, his father had been a soldier, and it was his third marriage. After the war, along with thousands of others, they chose to go abroad and found that came down to a choice between New York and Liverpool. They chose the latter, and their son was born in a hospital in north Wales.

For the next 11 years, they lived in a refugee camp near Crewe, formerly an American army base. There was a general expectation that they would be repatriated before very long, and not only was Polish the language of the camp, but they had a Polish chapel and school: "The huts in the camp were made of wood covered in tar. MY parents carried a card saying they were aliens." Meanwhile, his father worked for a living in a factory, and on the railways. When hopes of returning to Poland slowly receded, and the Communist regime made it less desirable anyway, young Andrzej was sent to learn English with his half-brother in Nottingham.

Later they moved to London, where his parents separated when he was about 14 years old. "About the same time I painted a self-portrait, and made a decision to become a painter." In his late teens he attended Camberwell School of Art, where he did his foundation year and got a grounding in drawing and other basic skills. From there he went to the Falmouth School of Art, where the type of painting taught and encouraged was either a conservative, neo-romantic, Euston Road style or else big American colour-field canvases. Liking neither, he tried his hand instead at making films - which would be perfectly acceptable in an art college today but was not so then, so he was more or less asked to leave.

Three exciting years followed at St Ives, in Cornwall - or strictly speaking, at Zennor, a few miles from the fishing town which was still a respected art centre. By now he was married, to a young poet, and he did some freelance writing and film-making while mixing with such personalities as the painter Roger Hilton and the Scottish poet Sydney Graham: 'For a young man in his twenties, it was an amazing world.'

More relevantly, he began to paint again and exhibited some of his works in local group shows. These were seen by one of his former teachers at Falmouth, who told him that he should now go back again and finish his course. He did, and his work was seen there by the artist, teacher and writer Peter de Francia, who was acting as an external assessor. De Francia advised him to apply for admission to the prestigious Royal College of Art in London, so he moved on to there.

'At that time, people like de Francia were teaching there and though I didn't agree with all his views, there was a great feeling of taking painting seriously as a language, and about what you could say with it. Beckmann and Leger were very important to them and were talked about a lot in the RCA then. Howard Hodgin was one of the tutors - I was even influenced by him for a time and Ron Kitaj came to give talks once in a while. It was a very dynamic time.'

His earlier style, he says, was close to Art Brut and Dubuffet - that is to say, painted in a kind of dense, neo-primitive manner influenced by graffiti and the doodles of mentally disturbed people. He outgrew it eventually, real I sing that after all he had not been trained that way, and on the way back from attending an exhibition of such works at Lausanne, he saw some paintings by Balthus in Paris. 'I think, in the Pompidou, I found that I suddenly wanted to paint again in a way that used space and the human figure.' The 'Metaphysical' paintings of Carlo Carra, which he knew chiefly from reproductions, also came as an illumination, and this was reinforced by reading Gaston Bachelard - 'all about reverie and the dream or, I suppose, about combining the inner and outer worlds in a certain way, as images.'

He obtained a fellowship to Guildford University, and while there he read The Sleepwalker by Arthur Koestler, which worked strongly on his imagination. He painted a large picture which he called The Tower of Copernicus, triggered by a kind of vision of a tower with a man lying in it, studying the stars. At first the tower included a studio with a bed, but later he realised that these were superfluous and painted them out. 'It gave the childhood mood that I wanted to convey - about the feeling of wonder and other things belonging to a child's world. Later I read Seamus Heaney's bog poems and realised how the land contains memories and associations, and other things like that.'

His pictures belong recognisably to a generation which has felt the impact of Balthus and Francis Bacon, but though he says he has been mentioned in various art bboks as belonging to this or that trend, 'I don't feel close to Chia and people like that, who are really much more out of conceptualism. I do feel something in common with Christopher Le Brun or even Ken Kiff, though he's more surreal than I am. I respect a man like Paladino, but he's more mythic and - how can I put it - Jungian, dealing in a kind of tribal images mostly, while I'm more personal. I always try to find my own set of images. and to put them together in my own style. Ken Kiff says that fantasy and imagination are a way of talking about the real. It's a way of cooking the world and putting it into images.'

He has been labelled as one of the 'School of London' and was even included in the influential book of that name by Alistair Hicks, which appeared in the 1980s. This generalised term, used mainly for certain figurative artists who became so prominent in that decade, soon passed into common currency. However, Jackowski points out that Hicks included a lot of people representing different trends: 'It wasn't just Auerbach and Kossoff and their type of painting.

Does he feel Polish, or British, or not especially either? He answers: 'It is odd, yes - when I go to Poland I am made to feel quite English, and my Polish - learned from my parents - has a rather 19th-century flavour. 'An English phlegmatic,' people there call me. But once I am back in Britain, I don't really feel English either - more middle European, perhaps. It's interesting, too, that I am drawn more to the kind of Polish-Jewish artist or writer like Bruno Schultz, rather than to the very French-influenced, Impressionist side of Polish painting. Or to a man like Thaddeus Kantor, who died a few years ago and who did theatrical "happenings" based largely on family life, but turning them into something much more dreamlike.'

In December 1996 he had an exhibition in Warsaw, at the Kordegarda Gallery, which is a part, or a subsidiary, of the National Gallery of Contemporary Art: 'I had a great time there, and members of my family came from all over Poland to see and meet me. But the funny thing is I got no feed-back at all, and no copies of reviews or press cuttings were ever sent to me. Perhaps painting was regarded there,as just a fringe thing, compared with videos and installationist works and so on.

'There's still a lot of painting around, of course, though most of it is pretty thin and is just going up its own backside. Peter Doig, for instance, is an interesting artist who at least says something about the world outside art circles. Marlene Dumas I like too.' Winning the prize at the respected John Moores Exhibition in Liverpool was a psychological and career boost, after several attempts: 'The first one I sent in to it was in 1976 - Peter de Francia was one of the judges that year. After that I used to show there regularly, and I finally won the first prize in 1991. It was roughly the equivalent of winning the Turner Prize.'

The very prestigious Marlborough Gallery, spotting a rising talent, took him on in the 1980s, making him a stable-mate of Francis Bacon and other imposing names. 'I was there seven years and I had three shows. It was not an easy relationship, compared with the one I have now with the Purdy-Hicks Gallery. I felt a little strange or shy, as one of their younger, lesser-known artists - if you walked in without making an appointment, they might even refuse to see you. But I was surprised, all the same, when they released me from my contract. I think one of the directors decided that I wasn't selling enough. I never actually talked to Francis Bacon, though we used to see one another coming and going. It was through Rebecea Hicks, who worked for a time with the Marlborough, that I went to Purdy-Hicks - she knew my work and had bought one of my pictures before that.'

Today Jackowski lives and works in Brighton, where he also teaches for a day or two weekly at the local university. He has done so for the past 15 years. Married twice, he has a 28-year-old daughter from his first marriage and a 10-year-old son from his second. The evening before his official opening in Kilkenny, he had called on his old friend from the years in Cornwall, Tony O'Malley, in nearby Callan. Of all the people he met in and around St Ives in the 1970s, he says, 'Tony was the kindest and the warmest.'

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Other articles
A Space in the Dark
Depth Charges
In conversation with Andrzej Jackowski
Selected bibliography
The Boy Who Broke the Spell - click to enlarge
Standing Train II - click to enlarge
Hive - click to enlarge