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rafal olbinski

︎Artist, Painting, Surreal   
︎ Ventral Is Golden

Having explored both the casual availability and the distant mystery of women in his book ‘Women: Motifs and Variations’. We take a look at Olbinski’s work through the literary context of John Beger’s classic, ‘Ways of Seeing’ - A book that amongst other things, looks at the role of the female within classical painting and advertising.

The late John Berger eloquently observed that “A woman must continually watch herself... Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself, by another.... One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

One aspect of our relationship to each other in modern social environments is the inability to see beyond the gender distinctive qualities assumed by our philosophies, sciences, habits of mass production and languages that breakdown the relationships between subject and object. The visual language of art and design, for example, largely promotes the idea that as inadequate as we are, we have the consolation of a dream. It is this dream that mediates the distinction made between the outer, institutionally certified experience and the inner, personal emotive experience. The outer male and inner female.

This dream can either be constructed by symbols of wealth and prestige, as in classical oil paintings, where the subjects are portrayed as affirmations of their material possessions, or in advertisements, that render the same symbols through commercial aspiration, available to everyone but enjoyed by few. The latter aspect of the dream appeals to those who adhere to glamour as a virtue of the relationship between people and things. An agreement between who we are, and what we want to be, realised through the things we posses.

Polish Surrealist, Rafal Olbinski, utilises both aspects of this dream consolation. By generating texturally rich paintings that overlap into the unconscious mind, Olbinski encapsulates and then mocks the objects of his advertisements. In some respects this technique is a well crafted visual pun that ties the knot between two mental polarities, thus breaking the subject/object divide. It is this very notion of the pun, of the humorous, within Olbinski's work (that in turn reveals a grievance) that jolts the mind out of the dualistic hierarchy of producer/consumer, predator/prey, masculine/feminine, subject/object, and into a relationship with the double - that is, with ourselves. 

“In some respects this technique is a well crafted visual pun that ties the knot between two mental polarities, thus breaking the subject/object divide.“

Olbinski, having been born in 1943, would have grown up through the Polish cultural transition, from imposed Social Realism of a totalitarian regime, to the De-Stalinization of what was referred to as the Polish October in 1956.
Parallels of cultural shifts affecting the aesthetics of art, design and consciousness are found in many artists and writers in similar epochs, from fellow Pole, Stanislaw Lem, to German born Wilfried Sätty. All three artists exploited the dilapidated rooms of the mind, occupied by politically constructed realism, and rearranged their layouts, either through re-appropriation of collage materials, the subversion of classical fine art techniques to expose grievance through visual pun, or to critique the instituions of writing, academia and ultimately society, through science-fiction.

In the well popularised work of John Berger's 'Ways of Seeing', both the book and the television series of in-depth discussions, echoed the necessity of deconstructing our common acceptance of the world, through the images we create and consume, and how these images either satiate or fuel our desires and anxieties.
As in Olbinski's work, the publicity both promises and threatens, appears humorous but reveals grievance. By studying these apparent contradictions, we can learn how to separate our own desires and anxieties from those bought with the politicised lustre of glamour.

Where money is associated with virility, life is validated by publicity, and possessions are mere consolations of a dream made available through material possession, how much of our progressive social and political ideals exclude the deep rooted prejudice of our languages; oral, visual, printed and electric?

“By studying these apparent contradictions, we can learn how to separate our own desires and anxieties from those bought with the politicised lustre of glamour.“

We are the object of our desirability. When we are naked, we still wear the ideas of our cultural perspectives. In one conversation with Berger, one woman remarked that "to be naked is not to be free. To be naked is to wear the uniform of possible sexual intention". - A sentiment further exacerbated through modern advertising since Edward Bernays.

What the surrealism of Olbinski represents (and surrealism in general to some extent) is the awakening of the subconscious 'other', the feminine / intuitive. Our task is not the allow this aspect to become subsumed by the overarching gaze of masculine ideas, but instead to create a balanced partnership. Between the irrational and the pragmatic lies the humorous. Once we develop the language to discuss these aspects, the commercial validation of our discomfort will unravel like a concertina of myriad expressions, one being no better or worse than the other, but balanced.

Further Reading ︎
Artist Bio
John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Episode 3
Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds