The Shape of Space



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Though a medal is an art form expressed primarily by sculptural means, it is more than just a sculpture. It embraces both a material shape and the space into which it has been melted. Being in possession of its own allotment of space, it is an independent art from which, like a painting or a print, may function without a surroundings specially designed for it. In the light of this I find it disturbing that the general public still associates the art of the medal with the crafts rather than with art in the strict sense of the word.

What is a medal? Generally speaking, it is a small metal disc sculpted on both sides. This traditional form has survived unchanged to this day. The relief in a traditional medal generally consists of two elements: the background, which is a neutral surface, and a portrait superimposed on it. The background is a symbolic expression of space. Whereas the portrait is, in a sense, an imitation of nature, for it reflects the spatial conditions prevailing in it, the background, which is by no means a reflection of real space (for this is not flat), becomes something alien to the medal. This brutal clash of a realistic image and an indifferent surface by which it is mechanically bisected upsets the laws concerning the harmony and homogeneity of form, which are binding in art. This fact accounts for the reduction of the traditional medal to an object of applied art, for applied art is about decorating objects in one way or other.
The contemporary medal does not fit into this category, for the art of the medal has undergone a transformation as a result of the incompatibility of the traditional form with the contemporary artist's consciousness. Medallic art is a peculiar art, which, despite apparent limitations, offers vast scope for creative experiment. As it lies on the border between many different disciplines, it invites numerous forms of expression and prompts the search for new ones. It is to sculpture what poetry is to literature, a small form with a great emotional load, which is perhaps why it attracts so many artists.
I began to experiment with space in medals while working with ceramic clay. I was preparing my first solo show, sculpting series of medals: Icarus (fig. 1) and The Graces (fig. 2a, 2b). I produced each of my medals out of a mass of clay, forming it on all sides. The process of shaping medals in a material as plastic as this involved relocating the same amount of material rather than adding or taking away. The resulting forms had a pulsating surface. They were made of uniform, undulating matter, apparently stirred from within by unknown forces and Rhythms (fig. 3a, 3b). At this point I understood that space is not only abstract, but also palpable and omnipresent, and that it forces its way among the forms of the material world, tightly filling the gaps between them, sticking to them, and changing according to their shape and position. Baked at a high temperature, above 1300'C, ceramic clay strikes one with the beauty of its natural, fire-painted colours. This is why I was faithful to the material for a long time. The medals, The Young (fig. 4) and Copernicus (fig. 5a, 5b) closed this chapter of my work.
I was anxious to find a sculptural form to convey my perception of space. If the emergence of a material shape in space may be called a phenomenon, I was intent on interpreting this peculiar phenomenon sculpturally. At the same time, I wanted to remain within the framework of medallic art. regardless of the result of my experiments. This brought me to a medal awarded as a prize at an Exhibition of the Sculpture of the Young (fig. 6a, 6b). This was when I discovered a peculiar dependence between the three basic elements of a sculpture - a concavity, a convexity and a plane - which permitted me to build a relief along new principles, as if the portrait were created within the matter of the medal, not on its surface. This made it emerge the way shapes existing in nature emerge from the surrounding space. As a result of my search for a new relationship between the relief and the background, concave forms made their appearance in my medals as a continuation of the convex relief. Though the background remained flat, the relief was not superimposed on it, but was pressed into it (Maria Curie, fig. 7a, 7b). Consequently the mass of the medal in the vicinity of the portrait was shifted, with the background finding itself in the foreground, so to say. Yet, to my surprise, the impression one had was quite the opposite: the background seemed to have receded beyond the outline of the portrait thus creating an illusion of space. Nor did the transition of form from a positive into a negative cause optical deformation, but it even made the sculpted mass more powerful and more spatial.
This became a starting point for further experiments in which, this time, the background itself began to undergo a transformation, as if yielding to the pressure of the sculpted shapes (Michelangelo, fig. 8a, 8b). It began to undulate, overtaking the portrait and then again receding, to become a multiplanar sculptural form.
Portraits, which I found especially inspiring, were conducive to these experiments. The impact of a portrait depends on its emotional content, which reveals the artist's attitude towards the subject, and also on the artist's ability to render, besides the likeness, non-physical elements of human personality by visual means (Portrait of Poet, fig. 9a, 9b). The space around the figure must conjure up the right atmosphere, by which the artist can bring out the qualities of the sitter's personality. This became possible for me, thanks to the sculptural interpretation of space. Thus the background turned into a relief, an integral part of the whole, and became palpable space. It came into contact with the sculpted shape, bonded with it, and enhanced its impact (Prelude, fig. 10a, 10b). While space was acquiring a richer and more prominent form in my works, I was at the same time subconsciously striving to simplify the outline of the medal, which was subject to deformation because of the growing sculptural quality of the obverse and the reverse (Wincenty Drabik, fig. 11a, 11b).
I hardly ever go in for literary narration in my medals. Excessive symbolism and descriptiveness are quite alien to me. Whatever I want to say, I express in simple sculpted forms. I work on my medals the way one does on a full sculpture, watching the progress of work from a distance. I search for crisp forms that may be distinguished at a distance. Thanks to my manipulation of space, I can afford a greater depth of relief without having to extend the mass of the medal much in a vertical direction (Stanislaw Sliwinski, fig. 12a, 12b). Space has turned out to be an unparalleled medium here. The negative forms in my reliefs, which are an extension of three-dimensional convex shapes, show the invisible sides of the latter, which have impressed themselves in space (Nicolaus Copernicus, fig. 13a, 13b). It is as if matter were moved under the viewer's very eyes. The process is only apparent, but is very suggestive, especially in changing light, which enhances the effect of the interpenetrating forms. This prompts one to look at my medals from all sides, as if they were full sculptures (Grand Prix du Disque F. Chopin, fig.14a, 14b).
Whatever has any relation to space is a source of inspiration to me (Sacrum 1988, fig. 15a, 15b, Sacrum 1998, fig. 16, Sacrum 2000, fig. 17, Sacrum 2002, fig. 18a, 18b). When I realised that a sense of space can be conjured up by means of sculpted forms, I was able to translate into the language of art other phenomena, including movement. In movement space is, as it were, stirred up by the moving object (Sportsman, fig. 19a, 19b). In order to show movement, it is not enough to use an outline characteristic of a given type of movement. What is needed is an element corresponding to the concept of movement, for movement takes place in space and time. Perhaps time in a medal is determined by the distance between the highest and the lowest point of the relief? Perhaps an object's movement in time is evidenced by the negative trace it has impressed in space? I have sculpted numerous sports medals, in which not only movement but also the accompanying effort - and joy - have found expression (medals awarded as prizes, figs. 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25).
Landscape and architecture occur frequently on the reverses of my portrait medals, as for instance on that issued for the opening of the Copernicus Museum of Medicine in Frombork (fig. 26a, 26b), and on a series of medals devoted to the history of the Polish monarchy. My means of expression enable me to convey the beauty and wealth of sometimes multispatial architectural complexes and also the mood and poetry of ancient buildings (Zygmunt III Waza, fig. 27, Jan Kazimierz, fig. 28, August III, fig. 29a, 29b).
For me space is the medium which makes it possible for whatever constitutes the content of a medal to emerge because from the very beginning it takes in active part in the process of construction of a relief, being in essence creative. The forms which occur in my medals seem to be suspended in space, full of light and air (160th Anniversary of the Polish Bank, fig. 30a, 30b, Medal for Firemen, fig. 31). They have their own perspective based not on the superimposition of planes and the existence of numerous strata, but on multiplanar spatial structures. Concavities opening outwards like a hyperbole (Jerzy Stodolkiewicz, fig. 32a, 32b) make it possible for the infinite space surrounding the medal to penetrate the relief and be united with the space contained in it.
In this way, a medal, though confined within its edges, is at the same time an open form. It is no longer a decorated object, but becomes a sculpture, without, however, losing its two-sidedness.

Ewa Olszewska-Borys


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