The Classic and the Contemporary

Przemek Pyszczek

The Polish artist Przemek Pyszczek is a young, upcoming artist on the contemporary art scene. His work merges painting and sculpture on a singular continuum. He studied architecture and most of his pieces are installations; colourful structures inspired by his homeland and memories. Pyszczek says he is influenced by “observing the physical world around me is my biggest inspiration. I also find a lot of inspiration in reading about history and viewing archival imagery and videos on the internet.”

            When looking at Pyszczek’s work I get the sense of childishness, of playfulness, which is perhaps what the artist is going for since he is inspired by youthful memories of distant landscapes. There is a certain romanticism in his work, a nostalgia for something simpler, more elegant.

            And yet, I can’t help but notice a sense of repetitiveness in the works of Pyszczek I have seen. It is also somewhat garish, the result perhaps of a certain insular outlook, the desperate need of a contemporary artist to become a brand, a unique trademark no one else can copy and thus out-sell.

            A reflection of contemporary art’s exclusivity and elitism, this is art for the brand’s sake, and personally, as a viewer, I don’t feel any emotional connection to the work – though perhaps that is down to my own background, one that is very distant from Pyszczek’s. Although, shouldn’t art, by nature, be at least somewhat universal?

The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal

Part of a larger series of palace reliefs done circa 645 BCE, this is considered the apex of Assyrian art. The lion hunt reliefs depict a ritualised lion hunt by the king, Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Neo-Assyrian empire.

            The reliefs are an act of blatant propaganda for the king. Here Ashurbanipal is depicted as this super-human slayer of lions, in one image he is even throttling a roused lion with his bare hands. The species of lion must have been the Asiatic lion, now a rarity limited to India, it is smaller than its African cousin – but don’t tell Ashurbanipal that. Lion hunting was reserved for royals in Assyrian culture and surely, like most things related to royalty, also contained an unknown religious element.

            It is strange to call artwork depicting an act of what we would today adjudge to be outright cruelty, beautiful. But beautiful it is! Perhaps it is beautiful because of the cruelty. These are not scenes we can ignore. Just as we cannot ignore the photos of pig-headed trophy hunters posing with a dead lion in Africa. Of course, there is no beauty in those crass photos. So why are the reliefs beautiful?

            Here is an artist – whoever he was – depicting a cruel, yet for him important scene, into something transcendent. The art here is performing almost an act of magic, imbuing the scene with whatever religious significance it was meant to have. There is of course a great sense of idealising and air-brushing here. In one relief Ashurbanipal is depicted piercing a lion with a spear through its mouth whilst on horseback. Surely he never achieved such a clean, perfect feat? I may be wrong, but my assumption is that this is grandiose propaganda, and yet, how astounding it is!

            Despite the archaic, two-dimensional nature of the reliefs, there is a subtle sense of realism in the lion’s movements. Especially the scenes where the lion, and in one case even a lioness, are dying, dragging themselves on the floor with arrows piercing their entire body. You can almost feel their suffering. Here, there is no idealising, the artist must have actually seen a lion in its death throes, there is no air-brushing here, only real suffering frozen in time.

            I find it wonderfully confusing how little I can relate to these scenes – of course I’ve never seen a lion hunt with spears, arrows and Assyrian kings – and yet, how visceral and immediate they feel. I can of course relate better to Pyszczek, he is after all a contemporary, who lives in the same world I do, same time and age. And yet, I find the lion reliefs far more beautiful than his work.

            Is that purely because of the distance in time? Maybe in 4,000 years, should Pyszczek’s work survive, they will become haunting, mysterious, just like the reliefs? Or is there something more objective happening here? Is it because I feel there is greater artistic technique and care given to the artwork?

            Pyszczek is of course the more original artist. There is no originality in the literal sense in the reliefs. The artist here is unimportant, he is merely a conduit for royal propaganda. The artist is serving a greater purpose, whilst Pyszczek is serving only himself and his artistic desires. Therein perhaps lies my greater admiration for the artist behind the reliefs. Since he is part of something greater, an important part of his society, of the royal court, telling a story both monarchist and religious, his art is inviting me into his world, his moment in time. Whilst with Pyszczek and other contemporary artists who are – as well they should be! – working only for their own sake, I find a barrier, an unwillingness to dive into the artist’s message, no matter how relevant it might be to me.

            Has art lost a sense of inclusiveness? Has something that used to be so integral to the fabric of society, in all its aspects, now become, like so many other things in our age, the remit merely of the individual? What a shame that would be.

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