Visual Text in Poland since 1967: A review of Małgorzata Dawidek Gryglicka:

Historia tekstu wizualnego. Polska po 1967 roku. (2012)

Towards the end of Truth and Method, the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer famously proclaims ‘Being that can be understood is language.’1 His position represented a new frontier for the expressivist tradition, descending from Hamann through Heidegger and late Wittgenstein, where the meaning of words generated performatively assumes primacy over exchange of referents. Yet Gadamer appears to be going beyond Heidegger’s vision of language as the ‘house of Being’. Rather he binds language so intimately to the human world of understanding as to constitute that world itself, to make of it a human environment, and even though areas of human existence may remain impervious to language, the unspeakable must also be acknowledged with the proviso that there may always remain that which can be understood, but not said. This presents writing with an important hermeneutic task and reading with an equally important complementary role in restoring the self:

Writing is self-alienation. Overcoming it, reading the text, is thus the highest task of understanding. Even the pure signs of an inscription can be seen properly and articulated correctly only if the text can be transformed back into language.2

Thus in this conception of reading we see a return to language not as transmitting the world, but rather as enabling that world and situating us within it The Gadamerian position of existence constantly exceeding our capacity to express it, and the aesthetics which this gives rise to, creates the theoretical backdrop for Dawidek Gryglicka’s magnificent and monumental study of visual text in Poland since 1967. Quoting extensively from Gadamer’s later writings (particularly ‘Language and Understanding’ and ‘Text and Interpretation’) she opens her study, à la Pound, with a guide on ‘How to Read’. In responding to the question ‘What is reading?’ she explains that, in the case of visual text, the issue is problematic as, in semiotic terms, ‘the sign leans simultaneously towards both the symbol and the icon as its mode of transfer occurs on two levels: the linguistic and the visual.’3 In so doing, she veers away from providing an apologia for visual text and concrete poetry towards opening up hermeneutic possibilities and challenges of the kind envisaged by Gadamer.

The reference to ‘monumental’ above should be defended: in its 752 pages this book boasts over 400 colour and monochrome illustrations complemented by a meticulously detailed text chronicling the history and ruminating on theories pertaining to the art/writing described. Following an extended meditation on reading, we are given a detailed history of concrete poetry in Poland. There is then a chapter devoted solely to Poland’s most prominent concretist, Stanisław Dróżdż, a chapter on the Wrocław concretists Marianna Bocian, Michał Bieganowski, Zbigniew Makarewicz, Barbara Kozłowska, Marzenna Kosińska, Studio Kompozycji Emocjonalnej [the Emotional Composition Studio], and Natalia LL; a chapter outlining the topography of Polish textography outside Wrocław discusses figures such as Stefan Themerson, Jarosław Kozłowski, Ewa and Andrzej Partum, and Andrzej Dłużniewski; a brief chapter outlines Polish typewriter art, followed by a discussion that brings us up to date with current developments in visual text and the work of Robert Szczerbowski, Radosław Nowakowski, Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik’s work with ‘liberature’, and a discussion of the textual work in public spaces created by the Twożywo group. The book closes with an appendix, “From the Word to Architecture: On Architecture, the Word, and the Architecture of the Word”.

It is obvious throughout that Dawidek Gryglicka is concerned equally with academic rigour and with defending an oft-beleaguered literary field. The matter of whether the field is ‘literature’ or ‘art’ is, of course, sometimes a moot point, though it has certainly had a rougher ride from the literary community than from art critics – Stanisław Dróżdż, for example, became a member of the Association of Polish Fine Artists on being refused membership of the Association of Writers. There are times when the author’s tentativeness inclines her to understatement: her discussion ‘A Short History of Visual Poetry’ (61-68) is actually scrupulously comprehensive, leading to an equally meticulous elaboration on ‘Concrete Poetry: Genesis and Development’ (68-83). This concern with providing a description of the phenomenon of concretism is, it becomes apparent, one shared by many of the writers and artists she examines – she notes how Dróżdż bemoaned the absence of a precise definition of concrete amidst the wealth of terminology that abounds in discussions of the phenomenon (99), and she traces similar attempts by writers such as Dick Higgins, dom sylvester houédard, Bob Cobbing, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos, Eric Vos and many others in providing lineages, topographies and taxonomies of the field. It is a thoroughness that can be dazzling (aided by the author’s engaging prose style), albeit at times also slightly wearying – given the huge scale of her ambition for the work, the rigour of charting every detail risks obfuscating the highlights. Perhaps more problematically, it is also defensive with the desire to chart the phenomenon sometimes outweighing the impulse to open it up to interpretations.

Is such defensiveness merited? Partly, this may depend on who the envisaged audience is: literary or art scholars? Certainly with regard to Dróżdż – a writer who is at the heart of the earlier part of the study and to whom a full chapter is devoted – the question is a vexed one: having studied Polish literature at university in the 1960s, he achieved a certain recognition for his earlier, more conventional poetry. However, it was with his pojęciokształty – a neologism variously translated as ideaforms or concept-shapes – which first appeared in 1967 (one of the reasons this date is chosen as the starting point for the volume), that he found his voice. These are simple, dynamic images of words in which the text assumes a semantics through its artistic depiction in space; thus we have the word zapominanie (forgetting) gradually diminishing letter by letter to a full stop, minimum morphing into maximum in the work Optimum, and the words byłojest- będzie (was-is-will be) presented in vertiginous deep-focus relief. In some ways it is the simplicity of their interpretation, as noted by Tadeusz Sławek (arguably the pre-eminent commentator on Polish concretism prior to Dawidek Gryglicka, and whom she quotes respectfully), that presents challenges for traditional modes of literary criticism:

While there may be a bravado in speaking of ‘understanding’ so-called ‘traditional’ poetry, to ‘understand’ the concrete work is impossible in principle because of the way it hits us with the obviousness of its devices […] We understand concrete poetry more in the way that we ‘understand’ rain, than the way we understand a sonnet. We may yield to its workings but, however hard we try, we can never feel a oneness with it. In the same way that rain remains separate from us, with the distance of a different reality. There remains only the between.4

Indeed it is this “between” that gives one of Dróżdż’s most famous works both its title and subject. Między (meaning between) dates from 1977 and features the letters m, i, ę, d, z, and y arranged and angled systematically over the internal and external white walls of a specially constructed room. The internal arrangement of the letters is reproduced on the external walls with letters in reverse to give the impression that the white walls themselves are translucent (or that the letters go right through the walls). The effect is that, on entering the room, the visual and physical impact of the letters enables the viewer to experience the space ‘between’ language and referential meaning. To return to Gadamer, the expressive potential for restoration of the self referred to earlier can be enabled by speech itself plotting out its own direction, a direction in which meanings proliferate and there is always more to say. Dawidek Gryglicka maintains that what a work like Między does is to whittle away this multiplicity of meanings to allow language to focus on its own structure, to render the shape of the meaning of words removed from narrative contexts (p. 163). Language thus achieves, in philosophical terms, a state of pure performance and though the discourse may be non-expressive in the linguistic sense, it nevertheless insists on a process of ‘reading’ for interpretation. Yet this transgression does not make expression any less fecund – what is removed is not the potentiality for speech, but rather the plotting of the trajectory of which Gadamer writes. That this discourse survives, indeed flourishes, testifies to the power and beauty of the work.

Of course Dawidek Gryglicka’s focus is not limited to concrete poetry, and her discussion of Stefan Themerson demonstrates a very different use of visual text to Dróżdż’s. While much has been written about the work of Themerson with his wife Franciszka, the couple elude easy categorisation and they remain relatively unknown in Poland in comparison with many of their contemporaries. The fact that they worked for over forty years in London (and with Stefan having published most of his works in English, though some were originally drafted in Polish) is hardly responsible for this alone – working abroad did not prevent writers such as Miłosz, Kosiński, Barańczak and Gombrowicz from gaining fame in their homeland. Rather the heterogeneity of their oeuvre (they made films, wrote novels and poetry, scored an opera, published the writing of others with their Gaberbocchus Press, while Franciszka had her own inimitable style as a sketch artist) combined with its eccentricity and offbeat humour may have led them to fall through the cracks in international cultural discussions, a shame given the broad accessibility and appeal of much of their work.

From Stefan Themerson: Bayamus (1945, revised 1965). London: Gabberbochus Press, 1965.
From Stefan Themerson: Bayamus (1945, revised 1965). London: Gabberbochus Press, 1965.

Rather than attempt to cover all of Stefan Themerson’s output, Dawidek Gryglicka wisely limits her discussion to analyses of his semantic poetry, as presented in his novel Bayamus (first written in 1945, revised in 1965), his later works such as the ‘semantic opera’ St Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio or Brother Francis’ Lamb Chops and its elaborately illustrated score (1972) and some of his typography experiments. Her focus on semantic poetry might initially seem surprising, given that this poetry itself might not appear to foreground the visual in ways achieved by concrete or visual poetry. Its presentation in Bayamus goes some way to explaining its relevance here. On announcing his intention to visit the Theatre of Semantic Poetry, the narrator is asked what it is:

…I imagine it ought to be something like painting by means of colours taken directly as they are supplied by Messrs. Rowney, or Messrs. Winsor & Newton, or Messrs. Lefranc. Without mixing them on the palette. It must be a kind of writing of poetry, with words skinned of every associational aureola, taken directly as they are supplied by the common dictionary.5

For Themerson, the poetic equivalent of taking paints directly from the tube and applying them unmixed, was to refer to words directly from the dictionary, taking their definitions and replacing those words with said definitions. Thus the first two lines of the rhyme “Taffy was a Welshman / Taffy was a thief” when ‘translated’ into semantic poetry become

Taffy was a male native of Wales
Taffy was a person who practiced seizing the property of another unlawfully & appropriated it to his own use and purpose6

A character in Bayamus defends semantic poetry in strongly visual terms:

Poetry must be ‘simple, sensuous, and passionate’ […] And what is more simple than replacing definiens by definiendum? What does appeal more to our sensuousness than the latter, the definiendum, seen as if for the first time, seen through, X-rayed to show a bit of naïve empirical reality? What is more intense and fervid than the passion to see truth taking off her coat of traditional beliefs, tales, sayings, customs and behaviourisms!7

Thus semantic poetry tends to produce a prolix literalism somewhat reminiscent of autistic speech – one can imagine, say, Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time laboriously spelling out in detail lengthy technical descriptions of simple items and phenomena. Yet by stressing the visual in this style, Dawidek Gryglicka sees it in more psychological terms as a poetry with a scientific beauty, an immersion in the denotative that is contrary to received notions of the poetic. Themerson presented semantic poetry by means of a spatial organisation of typography which he called ‘Internal Vertical Justification’, where the dictionary definition(s) appeared as a list beneath the word, juxtaposed with its original poetic connotations, interspersed with other typographic flourishes. Typographically this demanded that the reader work not just from left to right, but from top to bottom, and indeed right to left and bottom to top. Thus an oddly poetic effect is created of lugubrious naming and defining enlivened by visual ornaments:

…the Typographical Topography of a printed page is two-dimensional, is it not? You scan it not only from left to right but also from top to bottom. Therefore, If I have a number of words that form one entity, a bouquet of names by which a rose may be called, why 9 shouldn’t I write them as I would write the notes of a musical chord: one under another instead of one after another? …Yes I know printers will not like it. But ‘learning hath gained most by those books by which the printers have lost.’8

Indeed, as it turned out, Internal Vertical Justification did not prove as unpopular with all printers as Themerson had anticipated – it made an impression on his friend Anthony Froshaug, one of the most influential typographers in post-war Britain, who referred to it extensively in his own work and teaching.

It would be an understatement to say that a review such as this cannot do justice to the wealth of Polish artistic and literary achievement that this book presents, so let us look at its treatment of another more recent development of interest to non-Polish speakers. ‘Liberature’ (Liberatura, pp. 650-679) is a literary concept developed by Kraków-based Zenon Fajfer and his wife Katarzyna Bazarnik in 1999.9 The fundamental idea behind liberature is that of a literature in which the material form of the book (or other channel of publication) is part of the literary work itself and integral to its understanding. Dawidek Gryglicka quotes from one of

Fajfer’s earlier essays outlining his ideas:
The physical object ceases to be a mere carrier of text; the book does not contain a literary work, but it is itself the literary work. […] The architecture and visual aspect of the work are no less important than its plot and style. However, there is no reason for constraining oneself to the physical form of the codex. The work can assume any shape at all and be made of any material.10

Fajfer and Bazarnik thus developed liberature not merely as a concept, but also as a publishing initiative to create books that embody liberature principles. To date these have included Polish translations of works by writers such as Stéphane Mallarmé (Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard), B.S. Johnson (The Unfortunates and House Mother Normal), Raymond Queneau (Cent mille milliards de poèmes), Georges Perec (La Vie mode d’emploi), Raymond Federman (Double or Nothing), James Joyce (Finnegans Wake), as well as works by Polish writers such as Stanisław Czycz, Krzysztof Bartnicki, Paweł Dunajko, and of course Fajfer and Bazarnik themselves. These books generally share the fact that some aspect of the volume’s construction, printing or typesetting contributes to it as a work of literature in itself. With Finnegans Wake, for example, the number of pages – 628 – is of significance, as is the fact that certain events take place on particular pages.11 Thus, when it came to publishing Finneganów tren, Krzysztof Bartnicki’s epic Polish translation of Joyce’s masterpiece in 2012 (a publishing event which attracted significant attention in the Polish media), the book was typeset with variations in font size and kerning imperceptible to the casual reader, so that not only did the translated text come to exactly the same number of pages as the original, but a rough correspondence was achieved between pages on which certain events of significance took place in the 1939 text and in the target text.

Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik: Oka-leczenie (2000). Paper and board bound into three spines. Image courtesy of the artists.
Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik: Oka-leczenie (2000). Paper and board bound into three spines. Image courtesy of the artists.

Unfortunately Finneganów tren appeared too late to be discussed by Dawidek Gryglicka, and in any case her attention is focussed more on Fajfer and Bazarnik’s own works such as Oka-leczenie (the title of which the authors translate as Eyes-ore). The book is divided into three sections – a deathbed scene, an account of the development of a foetus, and in between a separate volume comprising two separate handwritten texts by different authors. These sections were bound separately to three spines formed by one concertina-style cover. Nevertheless, Fajfer and Bazarnik stress that it would be wrong to think of publications like this along the traditional lines of ‘artists’ books’: liberature is a writer’s medium in that the book is a literary work in itself – text and form combining – rather than an artistic presentation of literature.

Stanisław Dróżdż: Między (1977). Installation shot at Galeria Foksal, 2005. Photograph: Jacek Gładykowski.
Stanisław Dróżdż: Między (1977). Installation shot at Galeria Foksal, 2005. Photograph: Jacek Gładykowski.

When we devised such an unconventional shape for Oka-leczenie, we did not think what spatial and visual form would best reflect our concept, but how to connect the three separate texts narrating three different events, yet related to one another on some hidden plane and mutually determining one another. Finally, we came to the conclusion that the most adequate way to do that would be to show this through the book. It enables me to start reading from any volume, which underlies the autonomy of each part, but simultaneously, due to its cyclical structure, it suggests cyclicality of narration symbolising an uninterrupted circle of deaths and rebirths. So our inspiration was purely literary and the theoretical questions were of secondary importance then.12

As such, we return in perhaps the most literal and literary sense imaginable to Gadamer’s notion of the meaning generated by the performance of language determining being and what is said by that language, with this being reciprocating in the generation of a literary work. Yet, while there are obvious antecedents scattered throughout history, it is interesting that such a form should evolve only after a practice such as artists’ bookmaking had gained institutional acceptance; again we encounter the prejudice evidenced in, say, Dróżdż’s exclusion from the Polish literary community, reinforcing the relevance of a study such as Dawidek Gryglicka’s.

One minor gripe that could be voiced with this book is that the font is miniscule, particularly in the (copious) footnotes. Nevertheless, this criticism must be considered in the context of the mettle of Korporacja Ha!art in taking on what must have been a gargantuan project for a small publishing house. That the comprehensiveness of the resulting volume is matched only by the elegance of its production demonstrates their triumph. It is only a shame that, given the language barrier, the audience for this book will naturally be limited and, considering the costs involved, it is unlikely that a translation of the volume as a whole will be forthcoming soon. (On the other hand, had someone told me prior to its publication, that such a book could retail on the Polish market for under €25, I would have been similarly sceptical, so there may be hope!) Yet it is worth bearing in mind that the chapters on Dróżdż (around 100 pages), the Wrocław artists (166 pages), and contemporary Polish visual text (120 pages) could, with minimal adaptation, be translated and published as short books in themselves, while there is probably material for a couple of such books in the chapter on Polish textography alone, the most heterogeneous chapter in the volume.

In a sense, until this happens, the book’s potential will not be fully realised – while Dawidek Gryglicka’s astonishing accomplishment in chronicling this history is important in raising domestic awareness of this work in Poland, it is all the more necessary in restoring to the international arena art narratives which have been shamefully excised through cruelties of socio-political fate. More generally, the notion of charting a country’s cultural development through a study of 45 years of visual text produced by its artists and writers may still appear offbeat for many national artistic traditions; that Dawidek Gryglicka has shown such a survey to be not merely possible, but moreover an occasion for a truly profound meditation on the relationship between word, image and society, is testament to this book’s superb achievement not just in Polish literary and visual culture, but in cultural studies internationally.

1. Hans-Georg Gadamer: Truth and Method (second revised edition). Rev. transl. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. London: Sheed & Ward, 1989. p. 474.
2. Gadamer, pp.390-91.
3. W przypadku tekstu wizualnego znak odchyla się jednocześnie w stronę symbolu i ikonu, ponieważ jego przekaż jest emitowany na dwóch płaszczyznach, lingwistycznej i wizualnej. (p. 27) [All Polish-English translations are my own.]
4. Choć już bufonadą jest mówienie o „rozumieniu” wiersza tak zwanego „tradycyjnego”, „rozumienie” dzieła konkretystycznego jest niemożliwe z zasady, bowiem uderza nas ono oczywistością swoich narzędzi […] Poezję konkretną możemy rozumieć bardziej tak jak „rozumiemy” deszcz, niż tak, jak rozumiemy sonet. Możemy poddać się jej działaniu, ale choćbyśmy bardzo się starali, nie odczujemy z nią jedności. Podobnie jak deszcz pozostanie zawsze oddzielona od nas dystansem odrębnej realności. Pozostaje więc tylko między. Tadeusz Sławek: Między literami. Szkice o poezji konkretnej. [Between Letters: Sketches on Concrete Poetry.] Katowice: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1989. p.98. Quoted by Dawidek Gryglicka p. 119.
5. Stefan Themerson: Bayamus: A Novel (new and revised edition). London: Gaberbocchus Press, 1965. p.14.
6. Themerson 1965, p. 82
7. Themerson 1965, p. 99, my emphases.
8. Themerson 1965, p. 68.
9. The best introduction to Liberature in English is to be found in the bilingual book edited by Katarzyna Bazarnik and Zenon Fajfer: Liberatura czyli literatura totalna. Teksty zebrane z lat 1999-2009 pod redakcją Katarzyny Bazarnik / Liberature or Total Literature: Collected Essays 1999-2009. Kraków: Korporacja Ha!art, 2010.
10. Bazamik and Fajfer, p.44, emphasis in original. This is Bazarnik’s translation of Fajfer’s 2002 essay
11. Finnegans Wake is famously a ‘circular’ narrative, with the last line returning to the first. The formula for the circumference of a circle 2πR; when this comes to 628, then the ‘radius’ of Finnegans Wake is 100 which would appear to be a number too neat to be entirely coincidental. Moreover, 6 and 28 are perfect numbers. Moreover, it is on page 100 of the 1939 edition that one finds the famous phrase “the canonicity of his existence as a tesseract” (comparing HCE to a hypercube). More practically, an edition that maintains similar pagination to the original also makes it easier to refer to Joyce’s annotations, which refer to specific page numbers. Bazarnik does, however, note that the Polish volume does not have exact page-to-page correspondence (a trait apparently characterising the Dutch edition).
12. Bazarnik and Fajfer, p.155.