Feb. 17, 2022

Sources of Infinity

In 2010, results of the auction featuring works by Roman Opałka staggered the art market. At Sotheby's in London, an anonymous buyer bought three paintings from the "Details" series for a total amount of £713,250. More than a decade ago, the amount was a sales record for a work by a living Polish artist. In addition, the final totals significantly exceeded the estimates, oscillating between £240,000 and £360,000. 


Following the record, the works by Opałka recorded equally high results in New York, again in London, and in Paris. The artist's popularity did not fade with time, but even increased after his death (2011). In August 2019, the Krakow National Museum reported that it had received a work on loan from the "numbered paintings" series, the estimated market value of which was EUR 1.3 million. This project of an impressive size is, without a doubt, the greatest achievement in Roman Opałka's career. The auction "Roman Opałka" includes the most representative works of the artist, as well as less obvious and remarkably interesting items from the early artistic years of Opałka. This was not an easy task, because the artist lost interest in everything he had created earlier when commencing the work on "Details". 

However, for people who are fascinated by the phenomenon of creative process, it may be interesting to trace the threads and paths leading to ideas and solutions that later became the most important element of his art. Our auction shall provide you with such a possibility. The idea behind our project is to show that early sketches, the outlines of concepts, often originate from youthful experiments, small events, social meetings, or outdoor painting sessions. These works, being less formal, also give a chance to get to know the artist on an almost private level. They are an opportunity to learn his way of thinking, understanding of the world, as well as his sense of humor and interests. 

In the case of Opałka, a significant part of his works was unfortunately destroyed, a large collection was given to his friends or remained with the artist. Opałka destroyed some of his early works in 1986, due to the fact that he was prohibited from taking them abroad. The artist experimented with many techniques in these early works. He mainly created gouaches, tempers, monotypes, or charcoal drawings. Student works reveal his fascination with both lines and geometry. A drawing of a landscape made with a sketch pen from 1949 opens the catalog of these works, published by the Opałka Foundation (Roman Opałka. Katalog wczesnych prac, [ed.] Paweł Sosnowski, Maciej Piasecki, Fundacja Opałka, Warsaw 1998).

Dense lines meander on the surface of the page, resembling casual notes and strings of letters. The studies of nude paintings, made during his university tutorials, also reveal the density of lines and emphasis put on the details. 
His works in color are more geometrical, displaying simple divisions into boldly juxtaposed blocks of color. It seems that the artist, from the very beginning, was fascinated with the phenomenon of leaving a trace on the surface, which is exemplified by the works from the series "The Study of Touch". Long strips of paper covered with an impressed drawing of an abstract black-and-white stain were probably his first act of disassociating with figurative art. 

Opałka's experiments are particularly visible in his sketches of heads. The diverse styles of these drawings contain inspirations drawn both from antiquity and avant-garde artists. They reveal references to African masks, as well as to German expressionism. This testifies to the artist's broad horizons, his search, and referring to what he saw or what fascinated him at the time. A completely different style is visible in his designs of postcards and posters. They are predominantly made on black, raw paper, being full of contrasting colors and human figures. This stylistic variability reveals the artist's remarkable ease in controlling his skills and technique. Opałka was looking for new artistic solutions even when creating illustrations commissioned by military institutions. The subject was only a pretext for him to work on the form. 

From the late 1950s until the 1960s, Opałka worked for the House of the Polish Army, which was a cultural institution operating for the military. The painter was in charge of the visual propaganda studio of the Main Political Board. The institution was located in Warsaw at Krakowskie Przedmieście, in the "Dom bez Kantów" ("House without Corners"), where Opałka had his own art studio. Later, after ending his cooperation with the House of the Polish Army, Opałka performed further commissions for the army in the 1960s, thanks to his connections with the military. 
These activities resulted in a number of projects (mainly in the field of graphic design) carried out by the artist, such as posters, ex libris labels, or illustrations for books. This abundance of works, which we managed to collect over the time, present him as a hardworking artist, open to new possibilities of cooperation and constantly looking for new forms of expression. Taking into consideration the diversity of his early works, as well as the ascetic, compact, well-defined form of "Details", one may think that the artist's past was the time of his formal experiments, and the "numbered paintings" testify to Opałka's artistic maturity. 

It was then that Opałka defined himself as the artist for whom he himself is the reference point and the source. This is the reason why he depicted himself in the photographs, with the recorded voice complementing the visual layer. Starting with the stimuli taken from the outside world in his early works, the artist, with time, found inspiration inside and created the unique series. They brought him fame and their subject leaves us with the obvious fact that we will all die. The form developed by Opałka was innovative, making art break with the convention of depicting and becoming a tangible sign of his existence expressed through numbers.