Nov. 25, 2021

THE HIGHWAY AS A SYMBOL OF THE JACOB'S LADDER

'At the beginning of the 1970s, I painted my first painting, which began the longest of all cycles - 'Highways'. It started as a painting cycle, but soon I included graphics and drawings in it. I have saved 77 paintings, 7 drawings, and 24 graphic designs on my computer - in total, 108 works with the word 'Highway' in their titles. In the 1990s, I continued working on it in 'New Highways'. Most of those that belong to the cycle are numbered with successive Roman numerals, with the rest being connected to it more loosely. They are linked by understanding a highway as a way up, or above all, as a spiritual ascent. To rid anyone of the slightest doubt, one should not expect an ordinary highway in the paintings; I have not painted a car in any of them. Here, a highway is a modern symbol of the Jacob's Ladder, which as we know was used by Angels to ascend to heaven and descent to earth.'

(Stanisław Fijałkowski, Lata nauki i warsztat, Łódź 2002, pages 59-60)

Stanisław Fijałkowski, fot. Sławomir Boss

The 'Highway' is one of the most significant and captivating series in Stanisław Fijałkowski's work. The artist who meticulously documented all his works noted 108 canvases with 'highway' in their title. The paintings numbered using consecutive Roman numbers create a distinct group and correspond to the abovementioned series. Simultaneously, the artists created oil paintings and graphic designs, usually linocuts. All works were linked to the Jacob's Ladder motif. Fijałkowski wrote on the inspiration that accompanied him when he worked on the series: 'The 'Highway' is a modern Jacob's Ladder symbol. It is the connection between earth and heaven, i.e. the material and the spiritual. I believe that only a simple sign that has many meanings and is almost abstract can be interpreted in various ways. Everyone can experience it in their own way, depending on the richness they carry within them.'  

Stanisław Fijałkowski, The 'Highway' LXXV, 1988

The Jacob's Ladder symbol derives from the Old Testament. It is a vision of Jacob, who saw a ladder reaching the sky in his dream. By using it, Angels were to descend to earth. This scene has repeatedly inspired artists from the Middle Ages to the present day. It was depicted by the English romantic William Blake or the oneiric symbolist Marc Chagall. In Fijałkowski's interpretation, Jacob's Ladder was a symbol deeply rooted in a person's consciousness from the Judeo-Christian culture, but it also functioned in each person's subconscious. It symbolised the path to transcendence and was a bridge between heaven and earth. For Fijałkowski, a highway constituted a modernised travesty of the biblical theme. When read as a spiritual journey metaphor, it became a universal truth about searching for joy and perfection familiar to everyone. Making your way through a path can be associated with the practice of art. 'Art - says Fijałkowski - testifies to the existence of the sacred, analogous the religious testament but not identical. […] the painter's actions have a ceremonial character and point towards a different reality. They even take place in a different reality, different time, and different space - in the work's transcendent reality which constitutes its symbolic sign.'

Stanisław Fijałkowski, New Highway X, 1998

Even though the paintings from the 'Highway' series are associated with Jacob's Ladder motif, they do not literally depict the biblical scene. None of the works from the series depicts the figure of Jacob. Fijałkowski gave up figurative painting and depicted the Old Testament vision through the eyes of Jacob. The ladder known from the dream is also lacking, and in its place, there is the highway. The space that 'engulfs' the viewer dominates in the works from the series. The composition is made from stripes - the lanes that intersect at different angles lead up, down, and to the sides. They are limited by a thin outline so as not to 'go beyond' the canvas, as it keeps them within the borders determined by the painting's space. 

The '24.X.1971' composition presented at our upcoming 'Post-War and Contemporary Art' auction is one of the first works created as part of the 'Highway' series. Another value of the work in question may also be that it was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1972, where Fijałkowksi was Poland's representative. The exhibition at the Polish pavilion aroused considerable admiration among the international critics and journalists, as evidenced by numerous reviews and television programs broadcast by Italian, Swiss, and West German stations. Fijałkowski himself wrote on the importance of the event: 'The exhibition's prestige was great. I had a feeling that taking part in the exhibition at the Polish pavilion was something grand - an experience that obliges one to work further.'