Eye to eye with Heródek

Face to face with Heródek

  1. The Phenomenon of Heródek’s Output

Karol Wójciak, called Heródek (1892-1969), a country shepherd from Lipnica Wielka [1]. A sculptor, but also a performer – a singing and dancing story-teller [2], a village outcast with mumbling speech and pure heart.

Today we would say professionally: an intellectually disabled artist, even if, after all the years it is difficult to assess the degree of the disability. Afflicted by physical suffering (a thyroid disease?), despite difficult childhood and life full of humiliations he maintained serenity and believed in the good of the world as a natural part of heaven. He used to live in stables on some farms. Since the day of his meeting with a sculptor of carved saints for the wayside shrines, a self-educated man named Przywara, instead of his favorite animals, he took up carving saint figures in woodblocks – Christ, Virgin Mary and saints.

The output of Karol Wójciak is an entirely separate phenomenon. It is set in the village environment, folk culture, traditional piety and it has nothing in common with traditional folk sculpture. Other than the topic.

Heródek’s unprofessional output reveals how much all the classifications aspiring to cover all the phenomena connected with art and artistic activity prove to be inadequate and the notions themselves ambiguous and not very precise. Heródek escapes. He escapes tradition, the tastes of fellow countrymen, already accustomed to city goods, more or less realistic in nature. Heródek’s figures are for them strange, unnecessary and worthless. The usual fantasies of the village freak.

He is not a folk sculptor although he is rooted in folk culture, he is not an entirely naïve artist. He presents, it is true, a naïve, devoid of intellectual distance vision of the world and he saves in himself a tiny bit of childlike naiveté, yet he does not apply an awkwardly simplified realistic tools. He is not an art brut artist sensu stricto, although he creates without any connection with the so-called high art, official currents or fashionable trends and patterns of traditional folk sculpture. He lives in the country and presents its values, not the hermetic world of his own imagination. A typical outsider creating out of his inner urge, driven by emotions and convinced of propagating an important mission. The artist on the borderline of folk art and art brut marked by the urge to create and religious mission. He does not care about the recipients’ tastes, yet he needs them. The recipients, or rather viewers and listeners are provided with the evidence of sincere faith. He educates and reassures, with his simple, pure vision of the world and afterlife. He carves with enthusiasm, yet he submits artistic matters to his mission that is beyond art.

Although, we have to admit, when ethnographers and collectors see an artist in Wójciak-Heródek, and they praise his performance, the issues of art and creative output arise, yet to be honest, they do not change anything.

Heródek shapes his material as he can and how it can be shaped with the use of primitive tools. He is unable to do it differently and he does not imitate anybody – neither traditional folk artists nor professional sculptors.

Traditional folk sculptors used to follow the iconographic and formal examples of available works in churches in official historical styles (gothic, baroque) and of devotional graphic art. They created variants within the convention approved of by the community and in accordance with its tastes. Heródek did not follow any examples. The Bible, lives of Saints, prayers and religious songs inspired his imagination and provided him with the subjects. The sculptures and pictures he saw somewhere were entirely transformed. His individual realizations shocked and still shock with roughness of the form, awkward finishing, simplicity and primitivism.

In his way of perceiving the world, phenomena and their interrelations, emphasizing two opposite orders of good and evil, sacrum and profanum, Heródek is well grounded in the so-called traditional culture, immersed in mythical thinking, based on the symbol. Deeply and sincerely religious, unwavering in his belief in the goodness of God and the beauty of the world, sensitive to suffering, in his ethical system he opposedinnocence’ and ‘pride’. Pride means arrogance, cruelty and vengeance while innocence signifies ‘all the honest life on earth’, humbleness and piety [3] that is the true values that guarantees salvation.

Figures – like the lives of saints – are to be evidence of a God abiding living, they are indications on how to deserve eternal happiness in heaven through avoiding pride. Through their existence they serve to emphasize moralizing content and instructing (didactic function). The Resurrected Christ is the previously tortured Savior of the world. St. Stephen or St. Nicholas are also victims of perpetrators who made them suffer physically. All these persons warn the man against the sin of pride and remind him of the virtue of innocence represented by such figures as Virgin Mary, angels or other saints.

Sensitive to the beauty of nature, Heródek liked arranging his figures on a meadow or on the boulders in the middle of the stream. Inspired by the urge to create a different order, ensuring safety, he arranged his own space of beauty and good, a different, sacral zone. It gave him a sense of stabilization and harmony juxtaposing the external chaos and internal world (compensational function of art). Heródek the performer told the curious viewers and listeners various ‘sacred stories’ and encouraged them to lead God abiding life. Heródek’s sacral space and its inhabitants entered the profanum when he gave his neighbors their carved figures, so that they could live merrily and happily. They were unable to appreciate it – they usually used them to burn in stoves….

Heródek delighted in the church sculptures, carved in naturalistic convention, admiring the workshop skills of their authors in rendering the details. Yet those figures were as beautiful as the ones he created himself. Equally beautiful as they represented the same beautiful persons. For Heródek, the beauty of the symbolic figures consists in the participation in the beauty of the saints. The saints are beautiful, so their images are also beautiful, no matter what degree of naturalism has been achieved while working on the material. It resembles the attitude of the faithful to the cult sculptures in the Middle Ages, taken over by the counterreformation piety in village environments and preserved in the popular piety in certain places until the middle of the previous century.

The verbal commentaries were not noted down by the author, what was preserved are only excerpts of his utterances recorded by researchers [4]. They should be treated as an important if not integral part of the sculptor’s output, complementing its sense. And the meaning of those single carved figures can be grasped most fully against the background of Christian folk culture and the whole of Heródek’s work. It can be treated as a kind of intermedial message, combining the sculpture and a vivid verbal communication, dramatized to some degree. Single figures, devoid of those references undoubtedly have a meaning but they are most whole in the proper and intended by the author manner, when they are included in the group of other heroes of Heródek’s performance.

The form of the carved figures is peculiar. Synthetic, simple, static, with details limited to the minimum. Woodblocks with the exposed faces of carved, clear eyes and pouted mouths. At times arms marked with a nail or drawn. Rough expression. Minimalized gestures. The details are unnecessary, they are not important. Neighbors helped to attach the shoulders and the banner to the resurrected Christ and the wings to the angels. The climax in the whole process of creating a sculpture was covering it with paints. The colors play a symbolically conventional function like in medieval art. He chose them on purpose. Red – for the blood and human suffering, green – for beautiful nature, blue and white for innocence and possibly a trace of heaven. When he ran out of the red paint, he did not hesitate to paint Christ’s robes with his own blood. He probably identified the image of resurrected Christ with the imagined person. Sanctity (like beauty) was gained by the sculpture through the sheer fact of rendering the saint, and to be more precise, through the participation in that sanctity.

You cannot be impartial to Heródek’s sculptures. Sometimes they terrify, cause disgust while at other times they fascinate. They point out to something that escapes everyday experience, they reach beyond the known representation schemes and they attract. They invite to confrontation, they provoke. They are a real phenomenon – an unusual phenomenon, a peculiarity among other artistic phenomena and an empirical fact which can be subjected to scientific research. Yet just as their author, calling into existence new sculptural worlds – in spite of his limitations, regardless of the limitations or among them – they will forever remain a mystery for us, the one we will not be able to decode entirely with the help of inadequate verbal analyses. A madman and God’s servant, a spontaneous discoverer in the area of art blessed with immense sensitivity and the gift of mediation between God’s and human spheres welcomes you to the secret, invisible world. The mystery keeps waiting for the viewers and invites them to a continuous dialogue.

Żaneta Groborz-Mazanek