AfterImage: Perceiving the Collective Experience
I must have fidgeted in my seat seven times while watching AfterImage, Andrzej Wajda’s last movie. At one point I couldn’t hold still, I kept moving one leg in one direction, then in another, trying to get comfortable enough in my seat to face the bitter and claustrophobic scenario that the movie had created. I felt suffocated and I wanted it to be over. I rolled my eyes at the last scene, almost too performative and theoretical than I could withstand. There is no point in making such a claustrophobic movie, I thought. I used to like this shit, but now I really don’t.
After Image tells the story of the polish Avant-Garde artist, painter and university professor Wladyslaw Strzeminski, whose artistic vision and project were found to be anti-communist in the 1950s. He was dismissed from his work and made to starve under the Stalinist regime, with the rise of socialist realism in art taking hold as the conscientious and revolutionary form of expression. The movie follows Strzeminski in his primetime as a celebrated artist, when he was persecuted and dismissed with the progressive rise of Stalinist ideology in Poland. It shows in great and overwhelming details, the destitute and misery that Strzeminski falls into. While he tried to compromise his artistic vision to fit more into socialist realism, his attempts were all rejected and his art unaccepted under Stalinist regime.
There was something so stereotypically Polish about the movie’s characters, all utterly lonely and individualized, but also smashed by the collective. Most of the women characters had none-existent depth, a mere extension of Strzeminski’s persona: his dying wife, his daughter and the student who falls in love with him. At one point in the movie, when Strzeminski loses his wife, his job, his artist membership card and his daughter left him to live in a girls’ dorm, an old man whispered to his wife next to me “tsk tsk tsk.Il a tout perdu”. It seemed that we all very quickly got the point: Stalinist and communism bad. Hegemony bad. Free Art good.
Yet, there was something very peculiar about the movie, something about Strzeminski himself, or his portrayed character. Wajda honors the artist’s theory of vision by making the film central to perception. We see Strzeminski as an observer of the rise in communist-Stalinist hegemony. He stares at his daughter as she slowly becomes ‘hegemonized’, practicing to sing Stalinist songs and marching in parades, and prophetically declares that “she is going to be miserable in her life”. He stares at his friends and colleagues and sees the winds of history changing the ways they teach and talk. Perhaps what remains the most haunting thing about the movie is this slow progression of hegemonic ideology that absorbs and engulfs all.
At the end of the movie, I became somewhat obsessed with a specific scene, when the minister of culture and the inspector holds a meeting with the academic committee members to dismiss Strzeminski from his teaching job. The vote is unanimous except for one person. One of the artist’s students dares to challenge the order, arguing that the artist is a great professor and an inspiration. The inspector then asks him: “Comrade, why are you standing in the way of the collective experience?”. Upon hearing this question,the student changes his vote and the resolution becomes unanimous: the artist’s art incites depression and confusion, and is not in the function of serving the collective good.
I found myself thinking about this question over and over again. It deeply terrified me. On my way back home, I took a service car and the man started making fun of an Ethiopian woman walking next to a Lebanese man. On my way to the cinema, the same thing happened, with another service driver and the Syrians. Was that the collective experience, here? I wondered. In both times, I found myself unable to get angry anymore, or to challenge and reply. I kept quiet. I tried to practice my “Strzeminski’s vision”, by observing the slow progression of ideology. I wanted to observe like him, to just look at “the winds of history” pass us by, before it swallowed everything.
Strzeminski’s theory of vision: history and body
“In the process of seeing, it is not important what the eye seizes mechanically but what man becomes aware of in his vision.”
His theory carried a tension between Marxist engagement in art and the autonomy of art expression as following its own inherent laws.
Agnieszka Rejniak-Majewska’s analysis of “the theory of vision”:
“Systems of vision are not passive reflections of social conditions, because apart from the social and ideological conditions of the time, they are also based in the specific physiological conditions of the eye. Vision‟s specific condition of materiality, its grounding in the body, grants it certain autonomy from socially imposed values and viewing habits. The viewing eye – especially the painter‟s eye that seeks a heightened “visual consciousness”, not only mediates and confirms a given historical reality, but can also actively extricate itself from it. The physiological basis of painting continues, to a greater or lesser extent, to shield it from immediate social determination and to afford it its own productive force.“ (Rejniak-Majewska. A curious materialist history: Władysław Strzemiński’s Theory of Vision and the forming of the senses).