"One of the things that interests me most when it comes to human psychology is the tension between the intellect and the body, between our thoughts and our physical impulses."
Malwina Chabocka has explored many forms of expression throughout her artistic career. She worked in illustration, animation, writing, graphic design for short films, as well as scenography for theater and operatic productions. Now, with painting as her primary focus, the artist's artistic investigation centers around the universal emotional and psychological aspects of being human. Human sexuality, as one of the core drives behind people's feelings, thoughts, and behavior is her main area of exploration. Fascinated by the darkest corners of the psyche, she is interested in the things people are unwilling to admit: their hidden desires, repressed feelings, and inner conflicts. Her captivating paintings focus on the intersection of the rational mind with the primary instincts we so desperately try to curb.
Q. You have worked in illustration, animation, and writing, how did you come to choose painting as your preferred tool for expression?
I love writing and have been keeping a journal since my adolescence, but words leave less of an impression on me than visuals – I’m incredibly sensitive to images, colours, shapes, compositions, light, details. Therefore painting is the most natural medium for me. I like the immediacy of it. I like how the act of painting is an expression of my temper, mood and feelings at a given moment. Working on a film or animation is very exciting, but it’s a very long process. Also, any type of digital work allows for infinite corrections which fuels my insatiable quest for perfection and need to control everything. Painting, on the other hand, teaches me to appreciate imperfections and accidents. I also like the physicality of painting – working with my hands, stretching the canvas, feeling the paint with my fingers, mixing colours.
I studied theatre because I seek to be moved. I am moved by human interactions, by a physical experience of art. Music and live performance have the strongest impact on my nervous system. But performance and theatre work, which I have done in the past, is ephemeral in its nature, and I have a need to create things that last, like paintings.
Q. Do you think your background as a children’s book author, graphic designer, and scenographer still finds its way into your work today?
My roots are in theatre, which is about telling stories and evoking feelings. These stories – be it written, told, painted, or performed – always involve characters. In my work as a painter I also depict characters, and while there isn’t a specific narrative, one could say that it’s a universal story about the spectrum of human emotions. My favourite type of theatre is immersive theatre because I see life as an immersive durational performance in front of a random audience.
Designing is a collaborative process of creating something for someone, something that has a particular function and role. One of my tutors from London used to say that artists create for themselves and designers create for others. Thanks to my multi-disciplinary design experience, I’m a mixture of both. Even when I paint, I always look at my work through the eyes of a potential “other”. The painting is not just for me to see, I see it as a platform for conversation with a wider audience.
Q. How did you gravitate towards human sexuality as one of your main subjects?
I grew up in a country where sexuality is surrounded by shame and guilt, and the notion of "sin" is hammered into our heads from an early age. As a rebellious child, I was drawn to the forbidden fruit, partly out of curiosity, and partly in a subconscious attempt to resolve the conflict between what I felt and what I was told. The incredibly cruel and harmful ideology of punishing children for exploring their bodies and forcing them to confess to a priest in a confessional box was something that left a heavy mark on my psyche. It took me years to liberate myself from all that: the sense of shame and guilt of my humanity and sexuality. This journey has led to an interest in, followed by academic research of, the broad field of sexual practices. I wrote my BA thesis on fetishism, and my MA thesis on masochism as a creative force for artists.
But it’s not just the Catholic church and not just Poland where sexuality is demonised. Even in supposedly liberal cultures, there’s a lot of stigma and misunderstanding around sexual orientation, gender identity, and consensual erotic practices such as BDSM. By addressing these subjects in my art, I’m trying to literally paint over the toxic ideas from my own upbringing and invite people to embrace and accept that part of their nature.
Q. What fascinates you about ‘the darker’, more hidden aspects of the human psyche?
We’re living in a world obsessed with the idea that “the sky is the limit”, thoughts can be controlled, emotions tamed, and success is within everyone’s reach. Yet, while the sales of success-oriented how-to books are continuously rising, so is the number of mental health illnesses. The contrast between the fake happiness of Instagram and how people actually feel is enormous, and the existence of this parallel universe of people projecting an image of success only deepens the feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, jealousy, anxiety, fear, etc. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are not designed to be happy and except for a small group of people born with optimism bias, the rest of us have to struggle with all sorts of inner demons. I see my painting a bit like a magnifying glass through which I’m looking at them. I’m drawn to these “ugly” feelings and secrets because they are very real and therefore so much more interesting than their superficial cover.
Q. You have stated that your work centres around the intersection of the rational and the instinctual, could you elaborate on this?
In general, I am always drawn to some kind of inner conflict, with ourselves or the world. One of the things that interests me most when it comes to human psychology is the tension between the intellect and the body, between our thoughts and our physical impulses. We evolved from earlier creatures, and share our DNA with all the organisms that have ever existed, yet we like to think of ourselves in a purely intellectual context – as rational, self-aware, self-analytical, etc. In thinking about our species, we focus on science, history, and culture. Biological evolution is often overlooked.
I’m interested in what lies underneath the clothing, and the cultural codes of conduct and behaviour. My focus on the nude body is both literal and metaphorical. I like to explore the shame attached to the less polished side of the human body which reminds us of our beastly nature, our tendencies to respond to impulses, and why we are so desperately trying to distinguish ourselves from other animals.
Q. How do you think your education at Central Saint Martins in London and the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw has shaped your artistic practice?
I think that both schools had a great impact on my artistic development, though they very much differed when it comes to teaching methodologies. Central Saint Martins focused on conceptual thinking. We were taught to think independently, encouraged to develop our identity, and allowed to experiment and fail with no judgement. We learned to collaborate – to be kind, helpful, and constructive with our criticism. In the ego-obsessed snobbish art world, we were developing into artists who were sensitive to the wide world, not enclosed in our little one.
The Polish Academies of Fine Art is much more traditional and theory-heavy compared to the UK schools, but I was doing my Masters at the most progressive department of Media Art and Stage Design, led by Paweł Dobrzycki, who also supervised my MA thesis. I was lucky to be taught by a professor with great vision, and to be granted individual training, which complimented my London education. Thanks to the weekly life drawing and painting lessons, I developed technical skills which helped a lot in my later development as a painter.
Q. What would you like your work to evoke or convey?
When I paint, I steer away from directness, and when I talk about painting, I steer away from explanation. For me, painting is an act of putting paint onto canvas using instinct, intention and accident; the rest is up to the viewer. I don’t aim to convey anything in particular. I would like my painting to touch a chord in the viewer, to “unlock the valves of feeling”, as Francis Bacon put it, but I don’t aim to control how the viewer interprets the work, or what feelings, images, and memories it might bring up. I believe that any work of art either speaks to us or not. And while there is value in understanding the context of the work, it shouldn’t need to rely on a lengthy curatorial text to translate its meaning or a skillful copywriter to describe its value.
Q. Do you think your various relocations - Poland, London, Portugal, and now the Netherlands - have had an impact on your practice?
Most certainly. Every country has its cultural language, heritage and landscape and those have an influence on our way of living, thinking and experiencing the world, and subsequently they influence our ideas about art and our working methods. Growing up in Poland, I found my first inspiration in the dreamy and foreboding book illustrations by artists such as Antoni Boratyński. I remember being genuinely scared of them and mesmerised at the same time. I strongly suspect that these surreal and menacing landscapes with fantastically scary figures made me develop a penchant for everything dark. Those gloomy landscapes fit in well with the urban architecture of the time. I grew up in a large grey socialist tower block, surrounded by identical tower blocks. It was a place that frightened me, with its dark and creepy basement corridors, and a claustrophobic lift taking me up to the 10th floor. I still have nightmares about this place.
Both London and Warsaw are the places where I got my art training and exposure to a lot of art, theatre, and music. They’re the places where I was trying on many hats, working across disciplines, in collaborations and partnerships. Lisbon is where I decided to pursue painting full-time and got myself a studio space in an atelier shared with other artists. Living in a slow-paced Mediterranean environment, surrounded by people who came to Portugal with the intention of changing their lives and careers, I had time and space to reflect on what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. It was an important time of self-discovery.
I moved to The Hague as a painter, but I can already see how much my style and ideas have evolved since coming here a few months ago. The Netherlands is a country so incredibly rich both in terms of art traditions and its contemporary art scene that it stimulates me like no place before. But all the places I’ve lived in are a continuous source of inspiration. From the fetish scene in London, to the Warsaw brutalist architectural landscape, to the saudade-filled melodies of Lisbon, I am repeatedly pulling ideas, images and memories.
Q. Tolerance, empathy, and vulnerability are key aspects to your practice - how do you imbue your work with these values?
I am not intentionally trying to imbue my work with any particular values or agenda. Yet the fact that certain values matter to me as a person means that they find their way into my work without a deliberate attempt on my part. I paint how I feel, how I am. It’s not a conscious effort to depict a vulnerable human being. It is because I am a vulnerable human being myself and so I empathise with other people’s vulnerabilities.
Q. Have you received any surprising responses to your work?
The responses are naturally varied, since art is a very subjective matter, but what can be surprising is which works resonate most with people. I am sometimes surprised that a painting I have mixed feelings about generates a lot of interest – and vice versa, a work I feel strongly about is not met with the same response.
Q. What is one of your most cherished memories or achievements as an artist?
In my work, I always think forward. The moment I finish a painting or a project, I’m thinking about the next one, about where I want to go and what I might learn and discover. I cherish the process and the evolution, the opportunities to grow, the unexpected discoveries, but always as part of a longer journey, not as singular moments.
There are, however, projects I have particularly fond memories of. One of them was working on my solo exhibition at the Museum of History of Kielce, my home city, where I was given four rooms to display my work. I designed the exhibition spaces by creating an immersive and interactive environment showcasing the different strands and aspects of my work: painting, performance design, conceptual works-in-progress, and a viewing room showcasing productions I have worked on. My aim was to create something more engaging than just a set of pictures hanging on the wall so I used my experience in set design to turn the rooms into a memorable display space. As a result, the exhibition was extended for a week because of the number of visitors it attracted.
Q. Which other creatives do you admire?
My biggest influence by far when it comes to painting has been Francis Bacon. I discovered his work in my early teens, though it was not until my twenties that I truly engaged with his painting. For me personally, there’s nobody who was able to depict the intensity of human turmoil and pain so poignantly without actually illustrating it directly. Then there’s erotica – Balthus’s unsettling depictions of preadolescence, dreamlike depictions by Egon Schiele, Hans Bellmer’s sexualised doll figures, as well as erotic couples in Japanese shunga prints which I discovered as an adult.
I’ve always been fond of Fauvists and Expressionists (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, Chaim Soutine, to name a few) with their wild colours and extraordinary energy in the brushstrokes, as well as symbolists such as Edvard Munch and the excellent forgotten Polish painter Gustaw Gwozdecki. I also have a penchant for the bizarre and surreal visual world in Jan Svankmajer’s and Terry Gilliam’s films, photography work of Alan Tex and Joel-Peter Witkin, and the superimposition techniques used in silent movies of the 20s. Portrait-wise, one of my greatest inspirations has been Marlene Dumas, whose work I first discovered as a student in London.
Q. Could you describe your work in three words?
Sensual - Mysterious - Sombre