A Gloss on „A Treatise on the Visual Image” by Zbigniew Rybczyński

Text published in: Zbigniew Rybczyński, A Treatise on the Visual Image. Eds.: Halina Oszmiańska, Anna Gapińska. Art Stations Foundation. Poznań 2009.

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Zbigniew Rybczyński & Piotr Zawojski. Zdj. Roman Wnuk 

“He who has never completed – be it but in a dream – the sketch for some project that he is free to abandon; who has never felt the sense of adventure in working on some composition which he knows finished when others only see it commencing; who has not known the enthusiasm that burns away a minute of his very self; or the poison of conception, the scruple, the cold breath of objection coming from within; and the struggle with alternative ideas when the strongest and most universal should naturally triumph over both what is normal and what is novel; he who has not seen the image on the whiteness of his paper distorted by other possible images, by his regret for all the images that will not be chosen; or seen in limpid air a building that is not there; he who is not haunted by fear of giddiness caused by the receding of the goal before him; by anxiety as to means; by foreknowledge of delays and despairs, calculation of progressive phases, reasoning about the future – even about things that should not, when the time comes, be reasoned about – that man does not know either – and it does not matter how much he knows beside – the riches and resources, the domains of the spirit, that are illuminated by the conscious act of  construction.”

Paul Valéry, Introduction to the method of Leonardo da Vinci,
English translation by Thomas Mc Greevy

Zbigniew Rybczyński’s A treatise on the visual image is, without doubt, a summa – a work that sums up many years of work, experiences and experiments. I would be an extremely conceited and overly self-assured commenter if I tried to debate exhaustively all the theses of the treatise. All I can do is to attempt a footnote of a sort, a gloss, a short commentary, in which I will ask myself the question of whether I can understand the author’s intentions. When I wrote(1)  and talked(2)  to the author of Tango, a number of times, did I know what was the essence, the propulsive principle behind the consistent – but not at all obvious or easy-to-understand – work of Rybczyński? The Treatise is not an overly long text, containing only four parts and an introduction; but in order for it to have been created, the artist needed to look back at almost forty years of his work as a visual artist in a maximally condensed and – as a matter of fact – succinct way. At the same time, a vision of the future emerges from that past and present. The three planes constitute a unity; they are superimposed onto one another, in the same way in which various time points become continually superimposed onto one another in our imagination – which, unfortunately, happens far less often in films/images. Rybczyński has pointed this out repeatedly: how can one capture and record those seemingly separate worlds into one, coherent whole? How can one capture that multiplicity and richness as unity – without sacrificing diversity for even a single moment? To achieve this, one needs suitable tools and technologies to create images, and suitable imaging methods. But does such a technology exist? And if it does not, who is supposed to develop and create it?
Image and images; the proliferation of images and imaging has been invariably, for years, one of the key problems of not only art, aesthetics, theory and philosophy, but simply of our reality – the world we live in. So, why do we still know so little about the nature of images? Both when one considers traditional and technologically-assisted imaging techniques? The mystery of image remains unfathomed; but even a definition of an image is problematic. And if a reader of the Treatise is disappointed by the author’s not having attempted to formulate one, then perhaps one should assume that an image is what it is commonly understood to be. When we talk about images – without going into the details of whether we mean a painting, a photographic image, a film image, a computer-generated image, a mirror image, a virtual image – we conclude that, despite all the differences between the individual types of images, as mentioned above, there is something that unifies them after all. Every image is an area, most often a two-dimensional plane, even though there are of course technologies to create three-dimensional images in which “something” is visible. An extremely important question is “how” it may be that “something” becomes visible in an image. Take, for example, the phenomenon of the screen as the location where the image manifests itself, and think of the ambiguous etymological connections, referring to something being “screened”, “hidden”, “covered”. Thus, the screen and the monitor does not only “reveal” its content (the image), but it also masks the image, “screens” it, and in doing so, it builds relations between that which is visible (revealed) and that which is invisible (concealed).


“Most people see with their brains more often than with their eyes. In the place of coloured spaces, they recognise concepts. A cubic shape, whitish, tall, and pitted with the reflexes of window panes, immediately becomes a house for them: The house! A complex concept, a set of abstract qualities. If they change places, the movement of the rows of windows, the transformation of the surfaces that continually distorts their sensation, escapes them – because the concept remains unchanged. They perceive according to a lexicon rather than by their retina.”

Paul Valéry, Introduction to the method of Leonardo da Vinci

The starting point for Zbigniew Rybczyński’s deliberations is the observation that the nature of the image creation lies in the transformation of a multidimensional space into a two-dimensional one, which occurs in our brains. Thus, an image is two-dimensional by nature, even though much is being done today to overcome that two-dimensionality using various techniques to simulate, for example, a third dimension, or by creating immersion spaces that are supposed to be (and sometimes are) a reproduction of our functioning in a world whose nature is, after all, multidimensional. It is symptomatic that Rybczyński is not interested in experiments searching for new solutions in image creation methods that are radically different from two-dimensional and screen-based ones. For example, he does appreciate Jeffrey Shaw’s experiments (projects forming parts of iCinema), but in general he is not interested in concepts based around unique and unrepeatable solutions that can be installed and seen only at one location. This is so because they transcend the paradigm of traditional cinema, while Rybczyński is interested, as all great explorers and visionaries are, in an attempt at establishing completely new conditions under which film would function within the framework of cinematographic projection. It seems that this désintéressement towards solutions and quests of this kind results from a certain paradox that characterises Rybczyński as an artist, and as a person who ponders the art of imaging. On the one hand, he is deeply rooted in tradition, and refers to the past, to the great masters – Leonardo da Vinci, Pierro della Francesca, Brunelleschi, Dalí, and Escher; on the other hand, he is fascinated with new technologies of image creation, and convinced that one should co-create those new technologies. Because no-one can take away from us the responsibility for correcting the mistakes that have been fossilised over the centuries, preventing us from creating images that are compatible with what we see around us, and faithfully reconstructing them.
The typology of image proposed by the author of Tango is essentially very simple. However, we should remember that the simplicity of theoretical constructs is most often an expression of many years of experience and reflection, a distillation of ideas of a sort, reducing them to an essence. When we realise this, we stand speechless and perplexed, but at the same time we treat what the author offers to us as something obvious in some sense, well known and recognised. Sometimes, however, we forget that, in order to have reached that level of clarity and obviousness, we need somebody to formulate those truths without relying on others.
The three categories of images that the author talks about – informative, mental and symbolic images – have delineated the historical framework for creating images of the external world (let us say: the real world) and the internal world (let us say: the world of our imagination) in the past, and they continue to do so today. Symbolic images, both traditional (painting, graphic art) and technologically-assisted (photography, film, video) have always been treated as faithful reproductions of informative and mental images. Until tools were invented to produce symbolic images automatically, mental images tended to dominate – those images that are created as a result of the workings of our imagination. The magnificent technological inventions and new technologies of image creation – from daguerreotype to computer generated images (CGI) and images created using High Definition cameras – have led to a situation in which informative imagery has started to dominate in symbolic images. This is the imagery that we can see with our own eyes – which, incidentally, can see a lot. But it turns out that not much from this multiplicity can be passed on to others in a truthful and undeformed way. The phenomenon of cinema is essentially about seeing the seeing, looking and seeing somebody else’s view. When I look at a screen, I search for somebody else’s vision of the world, things, and events. Most of the time, however, what I see is pictures standardised and homogenised by an imperfect technology. The motif of a realistic depiction of the world, which recurs persistently, almost obsessively, in Rybczyński’s texts, has still not achieved satisfactory effects in the form of truly realistic images. That is to say, not images that are compatible with the external shapes of the objects visualised, but with the internal truth of the perceiver. So, the postulate that makes itself apparent in the Treatise – that the obligation of modern creators of images, and in particular of artists, should be to retreat form informative imagery as the basic component of symbolic imagery, and saturate it with mental imagery that comes from our own imagination, and which at the same time constitutes the imagination – is not surprising.
The perception of realism of external appearance is historically changeable. Symbolic imagery changes; at a given time in history, it is usually considered to be a perfect depiction of reality (in its entire physical and – one is tempted to say – metaphysical shape), but after just a short time, it transpires that a new technology has emerged, to radically change our thinking about what is, and what can be, a unique “analogon” of reality, expressed in the form of images. We want to believe that the “analogons” are adequate, faithful depictions of reality, while our senses are continually deceived, in particular the sense of sight.
“Photorealism”, writes Rybczyński, “the effect of great discoveries – such as the lens, photography, film, television – is not the ultimate solution. It is a version, a mechanical version of an image; surely, it has been the most important step that has been made in the history of visualisation, but it is not the ultimate step, after all”.(3)  This passage comes from a text titled in a very characteristic way: Looking into the future – imaging the truth. The future and the truth are significant elements of Rybczyński’s thinking about the art of imaging and about images as such. What is, then, the future of imaging in the age of digital (r)evolution, and how can we talk today about the category of truth in relation to imagery created using new technologies? What is the truth of an image in an age of computer generated images, for which the categories of “copy” and “original”, as well as those of “representation” and “represented” do not mean much any more? And on top of all that, how to felicitously combine within one image (genetically) different images; images recorded using traditional photographic optics with, for example, images generated by a computer? This seemingly simple operation creates a whole range of problems today, and the author of Steps has worked on them over the last several decades.
His “Studio Ideale” (so is this not, after all, a name given to a set of prototypical technological solutions to create moving images in real time, a little early?) may be, for the time being, a complete solution for creating film without the need to use complex and time-consuming post-production. So, what we have here is an obvious return to the idea of spontaneous creation, characteristic of the artists of the past, those using tools from before the era of technologically-assisted imaging. The screen, like the canvas, is enlightened by components emerging from the dark, whose formal shapes do not need to be modified in a process of tedious, secondary processing; they are born as if we were participating in the process of their creation by watching a painter/film creator in his or her atelier. Is this type of incorporation of the viewer into the creative process – and into its result – not reminiscent of the brilliant practices of the artists who took on the challenge of understanding what the unique play between the creator and the viewer is all about? Velásquez must have known quite a lot about this when painting Las Meninas; this is what the author of Kafka is dreaming of when he talks of a palimpsest-like film creation technique to automate the process of the creation of moving images so that it occurs in real time.


“A painting is judged in the same spirit as the reality. Complaints are made about the ugliness of the faces, for which others fall in love; some people engage in the most verbose psychology; some others look only at the hands which always appear unfinished to them. The fact is that, by an insensible exigency, the image is supposed to reproduce the physical and natural conditions of our environment. Gravity works, the light propagates like it does here, and, gradually, pictorial knowledge of anatomy and perspective comes to the fore; I think, nonetheless, that the surest method to judge a painting is not to recognise anything in it at first, and to take, step by step, a series of inductions that requires the simultaneous presence of coloured stains on a limited field, to rise from one metaphor to another, from one supposition to another, to an understanding of the subject – sometimes to a simple sensation of pleasure – which one does not always have in advance”.

Paul Valéry, Introduction to the method of Leonardo da Vinci

In the text of the Treatise, Rybczyński unifies and collects his beliefs that he has been consistently developing over the years. As a result, well-known and frequently discussed threads appear, but they are systematised and presented in a very clear manner. The questions of spherical perspective, lens standardisation problems (the universal lens – a digital eye), the problem of the possibility of combining lens-created and computer-created images, the Motion Control System, the studio as a tool, a unique instrument used to create a film, compositing, problems with multi-layered techniques of creating images in real time (blue/green screen), the “Studio Ideale”. All these technical and technological aspects are extremely important; without solving the many basic questions, such as the approach to linear perspective and creation of a radically different method for representing a reality compatible with the model of spherical perspective, it is not possible to think of the future of image creation; but perhaps what is most important is the artistic and aesthetic ends that the new tools, inventions and technological solutions are supposed to serve. Even the most perfect new technology will remain only a novelty for a small group of pundits if it does not become functionalised in a specific application, if it does not serve an idea.
In this case, the aim is clear and formulated precisely. As a visual medium, film has developed, within a process of historically achieved technological, expressional (practical) and theoretical self-consciousness, specific methods of “recording an image of the visible world”, while viewers have become convinced that, in the process of recording, the world takes on the form of an illusory representation which has the virtue of truth. Put simply, the world in the image is the same world that we perceive not as viewers of a film, but with our eyes “unarmed” with any (optical) tool. However, as a matter of fact, the truth is quite different: the represented world differs fundamentally from the real world; the camera and the lens deform the world significantly; and on top of all that, one has to add the perception processes in us as viewers, responsible for creating images in our brains. So, the aim would be – according to Rybczyński – to depart from the creation of registrational (informative) images, and to use “electronic and computer-based techniques to generate convincing mental images”. And these mental images, thanks to the methods of image creation and recording that are at our disposal, could become – in a sense – the “content” of symbolic images, or so to say images which can, in the fullest possible sense, be an expression of imaging technologies not subject to the dictate of old visual regimes. Freeing oneself from the traditional, but erroneous, beliefs about the adequacy (and truthfulness) of image creation is the real task that the modern visual artist must face.
So, if we already know “how”, the question remains of “what”. And here, I won’t conceal my doubts about whether devoting so much attention to the technological perfection of the tools used to create image(s) has not eclipsed and supplanted the question of what should in fact be represented, or what is worth representing, or what we would like to say or express using the visions of imagery. I find it hard to unambiguously agree, for example, with the following assertion, even though I understand the doubts that are apparent within it: “In fact, we do not have a lot to say; we are quite lost; there is no specific idea about what to do next; we have to discover what we would like to express. Of course, it is there somewhere, but you need to know how to dig it out […]. The message, what we want to express, is related exactly to the revolution in science and communications”. (4) So, what can we express using the new image creation technologies? Is the message hidden in their newness itself, and in the technical and formal aspect of “improving” the picture? So, would the message be implied immanently by the medium used to create and communicate it?
These questions could be multiplied. I have an impression that, to a large extent, the humility with which the artist talks about what he can do, and about what should be the object of art, results from a deep understanding and analysis of tradition; from an awareness of the fact that expressing oneself through art is associated with a great responsibility. Rybczyński never formulates this in an extreme fashion, but it is beyond doubt that his stance as a human being and artist should be characterised by placing him not only in an aesthetic context, but also in an ethic one. What I mean by that is that the artist should face the most important challenges posed by the modern era he or she lives and works in a responsible and conscious manner. Most probably, for many readers of the Treatise, the opinion that the situation of imaging arts today might be compared to the “status of writing before the invention of print” will seem exaggerated; at least some will see it as a dramatic rhetorical figure. However, the greatest visionaries, thinkers and artists should not be denied the right to express opinions that seem exaggerated today but which may be positively verified by the reality very soon.
In his beautiful text on the method of Leonardo da Vinci, which has always fascinated the author of The Fourth Dimension, Paul Valéry wrote that “it is a delusion to wish to create in another man’s mind what imagination has created in one’s own mind”.(5)  It seems that Zbigniew Rybczyński has been following this delusion incessantly; maybe today he is closer to it than he has ever been.

  Cf. Piotr Zawojski, Wideo Zbigniewa Rybczyńskiego. W stronę nowego widzenia [Zbigniew Rybczyński’s videos. Towards a new vision], [in:] id.: Elektroniczne obrazoświaty. Między sztuką a technologią [Electronic image-worlds. Between art and technology]. Kielce 2000 and id.: Obrazy elektroniczne – eksplozja produkcji, implozja sensu? [Electronic images – An explosion of production, an implosion of meaning?]. “Format” 2001, p. 1-2.
2. Cf. Nim kamera znowu ruszy. Rozmowa ze Zbigniewem Rybczyńskim [Before the camera starts rolling again. An interview with Zbigniew Rybczyński], [in:] Piotr Zawojski, Wielkie filmy przełomu wieków. Subiektywny przewodnik [Great films of the turn of the century. A subjective guide]. Kraków 2007.
3.  Zbigniew Rybczyński, Spoglądając w przyszłość – wyobrażając prawdę [Looking into the future – imaging the truth]. „Kwartalnik Filmowy” 1997, no. 19-20, p. 258.
4.  Nim kamera znowu ruszy… [Before the camera starts rolling again], op. cit. p. 266.
5.  Paul Valéry, Wstęp do metody Leonarda da Vinci [Introduction to the method of Leonardo da Vinci], [in:] id.: Estetyka słowa. Szkice [The aesthetics of the word. Sketches]. Translated into Polish by Donata Eska and Aleksandra Frybesowa. Warszawa 1971, p. 70.

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