Hans-Joachim Petersen, "Stefan Szczesny : Paradise on Earth and the Perfect Wave"
Stefan Szczesny : Paradise on Earth and the Perfect Wave, by Hans-Joachim Petersen, PhD, Berlin 2020
Using a narrow board to ride the crest of a breaking wave has been a cultural skill among native Polynesian and Hawaiian islanders for over a thousand years and has left a deep impact on them, both spiritually and culturally. “Eddie” Aikau, a descendant of priests who once served the kings of Hawaii, was the first big wave surfer who, as a lifeguard, accepted the challenge of those monster waves and saved hundreds of lives until 1978, when he himself lost his life on the open sea. From Hawaii, surfboarding conquered the entire world, as there are equally suitable beaches in the United States, Europe, Africa and Australia. Moreover, surfing became an official Olympic discipline in 2020.
Frank Maass, a member of the former Mistral Windsurf World Cup Team, and Stefan Szczesny, the artist from Saint-Tropez, have now formed a unique joint venture in which they have created an artistic monument to surfing. The surfer designed two different surfboards, to which the artist then added artwork on both sides. The smaller one, called Thruster, is the most popular surfboard in the world, with three fins – frisky, agile and easy to manoeuvre, and the other, somewhat bigger surfboard is called Malibu and has an excellent upward and forward thrust – a surfboard that whisks a surfer nicely along the waves.
The result is a limited edition of 30 multicoloured and rounded 3D sculptures that capture the fascination of speed, the force of nature and a defiance of gravity. Szczesny himself was a surfer when he was young, and his oeuvre is dominated by waves, palm trees, women, fruit, light, the coast and the sea. Born in Munich, the artist felt drawn to the south of France with its crystal-clear light, sea and wind, and particularly to this little village with its international flair and its many beaches and bays. Surfing as a lifestyle has had a certain fascination for many artists. During the Summer of Love in 1968, for example, Andy Warhol made his 90-minute movie San Diego Surf in La Jolla, California, under the motto: “Pop art, surfing and surrealism for all tastes”. Julian Schnabel, the star of New York’s Bad Painting scene loved getting onto a surfboard and riding the waves near Montauk or Maui.
After many years in Cologne, New York and in numerous other countries, Stefan Szczesny, a Neo-Fauve, has frequently painted artwork on yachts, houses, hotels and even a Zeppelin, and he is also a talented designer of beautiful everyday objects. Like Robert Rauschenberg, Jean Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtenstein and Keith Haring, he has developed his own distinctive painterly handwriting, transforming vases, bicycles, fashionable clothing and cars into works of art.
Illus. 1: Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, ca. 1832, colour woodcut, Tokyo National Museum.
Powered by nature
Katsushika Hokusai’s Wave is the best-known Japanese print in the world. It shows three boats off the coast of Yokohama with the volcano Mount Fuji in the background. The dark blue water of the rough sea tosses about the dancing boats as they endeavour to cross the wave trough at high speed. Applying the psychologising technique of an Edo artist, he depicts the fishermen cowering in their boats, expecting the hostile wave to come crashing down on them at any time, with its fingers of spray already threatening them. It is a symbolist metaphor of life endangered by the sea in the presence of the sacred mountain. We never find out whether these courageous fishermen were eventually shipwrecked – like the crew of Theodore Gericault’s monumental painting, The Raft of the Medusa, as they drift along the coast of Senegal.
Modernism’s exhilarated fascination with speed started with the Manifesto of Futurism in 1909, when the artist Filippo Marinetti from Milan stated that a racing car was more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace. This marble sculpture of the goddess of victory, referred to by Marinetti, dates from the 2nd century BC and can be seen in the Louvre. She was depicted about to land, and is bent slightly forward. Her open wings are full of air, pressed backward, and her weight has shifted somewhat forward onto her right leg. It seems that even when humans were still gods, they were forced to rein in their exuberance to stop them from falling into the sea like Icarus.
The abstract sculpture Bird in Space by Constantin Brancusi (ca. 1940), Alexander Calder’s mobiles moving in the wind and George Ritchie’s kinetic objects of the 1970s are more poetic depictions of motion. They capture that harmonious balance between rest and motion, a stable position and weightlessness, solidity and lightness, and then carry this balance into contemporary art. A rigid sculpture made from marble, bronze, iron or wood descends from its pedestal, detaches itself from its mould and begins to recompose itself within the mental space of the viewer’s awareness and imagination, swaying to and fro between instantaneous and inert and oscillating between extremely slow and lightning-fast. The video The Raft by the media artist Bill Viola from Long Beach (2004) strikingly enacts this interplay as a homage to Gericault, showing a life-and-death performance on the open sea.
Illus. 2 : Constantin Brancusi : Bird in Space, 1932-40, polished brass, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Peggy Guggenheim Foundation, Venice.
Stefan Szczesny’s surfboards blur all borderlines between painting and sculpture. They are more like an exuberant abundance of colours, a collage of movement and rest with dozens of deliberately placed sections composed of vertical and horizontal lines. They can be seen in all colours of the rainbow, ranging from orange through light green to dark blue. The pedestal on which these sculptures are placed is the sea, which gives each surfboard stability, buoyancy and speed. Receiving their impetus from the waves of the troubled sea, they glide past landscapes of earthly paradise, continually spelt out in a grand humanist gesture as harbingers of beauty, peace and harmony. The artist uses his thematic repertoire like a sign language of humanity, each time in a completely new way.
Bearing markings that protect against evil, each painted board glides noiselessly across the surface of the sea, bearing the surfer through enormous masses of heavy water, capable at any time of burying him or her in their quest for the perfect wave: powered by nature. Such extreme surfing is of course a spiritual act, the unequal fight between a trained sportsperson and the primaeval forces of this planet. Here only strong robust nerves can give the surfer the kick they are after, and can ensure their survival among the pounding waves of the stormy sea with its high wind speeds and undercurrents. It is a balancing act between the body and the spirit, as any misalignment with a wave will result in the surfer’s total defencelessness against the natural forces of the ocean. Especially on Maui and in Nazare.
However, anyone who can read the waves will want to catch a wave from its peak, where the lift is most powerful, because the wave is still unbroken. Furthermore, all waves travel at different speeds and can therefore only be mastered with fortitude, stamina and good risk awareness while under enormous pressure from fear. This continually creates new situations and centrifugal forces, straining a person’s mental and physical fitness to the extreme and making all the difference between a good surfer and a world champion like Frank Maass. Yet no matter how good a surfer may be, ultimately all surfers are united by an unrivalled feeling of a global lifestyle that is full of freedom, enjoying life in a natural environment: “Hang loose”.
Saint-Tropez and the fascination of modern art
Stefan Szczesny lives and works within his own tropical garden, close to the Plage des Salins on the peninsular of Saint-Tropez. For him, a surfboard is a timeless shape developed by nature – like a fish or a leaf. But he has also been captivated since his youth by the surfers’ positive attitude to life, the bliss of the perfect wave and the fascinating aura of this sport.
Understandably, this is also a major feature of his paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, which are simply moments of transient joy captured by the artist. For many decades now they have successfully resisted that enormous pressure of the hustle and bustle of contemporary art, with its modern spirit of political correctness, cliquish cronyism and never-ending global trade shows, and they remind us yet again of the origin of our lives in the light of universal creation – paradise on earth: a zest for life as well as the warmth, light and power of nature to heal and give joy.
In his art, Szczesny has been influenced by others who lived in Saint-Tropez, such as Henri Matisse and Paul Signac, a passionate sailor who was also a marine painter and held the rank of an officer. The colours and the light of the south, the gentle wind and the endless sandy beaches make Saint-Tropez the most beautiful place in the South of France, and Paul Signac was the first Parisian artist to discover it in 1892. So he bought Villa La Hune, where he was visited by George Seurat, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. In fact, Matisse created his masterpiece there in the summer of 1904 – a painting that became world-famous and put the little village at the centre of the avant-garde.
Illus. 3: Henri Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, oil on canvas, 1904, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
Henri Matisse, who presents a fast-paced and light-hearted narrative of the scenery of Saint-Tropez in blue, red, green and yellow, transforms its loud colours, naked bathers, the sun, the light, the sun-scorched beach, the sea and a sailing boat into an idyllic scene. He captures the evening atmosphere in the same way that Charles Baudelaire saw it as a utopia in his poem L'lnvitation au voyage: “Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté, luxe, calme et volupté.”
The shimmering air of the harbour, the exploding colours of the evening sky and the golden light on the sea became the favourite theme of the artists’ group Les Fauves (the “wild beasts”). It is a paradise for Stefan Szczesny, just as Tahiti was a paradise for Paul Gauguin. Quite soon it will be like a dream when his surfboards will be dancing on the waves, just as it would be like a dream if a sailor of a Wally or a majestic Schooner were to hoist a flag painted by Szczesny at Les Voiles de Saint-Tropez. After all, painting on canvas is an art that he has mastered like none other. The same is true of his ability to paint on beautiful objects, and so paradise on earth becomes truly tangible when these object give pleasure and joy while surfing or sailing.