Reflections on the Imagination of Nick Kraczyna – v 3.0

Reflections on the Imagination of Nick Kraczyna

Tu non sei che una nube dolcissima, bianca
impigliata una notte fra i rami antichi.
— Cesare Pavese –

You are but a very sweet white cloud
caught one night among ancient branches


“Sognando tra i rami antichi” — “Dreaming among antique branches” — the mostra by Swietlan “Nick” Kraczyna now featured at Barga’s Gallery Communale, closes this Sunday. It is the sparest and yet arguably the most profound of his many Barga exhibitions over the past half century.


The protagonist of “Sognando,” a somnolent female nude embracing the limbs of a flowering tree, dreams her way around the walls of the exhibition space in a series of engravings and drawings that vary only minutely in shade, color and tone. The effect borders for an instant on monotony. Then, with remarkable subtlety, it takes on the enigmatic quality of dreams themselves: a journey in which minute variations are the signposts of meditative thought. The dreamer is naked and unambiguously erotic, her legs entwined around the sturdiest bough of the tree. In all else, however, she is ambiguity personified. As the Italian poet Cesare Pavese suggests in the lines that inspired Kraczyna, she is “but an intensely sweet white cloud, caught one night among ancient branches.”


Kraczyna is himself an inveterate dreamer, as well as a chronicler and interpreter of dreams. He is also a revered teacher whose yearly workshops in Barga, focused on his own his influential multi-plate color etching technique, have attracted accomplished artists from all over the world. He lives in the former home of Michelangelo’s teacher, the 15th century Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio.


Whether as teacher or creator, he has a rare ability to connect tangibly with the immediate present — with the practical concerns of his students, venerable friends and fresh acquaintances, and in polymathic conversations that range across a dizzying span of literature, history and science. Yet at the same time, his inner gaze remains trained on the ambiguous universe that underlies the visible world: the universal archetypes, framed in myth and legend, that that move our psyches, deriving their power precisely from the fact that they are hidden. The shadowy realm that Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious.”


Ecstatic moments are often central to Kraczyna’s exploration of that realm, whether in the form of explicit eroticism or what for him is its metaphoric sibling, the heady rush of artistic creativity. He takes the word at its original meaning in Greek, “ekstasis,” which roughly translates as “standing outside oneself,” escaping the bounds of conventional inhibitions. His musings on the act of creation fueled decades of work based on the myth of Icarus, the Greek embodiment of imaginative risk, whose doomed flight on feathered wings held together by wax — and fatally melted by the sun — is at once a warning and an irresistible spur. Icarus is a dreamer too, and in that guise his tale is linked by Kraczyna with Shakespeare’s ecstatic fantasies in “Midsummer’s Night Dream and the hallucinatory spectacle of carnivals. Carnivals are also the territory of Harlequin, the masked comic deceiver, who romps and dances through Kraczyna homages to the music of his celebrated fellow Russians, Igor Stravinsky and Peter Tschaikovsky.


These are themes that have preoccupied most of Kraczyna’s prolific career, alternating with excursions into photography and pictorial landscape that only at first glance seem oblivious to the hidden universe. The best-known example, surely, is his portrait of Barga, an iconic masterpiece of color and composition. Yet even here, the town is presented as though in a dream, its celebrated Duomo a protective parent standing watch over a walled brood of houses gazing with a mixture of hope and anxiety into the countryside beyond.


Or consider his photograph of Florentines crowded into a fragile skiff so narrow that it offers only standing room, caught in the raging flood waters of the River Arno in 1966. For the journalist in me, it is among greatest documentary images of the 20th century, a stark depiction of 10 stunned men and women suddenly transformed into refugees from their ordinary roles as shopkeepers, clerks, shopkeepers, students and workers.


Coincident with its straightforward reporting, however, it is something far more suggestive, an allegory drawn from the endless saga of human trauma, and reaching deeply into that reservoir of archetypes. Charon ferrying the dead, not yet fully aware of what has befallen them, across the River Styx. The family of Noah, nervously setting off in the Ark in a tumultuous storm.


These insights have the raw edge of biography. Swietlan Kraczyna was born in Poland, to ethnic Russian parents, in the singularly unfortunate year of 1940. In the next five years, Poland is the scene of ruthless invasion by both the Nazi Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army, two of the largest and most lethal military forces ever assembled. It will experience the levelling of hundreds of cities and towns, and the most harrowing passages of the Holocaust. In 1945, after fleeing across more than a thousand devastated kilometres, the Kraczynas are halted in Germany and interred in a refugee camp.


Swietlan Nicholas Kraczyna is 11 years old, in 1951, when a religious charity sponsors his family’s relocation to America. He will remain in the United States
slightly more than a decade, finishing a university degree in the arts, before he and his young wife, Amy Luckenbach, move permanently to Tuscany. Luckenbach, a renowned puppeteer, passed away in 2009.


Those initial two decades in Kraczyna’s life — in their resonance with epic biblical traumas and greek myth, and with the archetypal “ancient branches” of collective human experience — continue to animate his vision. Not as explicit statements, but in the ambiguous currents that flow beneath a dreaming woman clinging to a flowering tree.


Article by Frank Viviano – – all articles by Frank Viviano can be seen here