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A Home with a History: a painter’s sensory sketchpad of a house

If light is nature’s way of corralling energy through space, the west London home of painter Antoni Malinowksi – where walls as well as canvases become academic and architectural experiments in pigment, tone and luminosity – is dynamic indeed. We glory in the glow of this Gesamtkunstwerk of Tiepolesque inventiveness

Sophie Barling
Chris Horwood
A Home with a History: a painter’s sensory sketchpad of a house

Antoni Malinowski is a man obsessed. In his Victorian terrace house in Shepherd’s Bush, he follows the flighty object of his infatuation from room to room, watching to see how it burnishes his surroundings with its presence, or alters their qualities by its absence. This Warsaw-born artist is hardly the first painter to be preoccupied with light; yet he is less interested in reproducing its effects on canvas than in enrolling light itself as an active participant in his work.

Much of this he achieves with nano-technology pigments. Between mouthfuls of Polish doughnut from a local bakery, Antoni explains how the wintery morning light is interacting with so-called interference pigments, made up of tiny particles of mica, in an abstract painting on his sitting room’s back wall. “They bend and scatter light in different directions, so the colour changes depending on the angle. In nature it happens on the wings of some butterflies and other insects.”

Colour, light’s great dependent, is a twin fascination for Malinowski, naturally. Inspired by a friend’s garden in Puglia, the ochre-dominated Shimmering Oracle, as that painting is called, is perfectly grounded by the parchment hue of the sitting room’s walls. When Malinowski inherited the house from his aunt in the early 1990s, “it was in an absolute state of ruin.” He stripped the walls of this room back to the original plaster, thinking it would do for the time being. “Thirty years later it’s still here.”

That plaster is a rare stable element in a house that is, as an extension of his studio upstairs, continually in flux. Objects shift places, canvases move around – most frequently in the spot above the kitchen’s wood-burning stove, which currently hosts another of his paintings, this one vermilion. “We needed something red in the winter gloom,” Antoni explains. Here, the walls shift and shimmer in the same way as his canvases – mica again. “It’s a natural glass, it’s a mineral. You mix a mica pigment with, say, acrylic polymer emulsion and then you layer it – it’s quite translucent so you need about five layers. And then you have this magical colour and shine. Sometimes it’s gold, sometimes silver…”

Antoni is no stranger to using walls as a canvas. Having studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and then at Chelsea College of Art, he began making large-scale wall drawings in the 1980s. A solo show at Camden Art Centre in 1997, which included both site-specific wall drawings and monumental paintings on canvas, cemented his interest in scale and brought him commissions from architects. “I use this house as my sketchpad,” he says, gesturing to a stretch of Pompeian-red wall immediately inside the front door; it’s a memento from this period, reflecting his burgeoning interest in ancient Roman murals, specifically the way vermilion behaves in space and light.

It was this “sketch”, enlivened with the artist’s signature mark-making, that persuaded Stephen Daldry and other emissaries from the Royal Court Theatre to commission Malinowski to decorate the three-level auditorium wall at their newly refurbished Sloane Square building. As a scholar at the British School at Rome, he had recently made several trips to the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, lured by its glowing vermilion wall paintings. “Each time,” he says, “I was sure the space was being enlarged by the colour somehow. So I did it at the Royal Court – and it worked. It enlarged the space fantastically, but I still couldn’t explain it. I have since learned it’s something to do with how the brain coordinates information about the different wavelengths.” Vermilion, he tells me, reflects only one wavelength: red, “which is unusual, because everything else reflects a mixture, so the colour remains unstable. It shifts with light and has this amazing tonal plasticity.” That is what interests him about working with colours and real pigments in architecture, “because it’s about that pulling and pushing. It’s another layer of space.”

If the ancient Romans are one source of inspiration for Antoni, the 18th-century Venetians are another – or one of them in particular. “Tiepolo is my god,” he declares. “God, god, god.” His first encounter with the artist’s frescos on the ceiling of the Gesuati church in Venice was a revelation. “When I first saw that fresco – and then later the ones at Würzburg – I thought: ‘This is like a huge abstract painting, with these great plains of colour. It’s like Rothko but on a gigantic scale in an 18th-century palette.’ It’s just amazing how he worked with space and light.”

Traces of Venice – where Antoni has since spent much time – are everywhere in this house. In the kitchen, vintage snapshots of the city are tacked to the panes of a cupboard door. A Murano-glass lantern hangs from the ceiling, leading the eye to unusually colourful, fragmentary cornicing – in fact remnants from an installation the artist made in Brixton some years ago, using mosaic glass from the Orsoni workshop. And brilliant against the metallic shimmer of the wall are his Venetian glasses, flea-market finds displayed like candy, an installation all of their own. As he says, “It’s like a painting. It changes with the light.” Next door, shelves hold hefty volumes on Venetian palazzi and Andrea Palladio, while a sculptural glass ceiling pendant is by Carlo Scarpa.

Venice has also been the site of performances in dialogue with Antoni’s work by his partner, Korean dancer and choreographer Yong Min Cho. Whether in the linearity of the former’s drawings or the patterns of his accumulative painted marks, there’s certainly a strong sense of movement, even theatre, in these works. Up in his east-facing studio, spectral chairs have begun appearing in more recent canvases; for some this may bring to mind Ionesco’s Les Chaises, but Antoni mainly attributes their appearance to seeing Pina Bausch’s chair-strewn dance, Café Müller, at Sadler’s Wells.

Nearby, another wall “sketch” reveals some of his preparation for a commission completed at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute in 2015: waves of marks in a Tiepolesque palette of pinks and yellows move like iron filings across a silvery mica background. Recalling the challenge of painting in tempera across the vast wall space of the institute’s foyer (where, to Antoni’s amusement, some visiting mathematicians declared his work a stochastic masterpiece), he says: “I have to find a rhythm. Day after day, week after week, month after month. So it has to be comfortable, it has to feel right – like dancing.” Light, colour, movement, rhythm – to Antoni Malinowski, it’s all one thing.

Further reading

Antoni Malinowski

Antoni is represented by l’étrangère

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