by Karen McCall
“Art opens up things and moves me toward oceanic feelings of limitlessness. It clearly adds to my existence and offers reparation.” — Janusz Dukszta
It’s been a long lonely winter. My dog died in December, and I have been housebound with a sick husband for months, COVID-19 running in the background like a bad movie. One of my favourite ways to drift through time and relax at home is to explore the thousands of photos on my computer. I’m reminded of happier days of freedom and creativity. Whole stories play out in the photos. I recently found a photo of Altared State, by renowned Canadian portrait painter Phil Richards. It’s a beautifully constructed interpretation of the Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria that has fascinated me for a long time. I have always found it beautifully theatrical, grandiose, and carnal.
Richards’ original 96”x72”x15” painting is installed along one wall in the bedroom of Janusz Dukszta’s small art filled apartment. Dukszta, an 88-year-old Polish immigrant and still-practising Toronto psychiatrist, has commissioned 80 portraits of himself in the last 50 years.
He is the elegant fellow in the blue pin-striped suit standing at the entrance of the Chapel looking towards the viewer, somewhat sardonically, almost flipping off the world he is leaving behind. The glorious folds of his gold raincoat, thrown casually over his shoulder, cascade flamboyantly behind him. A red curtain has been pulled aside so Dukszta, holding a guidebook in his right hand, has a private viewing of one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s most famous sculptures, The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.
Bernini’s sculptured installation in Rome is spectacular, and Richard’s painting contains a tiny perfect vision of the original. It mirrors the extraordinary sculpted drapery of Saint Theresa’s heavy robes. She is expertly rendered lying on a cloud, her mouth open, almost swooning in erotic rapture. An angel stands beside her with a golden spear.
I learn something new each time I look at Altared State. Recently, I read that Saint Theresa, the Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun, was known for her spiritual visions. The installation caused controversy in 1652 because of Saint Theresa’s intense state of ecstatic joy. Bernini had sculpted a look of physical orgasm on her face. Surely, he was influenced by Saint Teresa’s own description of her spiritual encounter with the angel who plunged his great, golden spear with a fiery iron tip into her heart:
The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul content with anything but God. (The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, Chapter 29)
Pain and ecstasy are ways of describing how Janusz Dukszta experienced life and art. Phil Richards recently wrote in an email: “Altared State is a play on the phrase ‘altered state’ which was commonly used in the 1960s in reference to mind altering recreational drug use. I always felt that Janusz, never a drug user or abuser, achieved his ‘transcendence’ through art. In the painting he is being completely absorbed into the High Baroque world of Bernini; a period he felt best suited his personality.”
I spent many hours over several days with Dukszta in 2016 for a project while I was a university student returning to complete a journalism degree. His serial commissioning of portraits might look like the fixation of a narcissist to those outside the Dukszta orbit. But once inside it was hard for me ever to see it that way. These weren’t just smiling portraits of a conceited man on a vanity project, although he did have a huge ego. These were full-blown often allegorical paintings that sometimes included figures representing his family and a circle of friends actively involved in supporting him.
The portraits explore and reveal his overwhelming need to be loved. But they also reflect his terrors as a 14-year-old child witness to the murder of Jewish families in Lida, Poland. “I can’t forget it but I never talked about it. The terror and the horror of it shatters the normalcy of life. I’m still shattered,” he told me. Through art he was also able to delve into his intellectual philosophies, the body politic, and sexual role-play as he came out late in his life as homosexual.
I saw Dukszta as one of those rare entities in the art world; an ordinary citizen who revived the lost art of patronage. His passion was an impressive way of keeping the art community alive. In the 1970-1980s, he commissioned young, struggling Toronto artists and inserted himself in their world. Phil Richards painted more than 20 portraits and began his first commission for Dukszta in 1971, while still a student at the Ontario College of Art. Richards became one of Canada’s most important portrait painters with commissions that included the 2012 official Diamond Jubilee Portrait of her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Many of Dukszta’s other portrait painters like Rae Johnson, Oliver Girling, and Michael Merrill went on to become internationally renowned artists.
I thought Dukszta’s experience in art was one of a kind until I read a 2016 New Yorker piece called “The Opposite of a Muse” by Anna Heyward. It’s an extraordinaire story about Isabelle Mège. In 1986, when she was a 20-year-old medical secretary in Paris, Mège began seeking out photographers from around the world to take her portrait. She was meticulous and stealthy in her obsession. Mège wrote only to those photographers whose work she was attracted to, whether they were well-known or not. She followed up relentlessly. By 2008, Mège had 300 mostly nude, black and white images, calling 135 of the photographs “the collection” that she maintained at museum quality for herself.
In the article, French photographer Jean-Claude Bélégou, compared Mège to other artists like photographer Cindy Sherman, who use their bodies in their own work. Heyward writes, “When I asked Mège about the idea of self-portraiture, … she told that me that it would not have fulfilled her; the exhilaration was entering, over and over again, the artist’s universe and the working process.”
I started to see Mège as Dukszta’s artistic soul mate. Both explored their own bodies—allowing the chosen artists or photographers to orchestrate the images, while purposely using their bodies to create them. Dukszta breathed art as part of his life. Like Mège, he felt exhilaration every time he came in contact with the imaginative process of the artist. He constantly pushed and provoked during the sittings and in the end, marveled at the creativity of the artists.
In the New Yorker article, Heyward explains: “Mège has never made an art object—but neither does a dancer, who makes art by moving around from place to place, under the direction of choreographers.”
The last time I saw him five years ago, Dukszta was at home in his Toronto apartment enjoying a glass of white wine, reading German author Alexander Kluge. The book was about how the communities humans construct are like a second skin that can make life bearable. “I’m still working with that inside my head and how it applies to me,” he said.
I realize now that his life in art was a way to get inside his own skin. Dukszta’s 800 square foot apartment in Toronto is a living art installation where his life comes together. Surrounded by part of his collection and self-portraits, it is his cocoon. His oasis.
Bright Persian and Polish rugs overlap on the floor and two sofas are piled high with embroidered and patterned cushions in red, blue, ochre, orange, and gold. Original art covers every space – hallways, kitchen, bedroom, dining room, and bathroom – even the shower curtain is hand painted.
Photographs are squeezed into spaces on the walls, bronze sculptures of Dukszta on the floor and tables, and books of art, history, philosophy, and literature are stacked in bookcases to the ceiling. Living room paintings are hinged or slide mounted on frames that can be pulled out and moved so there are multiple layers. And of course Altared State, his own private chapel, is in the bedroom.
For 50 years, he enthusiastically, almost recklessly, embraced art for his own survival in a way that was exciting and self-serving. “I never wanted a big house. This is where I feel my life around me,” he said. In this apartment, he is always loved.
Karen McCall is a writer who lives in Toronto where she was a part-time facilitator for creative writing workshops at Anishnawbe Health until COVID-19. Her work has appeared in the Ryerson Review of Journalism, emerge19 anthology, and The Globe and Mail.