An Artistic Roadmap „Art of emotions. Emotions in art”

We are living at a time of constant change – a statement so obvious that it is almost a truism. In the context of the past year 2020, which will certainly go down in history, we have also heard countless summaries, reports, reflections and forecasts of the future. From these it follows that in the post-pandemic reality (which is still ahead of us) the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain.

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Author: Anna Palacz–Brzezińska, Translation: Dostępny
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Already at the beginning of the 21st century, modern reality began to be described by the military acronym VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Today, this trend is by no means a thing of the past in most areas of human life; on the contrary, it seems only to be getting worse, and the term “VUCA world” seems as apt and relevant as ever.

So how do we find ourselves again in such a constructed reality: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous? All these adjectives sound worrying to many of us, to say the least. According to analysts, the most important method, resulting directly from the description of VUCA characteristics, is the ability to adapt flexibly and courageously to unexpected events. Exactly: the ability, the skillfulness. It is therefore not an innate, ‘inborn’ quality, but something that can be learnt with practice. We often hear, if only in private conversations: “I have no artistic ability”, “I have a scientific mind”, “I am a humanist, I don’t know about numbers”. However, such common beliefs and labels we apply to ourselves, are not in line with neuroscience, which proves that the human brain is flexible, adaptable and constantly changing – meaning that we can learn and develop our abilities throughout our lives.

Joan Miró,”The Hope of a Condemned Man” (triptych), 1974 – webinar “Emotions as our roadmap”; source twitter.com

Although the brain, according to its researchers, has enormous potential, it is constantly under threat – above all, of psychological changes. Back in 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) calculated that around 322 million people worldwide – or nearly 4.5% of the global population – battle with depression. Furthermore, the organisation estimates that by 2030, depression will be the most common health disorder in the world. While it is commonly believed that cardiovascular and oncological diseases represent the major, most pressing challenge to humanity, abundant evidence suggests that mental and neurological disorders, and therefore diseases of the brain, are currently (and will continue to be in the future) the major global health problem.

In May 2020, the United Nations issued a report on the mental health impact of a brand new factor – the COVID-19 pandemic. UN experts explain that during the pandemic, many people around the world experience feelings of anxiety due to social isolation, fear of infection, and fear of losing loved ones. At the same time, a huge number of people have lost their jobs or are at risk of losing them, and therefore of losing their livelihoods or even the roof over their heads. In addition, thanks to internet access, which is now globally available as never before, false information is being spread about both the Coronavirus itself and how to combat it, further creating uncertainty. It is not surprising, then, that in the current epidemiological situation, higher than usual levels of anxiety, depression or general lowering of mood are being registered amongst populations across the globe.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Disappointed Souls (Les âmes déçues),1892 “Emotions as our guide”; source: artsy.net


Hestia Artistic Journey Foundation(APH) [Fundacja Artystyczna Podróż Hestii], in the face of such changeable and challenging daily reality, as we have all experienced almost a year ago, also had to demonstrate its ability to adapt to the new circumstances. Sceptics might say that at a time of crisis, art (or culture more broadly) are not the most essential human needs, according to Maslow’s famous pyramid. Careful observation of the global response at the start of the pandemic, however, proved just how many people turned to culture during this difficult time; from online philharmonic concerts to learning new creative skills or humorous recreations of scenes from famous works of art to ‘compulsive’ Netflix series viewing – all these forms of cutural interaction experienced a real boom last spring. The APH Foundation has also decided to meet this need. Between March and June 2020, its team conducted a series of online meetings entitled “Sztuka ku pokrzepieniu serc” [Art to uplift the hearts], comprising a whole spectrum of diverse initiatives. The offer included lectures for adults and interactive meetings for children, as well as serious problem-solving and lifestyle stories about artistic biographies from behind the scenes, from Japanese woodcuts through impressionism to iconic Polish posters of the communist era. In total, over the course of three months, the Foundation conducted an impressive 68 online events devoted to art in its broadest sense, with almost 5,000 participants. We believe that such a result indicates that indeed many people were looking for solace in art, and that interest in ‘art themes’ increased at the time of the first lockdown in Poland – a time marked by constant change and uncertainty of the new situation.

Lucio Fontana, “Conzetto Spaziale”, 1967; source: christies.com

A situation that was new in the spring – and could optimistically be regarded as ‘temporary’ – turned out to be ‘ongoing’ in the autumn. In a high proportion of the population, confinement and immobility created a sense of weariness, frustration, anger and rebellion. This has been accompanied by serious social unrest caused by the worsening economic situation amongst the representatives of many sectors of the economy or by political decisions that have undermined human rights and resulted in mass protests throughout the country. During the second lockdown Hestia’s Artistic Journey also prepared a programme tailored to the current and updated needs – this time much more balanced, deepened and focused on the psychological aspect of art.

Henri Matisse, “Pianist and Checker Players”, 1924 – webinar “ How to access emotions”; source: wikipedia.com

„Art of emotions. Emotions in art” is a series of webinars conducted in December 2020 and January 2021. Its most important objective was to combine competences from the fields of art history and psychology in such a way, that they would support, inspire and motivate an audience facing everyday challenges.

In the field of research on the types of emotions that artworks can evoke, numerous questions are posed: whether they are specific emotions such as anger, depression or happiness, or more general reactions that involve the viewer on a ‘like-dislike’ level. A wide variety of emotions can be experienced in response to art. It is worth taking a closer look at them, searching for guidelines in dealing with difficult and unpredictable situations – comments Magdalena Kąkolewska, President of the Hestia Artistic Journey Foundation.

So we invited therapists and coaches working with emotions to join the conversations to find the points where these two areas intersect. Starting with examples of world-class works of art, both ancient and contemporary, we asked some very deep and penetrating questions about the human psyche, its mechanisms and ways of coping with emotional challenges. Are all emotions good? How to show them – and is it even worth it? How to learn to rest not only physically but also mentally? Where does disappointment come from, and what does our own anger tell us? Among other things, this is what the participants in the “Art of Emotions…” webinars found out. It was not, however, an attempt at a real, professional psychotherapy, but an opportunity to initiate a dialogue, formulate one’s own reflections and search for answers to important (perhaps previously consciously unexpressed) questions about one’s own state of mind, here and now. Interestingly, however, the therapists and trainers invited by the Foundation, who had not previously worked with art, after participating in the project, declared their willingness to include discussions about art as a tool in their professional practice. It has been known for a long time that acting-out or even simple role-playing can be helpful in re-counting difficult experiences that have been pushed out of consciousness. In a similar way, based on the example of e.g. representational painting, it is sometimes easier to talk about one’s own emotions and experiences by attributing them to a painted figure. There is even more room for interpretation and experience in abstract art, especially in the area of expressive abstraction, which in itself is often a registration of the artist’s inner states. The viewer, even unconsciously, can empathise with them or, while trying to guess and interpret “what the artist had in mind”, project them onto his or her own experiences – and thus become better acquainted with them. Another important element of the meetings was their interactivity: the opportunity to ask the psychologists questions on chat, to express one’s own interpretation of a given work of art or a motif it contained, and finally to build a certain sense of community among the regular participants of the webinars.

Leon Tarasewicz, Untitled, 2018; source: polswissart.pl

What is also important, the webinars were initially intended only for the employees of the Foundation’s patron, Sopot-based insurance company ERGO Hestia, and were designed with this in mind. One of the missions of the APH Foundation is to build a bridge between the worlds of art and business – not only by supporting young artists with funds from a company with a strong market position, but also vice versa: by supporting and educating the insurer’s employees and business partners with regard to art appreciation, or in the context of acquring the variety of skills that business can learn from artists. ERGO Hestia is one of the few companies in Poland to appreciate the enormous potential of art as an HR and CSR tool, and through the Hestia Artistic Journey Foundation it translates this potential into real action. According to Małgorzata Sztabińska, director of the Human Resources Department at ERGO Hestia:

Our staff are keen to take advantage of online encounters with the arts. This proves that arts appreciation as a corporate culture value can be real and is not reserved for a select few. This project is great through its use of metaphor and non-obvious narrative building. The emotional storm brewing globally due to pandemic related issues is not subsiding. People are still looking for answers on how to deal with this situation. In this context, art offers many clues in the search for a diagnosis of one’s emotions.

Edvard Munch, “Melancholy, 1894 – webinar “Emotions in the art work”; source: wikipedia.com

This is a very important and valuable conclusion that gives the project “The Art of Emotion…” a practical dimension. For years, emotionality has been associated with a lack of professionalism, and so-called soft competencies in management have been pushed into the background as less important than hard indicators and numerical data. Emotions and business were being separated by a conventional, yet very sharply drawn boundary. A boundary drawn artificially – after all, we cannot leave our private problems and mental indispositions outside the office door – and resulting in toxic working environments and a growing professional inequality. Although it is still a relatively new and unrecognised issue, more and more companies are recognising the importance of investing in the emotional development of employees, finding in it the key to success in building a well-functioning team of professionals. This is confirmed by Director Sztabińska:

Emotions, positive or negative, are real. They are not, as has been thought for years, something we can leave at home or simply turn off. Effective and wise team management is based on a conscious approach to the diversity of the team members’ personalities and thus the diversity of their daily emotions.

Henri Rousseau (Le Douanier/Customs Officer), The Football Players, 1908 – webinar “ How to access emotions”; source: henrirousseau.net

Art – both ancient and contemporary, figurative and abstract – comes to the aid of raising awareness, naming and constructively expressing these emotions. During the meetings of the “Art of Emotions…” series, the participants analysed and interpreted the emotional overtones of works selected by the tutors, and thanks to the content-based advice of expert quests, they learned how to use their emotions, treating them as guidelines or warning signals.

The best evidence of the public demand for initiatives such as “The Art of Emotions. Emotions in Art” is the rate of participation, which grew with every subsequent event in the series – the popularity of the meetings prompted the Foundation to open them also to the public outside of ERGO Hestia. In the end, hundreds of people attended the webinars. Although the phase of webinars with invited psychologists has come to an end, this does not mean the end of the project, which has now moved to an even more interactive and accessible platform for its participants: a group on Facebook. Its administrators publish reproductions of artworks along with outlining their art-historical contexts, while raising questions about the human psychological condition and inviting members of the group into the conversation – an opening-up and creative dialogue.

Jan Vermeer, “The Milkmaid, approx.1658 – 1661- webinar “Emotions in the art work”; source:

Starting from the definition of contemporaneity as a VUCA time – a time of constant change and uncertainty– The Hestia Artistic Journey Foundation undertook the task of educating on the tools and skills to cope with these challenges, as well as raising awareness on the importance of the psychological, the inner well-being. These tools, which are in line with the Foundation’s profile, have been found in the field of the arts. Małgorzata Sztabińska summarized their effective, practical dimension: [Working with art] is about unlocking the potential of our staff, their creativity, their openness to change and building courage – skills that we can learn precisely from artists. In this context, it is also worthwhile to quote the words of Andy Rottenberg, probably the most popular Polish art historian and critic, which she delivered during the European Forum for New Ideas devoted to visions and forecasts of a post-pandemic world: The artist is the only witness to history who can be trusted(…) today, however, nobody listens to the creators of culture. Reactions to what they say arrive either too late or are non-existent. Artists do not operate in a vacuum, they operate vis-a-vis of reality. And suddenly it turns out, that this reality is unimaginable. In the process of attempting to understand, tame and imagine the ‘unimaginable’, it is worth drawing upon what we can learn from the art world.


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