Jerzy Nowosielski, photo Włodzimierz Wasyluk
Jerzy Nowosielski, photo Włodzimierz Wasyluk

Contemporary painter, illustrator, designer and philosopher largely influenced by Russian iconography and the Byzantine style. Born on the 7th of January 1923 in Kraków, died on the 21st of February 2011 in Kraków.

Among Nowosielski's earliest works are early-1940s representations of female figures: emotional, Modigliani-like nudes (Nude in Landscape, 1940), as well as numerous, "full of Byzantine seriousness", as Edward Ekier noticed, hieratic-poetic portraits (Portrait of the Artist's Wife, 1945; Woman on a Beach, 1946;Woman and a ShipWoman Sitting on a Bed, both 1947). Also in the subsequent periods of his practice he often spoke of his masculine fascination with the female body, his erotic dreams and fantasies - he often called his art "erotic figuration".

Orthodox Fascinations

As a teenager, he dwelled within the circle of influence of both the Greek Catholic (Uniate) Church and the Orthodox Church. His pilgrimage to the Pochayiv Lavra in the Volhynia (then Poland, today Ukraine) formed a turning point in his aristic life. He later wrote: "I, a Polish painter, was spiritually born in the Pochayiv Lavra..."

He made a number of trips to Lviv between 1937-1939, where he visited the Ukrainian Museum and its rich collection of icon paintings. Thus began the artist's lifelong fascination with Eastern Galician, or Western Ukrainian, iconographic painting. These became engraved so deeply in his memory that years later he reminisced"

It was for the first time in my life that I encountered great art in such a concentration and such quantity. The experience was so powerful I will never forget that encounter. Looking, I was simply experiencing physical pain... I was unable to move from one gallery to the other. Everything that I subsequently did as a painter, even if it may have seemed a departure from, it, was defined by that first meeting with icons at the Lvov museum.

Almost simultaneously, he became interested in 20th-Century European art, which he initially studied only from reproductions, travelling to see them in person many years later.

In 1940, he matriculated into the Department of Decorative Painting at Kraków's Kunstgewerbeschule, studying under Stanisław Kamocki. He met, among others, Adam Hoffmann, Kazimierz Mikulski, and Mieczysław Porębski. After two years of study in the Nazi-occupied city, he requested to join the monastic order of St. John the Baptist in Lavra near Lviv. He fell ill when painting an Orthodox church in Bolechów and was sent home after only four months. He planned to return, but the war made it impossible. Still, during his brief stay at the Lavra he managed to become familiar with both the icon as such and iconography(which he practiced himself). The power of those religious-artistic experiences did not protect him from temporarily losing his faith: towards the end of the war, probably because of war-related experiences, he abandoned his conviction about the existence of a "metaphysical reality". He would grapple with the dilemma for decades, and his art became, among other things, as he himself stressed on many occasions, a reflection of the angel and the devil fighting inside man.

Kantor and "The Group of Young Artists"

Jerzy Nowosielski, "Nude with Glasses", 1945,  courtesy Teresa i Andrzej Starmachowie
Jerzy Nowosielski, Nude with Glasses, 1945,  courtesy Teresa i Andrzej Starmachowie

Following his experiences in Lviv, Nowosielski returned to Kraków in 1943. He revived his friendships and actively participated in the underground artistic life. In 1945, he began studying at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts under the tutelage of Eugeniusz Eibisch, only to drop out a year later. He earned his degree in 1961. During that time he joined the circle of Tadeusz Kantor's acolytes, as well as the Group of Young Artists, renamed during the "thaw" period (1957) as the Kraków Group II.

In 1946, Nowosielski took part in the Group of Young Artists' group exhibition at Kraków 's Palace of Art, preceded by the publication of a manifesto of "heightened realism" drawn up by Kantor and Porębski. He also participated in various Exhibitions of Modern Art (Kraków, 1948 and Warsaw, 1957 & 1959). He attended a fine artists conference at Nieborów, one of the events initiating the period of socialist realism in Poland, and during the "thaw" period, the historical exhibition of the Group of Nine Contemporaries (1955). His works were shown alongside those of Tadeusz Brzozowski, Maria Jarema, Tadeusz Kantor, Jadwiga Maziarska, Kazimierz Mikulski, Erna Rosenstein, Jerzy Skarżyński, and Jonasz Stern.

Nowosielski was also involved in pedagogical work. In 1947, he became Kantor's assistant at the State Graduate School of Fine Arts in Kraków. Three years later, following Kantor's firing, he resigned and moved to Łódź; from 1957 he taught classes there at the State Graduate School of Fine Arts (running the Decorative Fabrics Design studio). In 1962, he returned to Kraków and started teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts, taking the painting atelier over from Jerzy Fedkowicz. He received the title of Professor in 1976 and continued teaching until his retirement in 1993.

Acts: Misticism of Female Nudity

Jerzy Nowosielski, Nude - Toilet With Lamp, 1973, polymer paint, photo courtesy of the Muzeum Okręgowe in Bydgoszcz
Jerzy Nowosielski, Nude - Toilet With Lamp, 1973, polymer paint, photo courtesy of the Muzeum Okręgowe in Bydgoszcz
 

In the 1950s, he created a kind of intimate coupon book, comprising a series of paintings and drawings of sadomasochistic compositions (male sadism coexisting here with female masochism). We see images of naked young women here, sometimes in bizarre positions, bound by ropes (Execution, 1949). They correspond with the mood of a piece called Beatrix Cenci (1950) - commenting on it and complementing it, as well as heralding some of the themes that will soon appear in the artist's work, particularly in the representations of sportswomen (Basketball Players, 1950), chiefly gymnasts (Gymnasts - see numerous works from the 1950s and 1960s), often depicted in surprising perspectives and poses (Swimmers, 1964; Circus Rehearsal, 1966), sometimes in a moving expressive manner (Death of the Circus Rider, 1963). According to critics following suggestions made by the artist himself, through the "cultivation of the female body, the mysticism of its nudity, a sacralisation of femininity itself, Nowosielski lifts us into a spiritual dimension. And then we see the woman as holy, as Ecclesia and a redemptive Goddess" (Andrzej Szczepaniak). The painter himself wrote:

...a full synthesis of matters spiritual with the empirical reality occurs precisely in the figure of the woman. ... If a painter is interested in corporality, in some way of uniting the spiritual with the world of physical entities, it is utterly natural that he develops an interest in the appearance of the woman.

For the sake of precision it should be noted that the appearance changed over time in his painting: from figures in turn plump and slim (1940s), through stocky women workers (1950s) to the slender "gymnasts" and hieratic "Negresses" (Negress on a Beach, 1982,1994; Sunset Boulevard, 1986; Black Nude, 1987; Memories from Egypt, 1992). Kantor said of such and similar pieces that "Nowosielski had the beginnings of Byzantine nostalgia. Still, his nudes were an expression of sadism, and the pears and apples in his still lifes looked like remnants of the Pompeian cataclysm".

Parallel to this kind of painterly exercise there appeared in Nowosielski's practice portraits of men (Portrait of Man with Guitar, 1945), and the first still lifes, often with musical instruments. In time, however, he became more interested in the simple utensils amid which women practice their daily hustle and bustle: enamel pots, pans, jugs, bowls, colanders. Already in the first post-war decade the artist started also referring thematically to Orthodox Christianity, chiefly through landscapes featuring the familiar silhouette of the countryside Orthodox church (Small Orthodox Church, 1944), better known, though, from his later works, especially those from the 1970s-1990s (during that period Nowosielski created numerous blue-green compositions; he also made several "portraits" of the Pochayiv Lavra - in 1983 and 1988; see also his soft, "impressionist" Landscapes with an Orthodox Church from the early 1990s).

Late 40-ties: Dark Tones

Jerzy Nowosielski, "Dark Half Nude", 1971, oil on canvas, 99 x 79,5 cm, photo: Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu
Jerzy Nowosielski, "Dark Half Nude", 1971, oil on canvas, 99 x 79,5 cm, photo: Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu

The works created immediately after the war were marked by expressive, fleshy colours, sometimes dominated by dark tones, sometimes bearing the stigma of an expression of grim forces (Scream, 1943). It was actually written at that time that Nowosielski was a man of a "pessimistic psychological disposition" (Maria Majka). Generally however, the 1940s and 1950s were a non-homogeneous period when the artist searched for his own way, as evidenced by the already mentioned works, as well as the period's Cubist Abstractions - a series of drawings (1942) and compositions (including drawings) heralding a shift towards conventionality, or even formal asceticism.

During that time Nowosielski remained also under the influence of other tendencies that were inspiring Kantor's circle. Those were, among other things, geometric abstraction, in a somewhat milder, sometimes almost lyrical, version. We will find traces of that inspiration in the work from the period of both Kantor as well as Jonasz Stern and Andrzej Wróblewski. It seems that a groundbreaking period for the metamorphosis and stabilisation of the poetics of Nowosielski's painting occurred between 1945-1948, when he made stylised nudes, still lifes (highly pared-down now), and Utrillean cityscapes, and above all, paintings almost unequivocally abstract. He made a series of paintings at the time (Archangel's Wing, Winter in Russia, both 1947; Nude and First Snow, 1948), with the perhaps most well-known of them all - The Battle of Addis Ababa (1947), which to this day remain his showpieces. He combined in them, with utmost skill, a thin black line outlining figures (squares, triangles, or, less often, circles - the latter will gain a fully standalone status only in 1970s paintings) with pure, luminous colour whose intensity often produces the effect of glowing forms (he thus often achieved the illusion of a deep space, "leading" the painting "beyond", as it were, the visible, opening it to the viewer's extrasensory perception - see Bathroom Floor, Fire, both 1948).

Eschatological Realism: The Icons

Jerzy Nowosielski, Pantokrator, 60,2 x 34,6 cm,  photo: press materials
Jerzy Nowosielski, Pantokrator, 60,2 x 34,6 cm,  photo: press materials

The ultimate formation of the means of expression in Nowosielski's painting owed also to his interest in surrealism. As a result of complex inspirations the characteristic features of his art developed, in which the apparent simplicity of a two-dimensional "modelling" typical of icon painting coexists with unusual solutions for perspective and composition, often accompanied by a thematic boldness (e.g. eroticism) characteristic of provocative surrealism. Moreover, Nowosielski's "icons", considered by Mieczysław Porębski to be examples of "eschatological realism", bespeak of a continued striving to transgress the border between the "physical" and the "spiritual", the "secular" and the "holy", the "profanum" and the "sacrum"... As far as the visual aspect is concerned, besides the elements already mentioned, the viewer is enchanted by a heavy, characteristic (with its own duct, tension, and rhythm), clear line and an attachment to a warm colour palette. The painter himself is convinced that had he not been familiar with innovative modern art, the results of his artistic meeting with Orthodoxy would have had an entirely different appearance.

Nowosielski's art is not only based on the motif, but also, it is built around a conscious "language" with which the motif is depicted. A "language" that has evolved, starting with the figurative paintings and drawings from the late 1940s, some of them perhaps still formally awkward, but already signaling the clear thematic vistas that in the following decades will be defined and consolidated by the artist. Changes in Nowosielski's art occurred under the influence of the afore-mentioned geometric-lyrical abstraction (the artist's going through the experienced twice, at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, and, fascinatingly, in the late 1990s, going radically against the grain of current artistic trends) as well as surrealism. Further evolution took place, by means of the icon, in the area of representative, figurative art. Abstraction (he initially made compositions closely related especially to the poetics of Mondrian, and in the latest period, paintings bearing an affinity with Mark Rothko's chromatic abstraction) produced simpler modeling, a rejection of a "painterly" quality on behalf of a style closer to drawing - flatter spaces, fresher and lighter colour tones - to put it simply, a move away from the concreteness of realistic narration, detail, descriptiveness, towards generalisation, conventionality. At the same time, in figuration, protected by the testimony of the eye, Nowosielski often seemed to regain his naivety, whereas in abstraction he remained constrained by the discourse, the compulsion of harmony. There was a paradox in this: though, as can be supposed, he identified more closely with figuration (peculiar, "spiritual", yet still figuration), it is abstraction that is closer to convention in his case. Generally however, his painting as a whole "derives" from the observation of nature, or its personal perception, but, in order to be closer to convention, depicts it using abstract, geometric simplifications. Hence its perspective distortions, narrow compositions and aggressive framing of figures, simplified modeling, rhythmised compositions of virtually two-dimensional forms (patches of colour), and a limited palette (dominated by the basic colour spectrum).

Still, despite the relative systemisation of Nowosielski's works, one can hardly call this set of common characteristics a convention - the creation of which was the artist's great dream. It is precisely for creating a convention that he respected the surrealists and held them in higher esteem than other 20th-Century artists, or even considered surrealism to be the only chance for art. He himself searched for a canon, while at the same time trying to create his own. That is why he turned towards convention, that is, the icon. He modified the canon in all kinds of ways. He kept referring to it, even though he knew, because he talked about it, that the "canon has to exist within rather than be imposed for the outside" (one could add that neither can it be borrowed from the outside). He called the canon "...an externalisation of the spiritual reality of the icon painter. A canon limited to instructions what to paint and how is useless" (conversations with Zbigniew Podgórzec from the volume "Mój Chrystus").The icon was not his "nature", but a choice; he stylised his painting to look like the icon, cleansing it of emotions, perhaps even "sterilising" it. Perhaps this is why his art did not influence others. It remained separate. It is its strength, but also a weakness. Resulting from its confinement to a "language" that is not systematic or orthodox enough to become a canon. This, however, does not seem so important in the context of the artist's main goal, which was to represent the "reality of transfiguration", that is, to show the word as it existed in God's intention, at the moment of creation, and as it will on its last day of existence. At the same time, his art fulfils Kantor's thesis-postulate formulated in 1945 following the first exhibition of the Group of Young Artists, among them Nowosielski:

They bring with them a fresh artistic vision, unpolluted by naturalistic stereotypes - a sense of contemporary reality and an awareness of their own ground. And I am convinced... that above the pure construction of a picture built at its foundations of rigorous abstraction and a growing superstructure of an individual vision of a climate - one's own temperature - and extended throughout with the elements of form - but only through it will they be able to capture the subject of today's reality.

Still, despite its members' common interests, the Kraków Group remained a cluster of individual personalities. Nowosielski's uniqueness, or even separateness, long noticed, was made fully apparent by an exhibition staged in 2003 at Warsaw's Zachęta by Kraków's Galeria Starmach.

Spatial Imagination: Church Interiors

Jerzy Nowosielski, Orthodox Church, 1992
Jerzy Nowosielski, Orthodox Church, 1992

The artist is also the author of outstanding monumental projects. His first such realisation was a collaboration with Zofia Gutkowska (whom he later married) and Adam Hoffmann - a frieze at the office of the Society of Workers' Universities in Kraków (1946; the piece was eventually hacked off or painted over). The frieze represented workers (bakers, bricklayers, steelworkers...) at work and was a reflection of Nowosielski's socialist sympathies - the painter was at the time a member of the Union of Independent Socialist Youth; he admitted years later that he had also pinned "certain hopes" on socialist realism and had "intended to show" how the doctrine's postulates should be fulfilled in art, which, if we look at, for instance, the ideal of the massive woman he presented in some of his 1950s paintings, appears credible.

Nowosielski's unusually bold spatial imagination allowed him with time to create works far more important than the above-mentioned frieze, works exceptional in the Polish context (not all have been actually realised): decorations (polychromies, stained-glass pieces, mosaics) at Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The former include churches in Zawiercie, Gródek (1952-1955), Jelenia Góra, Białystok-Dojlidy (both 1953; made in collaboration with Adam Stalony-Dobrzański), Kętrzyn, Gdańsk (both 1954; solo projects), Grodzisk near Drohiczyn (1955), Wrocław (1966-1968), Hajnówka (1966), Orzeszkowo near Białowieża (1967; rejected, currently in Kraków), Wola in Warsaw (1979), Górowo Iławieckie (1983), Lourdes (1984), Bielsk Podlaski (1985); the latter include Jerzmanowice near Kraków (1959-1960), Lublin (1962-1963, the Catholic University of Lublin's church, not executed), Jelonki in Warsaw (1963-1964), Witanowice near Wadowice (1974), Wesoła near Warsaw (1975-1978), Azory in Kraków (1978), Izabelin near Warsaw (1980), Nowe Tychy-Żwaków (1982-1986), or the chapel of the Higher Theological Seminary in Lublin (1988). One of the most recent examples is an architectural-painting project (a collaboration with architect Bogdan Kotarba), a fulfilment of the artist's dreams about a complete work - an Orthodox church in Biały Bór in the Western Pomerania region (1992-1997), built there for a small Greek Catholic community of the Lemko (Ruthenian) people resettled there after the war from south-eastern Poland.

Nowosielski's spatial imagination was also expressed in his stage-design projects, pursued, as he stressed, "for his own pleasure": twice for Sophocles's Antigone directed by Helmut Kajzar (Wrocław, Teatr Polski, 1971; Warsaw, Teatr Powszechny, 1972), and Stanisław Wyspiański's Judges by the same director (Warsaw, Teatr Studio, 1972). In fact, he had become familiar with the world of theatre earlier, during his residence in Łódź, where his wife worked as stage designer at a puppet theatre, and he himself served as art director at the State Directorate of Puppet Theatres; he also designed costumes and set designs for puppet theatres.

Bibliography

Jerzy Nowosielski, Great Airport, 1966, oil on canvas, photo: Tomasz Szemalikowski, courtesy of the Muzeum Górnośląskie in Bytom
Jerzy Nowosielski, Great Airport, 1966, oil on canvas, photo: Tomasz Szemalikowski, courtesy of the Muzeum Górnośląskie in Bytom

Verbal expression, besides the visual one, was always been important for Nowosielski. He has often commented on his works and spoken on various issues. A comprehensive presentations of his views, chiefly on religion and art (as well as the ties between religion and eroticism) have been published in the volumes "Wokół ikony" / "Around the Icon" (1985) and "Mój Chrystus" / "My Christ" (1993), containing the transcripts of his conversations with Zbigniew Podgórzec. Bibliographies of studies of Nowosielski's art are contained in, among other things, the catalogues of his major retrospectives: Poznań (National Museum), 1993; Warsaw (Zachęta), 1994 (here a bibliography accompanied by a comprehensive chronology), and Warsaw (Zachęta), 2003. Essays by Mieczysław Porębski, a close confidant of the artist for many years, have been published in the monographic work Nowosielski (2003).

Exhibitions

Jerzy Nowosielski, Girls on the ship, 1997
Jerzy Nowosielski, Girls on the ship, 1997

Nowosielski's works have been presented not only in numerous solo exhibitions and - regularly - in presentations of the Kraków Group, but also in historical group exhibitions, such as Metaphors (Warsaw 1962; conception by Ryszard Stanisławski), the Festivals of Contemporary Polish Painting (Szczecin, from 1962), the "Comparisons" Fine Arts Festivals (Sopot, from 1965), Voir et concevoir (Sukiennice, Kraków, 1975, conception by Mieczysław Porębski; Nowosielski painted then one of his most outstanding pieces - the panoramic composition Villa dei Misteri, alluding to the "monographic" images of girls from 1968), Romanticism and the Romantic in 19th- and 20th-Century Polish Art (Warsaw 1975, Katowice 1976, conception by Marek Rostworowski and Jacek Waltoś); it is also worth adding here the shows organised in the 1980s as part of the independent culture movement and their recapitulations (Touch. The Iconography of the 1980s in the Work of Kraków Artists; Epitaph and Seven Spaces, both 1991), and finally the exhibitions Jerzy Nowosielski, Mikołaj Smoczyński, Leon Tarasewicz (Warsaw 1997) and In Search for Authenticity (Lublin 2002).

Nowosielski represented Poland at the biennales in Venice (1956) and Sao Paulo (1959). In 1960, his piece The Cello Player was nominated for the Solomon Guggenheim Prize in New York (the prize ultimately went to Eugeniusz Eibisch).

Awards

He is a laureate of the Minister of Culture and Art's 2nd (1962) and 1st (1973, 1981, 1997) prizes, as well as the Władysław Pietrzak Prize (1967). He also received the Silver Laurel of the Polish Olympic Committee for the Swimmers series (1973), the Gold Cross of Merit (1976), the Brother Albert Award (1977), the Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award (1981), the Commander's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (1981), the 1st degree State Award (1984), the Jan Cybis Award (1988), the Anna Kamieńska Medal (1992), the Culture Foundation's Great Prize (1994), the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (1998), the Witold Wojtkiewicz Award (1999; awarded by the Kraków Branch of the Polish Fine Artists Association), the "Cracoviae Merenti" Silver Medal (1999), and the highest decoration awarded by the Orthodox Church in Poland - the 2nd degree St. Mary Magdalene Medal (1985).

At the initiative of Nowosielski and his wife, the Nowosielski Foundation was set up in 1996, presided over by Andrzej Starmach, owner of Starmach Gallery, organiser of the artist's exhibitions (since 1988; not only at his own gallery), custodian of his works and carer. The Foundation awards prizes to outstanding young artists. The foundation's laureates include Mirosław Bałka and Leon Tarasewicz.

In 2008 Nowosielski was honoured with the Gloria Artis gold medal and in 2010 he won the Erazm and Anna Jerzmanowski prize from the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences for his artistic accomplishments, as well as his consistent efforts on behalf of uniting houses of worship and nations. He was already too ill at the time to accept the award in person.

Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, April 2004