On Their Own Terms: The Self-Portraits of Polish Women Painters
#photography & visual arts
full-width, On Their Own Terms:
The Self-Portraits of
Polish Women Painters, self-portrait-150x150cm-oil-on-canvsa-2018.jpg
A Slavic eulogist in a Japanese kimono. A half-naked artist in an unusual, not-so-subtle depiction of herself. A woman battering her own image with one self-portrait after another, in a manner that Ramsay Bolton would approve of. The stories behind the self-portraits of Polish women artists are often tales of subverting expectations.
She is a talented child, taking her first lessons from Michał Elwiro Andriolli – the author of the best-known illustrations for Adam Mickiewicz’s epic poem Pan Tadeusz. Then, she becomes a pupil at private art academy led by Wojciech Gerson, and later, the first Polish female student at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris. She is a multiple award-winner, first at school, then at the Royal Academy in London, in Berlin, and at the Paris Salon. At the 1887 Salon, she wins the main prize – the gold medal, awarded for her self-portrait painted the same year. Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz keeps up with artistic explorations of her contemporaries, mostly landscape painters, from luminism to impressionism. While traces of these are visible in her own paintings, she remains first and foremost an accomplished portraitist, a devoted realist with great technique, distinguished by her perceptiveness.
The gold medal-winner Self-Portrait (1887) works as a great summary of her career – her manifesto, in fact. For Bilińska-Bohdanowicz portrays herself at work, brushes and palette in hand. This is a well-known convention, but the devil is in the details, as the saying goes. Renaissance painters (including women painters like Artemisia Gentileschi and Sofonisba Anguissola, who were able to practise their profession thanks to their high social status) would portray themselves in proud poses and elegant robes to such an extent that one could mistake them for distinguished scientists, army leaders or princes if brushes were swapped for feathers, lecterns, sceptres or batons. In fact, the self-portrait was an important weapon in the battle for recognition of painting as a liberal art. It still came easier to painters than it did to sculptors, which they frequently used in their texts. And they won. Which is why in the 19th century especially– when realism blossomed – existing conventions seemed less strict.
Striving For Freedom: The Artistic Career of Anna Bilińska-Bohdanowicz
Bilińska is far more daring than her peers. She no longer depicts herself in her atelier, a simple drapery serving as the only background. She’s wearing a black dress and an apron. She sits somewhat hunched, her hair, sloppily tied, falls freely on her forehead and ears. While there’s a slight touch of a smile on her lips, her gaze reveals a certain ennui. She looks right into our eyes, aware of her worth and how far she’s come – an accomplished self-made woman. Having experienced first-hand the upheaval of a woman’s career in art at the end of the 19th century, Bilińska decides to found a painting school for women in Warsaw, based on the Parisian model of education. Her plans did not come to fruition, as she died from a heart disease six years after the completion of her acclaimed self-portrait.
Born eight years later, Olga Boznańska appertains to somewhat another era. She studies painting in Munich, a destination favoured by many Polish artists of the time. Józef Brandt is one her tutors. Not much later, however, she moves to Paris, where 20 years prior to her arrival, impressionism had started to gain ground.
Although Boznańska inherited much of her somewhat liberal approach from it, she was far from spending hours studying atmospheric effects or landscape painting as such, her palette not revealing much predilection for light either. Boznańska’s paintings are dominated by shades of grey and black, and most often, she opts for portraits. She seems closest to James McNeill Whistler, an American painter who positioned himself somewhere between realism and impressionism. In his portraits, he focussed on subtle colour play, which was highlighted in the titles – for instance, Harmony in Grey and Green. However, Boznańska’s brushstrokes, and thus figures, are more ethereal.
The models themselves differ substantially as well. We see fewer upper-class ladies in ceremonial dresses, wrapped in expensive furs, and more children, like the famous Girl with Chrysanthemums. Flowers make frequent appearances into the artist’s paintings, providing a lighter, more intensive touch to the greyish-brown canvas.
Elisabeth Zapolska Chapelle: Women Composers Worked in Isolation
A gradual transition towards ever-growing painterly off-handedness and a more detail-oriented approach (chiefly seen in the hands and eyes) is visible in her subsequent self-portraits. The artist produces dozens of them, dating back from as early as the Munich period until her last years. The first decade of the 20th century is particularly abundant in Boznańska’s self-portraits. From then on, the artist stuck to one already developed convention as well. She keeps dressing according to the 19th century trends, hair tied in an old-fashioned bun. With her facial expression unchanged, slightly superior and melancholic, Boznańska consciously perpetuates her image, consistent with the one from photos taken of her. This somewhat stiff pose contrasts with painterly liberty.
In her Self-Portrait With Flowers, the artist’s depiction blurs underneath her bosom, blending into the background, while the titular flowers are unidentifiable, for it’s not about what kind they are. What matters is the intense red, breaking down the greyish palette.
Boznańska’s peer, Aniela Pająkówna, is equally success-driven. Her education also included periods in Munich and Paris (thanks to the generosity of Pawlikowski, employing Pająkówna’s father as coachman). In France, she attends the Académie Julien, amongst others. Pająkówna and the aforementioned Bilińska are nearly neighbours at the time. The émigré milieu of artists is not ample. Pająkówna finishes her education and travels around France, but her successes are offset with disappointment. For instance, she doesn’t qualify for the 1890 Salon.
A year later, she moves to Lviv. Among her Parisian teachers was a top academist, William-Adolphe Bouguereau. However, Pająkówna was rather leaning towards more modern tendencies – realism blending with impressionism. In Lviv, she’s still dependent on the support of Pawlikowski, but later, she finally manages to set up her own atelier. It’s also in Ukraine where she meets Stanisław Przybyszewski. That acquaintance will mark her life forever.
The affair bears its fruit – Stanisława is born. Pająkówna depicts herself with her daughter in 1907. Stanisława is depicted en face, wearing a white dress, white ribbons entangled in her hair. She dominates the colour and composition of the painting. The artists stays in the shadows, hidden behind her daughter’s back, and unlike her, doesn’t look the viewer in the eyes. She stands to the side, with a tired gaze. Both the techniques and the scene depicted are revealing with regard to the painter’s future. Pająkówna gravitates towards a more and more trembling palette, impressionist in style.
Architectures of Gender: Women and Contemporary Art in Poland
But while keeping her artistic ambitions, she also strives to take care of her daughter (not to mention that at some point, she also took care of Przybszewski’s other daughter, from his marriage to Dagna Juel). Przybyszewski himself, constantly in debt, relies on her financial aid, which makes her road to success ever harder.
Some parts of Zofia Stryjeńska’s bio would make for a successful thriller. She studies at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts – but disguised as a man, for at the time, the prestigious facility didn’t allow women into its ranks. Dressed in brother’s clothes, using the pseudonym Tadeusz von Grzymała, the artist manages to study art for a full year before her true identity was revealed. Although Stryjeńska will never make a fortune, after the Munich episode, she is doing quite well and promptly finds fame.
She reaches the apogée of her career in the 1920s, thanks to an apt combination of folksy, Slavic topics with cutting-edge form: a particular harmony of formist-like techniques and folk influences, favoured not only by elites and government officials, but also by those less familiar with art. It is in 1925 at The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris that Stryjeńska showcases her most important works at the Polish pavilion (the interior design of which was made by her husband, Karol Stryjeński, a key figure of cultural life in Zakopane). Her cycle Pory Roku (Seasons of the Year) holds the public in an absolute awe. Amongst Stryjeńska’s key, but never realised works, Witezjon stands out the most. It is a monumental pantheon of Slavic gods that Stryjeńska designed in its entirety.
Horror Stories Written by Polish Women
We can imagine that her self-portrait would be brimming with Slavic and folksy themes – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The artist ditched Slavic topics and opted for a fashionable kimono instead. The artist builds her depiction with her characteristic flat colourful blobs of paint, offset with strong presence of smears of light paint. She’s nothing more than a modern woman. We wouldn’t even know that she’s a painter for the lack of any painterly attributes. Although in form, the self-portrait parallels Stryjeńska’s decorative and exuberant compositions, it could still be seen as a classical psychological study.
Mewa – actually Maria Ewa Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska – becomes familiar with the world of art very early, since her mother, Maria née Kłopotowska Chmielowska, is a painter herself. You won’t find her works in art manuals, though. Educated at women-only painting courses, and then, shortly, in Paris, she is one of the more unrecognisable figures of the obscure part of the art universe at the time. In the Interwar period, her daughter already has it easier. She is immersed in the art milieu in early childhood, thanks not only to her mother, but also to Stanisław Witkiewicz and Adam Chmielowski, who frequently call in on the family.
Later in life, Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska rubs shoulders with the Polish and European avant-garde, travelling to Paris, then capital of the avant-garde movement. Here, she graduates from the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs and meets Henryk Stażewski, and, through him, such artists as Piet Mondrian. She’s fascinated by purism, the groundwork of which had been laid by Le Corbusier and a critic Amédée Ozenfant. It was practically a developed form of synthetic cubism. Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska’s oeuvre reflects a myriad of painterly conceptions and theories, flourishing one after another at the time, from neoplasticism to Władysław Strzemiński’s unism. Over the years, the artist leans toward abstractionism, which will become her dominant style in the 1950s. But Mewa is far from being a doctrinaire – she shuns the quest for the Holy Grail of painting. She’s pragmatic and tries out new techniques by applying them – social realism being no exception.
Taking Up Space: Women Photographers Who Intrude
Her 1930 Self-Portrait reveals her penchant for classicism, a tendency that takes Europe by storm, whether in painting, sculpture or architecture. The merger of classicism and modernism stems from ‘small stability’, introduced by the Treaty of Versailles. It is favoured by the bourgeoisie, still getting acquainted with the modern language of art, and by governments eager to commission public buildings exuding both modernist ambitions and attachment to tradition. The same went for artists themselves: Picasso, for instance, was a fan, or Stażewski, whom Mewa befriended to such an extent that at some point after the war they lived together.
In her Self-Portrait, the artist depicts herself as a monumental figure, rather carved out of stone than a human being. In contrast, part of the drapery included in the background already belongs to the modern style. Same goes for the hair – wavy, short in length, combed to side. The background complies with puristic rules of searching for harmony between the composition and the palette; it is flat, approaching film scenography. All in all, the portrait works as a great showcase of the artist’s abilities.
Poland’s Forgotten Women Poets
Łunkiewicz-Rogoyska may have been socially involved with the members of the avant-gardist elite, but for years, she was not included into the mainstream history of art. This wasn’t the case for Tamara Łempicka, who jumped straight into it – although it wasn’t an artistic milieu, rather the world of aristocrats, celebrities and salons. Born into a family pertaining to a social elite, Łempicka starts her education in Saint Petersburg and continues it in Paris. She becomes a student of Maurice Denis, a post-impressionist who laid groundwork for modern theory of painting with his sentence: ‘a painting, before it becomes a battle horse, a naked woman, or any anecdote really, it is first and foremost a flat surface, covered with paint in a determined order’.
Łempicka didn’t care that much for hour-long debates on theory of painting. It was the anecdote that mattered primarily, especially if it had an aristocratic name and a mighty chequebook in their purse. She takes more from André Lhote, a painter successfully welding modern forms derived from cubist techniques, in the academic tradition. Lhote doesn’t dabble in avant-gardist searches himself, but he slyly uses their achievements in an embellished form, making for an attractive apparel. Łempicka was quick to learn that trick, which was the gateway to success in the era of the flourishing art-déco movement. She painted myriads of portraits, nudes and still-lifes for aristocracy and upper-class representatives. In the 1930s, she emigrated to the United States, where her work appealed to the tastes of Hollywood stars. She was fully immersed in that circle, carefully assembling her media image. It was fuel,ed by subsequent romances with both men and women, which she didn’t mean to hide – for they provided a strong card in her striving for popularity.
This is manifestly reflected in Self-Portrait (Tamara in a Green Bugatti) from 1929. One could nearly overlook the artist herself, who’s reduced herself to a role of a glossy magazine-cover model. She’s not interested in psychological depth. What matters is a studied pose of a confident, empowered woman, fashionable, depicted behind the wheel of a sports car. Therefore, a painter enters into the world traditionally reserved for celebrities. There are consequences of this approach though – once the high-life fashion changes, Łempicka finds it very difficult to find herself anew, in a transformed reality.
Design Divas: The Women Who Rule Polish Design
Łempicka’s self-portrait is lampooned by Ewa Kuryluk’s painting In The Car, which is undoubtedly lacking in Interwar glamour. Kuryluk, wrapped in a race suit, a cigarette in her mouth, sits behind the wheel of a ramshackle car, with its door partially open and some vine creeping from under the bonnet. A yearning for modernity clashes with stark reality of living on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain. It should be noted, though, that, as a Minister of Culture’s daughter, Kuryluk’s social position wasn’t as bad even on this side.
Kuryluk often depicts herself or events from her life, which is somewhat difficult to decipher at the very first glance. That’s where her autobiographical essays come in handy: ‘Goldi’ and ‘Frascati’. ‘Goldi’ was shortlisted for the prestigious Nike Literary Award in 2005. Kuryluk is also a published fiction author. Moreover, she penned several books as art historian, with Hiperrealizm – Nowy Realizm (Hyperrealism – The New Realism), which, in Poland, remains an indispensable reading in the field. Kuryluk wrote about her hyperrealist experience impetuously, shortly after her trip to the United States – where the trend was still a lively phenomenon, not yet incorporated into the canon of art.
Encyclopaedia Erotica - Ewa Kuryluk
Hyperrealism had a significant impact on artist’s works. Her career commenced with paintings in the realm of surrealism. Later, the artist came to create compositions based on photography. However, Kuryluk always used these hyperrealist tools on her own terms. Realistic figures are depicted against flat, colourful backgrounds, devoid of classical compositional depth. They are also supplemented with tiny collage-like vignettes, very often inspired by photographs or paintings. And it is in these precisely that one can see the surrealistic, if not poetic, tone so clearly present in her early works. Although Kuryluk was often hailed as hyperrealist, she differed substantially from Anglo-Saxon hyperrealists.
Kuryluk’s penchant for self-depiction is highly visible. The artists never lacks irony and detachment from her own image as well as painterly convention. For instance, she can pose in a furry hat, with hard industrial machinery in the background – a communist model worker, one would say, with a Mickey Mouse figurine gripping a red banner in hand. In her other self-portraits, a direct inspiration from photography is tangible; she depicts herself working on a text, lighting up a cigarette, sitting in front of a typing machine. First and foremost, Kuryluk breaks taboos deep-seated in Poland under the communist regime. Since her intimate self-portraits can be called anything but timid, she was often of interest to the regime’s censorship authorities.
6 Young Polish Women Ceramic Artists to Watch
Kuryluk is depicted putting her undergarments on, in bed, after a bath, half-naked, as if captured in a situational photograph. Kuryluk doesn’t idealise, nor does she dally. She simply depicts herself and people around her in their daily lives. Her painting Et in Arcadia alludes to Poussin, a classicist painter. While his work was brimming with allegorical bombast, Kuryluk finds arcadia in the cosiness of her flat, in day-to-day existence.
standardowy [760 px]
‘Rzeczywiście, Młodzi są Realistami’ (That’s Right, the Young Are Realists) by Agata Bogacka, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 130 x 130 cm, photo: Galeria Raster
If we were to look for natural heirs of Kuryluk, Agata Bogacka would be our best match. She became known in the first decade of the 21st century, offering us something that can be regarded as a generational manifesto. Traces of it are already discernible during her diploma exhibition. Bogacka recycles some classical works, with figures gripping some contemporary objects. Bogacka is born in the mid-1970s, a pivotal moment in Kuryluk’s career. Over the years, Bogacka develops her characteristic comic-like style. She is keen on portraying either herself or her peers, the generation of the post-transformation era. Her early 2000s works make for an emotional landscape of the then-young generation living in major Polish cities at the turn of a new millennium. The paintings are based on interpersonal relationships and a longing for intimacy, very often unquenched.
Rzeczywiście, Młodzi są Realistami (That’s Right, the Young Are Realists), which is showcased at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art at the turn of the century, is one of these exhibitions that define a generation. Bogacka presents the titular painting. It’s an intimate self-portrait. The artist is separated from the viewer by an invisible barrier. Even though she sits half-naked in front of a mirror, legs spread, the painting’s composition shields her from voyeuristic desires of the spectator. Even her face is unveiled, cut by the frame of the mirror.
Polish Women at the Drafting Table
In her later works, Bogacka synthesises different painterly techniques even further. There’s no longer a contour. At some point, she resigns from human-like figures as well. Here and there, self-exploration comes back as a leitmotif to her work. Bogacka is, for instance, depicted in the company of an astronaut figurine, portrayed in the distant background. In some other instances, her relatives, flat figurines, are portrayed as inspired by some old photographs.
Karolina Jabłońska, along with Tomasz Kręcicki and Cyryl Polaczek, is part of the Potencja (Potential) group. The group runs a namesake art gallery as well. When it comes to topics, Jabłońska’s works are nearly identical with what Bogacka does. But the two artists differ substantially in form. Jabłońska, Kraków-based, is not a fan of the subtle, linear style and fading pastel palette. Her figures are hefty, clumsy, making the canvas burst at the seams. The artist frequently depicts her own lookalikes. She doesn’t idealise her image. Quite the contrary, her figures are often grotesquely cartoonish, with the artists deliberately exposing such details as a missing tooth. The same roughness applies to her compositions. They are simple, symmetrical, based on a single motif. This is offset with the exaggerated psychodrama of the depicted figures. Tensions usually get a physical outlet, with a punch in the face being the most common communication tool. Blood flows, together with spits of anger.
‘Polszczyzna’ & the Revolutionary Feminine Suffix
Thanks to such a cruel approach to her alter ego, Jabłońska points a finger to her professional situation. That her work is wrapped in primitivist robes doesn’t mean it is devoid of allusions to modern and contemporary art. As Karolina Plints puts it:
Whenever she looks in the mirror, she must see a young girl, but also an ambitious artists, an erudite. When she paints herself, she depicts an artist. Don’t expect her to wear a neat apron, though. She’ll wear cat’s fur, for she’s a contemporary successor of Albrecht Dürer. The cat may be still alive and, perhaps, will be scratching her face. But in Jabłońska’s works, violence is permitted if not wanted. It is accompanied by humour and detachment from reality.
contemporary polish painters
polish women painters
20th century polish art
must-know polish artists
Originally written in Polish by Piotr Policht, Mar 2018, translated by Małgorzata Szymczak, edited by LD