Fortunata Obrąpalska was born in 1909 in Włodzimierz Wołyński, and died in 2004 in Poznań. She was a prominent photographer, active between the late 1930s and the late 1950s. Her artistic style shifted from typical pictorialism, through modernism and socialist realism, to nature photography.
Fortunata Obrąpalska (née Szurowska) became interested in photography in 1935, in the same year in which she married Zygmunt Obrąpalski, a famous member of the Polish Union of Art Photographers after World War II. In 1930, she received her first camera, and in 1938 she met Jan Bułhak, who encouraged her to adopt the pictorial style in the form of ‘native photography’ (‘forografia ojczysta’). In the 30s, the artist studied chemistry and biology at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Stephen Báthory University in Vilnius. In 1941 and 1942, two underground exhibitions were held in the flat of the Obrąpalski family in Vilnius, with the participation of Michał Nowicki. After World War II, Fortunata Obrąpalska’s photography was still visibly influenced by Bułhak’s work. They were united by a bond of friendship until his death in 1950.
The Obrąpalskis lived in Poznań from 1945, where they took part in the organisation of photographic life. In the same year Fortunata Obrąpalska became a member of the Friends of Photography Association, and in 1947 – of the Union of Polish Art Photographers. In the years 1948-52 she was on the editorial board of Świat Fotografii (The World of Photography) published in Poznań. In the 9th issue of this magazine from 1948 the artist published an interesting text about her own creative path entitled Surreal Effects in Photography. Thus, around the year 1948, Obrąpalska consciously shifted to modern photography. Her most captivating abstract and surrealistic series are: Dyfuzja w cieczy (Diffusion in Liquid), Przekleństwo (Curse), Cisza (Silence), Tancerka II (Dancer 2) and Studium I, Studium II i Studium III (Study 1, Study 2 and Study 3). They are figurative and expressive in form, and analyse the configuration of bodies and shapes, and the deformation of shadow which obstructs conventional vision. They were created as a result of the interest in the work of inter-war avant-garde artists known in Poland only superficially (Man Ray, Bauhaus), and the influence of modernist painting. The artist photographed the diffusion of ink drops in water to create metaphorical and poetic compositions. While her work was surreal in style, she did not make reference to the theoretical framework of this movement. Her experience with chemistry acquired at university also played a crucial role. No wonder that these works were shown at two important exhibitions of that time – the Modern Polish Photography Exhibition in Warsaw (1948) and the Exhibition of Modern Art (1948) in Kraków. Obrąpalska was also a member of the progressive group Poznan 4F + R (including Alfred Lenica, Ildefons Houwalt, and Feliks M. Nowowiejski) participating in collective exhibitions in 1949 and 1956 organised by the group, which treated photography on an equal footing.
During the socialist realism period the artist used a modern pseudosolarisation technique (Akt / Act, Tancerka II / Dancer 2), as well as pictorial techinques, such as the sophisticated ‘high key’ technique, and the graphic inversion technique, but most of all she created award-winning socialist realist works. In the mid-50s, much like Bronisław Schlabs, she photographed allusive abstractions, or motifs made abstract, inspired by and getting close to painting (Krajobraz fantastyczny / Fantastic Landscape, 1955, Narodziny życia / The Birth of Life, 1956). She collaborated with Schlabs in the organisation of the first international exhibition that took place after the period of socialist realism in 1957 – Step Into Modernity. Obrąpalska’s last images with floral motifs date from the late 1950s (Zantedeschia, c. 1956), sometimes reminiscent of pre-war works by Edward Weston and other members of the f 64 group. However, she lacked the awareness to operate with such sublime visual structures.
The last stage of her artistic life was marked by nature photography, which had to do with her work on the documentation of the Agricultural University of Poznań. Retrospective exhibitions of her photographs took place in 1958 (Individual Retrospective Exhibition, Polish Photographic Society, Poznań) and in 1960 (Exhibition, MKPiK, Poznan). Obrąpalska’s modern photos from the late 40s were shown at the most important exhibitions of Polish photography, like: Polish Photography 1839-1979, ICP, New York; Polish Contemporary Art Photography, Zachęta, Warsaw 1985; Polish Photography 1912-1948, Księży Młyn Gallery, Museum of Art in Łódź 1994, and Exhibition of Modern Art – 50 Years Later, Starmach Gallery, Kraków. The largest exhibition was held in the Arsenal City Gallery in 1999, accompanied by an extensive catalogue entitled Fortunata Obrąpalska. Other important retrospective presentations of her photography under the title Fortunata Obrąpalska. A Retrospective took place in the Museum of the History of Photography in Kraków, where most of her works are kept (over two hundred), and in the B&B Photography Gallery in Bielsko-Biała in 2001/2002 and 2004, respectively. Her photographs are also preserved in the collections of the Museum of Art in Łódź, the National Museum in Wrocław and the National Museum in Poznań.
Author: Krzysztof Jurecki, Museum of Art in Łódź, June 2004, transl. Bozhana Nikolova, April 2015