As a weaver specialising artistic textiles, designed kilims, tapestries, harness and jacquard fabrics, embroidered linen tapestries, printed fabrics, and clothing, she was among the most recognised artists in her field.
Designer of printed fabrics and carpets, founder of a weaving workshop.
Helena Bukowska spent her childhood in Siberia, where her father, an architectural engineer, was working on building a railroad. He became a widower early, and reared his two children on his own. Life in a harsh environment, often compounded by a sense of isolation and dangerous natural surroundings, constant travels and moves (Petersburg, vacations in Finland, a return to Siberia, gymnasium in Sevastopol in the Crimean region, Wilno, Warsaw) shaped Helena's personality. She was a hardy woman who could withstand adversity and remain persistent in reaching her goals. Eleonora Plutyńska has said that Bukowska's real aim in going to the capital was to learn about kilim fabrics from Professor Wojciech Jastrzębowski. According to the artist's memoirs, her fabric-making studies began with the maestro taking a Grzebyczek folk kilim down from the walls of his own apartment and bringing it to the academy corridor, so that students could touch a real pearl of woven art. Students at the academy in Warsaw drew inspiration from folk kilims or old Eastern carpets, but did not blindly emulate them; the students used them to investigate the beauty of natural dyes and motif harmonies, to unravel their complex techniques.
The first fabrics Bukowska designed were kilims. In the dye room of the academy in Warsaw remain skeins of wool colored with natural dyes prepared for the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. They were given to the students to use, because the mechanically spun wool colored with synthetic pigments 'came out dull and impoverished.' She repeatedly asked herself why this occurred. The authenticity of folk fabrics turned out to be essential. Bukowska understood this perfectly. She directly wove the folk fabrics in her workshop using hand-spun sheep's wool dyed with natural colors, and introduced this into the official program.
None of Helena Bukowska's pre-war kilims have survived. We know only the titles of her fabrics that were shown numerous times at Ład exhibits: Trees and Birds (This motif was most often repeated), Cacti, Tree, the Long tapestry, and the most interesting wool compositions, the Circles and Chessboards double fabrics. The artist educated numerous outstanding students, including Jadwiga Jagielnicka-Zaniewicka, Zofia Matuszczyk-Cygańska, Helena and Stanisław Gałkowski, Zygmunt Turkiewicz and Wanda Żółtowska. Their work, much like the kilims of their teacher, stood out as fresh and authentic compositions that followed a natural logic of layering.
In the 1930s folk embroidery was used in women's and children's clothing. There was a fashion for homespun linens. One of the brochures promoting Polish folk products reads: 'These patterns developed by first-class fashion salons supervised by outstanding artists show how a stylized folk embroidery can be reconciled with contemporary fashion. The decor and practicality of these outfits guarantee they'll survive more than one fashion shift.' In 1936 at a show of the achievements of the Women's Professional School in Siedlce, where Bukowska was artistic director and lecturer (1933–1939), the homespun clothing from Polesie ornamented with folk embroidery was notable. Tailored compositions, clothing modern in form yet traditionally ornamented, which did not give the impression of being pseudo-folk, were made under her supervision.
In 1936 the linen Siedlce tapestries, embroidered with linen and wool threads, 'shone' at the Art of Embroidery exhibition at the Institute for the Promotion of Art. The critics wrote:
The embroideries exhibited are marked by originality – they show no sign of historical or folk influence […]. We can safely say that this exhibit is the first sign of a beautiful modern art in our country, one struggling for its own identity. In building a widespread visual culture this embroidered art movement is among our most interesting, as it is not centered around a handful of artists, but rather wide ranks of their pupils, whose education includes the principle of uniting the work of the designer and renderer.
Among the students were pupils of Helena Bukowska and Maria Łomnicka-Bujakowa. Both artists also presented their own work at the exhibition.
In the 1920s Helena Bukowska was among the initiators of jacquard courses at the academy in Warsaw. Lucjan Kintopf, creator of splendid jacquards and long-time instructor of this technique, masterfully adapted a design for the workshop – he 'translated it into weave.' According to Czasznicka, 'the other strong and individual personality in Ład's first period of fabric making was H. Bukowska. Her fabrics were based on very clear constructions, with a sophisticated subtlety and purity of line, her own sense of moderation and a great feeling for color.' Józef Czajkowski bought jacquard workshops for the purposes of the School of Fine Arts, and the instructor for the new program was Stanisław Bronowski. The Ład Artists'Cooperative, forever affiliated with the school, significantly expanded the opportunities for creating decorative fabrics with a cheaper and quicker method, thus keeping up with the buyers'changing needs. This was also linked with the promotion of local materials, chiefly linen and wool. In the jacquard the design energy is focused less on the fabric design than on the technical drawing. The composition should be elaborated down to the smallest detail, drawn on graph paper, and then transferred to cards.
Bukowska's first jacquard fabrics are extraordinarily interesting, such as these include pieces like Circles, created for the Nationwide Exhibition in Poznań (1929), designed in a few color-schemes, and made of linen and wool with a double-fabric technique (and later mechanically produced, and with jacquard technique as well). They had various applications, as wall hangings, bed-covers, or curtains. As Hubert Bilewicz noted, 'This fabric is marked by an unusually expressive and layered synthesis when compared to other Ład fabrics.' The next jacquard piece, entitled Fork or Dice (1928-1929), was designed in a disciplined chessboard rhythm. The interior of the Polish legation in Stockholm, designed by Ład (1929), had wall hangings of this fabric. Bukowska's Rhombuses (also called Chessboard) of 1929 is a checkered net structure whose squares are filled with geometrical shapes or herringbone patterns, resembling a spatial composition.
After the war, the new jacquards were made of cotton and linen yarn, and the lines became fluid and blurred, slowly departing from constructivist and geometrical motifs. The artist's most well known post-war jacquard is the Ship design of 1950, created for the interior of the "Stefan Batory," a transatlantic vessel. It has an entirely different composition, which uniformly fills the surface of the fabric, rendered freely, as if by brush-strokes.
Other designs from this period include Runner (1948, awarded by the Ministry of Culture and Art), Eagles, with its exceptional merging of weave and drawing, and the Bed-Bugs upholstery fabric (also known as Ovals, 1948), with its regular pattern of ovals enclosing little trees.
The Warsaw jacquard tapestry was displayed and given first prize at the Polish Exhibition of Interior Architecture and Decorative Art at the Central Bureau of Arts Exhibitions in Warsaw (today's Zachęta Gallery) in 1952. It was composed with a structure of stripes, each of which showed a different urban landscape motif. Freely arranged in vertical or horizontal compositions, they gave the artist the opportunity to design fabrics for interiors of various sorts. Bukowska's last, unfinished design, the Orchard jacquard fabric, was given an award in 1953 at the Ministry of Culture and Art competition. Under the supervision of Wanda Szczepanowska, several versions of this fabric were executed after the artist's death, as was the monumental 1955 composition Orchard VI (a recollection of her home in Wilno surrounded by a garden and a blooming orchard), full of details and tiny, non-recurring plant motifs.
Bukowska's carpets designed for industrial production were another attempt to apply new technologies to fabric-making. The artist selected the wool dye herself, travelling back and forth repeatedly to the factory in Tomaszów Mazowiecki to oversee the weaving process. The carpets' compositions are traditional – the center areas and borders are filled with a pattern of geometrical elements forming trails or larger areas. Test versions of these carpets appeared at the Design Institute only after the death of the artist.
One of Bukowska's final works was the Doves and Children tapestry design of 1953, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Art and produced at the newly-created Experimental Fabric Workshop in Bielany. Under Eleonora Plutyńska's supervision, the execution was completed in 1957. Bukowska's design gave the whole piece a sense of discipline, an ornamental rhythm in the form of the naked children, birds, trees and flowers, but the pattern was made precise only during the execution.
This fabric was presented at an exhibition devoted to Helena Bukowska at Central Bureau of Arts Exhibitions in Warsaw in 1956. At that point it was still unfinished, spread out on the loom as if left in mid-weave, and stood as a metaphor for the creative life of the artist, which ended prematurely, cutting short her search for the perfect form for the designs she saw in her head.