Jerzy Duda-Gracz was a painter, illustrator, graphic artist, and scenographer. He was born on 20th March 1941 in Częstochowa, and died on 5th November 2004 in Łagów.
He graduated from the Graphic Faculty at the Katowice branch of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts (which was later transformed into an independent Academy in Katowice). In 1976, he became a lecturer at his alma mater. He resigned after six years, but it was not the last period of teaching in his life. In 1992, he was hired by the private European Academy of Art in Warsaw founded by Antoni Fałat during the time right after the Polish economic transformation. In his final years, he returned to Katowice, where he became a professor at the University of Silesia.
Duda-Gracz's art contains elements of both the grotesque and irony on one hand, and of sentimentalism and nostalgia on the other. The latter derives from a world which, in the painter's own words, 'departs, dies, which has more in common with the world of dreams, childhood memories' – the 'post-industrial landscape world'. He is, however, known primarily for works with more bitter overtones which comment on the socio-political reality of the past decades, beginning with Poland under the communist regime and ending with the beginnings of the transformation. Formally, his art did not evolve much throughout the decades. Duda-Gracz's paintings, thinly-layered but with visible brush strokes, became less colour-driven but stuck to the same expression of realism and grotesque. He tapped into – what was often noticed – Polish painting from the late 19th and early 20th century (especially Witold Wojtkiewicz) and 17th-century Flemish realism, but also into contemporary and local styles – kapism and the art of Silesian outsiders from the Janowska Group. From the early stage of his career, that is the 1960s, he made Jewish ceremonial art using traditional intaglio techniques: woodcuts and linocuts. Unlike his paintings, they were more chiselled and closer to the expressionist style, in the spirit of the Die Brücke group.
A longing for the post-industrial landscape grew inside him when he lived in Katowice – the very centre of industrial Poland. Another big influence was his hometown, Częstochowa. In the years 2000-2001, he painted Jasna Góra Calvary for the Częstochowa monastery. Duda-Gracz was a moralist not only as a painter of religious paintings, but also as a painter of secular genre allegorical images of everyday life. His most famous painting series are Polish Themes and Portraits, Polish Themes, Dances and Dialogues, Jurassic Cycle, Polish Landscapes, and Provincial and Municipal Paintings.
He also painted himself – with a knack for caricature. He often did so in a convention which was a nod to the painting style of the Flemish masters, Rembrandt's and Ruben's family portraits, or even a literal paraphrasing of famous paintings, as in the case of his 1974 self-portrait in which he becomes Eros from Caravaggio's work. The grotesque transformation of the physiognomy is accompanied by features that are connected not to modern gentile uomo but the Polish everyday reality – a small Fiat car or a plunger for unclogging toilets.
'I dream of – and this is probably my life's only dream – to act in the theatre', he would say. His daughter, Agata Duda-Gracz, became a theatre director. After her birth, she was featured in many of her father's works. He observed her attentively throughout her adolescence, regularly painting birthday portraits which he gave her as gifts. He had a personal connection with many of his painting which is why only a small part of them went on sale. The rest covered the walls of his house. Ultimately, he fulfilled his theatre dreams in a different way – as a scenographer. He worked on one play directed by his daughter – in 2003, he created the scenography for Albert Camus's Caligula staged in the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków.
Duda-Gracz's art quickly gained popularity – chiselled paintings with simple iconography, containing a big dose of grotesque, were always considered to be a bitter satire of Poland, but at the same time they were appreciated by the general public and authorities. Duda-Gracz depicted the reality of Poland under the communist regime and of the Third Polish Republic, each time flattering the tastes of the officials and being careful not to go against them. He was a distorting mirror – one taken straight from an amusement park. Viewing oneself in it brought more recreational entertainment than discomfort. The critics were less unanimous when they evaluated Duda-Gracz's work.
Agata Duda-Gracz commented on her father's interests as follows:
He was addicted to everything that was Polish, to Polish literature, painting, landscapes. He was greatly interested in the socio-political changes going on in the country.
Krzysztof Teodor Toeplitz – journalist, art critic and a writer for Szpilki and Wiadomości Kulturalne magazines – was a promoter of his work. Among things that the fans of the painter's work appreciated in it were drama, excellent technique, iconographical nods to the European classics like Breughel and Rubens and also formal references to Witold Wojtkiewicz's grotesque from 19th and 20th-century Polish art. The younger generation of critics was less favourable. The creators of the Raster art magazine, mercilessly re-evaluating the canon of Polish art, condemned painters doing 'arte-polo' which was supposed to be the art-world equivalent of disco-polo music, popular in Poland. They considered Duda-Gracz an 'arte-polo' artist.
The wide acclaim at the numerous exhibitions that followed was connected to the critique of lower classes, not of the middle class which was only just forming at that time. Gradually, with changes to cultural politics and post-transformation imaginarium, he idealised the lower class more and more. Jakub Banaksiak summed it up as follows:
Jerzy Duda-Gracz was first and foremost a function and a symptom of the cultural politics of the time. In the 1970s, he mocked the common people who were also scoffed at by the middle class, which alleviated its own insecurities connected to the recent social advancement. In the 1980s, he was an artist for the officials and his paintings depicted demonic clergymen leading formless crowds – this painting was complemented by an image of naked nymphs. After 1989, he became part of the artistic elite – appreciated by the critics and by the audience, respected by the officials and maintaining good relations with clergymen, he became a symbolic figure of the Polish transformation.
The Silesian province dominates his paintings from the beginning of his career in the 1970s. Duda-Gracz focuses primarily on genre scenes which emphasise physiognomics and the personality shortcomings of his characters. He had developed them since the Polish Triptych (1972), which mocks famous paintings: Manet's Breakfast on the Grass, Titian's Venus, and Felicjan Szczęsny-Kowarski's Proletariates. Duda-Gracz adapts them into his landscape and replaces the characters with familiar, exaggerated types who will reappear in his later paintings: scruffy labourers with a taste for alcohol, obese women, and low-level civil servants. As he himself declared: 'I only paint Poland because I'm sick of Poland'.
At the same time, rather in secret, Duda-Gracz painted classic landscapes devoid of anecdote – idyllic depictions of the province.
Tadeusz Nyczek situated Duda-Gracz in a generational context:
Between the 1960s and 1970s, a whole formation of artists and writers who treated reality in a similar manner appeared. In 1974, Zagajewski and Kornhauser published the book The World Not Represented. They called for depicting our world how it really is and not how the propaganda wants it to be. Through art, literature and theatre, people started to call for a realistic approach to the perception of the world – against the fiction forced on us by the communists. Duda-Gracz was in the very middle of this trend.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the anecdote and caricature were replaced by more existential qualities and the critique was directed at the Solidarity movement's elites, among other groups. Religious themes, only sporadically engaged in in the 1970s (when the first Way of the Cross lithography was created), started to appear more and more often.
Although critics in favour of his work often placed him in opposition to the reluctantly accepted avant-garde, they appreciated his immunity to 'temporary fads' and noticed his critical stance towards reality which the apolitical neo-avant-garde movement was lacking. From the beginning, Duda-Gracz was courted by the officials rather than fought against. He received the Silver Cross of Merit as early as in 1977. In 1984, he represented Poland at the Venice Biennale. He was awarded the Grand Cross of Polonia Restituta by President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. In May 2001, Aleksander and Jolanta Kwaśniewskis opened the Jerzy Duda-Gracz – Spring exhibition in the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. His grand retrospective in Katowice was opened with pomp and circumstance by the president of the city and the bishop – it was even consecrated.
During the martial law period, he secreted himself in the Pauline Monastery in Częstochowa, where he began to paint his Way of the Cross. Because of the discrepancies between the traditional iconography and the grotesque with which the series was brimming, the monks were reluctant towards him. Following the system-wide transformation, he reverted to painting religious icons several times. His most monumental series – the Jasna Góra Calvary, displayed in the monastery today – was created in the years 2000-2001. The more toned down and less caricatural series was accepted by the Pauline monks. It consists of not fourteen, but eighteen paintings – the artist supplemented the biblical scenes with additional images: The Resurrection, Thomas, Galilee and The Ascension.
Although he resided in a monastery, during the period of martial law he did not boycott state institutions and still held exhibitions. He accepted the officials' invitation to co-create the new Polish Painters and Graphic Artists Association formed in place of the abolished (and later re-established) Association of Polish Artists and Designers. He replied to accusations of treason with an ironic 1982 self-portrait titled Ora et Colabora. In the painting, his eyes are covered with a cap made of a pro-government newspaper, his wrinkled shirt is decorated with orders, and he is wearing a cross around his neck.
He completed his series of paintings connected to the political transformations with an expression of disappointment with the shape of the post-transformation political landscape – with a painting titled I Co Dalej, Najmilsza Moja Jedyna? (editor's translation: What Now, My Beloved?). He said that he 'bids farewell to commentary because he got over his naïve passion for improving the world'. He focused on works portraying the life of the Polish province. Alongside these, he created one of his most well-known series – For Chopin. It is also one of his biggest in terms of the number of works – it consists of over 300 paintings.
Even though he fit well into subsequent political configurations, he flinched at those who adapted to the new political landscape by radically transforming their worldview. He commented on the faces of Polish transformation with the painting Polish Driving School – for the Turncoats! In the work, an obese woman (although her gender identity is somehow ambiguous) – a common type in Duda-Gracz’s art – is sitting on the shoulders of a poor labourer who wields a huge, waving Solidarity movement banner. The worker has a cross pinned to his chest and grips the shaft of the banner with one hand and a red book with the other.
Duda-Gracz was tied first and foremost to Katowice, but every time opportunity arose, he fled to smaller cities, to the countryside, where he preferred to paint (for example, to Kamion or Łagów). He died unexpectedly in his sleep in Łagów on 5th November, 2004. His monumental Chopin cycle was unfinished.
Selected solo exhibitions:
2017 – Remanents, BWA - Art Gallery Zamojska in Zamość
2016 – Duda Gracz 75, Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu, Toruń
2005 – For Chopin, Grand Theatre, Warsaw
1997 - Jerzy Duda-Gracz - Painting, Office of Art Exhibition, Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski
1993 – Duda-Gracz in Theatre, Wyspiański Silesian Theatre, Katowice
1989 – Jerzy Duda-Gracz’s Painting, Office of Art Exhibition, Sieradź
1987 – Jurassic Cycle – The Paintings of Jerzy Duda-Gracz, Polish Cultural Institute, Vienna
1985 – Solo exhibition from the years 1968-1984, Zachęta, Warsaw
1984 – 41st International Art Biennale, Venice
1981 – Jerzy Duda-Gracz – painting exhibition, Office of Art Exhibition, Bydgoszcz
1971 – Painting and Drawing Exhibition, Office of Art Exhibition, Katowice
Selected group exhibitions:
2000 – Separate, Silesian Museum, Katowice
1986 – Life of People – Fate of the Earth, Zachęta, Warsaw
1984 – Polish 20th Century Painting, National Museum in Kraków
1979 – Poles – a Self-portrait, National Museum in Kraków
1978 – Folk Culture National Culture, Zachęta, Warsaw
Written by Piotr Policht, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Jun 2018