In her works the artist referred to surrealist, fantastic and naïve art. Allegorical scenes set against tropical and fantastic landscapes, frequently nocturnal, were her means of escaping the reality she lived and created in and an attempt at finding harmony and beauty in art.
Maria Anto was born in 1936 in Warsaw and was one of the most original figurative artists. She had more than two hundred expositions both in Poland and abroad. She was awarded with many prizes for individual paintings and her whole oeuvre.
In 1962 the artist graduated from the Faculty of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She studied under prof. Stefan Płużański and prof. Michał Bylina at the Faculty of Painting and under prof. Witold Miller at the Faculty of Wall Painting.
Maria Anto's works included elements of surrealism, fantastic and naïve art. They were often classified as magic realist paintings. Her figurative paintings were completely different in form and content from the ruling stylistics and currents of the period of the communist regime in Poland.
The artist's paintings were visibly influenced by her experiences from childhood spent in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw, a period marked by deaths of her relatives and the moment when she was saved from going to a death camp. The fears and traumas of her early childhood were overcome with the magical imagination and profound erudition of the painter.
Anto debuted with a big solo exhibition in 1966 in the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, although she had already participated in the prestigious VII Biennale São Paulo in 1963, where she had shown twelve paintings. The exposition in the Zachęta Gallery included women's portraits, collective portraits against landscapes, depictions of fantastic animals and still lifes. All these works had a great symbolic and emotional meaning.
That is what the professor Michał Walicki wrote about Anto's works in the introduction of the exhibition catalogue:
Maria loves magic, but she does not accept the lure of banal beauty. Her landscape paintings bring to mind girlish dreams that appear after hearing beautiful and good fairy tales. The juicy and colourful flowers and trees make us think of Rousseau's exotic plants or they seem to be speaking a magical language of the medieval flora. In the foreground there are calm and gentle people (accompanied by animals) with their closed, impenetrable faces, moving in a rhythmical and sleepwalking way.
The paintings presented during the exhibition included biographical elements which appeared in all her later works. The paintings Zuzanna Wraca z Balu (Zuzanna Coming Back from a Ball), Zuzia i Królik (Zuzia with a Rabbit) and Krystyna z Żółtym Kwiatkiem (Krystyna with a Yellow Flower) depicted the artist's daughters. Anto herself also appeared on many paintings: either alone on self-portraits or with other people she knew.
A common element of many of her sixty exhibited works were obscure, unexpected encounters, such as Czarodziejka (The Sorceress), Spotkanie z Artystą (Meeting with an Artist) and Pani Wyjechała (The Lady is Away).
In the 60s Anto painted a series of industrial landscapes showing particular industrial objects. The subject of the paintings is indicated both by their titles and their consistence with iconographic depictions of factories. Examples of such paintings include Rafineria z Dymiącymi Kominami (Płock III) [Refinery with Smoking Chimneys (Płock III)], Żyrardów, Gazownia na Woli (Wola Gasworks) and Żerań – Elektrociepłownia (Żerań Heat and Power Plant). The atmospheric landscapes cannot be called realistic, though. The buildings depicted in the paintings seem to show people's entanglement in labour and the system that hinders individualism and freedom of men 'imprisoned' in the enormous factories.
Many of Anto's works present the typical elements of a particular place and its architecture, many of them located in Warsaw. It is obvious what is portrayed in the paintings showing Warsaw's Kościół Wizytek, Hotel Bristol, Bulwary Wiślane or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Still, in these works derealisation is noticeable, just as in the case of the industrial landscapes. The Warsaw landscapes, in which human figures appear, seem to be taking us for a journey to a world that does not exist.
During her spectacular artistic career Maria Anto exhibited her works abroad many times, for example during important individual displays in Galeria Polo & Bot in Caracas (1967) and Galleri Prisma in Stockholm (1968). In 1971 Anto had a solo exhibition in Galleria d'arte Cortina in Milan, which began the artist's collaboration with the foreign gallery. Later the gallery organised two more expositions of Anto's paintings. During the few-month-long stays in Italy Anto made valuable acquaintances with important artists, such as Enrico Bay, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning. Anto's friend, the Italian writer and journalist Dino Buzatti, wrote about her first exhibition: 'The young Polish painter turned out to be one of the most unusual and original figures in fantastic art'.
Maria Anto's thematic interests and imaginary did not change from the 60s until the artist's death. However, during the several decades when she created, her painting technique slightly changed. The paintings from the 60s and the 70s are more precise. Her later works are more expressive and painted with more casualness and panache.
Paintings of animals are particularly important among Anto's works. Bestiarium (Bestiary), depicting real and fantastic animals, shows both sinister creatures and calm, friendly beings either presented on portraits or as a part of an allegorical scene. It seems that the animal figures that appear on Anto's paintings embody the notions and issues which emotionally engaged the artist. Many of her works show monkeys, birds and dogs. Unicorn was a special animal in her paintings, inspired by depictions from the series of tapestries The Lady and the Unicorn from Musée de Cluny in Paris. This noble, mostly white creatures symbolises the home's protector and embodiment of good.
A separate group of Anto's works consists of paintings which can be considered depictions of dreams. Examples of such works are Spacer Wieczorem (Evening Walk), Śniadanie na Trawie (The Luncheon on the Grass), Duch Drugi (The Second Ghost), Sen z Psami (Dream with Dogs) and Dom z Futra (Fur House). Some of them show dusk, so characteristic of the artist's works. The paintings present both good dreams and nightmares. Anto also depicts death with a hearse, birds dying in flight or a decapitated deer on a car's roof.
The artist participated in outdoor painting workshops in Białowieża, Osieki and Sandomierz, among others. She would call Białowieża her second home, a place where she would discover capabilities that she had not known about before. During the en plein air painting in Białowieża Anto did not want to study and paint nature. The workshops gave her the possibility to enter a different dimension. The artist would ascribe the place a metaphysical power:
The wilderness terrifies me, but also gives me new energy […] The spirits of Białowieża make me see more. I discover places of power, primeval enchanted spots there. I created my most significant works in Białowieża.
During the Martial Law the artist was engaged in underground cultural activity. She took part in periodic art meetings that were organised in churches and private spaces. At that time she created the important paintings expressing her support for the 'Solidarity' labour union, such as Dla Artura Grottgera (For Artur Grottger), Modlitwa I (Prayer I), Modlitwa II (Prayer II) and Kuźnica. That is what Andrzej Osęka wrote about Anto's works:
The main criterion and content of Maria Anto's works was, in spite of the coldness of the religious art, experiencing the world, talking about it by means of unusual, mysterious, meaningful, but above all very simple dreams. They include memories, dreams, fears and they are accompanied by the constant feeling that everything can happen.
Maria Anto's works are property of the National Museum in Warsaw, the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, the Arsenał Gallery in Białystok, the Lublin Museum, the National Museum in Kielce, the Museum of Warsaw, the Museum of the Archdiocese of Warsaw, the Masovian Museum in Płock, the Diocesan Museum in Płock, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the Museum of Sports and Turism in Warsaw, the Museum of Warmia and Masuria in Olsztyn, the Museum in Koszalin, the Art Gallery Zamojska in Zamość, and private collections in Europe, Latin America, Canada, USA, Japan and Australia.
Originally written in Polish by Michał Jachuła, translated by MW, April 2018