One of the major Polish naïve painters, born in 1891 in Janów Śląski, died in 1978 in Bydgoszcz.
Ociepka was an amateur, self-taught artist, ‘primitivist,’ and an incredibly talented and inspired theosopher. He didn’t continue his education past elementary school. After his father died, when Teofil was merely fifteen years old, he started supporting his family. He took up all kinds of jobs, to eventually start working at a mine, and remain a miner until his retirement. At the same time, he was one of the leaders of the so called Janów Occultist Community, members of which also included, among others, Ewald Gawlik and Erwin Sówka. Their paintings are characterised by an aura of mystery and symbolism, even though they all had very specific, local roots. They came from social circles tied to the oldest districts of industrial Silesia: Janów, Szopienice, Giszowiec, and Nikiszowiec. They carefully reproduced and documented their day-to-day life in those particular civilisational and cultural spheres, their everyday landscape, customs, and local belief systems, at the same time enhancing them with fantastic themes.
Beneath the Surface: The Occult Inspirations of Poland’s Legendary Naive Artist Coal Miners
Despite their similar interests, works of the Janów painters distinctly reflected the respective, unique characters. Ociepka’s painting oeuvre especially stood out among them, which earned him a global recognition. His paintings are exceptional in how they blend excerpts from life of miners, Silesian fairy tales, and occultist literature. They are characterised by visionary invention and bold use of colour. Altogether, it creates an incredible combination, which intrigues anthropologists and collectors to this day.
During his childhood, the future painter was fascinated by Silesian beliefs; he was a keen listener of tales and legends, reader of the Grimm’s fairy tales, and was also interested in German vernacular printed materials. As a young man, he was mainly absorbed by occultist literature; he sought in it the truth about the world and a uniform religious belief system. He came across occultism as a soldier in the German army during the First World War. Upon return from the war front, he brought his first occultist books back to Janów, including the treatise Oedipus Aegyptiacus by Athanasius Kircher. Thanks to Filip Hohman, a believer in Rosicrucianism, who lived in Wirtemberg and with whom Ociepka maintained regular correspondence, he joined the Rosicrucian Lodge. He attained the status of the Master of Secret Sciences. Hohmann wrote him letters with suggestions how to proceed. He was the one who convinced him to create a stable occultist community in Janów. He claimed that he maintained a spiritual connection with his master and that he was inspiring his painting telepathically.
Angelus – Lech J. Majewski
He started painting around 1927 upon recommendation and persuasion of the above mentioned Hohmann, who clearly made crucial impact on the fate of such a gifted medium as Ociepka. That was when he created the elaborate morality painting Droga człowiecza (The Human Way). Initially, the artist had difficulties with painting: he did laborious work, usually spending several months on his first paintings, but in fact that is when his best compositions were created (Szachy/Chess, 1930)
However, following the criticism of his works which he received from Prof. Tadeusz Dobrowolski, who was impervious to his poetics, he quit painting for seventeen years; he did not return to his practice until 1947 (according to some reports, this actually took place before or during the Second World War).
After Ociepka returned from the war to Janów in 1946, together with Otto Klimczok, he founded an art collective, which in the 1950s became the hub of a group of amateur painters, unoficially referred to as Janowska Group (formal name: Circle of Non-professional Painters).
By that time, Ociepka was already very active artistically. A collection of works which created over a short period of time turned out to be sufficient to be presented at his first solo exhibition, which took place in 1848 in Warsaw. It did not resonate with the public, however. It wasn’t yet the time to explore Polish naïve painting. Nikifor’s fame and his precursory role, would come a little later.
But Ociepka was already determined. He continued to paint and moreover treated art as a divine mission. He was interested in representing major themes, which had been introduced by artists for ages, such as for instance the struggle between the Good and Evil. He also often returned to compositions related to Saturn and its imagined flora and fauna, thus making a reference to the ideology of the Rosicrucians. They constituted a coherent, outstanding group of personal works within his oeuvre – paintings directly inspired by occultism (the series Życie na Saturnie/Life on Saturn, Życie na miesiączku/Life on the Moon, both from 1954; the canvases painted under the influence of Lorber’s book – including Lew Saturna/The Lion from Saturn, Krówka Saturna/The Cow from Saturn).
My Nikifor – Krzysztof Krauze
In early 1950s, motifs appearing in Ociepka’s painting baffled socialist realists, while critics who wanted to stay relevant, overlooked their occultist, symbolic, and moralistic message and cautiously interpreted them as fantastic, dreamed up landscapes, possibly resembling imaginary Paleozoic landscapes. This kind of works are what he is best known for – compositions in which he fused exotic and fantastic flora and fauna with the world of mining beliefs; however the reviewers rarely noticed that their main theme was the struggle between Good and Evil (Suche drzewo/The Dry Tree, Choinka chuligana/Hoodlum’s Tree, 1958; Dzieło ślepego przypadku/The Result of Blind Chance, 1957).
In 1959, the painter left Janowska Group and moved permanently to Bydgoszcz. Under his wife’s influence, he broke contact with his friends and occultism. His paintings gained more external appeal, became more eye-catching, and less convincing. His later visionary, imaginative, jungle-like lands were often inhabited by fairy-tale dragons (Bestie w rajskim ogrodzie/Beasts in Paradise Garden, 1961; Bazyliszek/Basilisk, 1964), and even more frequently – just like paradise gardens – they are overgrown with stylised ‘prehistoric’ trees with frivolously twisted trunks and branches and flowers glowing with colour (Narodziny człowieka/The Birth of Humankind, before 1965). Nonetheless, just like the entire output of the painter, these compositions are characterised by a wealth of imagination and bright, flickering colour palette – this variety of forms brought to mind the imagination of another master of ‘naïve’ art – Le Douanier-Rousseau (except Ociepka’s paintings are not painted as flatly as those of Le Douanier). During the period of his painting’s peak popularity, Ociepka also produced a lot of commissioned works (such as for instance: Rodzina kotów/The Family of Cats – for Jan Kott, Madagaskar/Madagascar – for Arkady Fiedler). By the end of his life, he mastered painting very well, but his works did not carry the previous sincere and authentic character any more.
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Institute of Art History at Catholic University of Lublin, November 2007, transl. AM, April 2017