Leaving the house. The art of contemporary female artists in the collections of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums

The art of contemporary artists presented on the Małopolska’s Virtual Museums website is a small fragment of the collection, which is the subject of this project: collections which are not only exhibited in museums, but are also created by galleries and cultural centres. These are connected by a geographical criterion: they are all located in Małopolska. This presentation is a multi-coloured polyphony of dozens of female artists. It is difficult to treat their works as elements of a single patchwork. Putting them in a homogeneous, convincing picture is impossible, because the collections from which they come are diverse: they were created out of specific conceptual assumptions, for their own purposes and time frames.

            What connects the art of Jadwiga Sawicka, compiling what is textual with what is carnal in her painting (FATHERLY/motherly, UNGRATEFUL/infamous [OJCZYSTY/macierzysta, WYRODNA/niesławny], both canvases come from a larger collection, 2012), with Małgorzata Markiewicz’s activity, who examines in her projects the importance of folklore for building contemporary identities (Counting rhymes, 2005)? What connects the sculpture of a Lviv-based artist from the early twentieth century, Luna Drexler (In the Theatre box, beginning of the 20th century), with A girl with chrysanthemums by Olga Boznańska (1894), an iconic picture, reproduced countless times? Not much, if anything. And yet there is something in common, something that has been defined in the title of my text as “leaving the house.” In this metaphor lies the women’s path to art. First of all, there is the possibility of pursuing art by women, whom patriarchal culture would like to see confined to their homes, and secondly, professional education, which they have been able to acquire at art academies for only a hundred years now.

            Professional female artists emerged in the nineteenth century, even before women gained the opportunity to study at art academies officially. They were privately educated, by recognized authors, or at schools, which offered drawing and painting courses exclusively for female students (e.g. Baraniecki’s courses in Kraków). These female artists, whom we know from earlier periods, were more of an exception in their activity. In Poland, moreover, relatively early in comparison with other countries, from the year of the restoration of independence, women were allowed to study at universities. During the interwar period, women’s art experienced a period of flourishing: many artists emerged, some of whom were remarkably successful (Zofia Stryjeńska, Olga Niewska). Sculptors, architects, and weavers were among them. There were female artists’ associations which organized annual exhibitions. In the People’s Republic of Poland, they lost their sense of individuality due to the official proclamation of gender equality by the ruling party. A lot of female artists conducted creative activity, sometimes with spectacular success, like Magdalena Abakanowicz. However, the vast majority usually functioned on the margins, as a kind of complement to the “real” art created by men. After 1989, a new generation of female artists appeared, which strongly marked its presence on the art scene. Then, a new phenomenon became the topic of discussions: women’s art.

            Only at that time did the critics with essential tools at their disposal appear to analyse the work of female artists. The female artists were made to step out the shadows and write the history of modern art thanks to their achievements. The movement of publications and exhibitions therefore began, and the symbolic beginning thereof was the exhibition named Artystki polskie [Polish female artists] at the National Museum in Warsaw (1991). The project, which was carried out under the leadership of Agnieszka Morawińska, was to cover the whole phenomenon stretching over the centuries. From the earliest, anonymous authors possible to trace (e.g. church embroideries), to date. Nowadays, many gaps in history have already been filled. The fortunes of Zofia Stryjeńska were recalled, and much has been done to popularize the art of Alina Szapocznikow. Furthermore, the works of Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Jadwiga Maziarska, Erna Rosenstein, Katarzyna Kobro, and, more recently, Maria Anto, have been recalled. But there is still room for more. For instance, it would be a great idea to make a movie about Boznańska, spending her life in the studio in the attic of a Parisian tenement house.

            The art of women after 1989 was often read in a way akin to essentialism. Critics took it for granted that the biography explains the work, as well as that privacy and domesticity is a fundamental inspiration for female artists. There was talk of motherhood, housework, and daily life. For this reason, female artists referred vividly to activities that gave them more importance within art, not necessarily identifying with them. Often, they thought that the label “women’s art” closed them in the minority ghetto, while, in the meantime, they want to be on the side of good art without any definitions. Without entering into disputes with this—incorrect, in my view — opinion, let me just mention that many creators today also accept interpretations of this type as limiting (e.g. Anna Baumgart). Nevertheless, today we have a distance from pioneering critical texts about women’s art from the nineties. We see them as overly simplified. Artists, however, still use those styles of interpretation to deconstruct them and overcome the “typical” features of women’s art, turning them upside down and perversely accepting them.

            Keeping in mind the history of discovering women’s art, due to the lack of space, I shall address the current artistic production in further parts of this text. Therefore, I will not write about Boznańska nor about The portrait of two boys (approx. 1875–1880), signed as Ignacy Krieger, but most likely painted by his daughter, Amalia Krieger. I shall not mention Luna Drexler’s collaboration with the founder of anthroposophy, Rudolf Steiner. I shall also reject newer works: I will skip the great sculpture Dance by Maria Jaremianka (1955), the canonical Polish art work, Herbarium by Alina Szapocznikow, (Peter's head) from the cycle Herbarium, 1971), and the sculpture Circus (1963), made by her most important rival, Alina Ślesińska. I shall not analyse folk art, which was extremely abundant in Lesser Poland, neither shall I write about the outstanding painter from Zalipie, Felicja Curyłowa (Bouquet, 1969). However, I shall pay attention to currently active female artists, who became prominent around the time of the political system breakthrough in 1989 or after.

            If we talk about the general thematic and ideological framework for the art of the discussed artists, then one can reach for the concept of autobiographical content. The artist’s own life experience is a source of ideas for art, but the author’s character itself functions as a permanent reference point. The subject is always created for the needs of art; however in this case, it clearly means its authenticity: “she really thinks that”, “it really happened to her”, “she is really experiencing it”. Speaking one’s truth evokes not only reflections of our times, but also scenes from the past and memories that appear in art. But that’s not all: the area of interest in autobiographical art extends to interpersonal relations. The artist portrays not only herself and her relatives, but is also interested in strangers. For example, the topic of motherhood has undergone such evolution: it has changed into the attitude of caring for others, whole groups of people, even social groups. There are also motifs associated with space and with the environment: adapting to space, settling in it. Not only in physical space, but also in the space of culture and language. On the contrary, in actions affecting language, not only spoken or written, but also visual, there is a tendency to show its underlying layer, artificiality, conventions, and faults. Finally, the perceptible tendency is to work with one’s own images, specific narcissism; one’s own images treated as a medium of transmission and expression among many artists.

            Let us start with issues related to caring, that is, extending outside caring for one’s own person towards caring for other people. Elżbieta Jabłońska’s art was always interpreted in this way as well as, for example, the series I got it from my mother by Anna Baumgart. Almost two decades years ago, their works were read directly, in reference to the private biographies of the authors. Importance was attached to: motherhood, mother and daughter relationships, female genealogies, and the background: the figure of the Polish Mother, effectively hiding the real problems of Polish artists in their shadow. More recent works complicate this straightforward situation. Between words by Monika Drożyńska (2011) was created as a result of meetings. The artist talked with people visiting her exhibition in the Bunkier Sztuki Gallery of Contemporary Art. She recorded the conversations and then edited the soundtrack (she cut out words and kept only sounds like laughter or sighs). The computer soundgraph, coding emotions that hid between the words, served as a model for embroidery, which is the finale of the whole undertaking.

            Drożyńska creates situations and conditions for relationships to develop, and people spend time with each other and cooperate, the best example of which is the Embroidery School “Handymen Golden Hands” (currently operating as Kolektyw) operating in the period 2014–2016. She is the author of the concept of “critical embroidery” and “occupation embroidery”; she expresses current and political content in embroidered works. She participated in demonstrations for the freedom of artistic expression and women’s rights with embroidered banners. Characteristic for her creativity is the transfer of appropriate message for one medium into another environment. And so, an obscene scribble on a wall, the words of a popular song, a quote from a politician’s statement, an advertising slogan or a revolutionary slogan are immortalized by being stitched onto fabric. What is impulsive, fluid, moving quickly from the sender to the recipient, is “immobilized” in the traditional, slow embroidery technique.

            The work by Elżbieta Jabłońska Helping  (2003) was created as a part of the cycle bearing the same name. The event, which was immortalized in film, took place in Kraków, as a part of the independent “Women’s Day”. At that time, the artist was known for works devoted to motherhood and domestic work. She adapted the activities taken from the life of a mother and housewife to be a piece of art: she cooked, laid the table, cleaned. Her Supermother, which appeared in 2002, caused a sensation in the world of art. This work, which is a photograph of the artist in her own kitchen with a child in her lap, gave rise to endless interpretations of her art through family life. With time, she began to expand the meaning range of her mother’s figure. She created a kind of universal motherhood, a mother who cares for the well-being of all people. But, at the same time, the cycle Helping was born out of practical thinking: help those whom the artist encounters on her way. The recipients were not necessarily those to whom help is usually directed, not only unemployed and homeless, but ordinary artists or mothers with small children. Although the film Helping featured residents of the shelter of St. Brother Albertbut for the work of making paper tulips, they received a fee. Jabłońska, leading the workshops, made sure that the atmosphere was pleasant: she gave cakes, had a chat. She was the universal mother with a warm, caring attitude towards the world, while the participants of the performance are reduced to the role of children who need to be looked after.

            Care includes the living, home, and public space as well as the space of nature. This is trend that the works of Cecylia Malik and Piotr Pawlus 6 rivers (2012) and Karolina Kowalska Window for winter (2004) fall into. Malik has been actively working for the protection of nature and greenery for years, primarily in Kraków. She successfully uses artistic tools for conducting social campaigns. Her best-known activities are 365 trees, Blue tits, and Mothers on a clearing. She was one of the first to pointed out the harmful activity of developers and the growing process of gentrification of some urban districts. She fought to stop the regulation of the Białka River in the Pohale region. Under the guise of joyful fun, accompanied by a hint of surrealism, she touches upon essential matters: to whom the city belongs and according to whose will it is shaped. The essence of 6 rivers is a slow and monotonous landscape movement, travelling along with the artist as she moved along the rivers of Kraków. Aesthetic paintings with Cecilia Malik in the main role are supposed to fulfil an educational function, to make people aware of the existence of neglected areas of nature. In fact, the film is the artist’s celebration against the backdrop of nature’s beauty. Malik is shown here in connection with nature; cultural myths and fantasies about a wild woman are voiced.

            Kowalska’s Window for winter is an ordinary plastic window with a photo of lush greenery. The artist is interested in the visual side of Polish reality transformed by capitalism: i.e. the aspirations of her fellow countrymen reflected in advertisements. This deals with the fiction of photos from image banks, used in Polish advertising as a way to economise, which — being completely artificial — do not have specific features and show the world as unchanging, happy with itself, and repulsive in its corporate happiness. This shows, for example, Kalwaryjska Street in Kraków, which is one of the more cluttered in the city, as unrecognisable, because it has been cleared of banners, wall charts, boards, and announcements; her attention is drawn to the sterilised world, full of reflections and shiny surfaces, but without an interior. The photo itself, placed in the Window, exudes ugliness. Leaves and branches are bathed in bright light. There is no depth, everything takes place on the surface. In addition, the photo blocks the view outside through the window. It offers the illusion of happiness but it is a lie. In the same way, Kowalska’s other works, interpreted as friendly towards the audience, reveal the other side of the concern for the viewer’s well-being, showing the artificial paradises of capitalist modernity. Art gives a sense of security in exchange for deception, falsification of reality, and imprisonment in the image.

            Threads of concern often lead to sacredness. Elżbieta Jabłońska, with her concept of the super mother and universal mother, came into direct contact with the figure of a goddess. Concern and care have something that is not of this world, something that makes one to go outside our own selfish interests to act for the benefit of others. Here, therefore, there are works related to the goddess, or archetypes of femininity, which determine the subsequent stages of a woman’s life (giving life, sustaining it, death). In a similar context, one can place Third sowing, by Teresa Murak (1973/2014), remembering, however, that the artist rejects such interpretations and places her interests within the Christian perspective. However, the densely cress-covered shirt she wore when she sowed the plants and when they sprouted, leads to a less orthodox approach to spirituality. When she gained artistic maturity, echoes of the revolt of youth and the hippie movement reached Poland. Murak grew up in a traditional environment; her search is based on a sense of sacredness seen in nature and vegetation. She interprets the sources of spirituality in a feminine way: holistically, with respect for the earth, and every manifestation of life. She declares attachment to traditional religiosity, breathing new energy into it.

            Through the paintings of the goddess, one can interpret the famous triptych by Katarzyna Górna, Fuck me, Fuck you, Peace (2000). The usual interpretations of this work focus on the portraits of women in different phases of life. Here are three large-format pictures of naked women, depicting a young girl pointing to her womb, a middle-aged woman in a ruling posture, barred from the outside world, and an elderly woman who only wants peace of mind. The work perfectly fits the theme line, leading to the Northern Renaissance painting with its moralistic representations of the woman’s life. The pious warning “remember death” is there, and in Górna’s work — rather the praise of female power, although this force is based on fragile support: women are sitting on a thin table top, located on even thinner legs. Returning to the interpretation of “goddess-like”, there is a great resemblance to the representations of the mythology of different cultures, concerning the goddess in her three incarnations: white, red and black. This is how, for example, Hindu Devi is presented.

            The reverse of caring for our fellow neighbours and the world is to focus on ourselves. Its signal is narcissism, the multiplication of one’s own images. Pola Dwurnik, in her painting, deals basically with presenting herself. She herself is the object of her own staging, the most important element of the language she has developed. And this examines the possibility of presenting emotions, creating a new version of physiognomy; she presents herself as the heroine of important historical events, and, if she presents others, it is in relation to herself, totally dependent on each other (e.g. her lovers as animals). She feeds on her own privacy without any embarrassment; she is the first recipient of her works; she is the queen and lady of her own court. In the picture Mercy! (2012), Dwurnik painted her own faces laughing and being distorted, the whole surface covered by self-portraits. Why is the artist reduced to such desperate loneliness? Do the reasons lie in individual conditions, or do they concern the artists in general? A woman deprived of interior and reduced to being an image is, after all, one of the incarnations of femininity under the yoke of patriarchy.

            Laura Pawela became known as an artist who often and willingly paraphrases various cultural trails. In a video triptych devoted to the Upper-Silesian landscape, Pawela blackened her face; she also posed as the male figure from the romantic landscape of Caspar David Friedrich. She also expresses herself on various topics, through the use of her body and face, but those matters are more related to the outside world and often deal with social problems. In the painting, we.jpg 17% (2003), Pawela portrayed herself in the manner of “pixellation”. This painting belongs to a series of scenes that were taken from the youth days of the artist; they show more or less trivial episodes of her life. Maintained in the stylistics of early electronic media, the first displays of mobile phones, this work addresses the autobiographical theme in a new approach. By endering the effect of pixellation in the traditional painting technique, the artist creates the impression of “getting out of sync”, the mismatch between the contents and its medium.

            Counting-out rhymes, by Małgorzata Markiewicz (2005), were created as a response to the accession of Poland to the European Union. The artist often balances on the border between designing and everyday life as opposed to “pure” art and festivity. She is interested in clothes, which she treats as a sculptural material, but also as an excuse to create a social situation. In Counting-out rhymes, fashion is a metaphor for the meeting of what is universal and that which is specific, more particular. Will the integrated structure of states which the European Union is, allow Poland to maintain its distinctiveness, or, if we include our culture into the supranational system, will we not lose our soul? These questions were really popular in Poland at that time. The motif of the folk costume which inspired Markiewicz is in itself a memento. Such outfits died along with the peasant culture, and the one we are dealing with is fake, artificially maintained to seem alive. To decorate the skirts, the artist used children’s counting rhymes. They are associated with a relic of the past culture, when the literature was passed verbally and poems were memorised by heart. Furthermore, an embodied culture, in a private version, is passed on orally in the comfort of the household. It is departing; we try to keep it, but these efforts only emphasise the artificiality of such reanimation. 

            Daily news (2012) by Basia Bańda bring to the mind the world seen through the eyes of a child. The painter took the pose of an artist-girl. Thanks to this, with her femininity, directness, uninhibited approach to eroticism, and speaking from her heart, she conquered the Polish art scene. Small pictures, with carelessly written snippets of words and scribbles, where the writing goes into the drawing and vice versa, can be considered her trademark, in which she retained the imagination from the world of childhood. Real news, taken directly from the media, was converted by the artist into bad fairy tales. Misfortunes take the form of parables, slightly anecdotal, and a bit like fantasies about the presence of evil in the world. Evil is an object of fascination, but it is also tamed, being a structural part of the world and an indispensable element of the story. Bańda’s works are also operations on both visual and textual language, and on the language of the media, which the artist uses for her collages.

            Jadwiga Sawicka and Zofia Kulik work on the language and methods of narration. Sawicka deals with clichés of visual and textual language. Both of these languages are treated as one language, which contains abstract meanings as well as the ones that directly adhere to reality. If any words appear in her paintings, these are quotes from the media, advertisements, street ads, and when taken out of context, they reveal all their cruelty, destructive power, coldness in their crushing eloquence. In Sawicka's work, words crush the body, which the background of her pictures refers to — blurry, bland and vulnerable — because they are devoid of form. The words are firm, emphatic, and built of black, sharp outlines. Words and objects that appear in the paintings can be considered containers for meanings, which are empty inside (Batman, 2005, and written images, including FATHERLY / motherly [OJCZYSTY/macierzysta], 2012, NATIONAL /choice [NARODOWY/wyborowa], 2012).

            All the missiles are one missile (1993), by Zofia Kulik, is a kind of monumental composition composed of several dozen small photographic motifs. Visible references to the ornamental fabric—traditional carpets or shawls — as well as the role of tedious manual labour that the artist puts into creating her work, have been discussed many times already. The work is devoted to what Zofia Kulik is most interested in: the visual language of power. It is a kind of mosaic made of tiny, hand-made motifs. Echoes and repetitions of symbols from the history of culture appear in these, ones from the Roman Empire and form all its later interpretations, in the form of the totalitarian propaganda of the twentieth century. In All missiles, we deal with the symbolism of male and female genders being complementary to each other, equally subjected to the pressure of power. The contents were expressed through pictures of architecture, people, plants, things, TV screens. This monumental fresco is a kind of homage paid to the power that visual systems wield over us, the power which still maintains its hold.

            In an untitled work (2015), its author, Zorka Wollny, does not merely rework old languages, but rather uses cultural memory. Culture is remembered here as an event which gathers people in a special place and which allows them to work together on some piece of work. In her film, Wollny refers to the Cracovian avant-garde. We can see an echo of Kantor’s performances here, the plays of the Cricot Theatre and cabaret nights at the Piwnica pod Baranami. The actors — older people — found themselves in the basement of Bunkier Sztuki, in which other cellars, those of Krzysztofory Palace and Pod Baranami echoed. They repeated the sequences of words, whispering, shouting, rhythmically walking and performing other simple movements. They created a hypnotising monotonous performance, full of nostalgia and a sense of helplessness about the possibility of reviving history, resurrecting dead events.

            A similar approach can be seen in the work by Anna Baumgart Article 1000 (2012). The artist alluded in her film to a real event: a cabaret show organised immediately after the war by political prisoners in Norway. The performance referred to historical truth in art. Baumgart paraphrased rather than reconstructed that performance. She added women to the group of actors, which were not present in the original; she also told everyone to speak in Polish. The artist made the movie seem like a documentary film, showing an avant-garde theatre whose formula can be considered old-fashioned for us today. At the same time, the theatre talks about the pressing issues of today’s world in an uneasy way: freedom of expression and censorship. Anna Senkara, in the film Szlachcic (2010) focuses attention on the son of a party dignitary from the times of the Polish People’s Republic, Franciszek Szlachcic. This movie also approaches the genre of the documentary.

            The inspiration for Anna Zaradny’s work BruitBruit (2013) was the building of Bunkier Sztuki. The artist tried to capture its architecture beyond the material structure, and the most interesting aspect of this work, connecting the sound and video layer, is to reach for the ideal vision of the building, which has never been realised. Monika Niwelińska in Lighting (2016) addressed the issue of light in the interior of Bunkier Sztuki. The concept of exhibition space lighting played an important role in the original plans of the gallery, but the author’s vision was quickly abandoned.

When it comes to the works of foreign artists, there are literally a few and it is difficult to enter them into the framework in which the works of Polish artists are located. Let us mention them briefly. Sarah Lucas, a representative of the Young British Art group, which was very popular two decades ago, is represented by her work Sucky Thing 2011. The form of the work is bleak, if you assume that a toilet seat, dressed with a stocking, is an extravagant metaphor of a woman. Hungarian artist, Dora Maurer, in the work, What can you do with paving stones? (1971), on the one handplaced a methodical presentation of various uses of the titular stones. On the other hand, this set of photographs, with conceptual genealogy, refers to the revolutionary activism of May 1968 and street demonstrations. Artist Ane Lan, with her work, Woman of the World (2011), offers her self-portraits in the roles of women, belonging more to the field of advertising product than photography. Vlatka Horvat, in Balance Beam # 0715 (2016), created an installation of ordinary household items, arranged in the form of a swing, in a state of uncertain equilibrium. Aliska Lahusen in Red mirror of impermanence created a contemplative sculpture from red lacquer, which has nothing to do with the daily bustle. We see here a range of attitudes and views: from the ones sarcastically commenting the position of women in society (Sarah Lucas), to the representation of their struggle for their rights (Dora Maure), through haiku built with everyday objects, referring to the inner life of a housewife (Vlatka Horvat), to sex, class, ethnic group as a costume (Ane Lan), and a sculpture created under the influence of Zen Buddhism (Lahusen).

            Finally, I shall return to the titular exit from the house. The artists, whose work I was discussing, undoubtedly have left home, heading towards the world of art, social activities, urban activism, sometimes politics, travel, nature protection, and care for internal life. They did not close the door behind themselves. They can return home, but without coercion: when they feel like doing so.


Elaborated by Magdalena Ujma-Gawlik,

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.