In search of the Face. Danuta Waberska’s way to sacred art

Renata Rogozińska

University of Arts in Poznań

Abstract:

Graduate of the School of Fine Arts in Poznań, Danuta Waberska has spent the vast majority of her professional life in the service of the Church, specializing in the field of sacred art. This work has taken up thirty years of her life. Today, her paintings can be found in many churches, museums, religious community centres, and private collections throughout Poland and abroad. Before supernatural themes first emerged in her paintings, the newly minted artist (who leaves the School of Fine Arts in Poznań in 1969) worked within the New Figuration movement, expressing typical moods of existential pessimism, the drama of alienation, and spiritual emptiness

In subsequent years (at the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s), Waberska shows an increased interest in spiritual matters and the related symbolism of geometry and light. Readings in the mystics, Zen Buddhism, symbolic poetry, and depth psychology provide a mine of inspiration for her figural scenes, still-lifes, landscapes, and semi-abstract paintings. The first biblical paintings in the Jacob Wrestling with the Angel series appear, and Signs inaugurate the motif of Tobias and the Angel, later taken up on several more occasions. A spiritual breakthrough in 1985 pushes the artist to devote herself entirely to the service of the Church and sacred art. Her religious paintings primarily include depictions of the face of Christ, the Divine Mercy, the saints and the blessed of the Western Church, and Marian images. Waberska is remarkable for her artistic skill and innovative iconography, the aura of deep faith which emanates from her canvases, her complete devotion to religious art, and numerous evocative depictions of the metaphysical dimension of human life. All this makes her an important and noteworthy figure in the field of Polish Christian art. Her impressively large (and still growing) oeuvre calls for serious in-depth research, which, it should be hoped, will soon be undertaken

Keywords: religious art, sacred art, Christology, hagiographic images, Danuta Waberska

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Graduate of the School of Fine Arts in Poznań (today: University of Arts),[1] Danuta Waberska has spent the vast majority of her professional life in the service of the Church, specializing in the field of sacred art. This work has taken up thirty years of her life. Today, her paintings can be found in many churches, museums, religious community centres, and private collections throughout Poland and abroad.

Before supernatural themes first emerge in her paintings, the newly minted artist (who left the School of Fine Arts in Poznań in 1969) worked within the New Figuration movement, expressing typical moods of existential pessimism, the drama of alienation, and spiritual emptiness [fig. 1]. The pervasive melancholy of Waberska’s early works is further deepened by subversive titles, such as Dialogue or Conversations; it turns out that the artist basically converses with herself alone. Stripped of all individual features, the interlocutor is as foreign and inscrutable as the depersonalized crowd of “figures exiled from plenitude and unity”[2] seen in several paintings of the period. In Journeys and the first pieces of the Windows cycle, the multidimensional symbolism of windows and mirror reflections, as well as the dialectic of opening and closing, together investigate the complex boundary between various levels of reality. In both cycles, the boundary appears impassable, which further intensifies the experience of alienation, often turning into a sense of almost paralyzing incapacity. While illustrative of the broader movement in fashion at the time, Waberska’s painting in the 1970s also notably stands apart. Reflective and nostalgic, it shuns the extreme forms of expressionism practised by Francis Bacon and his ilk. Evident in these works is a respect for the rules of (nearly) academic composition, a well-balanced structure, and mild harmonies of colour. In many of the paintings, silhouette figures with barely visible contours are cast against an abstract background of mildly opalescent geometric surfaces, all in subdued colours.

The end of the 1970s inaugurates another extensive cycle of paintings, City. In terms of atmosphere, the first pieces hark back to the earlier period. Monochromatic and drily geometric, the cityscapes yawn with emptiness, a clear expression of the artist’s agnostic worldview [fig. 2]. Some paintings, however, already begin to exemplify the growing importance of light, still rather formal and emotional in character, but also increasingly symbolic. Imperceptibly, light becomes the source of supernatural meaning, at first enigmatic and free from explicit religious connotations. It turns into a vehicle of epiphany, suffusing every outline with an impalpable, glimmering vibration. Rays seep in through fleecy clouds, flow towards darkened streets, break through windows, and, reflected by water, explode in a magical dance of glints and glimmers (City – Piece III, 1981; A Moment of Sun, 1984). One moment and it will turn into the “Host of the Sun” (Night III, 1982; Way, Truth, Life III, 1987) and thus acquire a sacramental sense. A similar process can be observed for landscapes (Lake in Łagowo, 1979; Białe Lake – Osieki, 1977). In formal terms, Waberska’s paintings are now suspended between reality and imagination, the luminist tradition of colour painting and forays into metaphysical abstraction, which makes it reminiscent of the work of another Poznań-based artist, Edmund Łubowski.[3] The individual brushstrokes are not discernible; colour sections interpenetrate, creating surfaces which are smooth and clean, but also full of vividness and life. Diffuse outlines create an impression of mistiness and introduce a general atmosphere of mystery.

Translated by Urszula Jachimczak


[1] This study is the first, as yet imperfect, attempt to take a more comprehensive look at the oeuvre of Danuta Waberska, which has been studied in a rather piecemeal fashion until now. The article is primarily based on my own knowledge of the paintings and a personal interview with the artist. Existing literature is scant on the subject, comprising only a handful of catalogue notes and short impressions published in the press, of very limited value to the scholar. Notable exceptions include two texts by Agata Ławniczak (in: Danuta Waberska. Malarstwo, exhibition catalogue, Contemporary Art Wing. Lubuska Land Museum in Zielona Góra, 1985) and Tadeusz Żukowski (Figura i Osoba albo zmagania z Obrazem, www.muzeum.poznan.pl/www2/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=42:waberska-u-przyjacio-wystawa-malarstwa&catid=35:wystawy-czasowe&Itemid=2 [accessed: 21 Dec. 2012]). Żukowski’s essay was distributed in printed form during the exhibition Waberska u przyjaciół, Archdiocesan Museum in Poznań, 30 June – 31 August 2008. I would like to thank the artist for the help I received from her while working on the article and for making her photos available to me.

[2] Żukowski, as in fn. 1.

[3] R. Boetner-Łubowski, W kręgu światła i koloru. O twórczości Edmunda Łubowskiego, Poznań, 2001, p. 44.

[4] Żukowski, see fn. 1.

[5] Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Last Conversations, 5 August 1897.

[6] J. Salij OP, Teologia obrazu Pana Jezusa Miłosiernego, “W drodze” 6, 1982, pp. 14–15.

[7] S. M. Faustyna Kowalska, Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. Divine Mercy in My Soul, Stockbridge 2011, p. 135.

[8] For more information on the development of the worship and iconography of the Heart of Jesus, see: E. Klekot, Najświętsze Serce Jezusowe – sceny z życia symbolu, “Konteksty” 51, 1997, vol. 3–4, pp. 55–66.

[9] J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, p. 133.

[10] At the same time, the portrait of Father Michał Sopoćko is a testament to the breadth of Waberska’s theological knowledge and her responsible approach to every church order. This is evident in the artist’s commentary to the painting, excerpts of which are presented here: “In my explorations for the portrait of the Blessed Father Michał Sopoćko, I was inspired by the words of the holy liturgy, spoken during the mass right before the consecration: »Truly, O Lord, you are the Holy One, the source of all holiness«. […] The Eucharist, represented by the successive circles steeped in paschal light, is the first and the most important Source of sanctity. Acting in persona Christi, the Blessed Michał Sopoćko understood that Mystery and lived it out in a truly heroic manner. Even though it was intended for a beatification ceremony, the painting is in its essence Christocentric. The saints do not refer us back to themselves. Their role is like that of an icon: to take the viewer into the depths of Mystery, point to the metaphysical realm, the realm of God. All the anatomical details, the »physical« and »corporeal« aspects of humanity are purely relative. It is not the figure of Father Sopoćko that matters, but the Mystery of Mercy, of which he is at once the addressee and the custodian. Who he was and who he became testifies to the revelation of God, which he accepted. Michał Sopoćko is shown at a relatively young age; the confessor and spiritual mentor of Saint Faustina only begins to discern the incipient, still hidden experience of the Mystery that has always been present and confessed in the Church. […] In his modesty and simplicity, he seems intimidated by what is happening to him. Deeply moved by his calling, he feels unworthy. As a man of faith, however, he is at peace. »Armed« with the instruments of prayer (the breviary and rosary), in a simple, slightly worn cassock, he stands erect, a providential man called to proclaim the message of Mercy. A certain parallel with Saint Joseph suggests itself here, that of the beloved who first needs to experience his own annunciation to fully and responsibly participate in the calling of Mary. […] The archetypal stairway from Jacob’s dream […] symbolizes the unity of the Church – the community of those already saved and those still in pilgrimage. Father Sopoćko straddles the boundary between the two worlds; he belongs to both, but gradually leaves one to be wedded to the other. The stairway also represents the ascent through the degrees of virtue and the kenotic elevation of the cross. The rays and circles contain two letters, alpha and omega, which, according to the Revelation, represent Christ the Pantocrator. My purpose was to depict a humble servant completely devoted to the Mystery of Mercy, a servant who never loses faith even when his understanding fails him” D. Waberska, Teologiczne założenia obrazu beatyfikacyjnego bł. ks. Michała Sopoćki, “W służbie miłosierdzia” 10, 2008, www.wsm.archibial.pl/wsm49/art.php?id_artykul=617 [accessed: 21 Dec. 2012].

 

[11] The limited scope of this study made it necessary to leave out several important contexts of Waberska’s oeuvre. The relationship of her early paintings to the New Figuration movement, for instance, deserves separate attention, as does, albeit for a different reason, the artist’s interest in New Age. It would also be interesting and important to perform an iconographic and aesthetic analysis of the images of Divine Mercy in the context of other paintings which deal with the same theme. The current state of research, however, would make this a challenging task. The iconographic and stylistic changes in the image of Divine Mercy have not yet become the subject of systematic study. Another important issue to be addressed by future research is a discussion of Waberska’s oeuvre from the perspective of contemporary sacred art, its mission, achievements, trends, developments, etc. Many paintings still call for a closer scrutiny, including the cycles Road, Journey, Way of the Cross, Vision, In the Window.

 

The full text of the article was published in the pages of "Sacrum et Decorum" . Please send your orders to the University of Rzeszów Publishers or activate an electronic subscription.