Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
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Grażyna Ryba

University of Rzeszów

Abstract:

Marzanna Wróblewska is a contemporary Polish artist, a painter of landscapes and sacred works. A cycle of paintings entitled Annunciation, painted in the 1980s, can be viewed as a record of a breakthrough that occurred in the artist’s psyche at that time.

            Initially, she focused on the human form, frequently a female nude in an interior setting and her paintings would reflect an accumulation of pent-up negative emotions surrounding female physicality. In Apperceptions, a cycle of paintings typical of the early period, Wróblewska introduced elements that further emphasized the closing-in of space around the solitary female nude. It is only with the Annunciations that space finally begins to open up in her works and the artist discovers the language of nature, which gradually leads her to move away from the figurative to the abstract, and from the sensual and existential drama to metaphysical rapture and the experience of the sacred.

When juxtaposed, the Annunciations have a special compositional rhythm of their own and form a sequence in whose successive scenes a wandering figure roams through a changing, abstract landscape. The cycle can be viewed as an attempt to recreate the emotions that came over Mary of Nazareth when she first heard the angel’s message. The artist encapsulates them in a visual image, using the metaphor of a road to represent the process that occurs in Mary’s inner world. At the same time, individual paintings also illustrate successive stages of the painter’s own journey into the unknown world of emotion. In a sense, the figure of Mary in Wróblewska’s paintings also stands for the painter herself, her own transformation, her growth, and her changing view of her life and purpose.

Keywords: Marzanna Wróblewska, Annunciation, landscape painting

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On 19 April 1982, the Museum of the Warsaw Archdiocese launched an exhibition that showcased a selection of works by 63 outstanding contemporary Polish artists. The exhibition was the fruit of a closed competition organized in the framework of the 600th anniversary of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.[1] Artists invited to the open-air atelier and the exhibition included Marzanna Wróblewska, a young and promising Warsaw-based painter. She presented a triptych entitled Annunciation, Pietà, Assumption and was awarded second prize in her category, alongside Danuta Kołwzan-Nowicka and Zbigniew Kurkowski (first prize was not awarded).

             Annunciation [fig. 1] features a two-dimensional figure in a sky-blue maphorion, shown in an orant pose, largely facing away from the viewer. Only the contours of the head, arms and hand are clearly marked. The maphorion bears a symbolic golden star that looks like the Morning Star at the break of dawn. The space around the motionless Madonna undulates, trembles and whirls; the walls of the room, lightly sketched in the background, move as if about to tumble down. From their distant grayness, a pink angelic figure emerges; its gaze follows that of Mary, whose tilted head and hand point towards an invisible object of worship beyond the frame of the painting. The impression of commotion and disquiet surrounding the focused and prayerful Madonna is further intensified by the choice of colors; multiple shades of cobalt blue clash here with pink that occasionally blends into subdued hues of red and brown, only to finally dissolve into the grayness of the background.

Unlike the other two compositions of the 1982 triptych, Annunciation gave an important impulse for an independent series of paintings that Wróblewska created during the ensuing decade. In reality, the later Annunciations only bear a mere practical resemblance to their common prototype: the image is inscribed into a square field of 1m2. This would become Wróblewska’s flagship format for many years to come. Annunciation II and III, probably painted in 1983, have been devoured by private collections. The only thing we can say with any certainty is that it was at the time that the artist first developed a rough template for all the future Annunciations; from then on, they were to be dominated by a female half-figure, with head and shoulders tightly wrapped up in a maphorion, facing away from the viewer.[2] The room walls present in the first painting subsequently disappeared and Mary came to be placed in an open landscape, depicted in greater or lesser detail.

Draped in blue and gray, the Madonna of Annunciation IV, painted in 1983 [fig. 2],[3] looks into an expanse of blue sky shot through with a delicate trail of watercolor clouds that resemble an angel. Over her shoulder is a whitish motif that brings to mind a crumpled sheet of paper or canvas flapping in the wind. Mary’s head is surrounded by a delicate ring of light and her headscarf bears a discreet silver star.

The following four paintings in the cycle were all created before 1994, but their exact dates can only be estimated with rough accuracy.[4] In the Annunciation V of 1984 (?) [fig. 3], which the artist describes as “rainy”, hues of blue and navy blue alternate with flashes of white; the figure of the Madonna is shown in a rainstorm that cuts through the image in slanting torrents. Emphatic, if not downright violent, strokes of blue occasionally obscure the dark figure and cover up the whitish, irregular shape hovering over her shoulders, already known from the previous composition. The latter is now barely discernible, compounded by the luminous glow of white light around Mary’s head. The green and yellow tone of Annunciation VI from 1988 [fig. 4] sets it apart from all the previous and later paintings of the cycle. A dark female figure dissolves into an ocean of grass; a greenish blot crisscrossed by willowy stems fills up the contours of the by now familiar white fabric and cuts into the figure itself, at the same time connecting with its surroundings. The supple blades of grass and twigs that lean towards the center of the composition blur the outline of the figure. In Annunciation VII, probably dating from the same year [fig. 5], Mary crosses a boundary marked by a triangular pole. Behind it stretches a vast expanse of blue sky, against which delicate blades of grass were sketched with nearly calligraphic precision. The figure of the Madonna stands out for its translucent whiteness; the silver star on the maphorion is barely visible, and the only two other distinct blots of lights come from the folded fabric on Mary’s shoulder. In Annunciation VIII, probably painted at the turn of 1989 and 1990, the Madonna steps forwards into complete darkness [fig. 6], with only small crossing lines reminiscent of thorns faintly glimmering in the background. A remote source of light delicately sculpts the folds of her mantle and the flickering star of the maphorion resembles a small bright speck. A large bright paper plane flung by an anonymous hand is the only thing to stand out from the fathomless dark.

The last painting in the series, Annunciation IX, dates back to 1994 (?) [fig. 7]. The artist takes up the subject again after a hiatus of several years. The delicate modulation of artistic means from the previous Annunciations has given way to distinct shapes that strike the viewer as a final synthesis of earlier experiments. Very clearly outlined, Mary stands out against the background like an imposing statue of white and blue glass. Where the dynamic bright object previously was, a flat white smudge now appears; the sharp edges of the figure are duplicated, resulting in an impression of the glass statue being chipped. The white blot and the gray background are dissected by sweeping dark lines, only slightly subdued by the semitransparent outline of the Madonna.

Scholars interested in Wróblewska’s oeuvre, such as Krzysztof Łuszczek, have focused on the symbolism hidden in the form and content of the Annunciations against the background of the great iconographic tradition and analyzed original motifs such as the paper plane in an attempt to link the cycle to relevant theological interpretations and Gospel passages.[5]

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When juxtaposed, however, the Annunciations have a special compositional rhythm of their own and form a sequence in whose successive scenes a wandering figure roams through a changing, abstract landscape. The impression of movement is further reinforced by the presence of the crumpled sheet of paper (or fabric), only once replaced by a white “paper dove”, a toy plane. These forms suggest a message, a “letter from heaven”, received by the Madonna.[6]

Wróblewska likes to quote a statement by the Swiss philosopher Henri Amiel, who famously held that “any landscape is a condition of the spirit.”[7] The cycle can thus be viewed as an attempt to recreate the emotions that came over Mary of Nazareth when she first heard the angel’s message: abashment, apprehension of hardship and adversity, rapture, awareness of imminent suffering and trust. The artist encapsulates them in a visual image, using the metaphor of a road to represent the process that occurs in Mary’s inner world. At the same time, reflecting on the essence of the Annunciation, Wróblewska clearly identifies with the Madonna on a conscious or subconscious level, and follows in her footsteps along the path she walks in successive scenes. The artist notes: “I am on a journey. I paint a tree, a road, a river, some mist. At times, the landscape unwittingly expands into an added, internal dimension.”[8]

Thus understood, individual paintings of the cycle also illustrate successive stages of the painter’s journey into the unknown world of emotion. In the first Annunciation, which still takes place indoors, the female figure that stands for Mary and the painter is plagued by inner turmoil and anxiety. In the next, she steps out into open space and faces the boundless expanse of blue sky; the ocean of grass affords her a temporary refuge. Soon enough, however, soaked in torrents of rain, she walks off into an unknown future hidden behind the rainy mist of the next Annunciation. Dating back to around 1988, Annunciation VII is very important for Wróblewska. It features “a pole that stands in Mary’s way…a sign, an archetype that completes the theme of the painting;”[9] the boundary can only be crossed once the limitations of matter have been overcome. The next scene, with its thin crossing lines suggestive of thorns in the darkness faced by the Madonna, is pessimistic and evokes suffering. Last but not least, the final Annunciation is an image of confidence that completes the compositional formula of the cycle and indicates the inner consolidation and stability of the artist.[10]

*

            Between 1971 and 1976, after finishing her studies at a secondary school of fine arts, Marzanna Wróblewska pursued a degree at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, graduating summa cum laude in three specializations: printmaking, painting in architecture, and mural painting.[11] Subsequently, up until 1978, she followed a postgraduate course in scenography and animation. She found employment at her mother university, and actively participated in numerous exhibitions, contests, and open-air workshops.[12] In the 1970s, her first monumental sacred painting was mounted in the chapel of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Szymanów; the next commission of this type, for the Chapel of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Żbików, followed in 1988. Recalling her university teachers, the artist comments: “They taught me one thing: art is a sacred craft.”[13] She also emphasizes that her later attitude to art and artistic mission has been importantly influenced by discussions with the participants of open-air ateliers, and, in particular, by her friendship with Lech Okołów.[14]

Even in her early university years, Wróblewska already stood out for her special sensitivity to color. A painting she created as a sophomore, Touch, attracted universal attention and would continue to define her artistic style for several years to come, including after graduation. She would normally depict a human form, frequently a female nude in an interior setting. Her paintings would typically reflect an accumulation of pent-up negative emotions surrounding female physicality, closely related to similar obsessions seen in the works of female artists affiliated with the feminist current in contemporary art.[15] In Apperceptions [fig. 8, 9], a cycle of paintings typical of the period, Wróblewska fills the emptiness of her interiors with various elements (wall tiles, radiators) that further emphasize the closing-in of space around the solitary female nude. At the same time, she creates a series of prints, Interiors, where she depicts, in her own words, “all the dramas encased in an abstract interior.”[16]

It is only with the Annunciations that space finally begins to open up in her works. Safely wrapped up in a maphorion, the female body ceases to rankle and the artist discovers the language of nature, which gradually leads her to move away from the figurative to the abstract, and from the sensual and existential drama to metaphysical rapture and the experience of the sacred. Various motifs from the Annunciations also recur in landscapes painted around the same time, and their sacred aura gradually comes to characterize Wróblewska’s images of the natural world as well.

The first landscape paintings of 1979 are steeped in anxiety, which reaches its climax three years later in the previously discussed Annunciation. In Wind [fig. 10], the painter and the viewer are separated from the sky by a feeble and rickety barrier sketched with several white lines and looked at from above, as if by a person standing right behind it. The space seems to belong to an interior, but is invaded by the wind, painted with irregular, thick strokes, and a dark yawning abyss gapes below. In Lake, a smooth water surface is ripped by torrents of rain. Cathedral, created in 1980, fills the viewer with anxiety; the artist has discarded the geometric structure of architectural forms [fig. 11] in favor of seemingly abstract blots to emphasize their symbolism: the blue sky glimpsed in the vaulting, the dazzling divine light seen in the outline of the window, and the almost immaterial slender columns soaring upwards.

The composition of 1985 [fig. 12] seems to follow the gaze of Mary shown in the slightly earlier Annunciation IV. Mary has just raised her head towards the sky to watch angelic figures hovering overhead like white drapes between the treetops. They clearly bring to mind the symbolic sheet of fabric, perhaps an angel, over the shoulder of Mary, present in all the Annunciation.[17]

The next painting of the cycle, in which Mary is surrounded by tall grass, can be juxtaposed with the landscapes of the same period, nearly monochromatic compositions with calligraphic forms that suggest the soft suppleness of stems and rhizomes. Mysterious titles (Stone Harvest, Solitude III, New Moon Festival) introduce a solemn and poetic mood, in which the human being contemplates the divine order enshrined even in the tiniest particle of nature. The sweeping black brushstrokes of the last Annunciation also surround the solitary house in a painting from the Stone Harvest cycle [fig. 13].

The artist often relies on the notion of the “theology of landscape”; inspired by nature, she claims, art is an instrument that allows access to transcendent reality [fig. 14]. She writes: “Inspiration always comes from the tensions observed in nature…typically, the landscape is an impulse…the dynamics and the atmosphere of the painting are usually constructed by a clash of abstract forms subconsciously perceived as natural phenomena, the elements, light, and the music of landscape…”[18]

In the context of Wróblewska’s life, the Annunciations can be viewed as a record of a breakthrough that occurred in her art and, quite likely, in her psyche. The theme from the Gospel of St. Luke is not the initial impulse, but serves as a journal entry that documents the young painter’s transformation,[19] a record of an inner process that she undergoes after her graduation as she embarks on an independent path as an artist, begins to work at her mother university, and receives her first commissions in sacred art, but also and above all, a record of the change she experiences thanks to her discussions with Lech Okołów, with whom she has maintained a fruitful artistic friendship for many years.[20]

*

In the iconographic tradition, the Annunciation is mostly depicted indoors (Robert Campion), occasionally in a loggia (Fra Angelico), or in places that at least symbolically belong to enclosed space, such as a garden (Leonardo da Vinci).[21] Sometimes, the space remains indefinite, especially when the author seeks to discard earthly surroundings and highlight the atmosphere of prayerful rapture in which Mary receives the vision of the Angel (El Greco). The scene typically shows a dialogue between two persons, but the attention of the artist, and, accordingly, of the viewer, is usually focused on the reaction of Mary. In her facial expression and her movements, artists have shown various emotions, such as fear, astonishment, prayerful abandon. A special focus on the face and hand gestures of Mary, for instance, can be discerned in a painting by Antonello da Messina, who radically minimized any elements that could distract our attention from her reaction to the words of the invisible angel.

For contemporary artists, the subject has usually served as an excuse for formal experimentation. Analyzed from the perspective of traditional iconography, for example, the Annunciazione of Lino Mannocci, from his oneiric cycle, E l’angelo partì da Lei,[22] plays with the opening and closing-in of space that dominates tiny, schematic figures. Some Polish artists, following in the footsteps of famous predecessors, have placed the ancient story in a new setting (Danuta Waberska, fig. 15), others have interrogated the ways of conveying the Gospel’s message in their own formal language (Andrzej Foggt, fig. 16), others still have approached the subject from the facetious distance of an agnostic (Władysław Hasior, fig. 17). Marzanna Wróblewska, on the other hand, has decided to go back to the original representations of Mary’s reaction, depicting it as a process that occurs in her psyche, a succession of “conditions of the spirit”, symbolized by elements of the changing, processed landscape that surrounds her wandering figure, a figure “on a journey”.

Some artists experience the words of the Bible in a very personal and intimate manner; some even go as far as to identify with the saints and endow them with their own facial features (Tadeusz Boruta). In her transformation as an artist, Wróblewska managed to arrive at a personal reading of the Annunciation story in what is perhaps a more original way. The maphorion brings to mind the Madonna of Częstochowa, a well-known Polish devotional image, but, to a certain extent, it also represents the artist and her transformation, her growth, and her changing view of her life and purpose. In Wróblewska’s paintings, the universal symbolism of the maphorion contains a hidden invitation for every viewer able to decipher and identify with its message.

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Translated by Urszula Jachimczak



[1] The competition was organized by the Museum of the Warsaw Archdiocese and the Ze­spół Handlu “Veritas” Trade Cooperative, in cooperation with the Institute of Art at the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw. The jury included: dr Andrzej K. Olszewski, prof. Janusz St. Pasierb, prof. Ed­mund Piotrowicz, mgr And­rzej Przekaziński, prof. Jacek Sienicki, prof. Rajmund Ziemski; Malarstwo i grafika z konkursu zamkniętego na dzieło plastyczne w 600-lecie obrazu Bogurodzicy na Jasnej Górze, exhibition catalogue, Museum of the Warsaw Archdiocese, Warsaw 1982. In the framework of the celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the image of Bogurodzica in Jasna Góra, in 4 December 1982, Jasna Góra also hosted the launch of another exhibition, which presented 211 works by outstanding contemporary artists. The exhibition was the fruit of a two-stage nationwide open-air painting atelier in Częstochowa, cf. Twórczość o tematyce jasnogórskiej, http://region-debina.info.pl/tworczosc-o-tematyce-jasnogorskiej [accessed: 13 July 2015]. The two exhibitions came to be frequently confused in the course of time.

[2] Information on Annunciation I and II imparted during a conversation with M. Wróblewska in May 2015. In the same interview, the artist also suggested the approximate dating of individual paintings in the cycle.

[3] The painting was submitted to a closed competition organized by Józef Maj, the academic chaplain of the Church of St. Anna in Warsaw, cf. G. Ryba, Dzieła konkursowe i ich losy. O dwu konkursach sztuki sakralnej w Warszawie w początkach lat 80. XX wieku, paper delivered at a conference Wystawy i konkursy sztuki religijnej w XIX–XX wieku, organized on 5–6 November 2015 in Rzeszów by the Centre for the Documentation of Modern Sacred Art at the Faculty of Art of the University of Rzeszów, in cooperation with the Institute of Art History at the Catholic University of Lublin.

[4] All four were showcased at an exhibition entitled Biblia we współczesnym malarstwie polskim, organized by the National Museum in Gdańsk on 22 May – 30 September 1994 (an exhibition folder is available at the Museum’s library, MNG – 14 382, sign. V 2530). The artist rarely remembers when exactly she created a given painting and available publications are ridden with inaccuracies, e.g. the monograph by Łuszczek lists erroneous dates, cf. D.K. Łuszczek, Inspiracje religijne w polskim malarstwie i grafice 1981–1991, Gdańsk 1998, figs. 65, 66.

[5] Łuszczek 1998, as in fn. 4, p. 118. The author emphasizes Wróblewska’s focus on “conveying the psychological aspect of the event” and analyzes the evolution of the means used to suggest the presence of the Angel, the “non-material being”; idem, Malarski zapis w Zwiastowaniach Marzanny Wróblewskiej, typescript, undated, private archives of M. Wróblewska.

[6] Łuszczek, 1998, as in fn. 4, p. 119.

[7] The quotation comes from an essay by Wróblewska, published in the exhibition catalog for Przestrzeń malarstwa, Masovian Center for Contemporary Art “Elektrownia”, Radom 2011, n.p.

[8] Ibidem.

[9] Excerpt from a letter sent by the artist to the author on 23 July 2015.

[10] This interpretation of the cycle brings to mind associations with the motif of the journey, homo viator, frequently found in art and literature; cf. G. Marcel, Homo viator, Wstęp do metafizyki nadziei, transl. P. Lubicz, Warszawa 1984; M. Panek, Koncepcja człowieka w filozofii Gabriela Marcela, “Śląskie Studia Historyczno-Teologiczne” 33, 2000, pp. 191–199; the image of a figure facing away from the viewer can also be associated with the oeuvre of C.D. Friedrich, whose works also addressed the theme of a journey as a path to self-knowledge and union with God, cf. W. Busch, Caspar David Friedrich: Ästhetik und Religion, Munich 2003.

[11] She studied painting with Michal Bylina, printmaking with Andrzej Rudziński, and mural painting with Ryszard Wojciechowski at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and, for the subsequent two years (1976–1978), scenography with Józef Szajna at the Postgraduate School of Theater and Film Scenography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and animation with Kazimierz Urbański, according to the artist’s resume published on the website of the Institute of Art Education at the Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw, http://iea.edu.pl/index.php/iea/index/pl/kadra/60 [accessed: 21 Apr. 2016].

[12] Including: Wigry (Poland) 1978, 1979, 1980; Janów Podlaski (Poland) 1978, 1979, 1980; Strumica (Yugoslavia) 1977, 1990; Wałpusz (Poland) 1979, 1980; Martiany (Poland) 1980; Frombork (Poland) 1980 (workshops mentioned in the artist’s resume published on the website of the Institute of Art Education at the Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw), cf. fn. 11.

[13] Quoted from a file attached to Wróblewska’s letter to the author of this article from 22 July 2015.

[14] Fascinated with his personality and work, Wróblewska edited and prefaced a monograph devoted to his oeuvre: Lech Okołów, ed. M. Wróblewska, Warszawa 2008.

[15] It should be noted that Wróblewska chooses to emphasize her fascination with the art of Bacon and denies any conscious affiliation with the nascent Polish feminist school of painting (based on conversations with the artist in July 2015), which, of course, does not mean it did not exist, cf. I. Kowalczyk, Wątki feministyczne w sztuce polskiej, “Artium Questiones” 8, 1997, pp. 135–151.

[16] As in fn. 9.

[17] The artist shuns easy symbolism. In her own words: “The form, which creates a specific atmosphere, suggests space without determining content; it suggests it, but also leaves a broad scope for imagination, allowing for multiple readings informed by associations beyond the limits of iconography”, statement published in: Międzynarodowe Konfrontacje Plastyczne Słonne 85, exhibition catalogue, Przemyśl–Tarnów–Krosno, Przemyśl 1986, n.p.

[18] As in fn. 7.

[19] Stanisław Rodziński writes: “The world of Marzanna Wróblewska’s painting is… forged in ceaseless intensive work and personal enough to be recognized as an emanation of her thought and feeling…. All these visual imaginings represent the consistent path of an artist who treats paintings as journal entries…. The Annunciations all belong to the same journal” (Archives of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Marzanna Wróblewska’s personal folder, Stanisław Rodziński, Ocena dorobku artystycznego i dydaktycznego Adiunkta z kwalifikacjami II stopnia Marzanny Wróblewskiej sporządzona w związku z postępowaniem o nadanie tytuł naukowego profesora sztuk plastycznych wszczętym przez radę wydziału Malarstwa Akademii Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie, Cracow 10 June 2002, typescript, p. 2).

[20] As in fn. 13.

[21] The symbolism of hortus conclusus in Marian iconography is clearly connected to the manner in which the Annunciation is depicted in medieval and modern art (G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, vol. 1, London 1971, pp. 52–54).

[22] Cycle of paintings by Lino Mannocci, “E l’angelo partii da Lei”. Annunciazione, showcased at the Galleria San Fedele in Milan, 23 Oct. – 22 Nov. 2014.

 

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