Uniwersytet Rzeszowski
Centrum Dokumentacji Współczesnej Sztuki Sakralnej
pl. Ofiar Getta 4-5/35, 35-002 Rzeszów
tel. +48 17 872 20 98

Tadeusz Boruta

University of Rzeszów

 Abstract:

When studying a certain area of art, is it justified to attempt certain generalizations and invoke sexual determinism? Is there such a thing as a type of iconography closer to the experience of female artists? In our times, the lines between the sexes are being blurred and such statements are dismissed as incorrect. However, it may be worthwhile to suspend judgment for a moment and closely examine the peculiar interpretation female artists gave to certain iconographic motifs, especially in those works which tackle religious themes but serve a private, rather than a liturgical, purpose. The largest number of relevant examples herald from the difficult decade of the 1980s, when the pervasively tragic sense of time and place favoured the appearance of art that rooted the audience in a sense of community and metaphysical allusions.

Stereotypical thinking about the religious inspiration of women would lead us to expect a large profusion of pieces devoted to the Virgin Mary and the intimate relationship between mother and son in their oeuvre. Pieces of this kind, to be sure, do appear in the 1980s; they usually show the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora, alone or with the infant Jesus. They are, however, rarely infused with the artist’s private experience. Without attempting any synthetic generalizations, but keeping in mind hundreds of relevant paintings, it can be said that in their treatment of Christian iconography the female artists of the Independent Culture Movement rarely addressed the typically feminine theme of motherhood. Motifs of the Passion served as far superior vehicles for their emotional experience. Were we to put a finger on the most typical feature of the Crucifixions created by female artists, it would have to be the unwillingness to depict the body in an explicit, anatomical manner. Their artwork is full of understated forms, luminist expression, nearly abstract arrangements of the surface. However, their works typically reflect a common concern for community and fellow human beings. The theological and artistic need to find a form that would be able to carry the weight of communal experience often pushed them to draw on the theme of the Cenacle. Even when they paint scenes without human figures, such as landscapes and still lifes, their images express the drama of separation and the hope for the restoration of human relationships.

Keywords: iconography, independent culture, Veil of Veronica, martyrology, Polish art, the 1980s

————–

At the end of the 1980s, I was living in the countryside just outside Krakow. One day, a neighbour invited me to her house. She opened a chest of drawers and produced a small, ironed, neatly folded piece of cloth. The old, fraying fabric unfurled to reveal an image, a copperplate on canvas. It was the face of Christ, as impressed on the Veil of Veronica. Barely legible, a Latin inscription read: VERA EFFIGIES SACRI VULTUS DOMINI NOSTRI JESU CHRISTI; it was indeed a faithful replica of the face venerated at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. My neighbour had inherited the cloth from her great-grandmother. She wanted to know whether the precious relic could still be salvaged. Unfortunately, time had taken a heavy toll; in particular, flies had left the Holy Face mottled over the years. But the greatest damage had been done by the neighbour herself. Unable to stomach the scandalous profanation of Jesus, she had taken the canvas off the loom, washed and ironed it. These cleaning procedures had caused irreparable damage.

The sorry condition of the image inspired a Krakow-based artist, Aldona Mickiewicz, to create a series of paintings. In her previous work, Mickiewicz had frequently used images of damaged, discarded objects as vehicles for her existential experience. Stripped of their original utility and function, objects can unfurl before us a landscape of unobvious beauty, tell stories, portray human relationships. Mickiewicz believes they can also communicate religious realities. By painting a piece of damaged cloth, a replica of Veronica’s Veil, she also painted the face of Jesus. She touched on the fundamental dogmatic dispute over holy images but also managed to circumvent it. In a sense, she reconciled the supporters of icons with their iconoclastic adversaries. Hers, after all, was a painting not of God, but of a thing, a former object of worship, invested by the vicissitudes of its history with an additional dimension of female care and piety. At the same time, the iconographic reference firmly grounded the painting in the apocryphal story of St Veronica, who acquired the exceptional image through her service to Jesus [fig. 1].

The motif of the veraicon became extremely popular with Polish female painters in the 1980s. Many artists emphasized their strong identification with St Veronica. In 1988, at the request of “Tygodnik Powszechny”, I invited fourteen Krakow-based artists to create The Way of the Cross, allowing each to pick a station of their choosing. Irena Popiołek-Rodzinska insisted on painting the scene in which Veronica uses her veil to wipe the face of Christ. She placed the face of Jesus at the intersection of beams of a tilted cross, and endowed Veronica with her own features [fig. 2].

The idea of fusion between body and cloth, inspired by the Veil of Veronica and the Shroud of Turin, can also be found in the works of Magdalena Hoffmann. The artist, however, identifies not with Veronica, but with Christ. The relationship is created between the cloth and the female nude, which makes an imprint on the cloth, trying to pierce through it and come to life.

A similar identification is at play in the installations by Ewa Kuryluk from the 1980s. The artist uses chairs, walls, and easels to spread out thin surfaces of cloth painted over with real-size male and female nudes of the artist’s own body and the bodies of her relatives and friends. The nudes are “arranged as intimate situations between two people, both defenceless in their nakedness, exposed to the curious eye of the voyeur audience. They can be profoundly moving at times, especially when the sharp pencil seems almost to scar the gossamer layer of soft transparent fabric. In her installations, the artist relies on the iconography of Veronica’s Veil and the related idea of an ephemeral trace, an imprint of a tortured human body on an enveloping shroud (it was also the subject of her monograph, Weronika i jej chusta [Veronica and her Veil], published in 1998 in Poland). Kuryluk’s veils and shrouds, however, take a departure from strictly Christian symbolism. True, they depict suffering, but their primary role is to preserve a record of individual emotion and a biological fascination with life. They come together to tell a story of love and memory; a strong emphasis is usually placed on sexuality”[1].

[member]

The motif can also be found in the work of Irena M. Palka. In her fine fabrics, the artist creates an almost sculpted, lifelike image of Christ. The face of Jesus in the Ecce Homo cycle of 1987 is not a reflection, a trace of a face, but the spatial form of a head, made with the elaborate technique of embroidery and appliqué, emerging from the frayed background of the veil. Its solidity strongly underscores the physical presence of Jesus, and the cloth becomes a kind of reliquary, acquiring the power of a religious fetish [fig. 3].

From a theological perspective, a particularly interesting interpretation of the acheiropoietos motif is to be found in a painting by Danuta Waberska, entitled Road to the Centre. The face of Christ from the Shroud of Turin hovers over nearly every frame of the urban scene with its car-packed streets and busy pavements crowded with walking passers-by. The painting illustrates the dogma of the divinization of the world and, at the same time, speaks of the Second Coming. Waberska alludes to the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in the Cenacle: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’”. (John 14:3-6). The metaphor of the centre is visualized by the vertical axis of the painting, which runs through the middle of Christ’s face, the setting sun, and the switched-off traffic lights. The metaphysical sense is rounded out by a road sign suspended over the busy street; its arrow pointing upwards, it reads “Centre”. The switched-off traffic lights in the foreground suggest that the viewer stands at an intersection; it is up to him which direction to choose. Despite the darkness of twilight and the web of power lines woven across the painting, there is no artificial source of light in the picture. The traffic lights, the street lamps, the headlights of passing cars, and the windows of the majestic skyscraper are all equally steeped in darkness. The only source of light, a truly evangelical light showing the path to the centre of truth, comes from the face of Christ that blends into the setting sun [fig. 4].

*

When discussing her fascination with the veil, Aldona Mickiewicz suggested one cannot rule out the possibility that St Veronica would have eventually washed the sweat-and-blood-stained veil, just as my elderly neighbour did. Female nature with its penchant for cleanliness and order would have to prevail. The wiping of Christ’s face, after all, was an act motivated not just by mercy but also by an urge to cleanse his tainted face. And if the image appeared in such a miraculous fashion in the first place, why should it disappear in the laundry? Would it be justified, at this juncture, to attempt certain generalizations and invoke sexual determinism? Is there such a thing as a type of iconography closer to the experience of female artists if, culturally speaking, women can be said to react similarly to like circumstances? In our times, the lines between the sexes are being blurred and such statements are dismissed as incorrect. However, it may be worthwhile to suspend judgment for a moment and closely examine the peculiar interpretation female artists gave to certain iconographic motifs, especially in those works which tackle religious themes but serve a private, rather than a liturgical, purpose. The largest number of relevant examples herald from the difficult decade of the 1980s, when the pervasively tragic sense of time and place favoured the appearance of art that rooted the audience in a sense of community and metaphysical allusions.

The emergence of democratic opposition in Poland and the establishment of Solidarity, the mass-scale independent workers’ union, spawned a series of similar radical transformations in the field of culture, particularly in the high-profile visual arts. The declaration of Martial Law in December 1981 and the subsequent dissolution of creative unions provided the impulse for most artists to launch a boycott of communist cultural policy. Where stage-managed, official culture once reigned supreme, spontaneous independent art emerged. Refusing to participate in state propaganda, Polish artists chose to boycott regime-controlled institutions and official media; instead, they worked and created in tandem with the oppressed society.

“A sharp division line ran through the country and the artistic milieu; invisible but felt at every turn, it was the front of the struggle for the values of August 1980, and, with time, became the trenches of positional war over basic principles. The universal schizophrenia also affected the world of art. On the one side, official, fully legal art was supported with all the distribution mechanisms at the state’s exclusive disposal; on the other, unofficial art throve on the periphery of public life: in churches, private places, and a handful of galleries which managed to resist political pressures and save their reputation”[2].

Independent art in the 1980s is a rich, multi-faceted phenomenon which stills stirs strong emotions. Even though attempts at its periodization are becoming increasingly frequent and varied, it cannot be said to have been adequately analyzed. The phenomenon is relatively recent; many artists and animators of the Independent Culture Movement remain active today. On the face of it, this should facilitate the publication of solid scholarly research; however, Czas smutku, czas nadziei – sztuka niezależna lat osiemdziesiątych (Time of sadness, Time of Hope. Independent Art of the 1980s), a short book published in 1992 by Aleksander Wojciechowski, continues to remain the best attempt at introducing order into the subject to date. Perhaps Aleksander Wojciechowski, the principal coordinator of independent exhibitions in the 1980s, was the only scholar able to look at the art of his time as a single socio-cultural phenomenon that wove together frequently antagonistic artistic currents. Other monographs and surveys of the period tend to sideline the multifaceted nature of the phenomenon and conflate it with this or that particular trend so as to accommodate it within a particular ideological vision of the development of art. Frequent are attempts at misappropriating the phenomenon, positioning oneself, writing art history from the perspective of contemporary artistic and political strategies. Anything that contradicts such projects is either omitted or marginalized, even if it largely shaped the landscape of independent culture in the 1980s. In reality, especially in the first half of the decade, instances of radical transformation, departure from accepted conventions, and time-specific art were more frequent than examples of continuity. Abstract, avant-garde art took on an explicitly religious dimension (Decalogue by Stefan Gierowski, Crucifixions by Jacek Sempoliński) and social imagination was galvanized by Jerzy Kalina’s underground performances and installations.

*

Emotions rooted in our individual ideology of art can cloud objective judgment. Fortunately, they cease to be an obstacle when the scope of research is narrowed down to a single selected theme of 1980s art. This is the case when we focus our attention on the religious iconography of female artists active in the independent movement, which is the subject of this article.

Several reservations should be made at this juncture. The interest in Christian iconography among contemporary artists is a phenomenon hardly confined to Polish art. There are many examples from Western Europe in which Christian iconography was used either to express messages in line with the teaching of the Church or to challenge orthodox religious values. Especially interesting in this respect is La Passion de Dunkerque, a collection of 900 works commissioned between 1974 and 1986 from artists such as Georg Baselitz, Rainer Fetting, Lucio Fontana, Mimmo Paladino, Arnulf Rainer, and Andy Warhol. An even more fascinating and spectacular example is the story of Father Friedhelm Mennekes, a Jesuit priest who has turned the liturgical interior of the Church of St Peter in Cologne into a gallery, effectively blurring the lines between sacred space and the space of exhibition.

However, nowhere was cooperation between the Church and the artistic milieu as widespread as in Poland in the 1980s. The Independent Culture Movement was exceptional in every respect; it has no parallel in any other time or place. The Church opened its gates to artists and spread its protective wings over them, providing them with sheltered conditions, in which they were able to carry out numerous art projects away from the watchful eye of communist censorship. Even though help was usually offered without preconditions (no-one asked about religious affiliation), the act of crossing the threshold of the Church left an imprint on the work of individual artists and on the Independent Culture Movement at large. “It was a sign of the times; a mass return to the fold of the Church and frequent conversions to Catholicism were the order of the day. It not only had to do with patronage and the ability to host exhibitions in ‘autonomous’ church space, though the pragmatic aspect was obviously important. In those difficult times, when secular ideology collapsed, the universal truths of Christianity came to serve as robust elements of informal community-building”[3].

No wonder then that the artists began to look to Christian iconography for themes to express the then and there, both in its individual and social dimension. It must be noted, at this juncture, that the independent culture of the 1980s did not include cultic art created for the purposes of decoration in churches. The independent exhibitions showcased “private” artwork, born out of a personal need for artistic expression. Allusions to Christianity served to ground the artists’ existential experience and search for deeper meaning in religion. The private character of their work contributed to an abundance of original, often unorthodox works, in which the iconographic element took pride of place.

*

The abundance of Christian iconography in contemporary Polish art is documented in two excellent, comprehensive scholarly monographs published in the previous decades: Dominik K. Łuszczek’s Inspiracje religijne w polskim malarstwie i grafice 1981–1991 (Religious Inspirations in Polish Painting and Graphic Arts 1981-1991) and Renata Rogozińska’s W stronę Golgoty – inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999 (Towards Golgotha. The Passion in Polish Art 1970-1999). However, neither monograph discusses religious iconography in the work of female artists as a separate and distinct phenomenon. This is not to be wondered at. The movement did not launch gender-focused exhibitions; there was a widely felt need among the artists to project a sense of internal cohesion and maintain a connection to the broader society. Open, collective exhibitions were the norm; anyone was welcome to come and present his or her work.

Even though their presence was not strongly emphasized, female artists were represented at all major exhibitions. Some were invited to inaugurate the work of new exhibition centres. An exhibition of paintings by Maria Anto in 1981, for instance, launched the “Trzech Obrazów” gallery, which was opened at the initiative of the Independent Student Association at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow; regular exhibitions at the Dominican Monastery in Krakow started in 1980 with a review of paintings by Teresa Rudowicz in the chapter-house of the church. Rudowicz’s Crucifixion continued to be shown in the Lubomirski Chapel even after the declaration of the Martial Law [fig. 5]. In 1984, another Krakow-based artist, Teresa Stankiewicz, inaugurated the SRN gallery at the Pontifical Academy of Theology.

To convey the misery of time and spirit, the artists of the 1980s frequently drew on the iconography of the Passion, which turned their artwork into a symbol of martyrdom, as well as a religious and existential confession. The passion and death of Christ also drew the attention of female artists. Their oeuvre makes extensive use of the motif of the cross and the crucified Christ.

In the 1980s, Teresa Rudowicz’s work consisted almost exclusively of Crucifixions. The artist never painted the cross beams. More often than not, her images depict a synthetic, yet expressive, silhouette of the crucified Christ against the white and brown background pulsating with nebulae of light paint [fig. 6].

Known for her delicate drawings in feather and ink, Anna Mizeracka, in turn, created one of the most memorable images of the time: For You Who Pray I Am Only…God (1982). In an indefinite landscape, in midst of a snowstorm, a forest of Christs torn off the cross sprouts from the ground. The drawing symbolizes the dramatic events after the declaration of the Martial Law in the ice-cold days of December 1981. The martyrological allusion, however, never tips into pathos; with rare mastery, the artist managed to infuse the scene with a truly lyrical aura [fig. 7].

Were we to put a finger on the most typical feature of the Crucifixions created by female artists, it would have to be the unwillingness to depict the body in an explicit, anatomical manner. Their artwork is full of understated forms, luminist expression, nearly abstract arrangements of the surface. This is definitely true of Maja Kwiatkowska, whose paintings often show a luminous sign of the cross piercing through the brown, tachist matter of the paint [fig. 8]. More narrative in character are the images of Ewa Ćwiertnia: expressive blue and grey paintwork defines the space in which forms come together to depict the scene of the Golgotha [fig. 9].

The painting of Teresa Stankiewicz, with its rich iconography, is a phenomenon in its own right. Dominated by the motif of Crucifixion, the artist’s extensive oeuvre addresses the whole gamut of Christian themes. There are no dramatic gestures, impulsive strokes, and ill-considered forms to be found. What strikes the eye is the depth of theological reflection, expressed in a lapidary form that straddles the boundary between narrative and abstraction, constructed from interwoven ideograms, signs, and symbols. Technical mastery is coupled with poetic sensitivity in pursuit of harmonious beauty, which situates even the most tragic events in an eschatological dimension. Teresa Stankiewicz derives her formal and aesthetic inspiration from the tradition of Catalan Romanesque painting and the small churches of the Pyrenees, but the liberal arrangement of the surface, the abstract flatness of space, and the frequent tendency to concentrate narrative motifs towards the edges of the painting give her work an uncommonly modern edge. An example of such excellent composition is Prayer in Gethsemane: the figures of Mary, the angel, the sleeping apostles, and of Judas surrounded by soldiers are placed at the edges; pitch darkness takes up the centre of the painting. An abstract ray of light sent down from the sky pierces the darkness, attacks it, and in the end assumes the hybrid shape of a cross/chalice, towards which, barely visible, leans a reclining figure of Jesus. This dialectical centre supports the whole weight of the drama and encapsulates the theological sense of Gethsemane: encircled by the whiteness of divine light, the clearly visible outline of the cross/chalice seems to radiate power to the ephemeral body of Christ beside it [fig. 10].

*

Stereotypical thinking about the religious inspiration of women would lead us to expect a large profusion of pieces devoted to the Virgin Mary and the intimate relationship between mother and son in their oeuvre. Pieces of this kind, to be sure, do appear in the 1980s; they usually show the Black Madonna of Jasna Gora, alone or with the infant Jesus. They are, however, rarely infused with the artist’s private experience. The theme was usually addressed in images by graphic artists (Irena Snarska, Ewa Walawska, Danuta Kolwzan-Nowicka, Aleksandra Krupska, Zofia Broniek); this may go some way towards explaining their emotional dryness, poster-like look, and made-to-fit character. A greater number of movingly personal works drew on the scene in which Mary mourns the death of her Son.

A case in point is Pietà (1981) by Marzanna Wróblewska. Mary’s arms are spread in a gesture of prayer and the body of Christ, shrouded in white, rests on her lap, as if on the throne of heaven. The composition is inscribed in a square, which symbolizes the earth. The faces of both figures are not shown; the painting, accordingly, can be interpreted as an image both of individual and collective tragedy. The image represents the Mystical Church of Christ, which, in its pilgrimage on earth, already partakes of the eschatological glory of God [fig. 11].

The theological and artistic need to find a form that would be able to carry the weight of communal experience often pushed female artists to draw on the theme of the Cenacle. Their paintings usually depict figures convened around a table, as in Maria Anto’s At the Table (1986), in which the scene radiates familial warmth, even though the event is set at night and in a winter landscape. A metaphysical dimension is introduced by a lamp hanging down from the sky, which illuminates the white tablecloth, and the presence of angels among the feasters [fig. 12]. A table with two empty plates is the focus of another painting, Christmas Eve 1981 (1983) by Elżbieta Arend-Sobocka; with a candle in the window, blood-red draperies, and hands covering a face, the images convey the tragedy of the Martial Law [fig. 13].

Without attempting any synthetic generalizations, but keeping in mind hundreds of relevant paintings, it can be said that in their treatment of Christian iconography the female artists of the Independent Culture Movement rarely addressed the typically feminine theme of motherhood. Motifs of the Passion served as vastly superior vehicles for their emotional experience. However, their works typically reflect a concern for community and fellow human beings. Even scenes without human figures, such as landscapes and still lifes, express the drama of separation and the hope for the restoration of human relationships. This is definitely true of the Cenacle (1986) by Aldona Mickiewicz, a still life in its essence. With no human figures in sight, it shows a stained tablecloth, some bread crumbs, and wine – traces of a communal event, which testify that we were once together and that we felt connected. The caring spirit of a woman subtly manifests itself in the corners of the tablecloth; folded inside, they indicate that someone has started to clean up, while Eucharistic iconography provides a foothold for hope.[4]

 [/member]

Translated by Urszula Jachimczak



[1] M. Kitowska-Łysiak, Ewa Kuryluk, www.culture.pl/baza-sztuki-pelna-tresc/-/eo_event_asset_publisher/eAN5/content/ewa-kuryluk [accessed: 8 Jun. 2012].

[2] A. Rottenberg, Pokolenie ‘80, w: Prze-ciąg. Teksty o sztuce polskiej lat 80., Warszawa 2009, p. 54.

[3] Ibidem, p. 57.

[4]  The problems of independent culture in Poland in the period 1980–1992 were discussed at more length in the following publications: Cóż po artyście w czasie marnym? Sztuka niezależna lat 80., exhibition catalogue, Galeria Zachęta, Warszawa, Dec. 1990 – Jan. 1991, Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie, Jan. – Feb. 1991; A. Rottenberg, Przeciąg. Teksty o sztuce polskiej lat 80., Warszawa 2009; W. Włodarczyk, Lata osiemdziesiąte – sztuka młodych, “Zeszyty Naukowe ASP w Warszawie”, 1990, vol. 3; A. Osęka, Obietnica lat 80., “Tygodnik Powszechny” 1995, no. 43; A. Wojciechowski, Czas smutku, czas nadziei, Warszawa 1992; Republika Bananowa – ekspresja lat 80., exhibition catalogue, Zamek Książ, BWA Wałbrzych, 26 Jan. – 23 Mar. 2008, Wrocław 2008; Pamięć i uczestnictwo, exhibition catalogue, Muzeum Narodowe w Gdańsku, Gdańsk 2005; R. Rogozińska, Inspiracje pasyjne w sztuce polskiej w latach 1970–1999, Poznań 2002; R. Rogozińska, Ikona w sztuce XX wieku, Kraków 2009; Kościół i kultura niezależna, Katowice 2011; Pokolenie ‘80. Niezależna twórczość młodych w latach 1980–89, Kraków 2010; Pokolenie ‘80. Polityczny protest? Artystyczna kontestacja? Niezależna twórczość młodych w latach 1980–1989, Rzeszów 2012; B. Kokoska, Malarstwo polskie, Kraków 2001; D. K. Łuszczek, Inspiracje religijne w polskim malarstwie i grafice 19811991, Warszawa 1998.

 

Skip to content