By its own rules. Self-portraits of Polish artists
Singer of the Slavs in the Japanese kimono, naked, hardly matching the canons of exquisite nudes. Self-portraits of Polish artists play with the viewer and at every step deceive his expectations.
A gifted child, whose first teacher was the famous artist (in particular, according to the canonical illustrations for “Pan Tadeusz” by Adam Mickiewicz) artist Michal Elviro Andriolli, a student at the private painting school of Wojciech Gerson. A student of the prestigious Julian Academy in Paris, she became the first Polish woman to receive an art education at such a high professional level. Marked with many awards while studying at school, at the London Academy of Arts, as well as in Berlin and at the Paris Salon. At the Salon in 1887 she was awarded the highest award – a gold medal for the self-portrait written in the same year. She is guided by current trends, peculiar primarily to landscape painting – from luminism to impressionism. Traces of these directions are also found in her paintings, but Anna Bilinskaya-Bogdanovich remains primarily a magnificent portrait painter, faithful to a realistic tradition, fluent in technology and possessing the gift of an attentive observer.
Awarded with a gold medal at the Self-Portrait Salon of 1887 – this is an ideal result of the artist’s career, one might say, a kind of manifesto of her work. She portrayed herself at work, with brushes and a palette in her hands. This plot is as old as the world, but the devil, as usual, is in the details. Renaissance artists (and the few artists who, thanks to their high social position, had the opportunity to engage in this profession, for example, Artemisia Gentileschi and Sofonisba Angvisola) portrayed themselves in proud poses and elegant robes – if you change their attributes to feathers and music stands or maces and scepters, then they would resemble scholars, military leaders or princes. The self-portrait was a kind of tool – a tool in the struggle to recognize painting as one of the types of “liberated art.” For artists, this struggle was much easier than sculptors sculpting in sweat. The battle was won. In the XIX century, especially during the heyday of realism, the canons in art became much less strict.
Bilinskaya is one step ahead of many of her peers. She does not show the interiors of her workshop – behind her is just a simple drapery. The artist has the usual black dress and apron, she sits hunched over a bit, carelessly cut hair falls on her face and ears in free strands. A smile wanders on the lips, but a slight tiredness is noticeable in the expression on the face. This self-made woman looks at us with dignity. Knowing how much dedication and how many labors it took a woman at the end of the 19th century to decide to devote herself to painting, Bilinskaya decided to open an art school for women in Paris like the Paris one. However, these plans were not destined to come true – only six years after the creation of the self-portrait awarded in Paris, she dies from heart disease.
Olga Bognazanskaya, 1909, photo: National Museum in Krakow
Born in the mid 60-ies of the XIX century, eight years after Bilinskaya, Olga Boznanskaya belongs to a slightly different artistic era. She studies painting in Munich, where at that time many Polish artists found themselves. There, the mentor of Boznański becomes, in particular, Jozef Brandt. However, she soon moved to Paris, where for twenty years already impressionism flourished. Boznanskaya takes over the freedom of creative expression from him, but atmospheric effects and landscape painting alone are not particularly interested in her, her palette is far from the pure, joyful light inherent in the paintings of the impressionists. Gray and black tones dominate the Boznanskaya palette, and portrait becomes the main genre. Her work is akin to the paintings of James McNeill Whistler, who lingered halfway between realism and impressionism of the American artist-tonalist, who in his portraiture works concentrated on a subtle play of colors, which was emphasized in their names, for example, “Harmony in Gray and Green”. However, the movement of the Boznanskaya brush vibrates more strongly, the figures look more airy. The models themselves are somewhat different – there are not so many ladies from high society dressed in elegant dark dresses and expensive furs, but more children, like that famous girl with chrysanthemums. However, flowers are often present in portraits of Boznavanskaya, diluting their gray-brown gamut with lighter and more intense tones.