Thursday, 26 June 2008

Olga Boznańska (1865 - 1940)

"Portrait of a Girl" Oil on Cardboard, 19??. Private Collection, Poland.

Born in 1865 in Krakow, Boznanska studied art at length at first under the guidance of her mother, and later under artists such as Kazimierz Pochwalski, Jozef Brandt and Jozef Siedlicki. Between 1886-1889 she studied at the Munich Academy of Fine arts, developing her skills by copying Old Masters in the Alte Pinakothek and relying on the group of Polish artists living in Munich at the time - Waclaw Szymanowski, Jozef brandt and Alfred Wierusz Kowalski - for support and encouragement. It was during her stay in Munich that she set up her first studio (Boznanska is pictured in her Munich studio, above right) and by 1895 she had taken over Teodor Hummel's painting school and was teaching full time. The same year the Berlin journal "Bazaar" named her as one of the twelve leading female painters in Europe. In 1898 she moved to Paris.

While her Munich works (see "Girl Pondering" 1889, left) were characterised by a formal and restrained academic approach, in Paris, under the influence of Whistler and Wilhelm Leibl, her work matured and her approach became more painterly. Working primarily on cardboard which gave the surface of her paintings a dry, matte appearance, her mature works are characterised by shimmering, scumbled brushwork, a lightness of touch, and intense emotional psychology, her later paintings often featuring solemn children, the elderly and themes of motherhood. While she painted numerous high quality still lives and landscapes, it is her portraits that are most noteworthy. In her individualistic style Boznanska blocks in the background of her portraits in broad strokes of subdued green, blue, brown and grey, often allowing the body, clothing or hair of her subject to be consumed in the confusion of misty brushstrokes that swirl together behind them. This is in stark contrast to the faces and hands of her sitters, given special attention by the artist and treated in minute detail with bright, tiny brustrokes which seem almost to vibrate in skin tones of pink, yellow and grey. Her best works focus sharply on the expertly painted eyes and facial features of the subject and radiate outwards, becoming more and more messy until the edges of her canvas are populated with splashes of paint and scrubby brushwork. Many of her works have an unfinished appearance and patches of bare cardboard or canvas are allowed to permeate all areas of the painted surface (see "Portrait of a Girl," top.)

On Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris, in 1906.

Boznanska found success in France, exhibiting widely, gaining commissions from throughout Europe, and winning many honours for her painting. She became a member of the Societe Nationale des Beaux Arts in 1904 and also enjoyed membership of the Society of Polish Artists in Paris, the Polish Artistic Society, the Association of Polish Women Artist in Krakow and the International Society of Sculptors, Engravers and Painters in London. She was awarded a gold medal at the international exhibition in Munich in 1905, the French Legion of Honour in 1912, the Grand Prix at the Expo Exhibition in Paris in 1939 and the Order of Polonia Restituta in 1938. Between 1890 and 1938 she exhibited in Berlin three times, Munich, Prague, London, Paris, Pittsburgh four times, Vienna twice, Amsterdam, and Venice three times, to name the most prominent of her exhibitions only ("Girl Pondering" is pictured, right, on show in Dusseldorf in 1904.) Despite her growing popularity in Europe it was a deep disappointment to Boznanska that her reputation in her native Poland never matched the acclaim she received elsewhere. She managed only one solo exhibition in Poland, in 1931 when her career was already in decline.

An extremely sensitive woman by nature, Boznanska lead a solitary and humble existence in Paris despite the truly international success of her work. By the 1930's the commercial popularity of her work was in decline, and not being someone who could ask favours of others, she fell into financial difficulties. Things became so bad that by 1934 friends in Poland had organised a committee to raise funds for her by eliciting commissions and donations from the government and wealthy patrons. Her last major recognition was the 1939 Grand Prix at the Paris Expo. A number of personal tragedies during the late 1930's - the death of her father, the breaking off of an engagement to be married, the mental difficulties and suicide of her sister Izabela and then the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1940, left Boznanska in a fragile state and leading the life of a recluse in her Paris studio. Her health deteriorated rapidly and she died out of public view and in poverty on October 26th 1940. She left behind over 1200 finished works, with many more coming to light each year since. (49 Boulevard Montparnasse, where Boznanska lived and worked for the majority of her time in Paris, is shown left as it stands today.)

Boznanska (seen right, 1890) developed a unique and fully resolved mature style. Despite this she is of course indebted to the work of Whistler and the impressionists, and the grand interiors and expensive frocks depicted mean her paintings are very much of their era. However, the melancholy which pervades her work, coupled with her approach to handling paint - the tiny, precise and nervous rendering of features and how they meet the tumult of brushwork around them, the sketchy and uncompromising state in which she left some of her works - are closer to more modern developments in painting. There are moments in her work where it is only the clothing and hairstyles that are dating these works so far into the past (see "Portrait of a Girl," top.)

"Picturesque Study" Oil, cloth on cardboard, 19??. Galeria Obrazów, Lviv.

Today the majority of Boznanska's work resides in private collections throughout Europe. There are collections of her work in a handful of the major Polish museums and a couple of her portraits remain in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, although they are rarely shown to the public. There is a bust commemorating the artist in "Celebrity Alley," Kielce, Poland, and a small plaque commemorates her brief spell teaching at the Academie Colarossi, 16 rue de la Grand Chaumiere, Paris.

Helene Blum produced a limited overview of her work in 1974, but this is long out of print. I am not aware of any attempt to catalogue her output or major publications about Boznanska currently in print. A book by Maria Rostworowska was published in 2003 in limited numbers, but I have no information on it.

(Photographs above from National Museum, Warsaw and Private collection.)

Large collection of her works.
A roundup of webpages about her by infopoland.
▪ Information on the "Unknown Boznanska" celebrations in Poland in 2005 from The Warsaw Voice

"Motherhood" Oil on canvas, 1902. Private collection.

"Portrait of Adam Nowiny-Boznański (artist's father)" Oil on canvas, 1903. National Museum, Krakow.

"Portrait of Lady Dygat" Oil on cardboard, 1903. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

"Portrait of a woman" Oil on cardboard, 1900. Private collection.

"Two children" Oil on cardboard, 1907. Gallery Obrazow, Lviv.

"Portrait of Wojciech Gielecki" Oil on cardboard, 1905. Private collection.

"The white hat" Oil on cardboard, 1906. Silesian Museum, Katowice.

"Girl" Oil on cardboard, 1890. Private collection

"Portrait of Francis Thomasson" Oil on cardboard, 1925. Private collection.

"Study of woman and child" Oil on cardboard, 1893. National Museum, Warsaw

"Self Portrait" Oil on panel, 19??. Galerie Obrazow, Lviv

"Portrait of Vincent Lutoslawski" Oil on cardboard, 1909. Private collection

"Two children on the stairs" Oil on canvas, 1898. National Museum, Poznan

"Portrait of Stanislaw Wyspianski" Oil on canvas, 1905. Private collection

"Portrait of Władysławy Chmielarczykówny" Oil on cardboard, 1906. Silesian Museum, Katowice

"Portrait of Helena and Władysławy Chmielarczykówny" Oil on cardboard, 1906. National Museum, Warsaw


expilo said...

Excellent blog! Although one cannot say for certain that majority of Boznańska works are in private collections. Museums in Poland hold a considerable number of those and probably the best ones. A pity all the efforts to organize her monographic exhibition outside of Poland never suceeded.

Art by Andrew Daniel said...

What fantastic portraits! The brushwork is so sensitive, so much emotion comes through! Thank you so much for sharing! I am quite inspired!