Melancholic look from big eyes, faint smile, hair pined-up into old-fashion bun and dark, geared up dress- this is how Olga Boznanska has introduced herself trough her self-portrait, which can be admired in Gallery of Polish Masters in Museum of the City of Lodz. She looks on it almost like on images and photographs which depict her. Despite the fact that her image is famously know and her work thoroughly examined, one of the most famous polish painters stays enigmatic still.
Olga Boznanska was born in 1865 in Cracow. Her parents were Eugenia Mondan, who was a teacher with French roots, and an engineer Adam Boznanski. Mother has quickly discovered talents of her daughters – Olga’s artistic and music one in the youngest, Iza – and she consequently helped daughters to develop them. Thanks to her, painter was able to attend systematically to Art course, which she was continuing on Wyzsze Kursy dla Kobiet Adriana Baranickiego (tłum. Higher Courses for Women by Adrian Baranicki) . Parents had supported her art education , even when she stepped into adulthood; it was unusual for art pupils, especially for women . They had made courageous decision to enable their 21-year-old daughter to study art craft abroad. They have chosen Munich, firstly because it seemed to be more safe in those days than Paris, secondly because polish artistic colony worked there and it included some of Eugenia’s and Adam friends: Józef Brandt and Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski.
In spite of care of Boznanska’s, her family had undoubted influence on her personality status but not only in a positive way. Her first biographer, Helena Blum, suggested, on the basis of painter’s friends statements, that: ‘’artist in family home has acquired a slight of melancholy and some kind of excess of outdated conventionalities. Olga’s mother was oversensitive person and her two daughters inherited it from her’’. Nowadays, researchers have similar outlook on it; e.g. Joanna Sosnakowska, who states that: ‘’both daughter were separated from world. As a consequence, younger was mentally ill, and the older one gained bizarre behaviours. All researchers were unanimous that the Boznanska’s childhood was crucial to understand her life.
Meanwhile, right after her removal to Munich, away from home, young artist’s spread her wings. It is widely known that her social life had burgeoned and herself was described by her acquaintances as ‘’nice and cheerful miss’’. She also made headway in her career; after three years she opened her own studio and fallowed an advice of Jozef Brandt to stop attending to university. Couple years later, in 1895, she was regarded as one of twelve best European painters by the ‘’Bazar’’ magazine.
Munich’s period was filled with romances but only one of them turned into serious relationship – with Jozef Czajkowski, the one who was able to charm Olga, who later become his fiancé. Unfortunately, above mentioned relationship didn’t last long. In 1900 Czajkowski broke up with Boznanska through unpleasant letter. Helena Blum considers this episode as crucial in painters life. It certainly was not easy to recover from it and it is in common knowledge that she kept ex-fiancé painting in her studio till her death.
Before the break up with Czajkowski, the painter made two important decisions. One of them was that she refused to work for Julian Falat at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. Although, offer was attractive, and Boznanska could have been first women professor, she sturdily didn’t want to come back to hometown where she was afraid of : ‘’falling into jealous of latitude and great happiness riff-raff’s hands’’. For the sake of artistic values she decided to move to (at that time) the capital of art- Paris. She also felt that she was closer to French artists than to ‘’dark, Munich smirch’’.
The painter moved to Paris in 1898, which overlapped with her artistic maturity. She gave up oil painting on canvas and developed characteristic, for her way, muffling of colours to get the effect of dematerialisation- dry painting on cardboard. Additionally, Boznanska didn’t pay attention to preparation of canvas nor to tools. Furthermore, her technique wasn’t very solid, that’s why nowadays conservators have problems to renovate her work.
In Paris Boznanska devoted herself to portrait painting, which thanks to her art-skills, become extraordinary. Persons on her paintings seemed to be dim, almost immaterial. Painting-emphasis put on hands and faces and, above all, eyes which seemed ‘’itself to be a work of art’’. Characteristic style of painting was a succession of studio’s environment and midday sun-light, which was dim by curtains, as well as smoke from cigarettes.
Later another thing which could have been responsible for her dim paintings was her eye-disease.
Career of Olga headed forward after her arrival to Paris. It was a period of many exhibitions, critics were oriented favourably to her works and she won a lot of prices. Clients placed many orders and international clientele consequently leaded her at the height of her career before the beginning of World War I.
War had changed many aspects of her life: some friends left Paris, the city was changing, art market met with the crush and Olga started to suffer for poverty. This was the symbolic end of 19century, the one which Olga wanted to be a part of forever. Interwar period was the one when painter created her shrouded in mystery portrait. The one where she is bizarre, lonely, surrounded by dogs and tame of mice.
With no doubt, Boznanska stayed change-resistant and till the end of her life she wore her dress from the nineteenth century and she allowed to replace kerosene lamp by electricity only in 1937. But the statement that she was isolated from the world is untrue. She was still a part of cultural city life, many of her friends and students, who were admirers of her work, were appearing in her atelier. The real problems were the economical ones; she wasn’t able to live on income of her work and she was forced to gain profits from tenement In Cracow.
She was aware of perceiving her as an eccentric but she chose it e.g. by not fallowing the fashion. Her archaic dress ‘’full of pins, which were used to tied up sliding fabric’’ and old-fashioned hair-style. Melancholic expression on her face and inherent cigarette completed the whole. This picture of her is preserved by many photos and pictures, mostly spread by press. Renata Higersberger says that: ‘’artist extremely well created her media-image’’.
Self-portraits played first fiddle in auto-creation; Boznanska painted herself like she wanted to be perceived. She created more or less thirty self-portraits. First ones were made during Munich’s period, the last ones- at the end of her life. Many of them were created for self usage but there were others ordered by clients or painted for exhibitions. With no doubt self-portraits were crucial for creation of her image.
Confirmation of abovementioned characteristic is that paintings are hardly diverse. On the one hand, works which have been created in Munich period presents many variations, the ones from Paris are different only because of small details like presence of brushes, painter’s uniform or hat. In 1906 Boznanska created many self-portraits which were after-effects of her worked pattern. On those days, artist have painted the art work, which can be admired in Museum of City of Lodz and which is excellent example of realisation of her patterns. Painting is kept in subdued gamut of colours. It presents artist in her dark, old-fashioned dress on which she has painter’s uniform. She holds brushes; at the foot of the painting it is noticeable to see red flowers, which emphasize sharply colour accent of it. The last ones of before mentioned attributes are not necessarily fundamental, they are only the part of the painting and are not always showed in her works. The whole figure merges into the background of the painting because of negligent strokes of brush. Boznanska’s face, which has the same expression on every painting, is in the limelight. Painter stares at viewer ‘’like she was sad, with glancing, almost wet eyes and faint smile’’. Only thing which has been changing on her works is her age. She didn’t hide her age on the paintings, however, she consistently tried to take away some years in everyday life.
It can be supposed that someone who paints their own face has special need of expression but it’s hard to accuse Boznanska of it. On her paintings she seems to be unapproachable. Under the guise of her bloodless face presented on portraits she tried to cover her secrets. No wonder that when Zygmunt Puslowski saw one of her paintings had the impression that ‘’it is amazing (…) when it comes to style. Nevertheless, it can be any actress as well as miss Olga; when you know miss Olga’’.
Why artist painted herself so willingly and didn’t let herself to express the emotions? Researchers of her life, have been looking answers for this question for years. The 1906 (when she has created many portraits with the same, unchangeable pattern) may be the clue. At this time her father, with who she was really close, had died. She also took care of him in Paris in his last years of life. Hardly it can be tell that this event was crucial for her next steps but the fact that she ‘’stopped in time’’ is certain. Despite many fabulous biographic studies she is still mysterious and her paintings – instead of facilitating her persona – only dimmed her even more.
Author: Joanna Jaśkiewicz
Translation from Polish: Katarzyna Tokarczyk