Olga Boznańska (1865–1940)
The 150th anniversary of Olga Boznańska’s birth on 15 April 2015 has inspired the National Museum in Krakow and Warsaw to organize a presentation of her oeuvre. Boznańska was one of the most renowned Polish painters, classified in the narrow group of the most eminent European female artists. The exhibition under the honorary patronage of the First Lady of Poland, Ms. Anna Komorowska, opens at the National Museum in Warsaw on 26 February and lasts until 2 May 2015.
Olga Boznańska’s diverse artistic heritage was of supreme importance for the Polish art of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Born in Krakow to a French mother and a Polish father, Boznańska began her artistic education in her home town. She continued to study painting in Munich. Encouraged by her success, in 1898 she settled in Paris, the artistic capital of the world. There, her career as a portrait painter flourished.
The National Museum in Warsaw is going to present 150 works by Boznańska from various periods of her activity and several paintings by other artists, both those with whom she is customarily confronted and ones opening up new contexts. By contrasting Boznańska’s paintings with masterpieces by such names as Diego Velázquez (Portrait of Mariana of Austria, Queen of Spain from Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza), Édouard Manet, Eugène Carrière, Henri Fantin-Latour and Édouard Vuillard (paintings from the collection of Musée d’Orsay in Paris) as well as Japanese woodcuts, visitors will be able to see her work in the global artistic perspective. In Warsaw, James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s outstanding canvas Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London for the first month of the exhibition, is a definite must-see.
The National Museum in Warsaw possesses 57 paintings by Olga Boznańska, including masterworks like In the Orangery, Portrait of a Boy in School Uniform, The Artist’s Studio, Granny’s Name Day and Portrait of Anna Saryusz-Zaleska, alongside several sketchbooks and numerous photographs. The sizeable group of paintings is a fixture in the ever-evolving permanent Gallery of Polish Painting and her works are an indispensible part of any exhibition of Polish art that the National Museum in Warsaw organises abroad.
It was Wiesław Juszczak who established Olga Boznańska’s place in Polish art history with his brilliant 1977 work Modernizm. In defiance of all those who had written that stylistic classification of Boznańska’s work was impossible, Juszczak observed that the artist was able to achieve a final effect of emotional tension and rapacious expressiveness through a use of Impressionistic means and techniques. He noted that Boznańska had already found her own “spatial formula” in her Munich period: her contour-less figures seem to fade into and at the same time emerge from the amorphous backdrops, producing an effect of uneasy pulsation. “And the suggestion of such a ‘cerebral’ and unreal space sets the stage for a piercing and often merciless story of the human soul.” Juszczak also compared Boznańska’s vibrating blots of colour to Wyspiański’s lines: they make it possible to bypass the bulkiness of matter for the sake of enabling a more forceful expression of the psychological dimension and the artist’s soul. Juszczak goes on to explain that in the peculiar Polish reception of Western tendencies, Impressionism is always underpinned by an Expressionistic foundation.
The creators of our exhibition took on the task of tracking down all of the artist’s works and, more importantly, of showing them in the context of works by artists whom Boznańska referenced or ones the critics evoked in connection with her. We were fortunate enough to ensure the one-month presence of a work which very clearly and beautifully reveals Boznańska’s appreciation for its creator, namely, Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, on loan from the Tate Gallery in London. Boznańska viewed the painting, along with Whistler’s other works, at an exhibition in Munich in 1888.
As much as it may seem that each new exhibition and each subsequent publication brings us closer to understanding the phenomenon that is Olga Boznańska’s art, in fact, we are still at the beginning of the road. And that is a good thing: still ahead are many adventures with this artist who, while long being a part of the canon of Polish painting, remains all the while insufficiently known and profoundly intriguing.