WARSAW — When describing one of the artists whose work is included in the exhibition Warsaw Painters: Sketches from the Art Called Naïve currently on view at the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw, the Polish cultural critic Aleksander Jackowski wrote in a letter, “She knows nothing; she has only imagination.” This was not meant as a criticism, for Jackowski championed Leonida Płonkowa (1913–1992), as well as the three other artists featured in the show — Maria Korsak (1907–2002), Halina Walicka (1901–1980), and Łucja Mickiewicz (1894–1979) — by including them in exhibitions he curated and books he wrote. Jackowski was referring to the fact that Płonkowa was not a trained professional artist, and like the other artists in the exhibition, came to art later in life.
This exhibition’s curator, Alicja Mironiuk Nikolska, uses the designation “naïve art” to describe works that were created by non-professional artists who existed outside the mainstream art world. This is one of two main threads that tie the work of these four women together. The other connecting factor is the city of Warsaw, the location of their creative output. While these are indeed similarities worth noting, what struck me most in this small, one-room exhibition was the extraordinary ability of all four women to develop a distinct visual language, as if using art to create a space of their own.
By the time these artists started making art in the 1950s and ‘60s, each of their lives had been disrupted by war, displacement, and trauma to varying degrees. Walicka lost her father, husband, and three brothers in Auschwitz, while Mickiewicz survived Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women in Germany. Korsak was separated from her husband for years because of the shifting Polish-Soviet border, whereas Płonkowa spent much of the war in Romania, longing for her family in Warsaw.
At first glance, the cheerful and colorful scenes these artists created in their ’40s and ’50s seem to belie the reality of their lives. After spending some time with their works, however, another possibility arises — for these women, the pursuit of art was an exercise in worldbuilding, using their distinctive styles to construct an alternate reality. Płonkowa often painted imaginative fairytale scenes, including one featuring a grasshopper playing the violin to an audience of gnomes, and another of a snow queen on her throne. Consider also the dreamlike world of Walicka, whose ethereal women seem to float in their long dresses, with winds pushing them through outdoor and domestic settings that at times resemble theatrical sets. Even the urban landscapes of Korsak and Mickiewicz — some of which are so detailed they resemble actual locations in Warsaw — are imbued with a sense of wonder. Mickiewicz’s embroidered landscapes, enhanced with sparkling silver and gold threads, suggest an otherworldly dimension.
While the work of non-professional artists has received renewed attention in recent years (including the recent William Hirshfield exhibition at the Folk Art Museum in New York), what distinguishes the artists in Warsaw Painters is not so much the “naïve art” classification, but rather each artist’s initial pursuit of artmaking as a personal endeavor intended for their own well-being.
This is particularly evident with Płonkowa, whose legacy has been best preserved out of the four artists as she bequeathed many of her works and documents to the Ethnographic Museum. Płonkowa’s unabashed and unrestrained artistic exploration — generously described by the curators as “unusual versatility” in the wall text — is on full display here. Paintings on glass, watercolors, and charcoal sketches hung salon style in a makeshift wooden structure in the middle of the room depict everything from religious iconography and scenes from folktales, to abstract patterns and detailed botanical sketches. This is an explosive celebration of almost childlike experimentation and wonder, and the viewer feels as though they are witnessing Płonkowa searching for a language with which to express her world. Whether or not it is intentional, the wooden structure devoted to Płonkowa’s work emphasizes this feeling of constructing a space to explore and dream — to imagine and create a world separate from both the constraints of the commercial art world and also the horrors of the past.
As in the United States, most exhibitions of work by self-taught or non-professional artists in Europe are currently organized by folk art or ethnographic museums. I came away from Warsaw Painters wondering what insight about postwar Poland could be gained by displaying these artists alongside those whose work was absorbed by the art world of the time. It left me intrigued by what could be learned from a visual dialogue between artists who “know nothing” — to borrow Jackowski’s phrase — and those who were very much creating in response to the socio-political demands of the postwar period.
Warsaw Painters: Sketches from the Art Called Naïve will continue at the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw (National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw 1 Kredytowa Street, 00-056 Warsaw) until June 4. The exhibition was curated by Alicja Mironiuk Nikolska.