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Zofia Stryjeńska

Stryjeńska's work is widely known and easily recognisable. There is hardly a Pole who has not been exposed to her paintings, which until the 1970s were reproduced - usually shoddily and without quoting her name - on countless chocolate boxes, plates or postcards. In fact, already between the two wars many artists imitated Stryjeńska's distinctive style, thereby trivialising the originals. Zofia Stryjeńska, née Lubańska (1891-1976), received her education in private artistic schools in her native Cracow and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. She made her debut under her maiden name in 1912, when she exhibited a series of cartons entitled Polish Fables; a year later she painted a series of watercolours illustrating Polish Christmas carols. During World War I, she designed picture postcards depicting scenes from Nativity plays and popular soldier's songs of Piłsudski's Legions.

She produced her most impressive works while she was married to Karol Stryjeński, architect and educator. Yet, the union was not a happy one - as time passed, Stryjeński treated his wife with increasing harshness; he spread malicious gossip about her and on two occasions attempted to confine her to a mental institution. Although the doctors excluded mental disease, the stigma of 'a madwoman' stuck to the artist, who, in her mutiny against the conventions of middle class morality, would unwittingly get caught up in society scandals. Aware of her talent, she did not attach much significance to her achievements. To be loved was what she desired above all. She lived constantly torn apart between love of her children and her motherly obligations - and an artist's freedom to follow her own path. Neither the divorce with Stryjeński nor a short-lived second marriage gave Zofia the peace and stability she so desired. And even though her paintings reached exorbitant prices, she forever struggled to make a living, refusing to treat the creative process as gainful activity. Yet she was never quite happy with her work - even at the height of her fame, when she was dubbed the princess of Polish art and considered the greatest of Europe's female artists.

In fact, success and popularity had accompanied her from the early days - from the Passover and God Hunt series, as well as the 1923 pieces - Morning, Evening and Beriot's Concert. In 1925, she was awarded four Grand Prix and two honorary diplomas at the International Exhibition of Decorative Art in Paris, where she exhibited various works, notably the decorative panels entitled The Four Seasons. Stryjeńska created similar panels for other interiors (e.g. the Fire and Water panels for the Polish Embassy building in Sofia; she also painted polychromes for several historical houses in Warsaw's Old Town (1928). She published two portfolios of colour lithographs called Slavic Deities, as well as making illustrations for several books. She designed posters, advertising materials and toys. On other occasions, she acted as a stage designer or wrote scripts for musical performances. In 1928, she created the entire visual concept for the Harnasie ballet by Karol Szymanowski.

The diversity of Stryjeńska's artistic endeavour is a testimony to her almost unlimited capabilities and an enormous strength of talent. While she adapted her style to the task at hand, she always left her distinctive mark on it. The characteristically simplified forms in her pictures are arranged to create a dynamic, rhythmical composition that fills the frame from edge to edge. The sensual spontaneity of the scenes is also reflected in the manner in which they are presented. This is the nature of Stryjeńska's relationship with folklore - it goes far beyond the mere choice of topics, which indeed she derived from ethnographic sources and processed in a humorous manner so particular to her. She even took liberties with Slavic deities and legendary Polish kings of the Piast dynasty: in one of her paintings, the progenitor of the dynasty holds a wheel as if it were a steering wheel. And her King Casimir the Great is seen with a cigarette in his hand.

The artist's memoirs, published in 1995 under the title 'Our almost daily bread', are the best manifestation of her brilliant wit, an exquisite sense of humour, as well as a view of herself characterised by simplicity and criticism.

Urszula Makowska Ph.D.
Institute of Art Polish Academy of Sciences