Jerzy Nowosielski is generally perceived as an author of icons and church interiors; however, his contribution to modern Polish art is not constrained only to those areas of creation. He combined the East with the West and maneuvered between such different forms of expression as sacrum and profanum, religious paintings and nudes. He treated icons as the introduction to painting in general and refused to be confined only to that framework.
'The paradox is that I don't feel like I'm a painter of icons. I'm simply a painter and painting means icons for me. Painting as a whole. I'm not trying to prepare some kind of technical specifics of icons. I'm a painter, not a painter of icons,' claimed the artist Nowosielski was born in 1923 in Cracow where he spent most of his life. He was raised in a religiously diverse environment where two forms of Christianity and two nationalities interacted: his mother Anna was polonized Austrian with Roman Catholic traditions, while his father, Stefan, was a Lemko - like the immigrant family of Andy Warhol - a Western-Ukrainian ethnic group inhabiting the region of the Carpathian Mountains, currently situated mainly in the southeastern region of Poland. While his mother wanted to bring up the boy in the spirit of Roman Catholicism, Nowosielski's father would secretly take him to the Greek Catholic church where the future painter had his first contact with the liturgy that would have a huge impact on his artistic identity. Though his parents held different views on their son's religious preference, they both instilled in him the love of art. In 1940, Jerzy started his artistic education at Kunstgewerbeschule - the arts and crafts school established by the Nazis during the occupation of Poland to replace the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. For two years, he attended the Department of Decorative Painting under Stanisław Komocki - a respected Polish landscape painter and student of Jacek Malczewski and Leon Wyczolkowski. However, the place that had the greatest influence on the young artist was the John the Baptist Lavra in Pochayiv near Lviv - currently in western Ukraine. He spent 4 months in the Pochayiv Orthodox monastery as a lay brother, studying iconography and visiting the Museum of Icons in Lviv.
'I had the opportunity to rummage through the icon museum that was closed down by the Germans. There, for the first time, I came face to face with truly great art in such concentration and number. It left such a strong impression that I will never forget this encounter. Looking at the paintings, I simply felt physical pain, I didn't have the strength to move from one room to another,' said Nowosielski. His stay in the monastery was suddenly interrupted by arthritis that he caught while painting his first frescos in Bolekhiv. He was forced him to return to Cracow; however, that short episode marked his birth as an artist.
'I, a Polish painter, was spiritually born in the Lavra in Pochayiv,' said the artist afterwards.
Having returned to Cracow, Nowosielski took active part in the artistic life of the Nazi-occupied city. He met Tadeusz Brzozowski, Adam Hoffman, Kazimierz Mikulski, Jan Szancenbach - the contemporary artistic elite of Cracow. During the occupation, the group was gathered around the underground Independent Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor. At the end of the occupation, in 1945, they established the Group of Young Artists invoking the tradition of the pre-war Cracow Group - preachers of abstractionism, cubism and expressionism. Immediately after the war, Nowosielski continued his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts under the supervision of Professor Eugeniusz Eibisch - a Guggenheim International Award winner in 1960. To manifest their opposition to colorist painters, the Group organized their first exhibition in June 1945. The second exhibition took place in 1946 in the Cracow Palace of Art and became their manifestation of surrealistic ambitions that originated during the activity of the Independent Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor. Nowosielski also participated in the 1st Exhibition of Modern Art (1948-49) where he showed his works featuring the style of geometric abstraction.
The 1940s was the time when Nowosielski created his first works, including 'Nude with a landscape in the background' (1940) and majestic portraits, 'Woman with a Ship in the Background' (1947) and 'Woman on the Beach' (1946). In 1947, he became the assistant of Tadeusz Kantor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow; however, he dropped the post after Kantor's dismissal in 1950. Soon after, he moved to Lodz where he was the artistic director of the Pinokio Puppet Theater and worked as a lecturer at the State School of Arts. At the time, he painted city landscapes, like 'Lodz Landscape' and 'Lodz Fabryczna' (a district of the city). His first individual exhibition was organized in Lodz in 1955 by the Association of Polish Artists and Designers. After several years, he returned to his hometown and continued his academic career as a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts. As a pedagogue, Nowosielski displayed strong individualism and own approach towards students. He did not have disciples and would not 'teach' painting in the typical, technical approach.
'He taught how to be. He was visible proof that the kind of optics, way of moving around the world and understanding everything was generally possible (...) He was the kind of person who has such a wide horizon that it is very hard to find yourself there. You need to spend many years facing it, which is very difficult but I believe that it adds an incomparable quality to every decision, artistic decision. It is a kind of an intellectual skill that we could learn from him, discipline of thinking, contact with reality. (…) For a long, long time, I did not realize that he gave the direction to my work and way of thinking, to my existence,' said Joanna Rajkowska, artist, student of Nowosielski and author of the huge palm tree in Warsaw.
After Nowosielski's early attraction to religion and icons, he experienced a strong crisis of faith and turned to atheism. It resulted from his difficult experience with the illness from which he suffered during his stay in the monastery in Pochayiv and from the cruelty of war that he saw during the liquidation of the Lviv ghetto. He returned to faith after twelve years; however, he approached it in a completely different way. He dropped his adolescent fascination and became more mature and self-confident about his beliefs. As he admitted later on: 'I fear everything in the world. I don't fear Jesus only'. His spiritual development shows a complex path that eventually led him to the profound understanding of religion. While studying icons and faith, he developed his own independent attitude towards philosophy and theology. He would often say: 'I'm afraid of a theologist in cassocks. A theologist like me - an amateur on his own - just keeps thinking, he doesn't force any solution, doesn't have to adjust them to some telos'.
It is hard to categorize Nowosielski's art as he combined the sacrum and profanum in his works. Even so, the majority of his masterpieces are focused on religious themes. Orthodox motifs and expression were his greatest passion. He is the author of polychromes in numerous churches not only in Poland (the Holy Spirit Church in Tychy, Church in Wesola near Warsaw), but also abroad - the Orthodox Church in Lourdes, France. He developed a unique style of painting that derived many techniques from icons. His works are flat; they feature precise, distinct lines and purity of color, which is characteristic of the Orthodox icons. Nowosielski gave up golden paint, a typical feature of icons, and replaced it with delicate, bright colors coming from different sources in each element of the painting. That way of presentation creates a specific atmosphere, emanating from his works.
Icons became the basis for his distinct style: 'From icons, which you call an aesthetic style, I take, so to speak, unconsciously the method of building spatial structures using a kind of logically developing system of color compositions'. His art embodies the discussion with the contemporary world that lacks God and values. In the reality of extensive freedom, which does not leave much room for sacral art, it is hard to find another painter so profoundly involved in religious aspects of work'.
Though strongly devoted to sacrum, Nowosielski would also paint numerous nudes. He believed that 'an Orthodox temple and a woman are the God's Kingdom on Earth'. He developed his individual approach to nudes which he often called 'erotic figuration'. Women in his paintings are often tied up with ropes and they have strange, hunched and crooked poses. He believed that it is natural for an artist to focus on the woman's body in the exploration of spirituality and physicality.
As one of the artists that had the greatest influence on the Polish contemporary art, Nowosielski received numerous prizes and distinctions: the Culture Foundation's Great Prize (1994), Honorary Degree of the Jagiellonian University (2000), the TOTUS prize in the category 'Achievements in the Christian Culture' (2000). He represented Poland at the Venice Biennale (1956) and the Sao Paolo Art Biennial (1959). In 1960, he was nominated for the prestigious Guggenheim International Award. In recognition for his contribution to Polish painting, one of the rooms in the Presidential Palace in Warsaw is devoted to Nowosielski's works.
Nowosielski is also known for his sharing character and generosity. As an accomplished artist and professor, he often supported his students and other artists, also materially. In 1996, together with his wife Zofia, he established a foundation that annually grants prizes and scholarships to young, talented artists. The Foundation has its seat at Galeria Starmach in Cracow run by Teresa and Andrzej Starmach, President of the Foundation, renowned Polish art dealer, and close friend of Jerzy Nowosielski. Except for Nowosielski's paintings, the Gallery has also displayed the works of Tadeusz Kantor and Magdalena Abakanowicz.
The famous Polish poet and Nowosielski's close friend Tadeusz Rozewicz described Nowosielski as 'torn between heavenly and earthly love. Sometimes he is like an angel, while another time he is like a bat with wings spread in the cellar of a temple'. The quote became the inspiration for the title of Nowosielski's biography 'Nietoperz w swiątyni' ('Bat in the Temple') by Krystyna Czerni, published soon after the painter's death. In 2013, the newest collection of his texts, 'Zagubiona bazylika. Refleksje o sztuce i wierze' ('The Lost Basilica. Reflection on Art and Faith'), was published by ZNAK Publishing House. The publication was edited by Czerni and features articles, essays, lectures and twenty-four texts that had not been published before.
Nowosielski's life is a perfect reflection of the times and circumstances in which he lived. Brought up in a culturally and religiously diversified family, he experienced the cruelty of war and moments of doubt. Starting from Roman Catholicism, through Greek Catholicism and over a decade of atheism, he finally found himself in the Orthodox church, which undoubtedly has it expression in the artist's works. While undergoing various internal and external changes, he always retained his individual and uncompromised approach combining his own philosophical theories, artistic views and religious beliefs.
Author: Grzegorz Zawora / pr-controlled.com ©
Illustrations: Jerzy Nowosielski by Zbigniewa Kresowaty and Nowosielski's works