(13 May 1891 – 28 February 1976)
20 JUNE, 2016
In her seminal text for feminist art history, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Linda Nochlin proposed that, historically, the exclusion of women from academies was a key factor that disadvantaged female artists amongst their male counterparts.
What was a nineteenth-century female artist to do if she wanted the same artistic training as her male peers, but was prevented on account of her gender? One young Polish woman had a novel solution. Meet Sofia Stryjeńska…
Born in Kraków on 13 May, 1891, Zofia Stryjeńska showed artistic talent from an early age. Encouraged by her parents, Franciszek Lubański and Anna Skrzyńska Lubańska, she received as good an artistic training as was available to a (bourgeois) Polish woman at that time: she studied first at a craft school, then a teacher’s seminary, followed by Leonard Stroynowski’s private art school and Maria Niedzielska’s Fine Arts School For Women, where she won awards for painting and applied arts.
Wanting to extend her training beyond drawing, painting and applied arts, as taught by the Fine Arts School for Women, Stryjeńska took the bold step of applying to the Munich Academy of Fine Art – in her brother’s name. On 1 October 1911, dressed in male clothes with a cropped haircut, “Tadeusz” left Kraków for Italy, to successfully become one of the 40 male students at the Munich Academy, out of 200 applicants. Her father noted in his diary:
She cut her own hair, dressed herself in cloths taken in part from Tadzia [her eldest brother] and in part from Stefcia [her youngest brother], and covered with Tadzia’s cloak left early in the morning unrecognized by anyone and taking with her over one hundred marks. Her other things, drawings, and paintings were sent by mail. After nearly two weeks of silence, she reported to us that after battling great obstacles, she was accepted to the royal academy of art.
Zofia Stryjeńska (as “Tadeusz”), second from left, at Munich Academy of Fine Arts, 1911/1912.
Zofia Stryjeńska. from Slavic Gods, 1917
As incredible as it may seem, Stryjeńska kept up her ruse for over a year, before her colleagues at the Academy started to get suspicious and threatened to out her. Fearing the consequences, Stryjeńska fled to Kraków, to become one of the most successful Polish artists of the interwar period, dubbed by one critic as ‘The Princess of Polish Painting’, only to be subsequently forgotten by art history (Linda Nochlin’s second reason why there are no great women artists!).
Stryjeńska’s artistic career was multi-faceted, testament to the varied artistic training she received as both woman and man. She was a painter, muralist, book illustrator, and graphic artist, as well as designer of costumes and stage sets, kilims and toys. Steeped in a love of Slavic tradition and Polish folk tales, Stryjeńska’s art was inevitably bound up with Poland’s quest for a national identity, and the search for a modern national artistic style, which became all the more pressing after the country gained independence in 1918.
“There, in the Kraków market square, first sketches of figures of Slavic gods sprouted in my thoughts, as well as a vague feeling of a one day grand resurrection of Slavs, in which Poland would be the pioner.”
Zofia Stryjeńska. Woda (Water),1928. National Museum of Warsaw.
Stryjeńska first success came when the Society of Friends of Art in Kraków exhibited her series of 18 Polish Fables Based on Folklore, which sold immediately. Her early experience of peasant traditions witnessed in Kraków and her love of Polish folklore continued to influence her work as she chose to represent its richness in book illustrations, Christmas cards, and designs for wooden toys.
“Later, all my life, I painted these village people, this vision of my first youth, in the midst of which I grew up … it is only to be pitied that my brushes failed to render faithfully their real enchantment, which always remains in my memory … ”
Zofia Stryjeńska. Wooden Toys
Zofia Stryjeńska. Krakowianki
Zofia Stryjeńska. Lipiec Sierpién, 1925
Embellished by her imagination, Stryjeńska’s memories were turned into richly coloured narratives, full of humour and vitality. This re-imagining of ethnographic material for a modern age was perfectly in tune with artistic movements in Poland that sought to combine modernism with a national style. Stryjeńska was a member of one such movement, ‘Rhythm’, established in 1922.
Art that fused national identity with a modern style was a way of legitimizing Poland’s independence, and in 1925 Stryjeńska was commissioned to decorate part of the Polish Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. Her series of six paintings showing rural village life and seasonal change, brought her Europe-wide fame and five World Trade awards.
Zofia Stryjeńska, working on the panel for the Polish pavilion, International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industry, Paris, 1925.
Zofia Stryjeńska and her twin boys, Jan and Jacek.
As well as being a member of Rhythm, Stryjeńska was also closely associated with proponents of the Zakopane style, which was inspired by vernacular forms and covered all aspects of art and design. Stryjeńska married Zakopane-style architect Karol Stryjeński on 4 November 1916, and from 1921 to 1927 the couple lived in Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains, where Karol worked as director of the School of Wood Industry.
Stryjeńska had three children with Karol Stryjeński, but their marriage was not to last. Stryjeńska’s outbursts over her husband’s affairs led him to have her arrested and put in a mental asylum, and in 1927 she divorced him and moved to Warsaw – alone – having lost custody of her children to her husband’s family. Her second marriage, in 1929, to an actor Artur Klemens Socha turned out to be a sham, when Stryjeńska discovered he had syphilis. She soon divorced him, and lived as a hermit and in poverty, selling only a few paintings.
In the late 1930s, Stryjeńska’s career picked up again, with commissions from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her paintings of Slavic themes attracted more buyers, and she undertook several interior decoration commissions, including the Polish passenger ships ‘Batory’ and ‘Pilsudski’.
Zofia Stryjeńska. La Coiffe De La Mariée, from Magie Slave, 1934
In 1943 Stryjeńska discovered that she had syphilis, which affected her eyes and hindered her painting. In 1945, when the communists entered Kraków, she left Poland for Switzerland, rejecting to live under communist rule. She also refused to join the government-run union of Polish artists, a move that caused her to be discredited and her reputation to suffer. Written out of Polish art history, her work was appropriated to decorate mass-produced objects such as calendars, postcards, ceramics and other decorative items and her signature used to falsely legitimize other’s work, none of which she received royalties for.
Stryjeńska died in Geneva on 28 February 1976, this once Princess of Polish Painting now largely remembered, if at all, as a ‘chocolate box artist’. It would have to wait for the fall of the Communist regime in 1989 for her reputation to begin to recover, and for her to be restored to her rightful place, alongside Tamara de Lempicka, as one of the most important Polish painters of the post-war period.
Selected Recommended Reading:
Danuta Batorska, ‘Zofia Stryjeńska: Princess of Polish Painting’, Woman’s Art Journal Vol. 19, No. 2 (1998) pp.24-29
Piotr Piotrowski, ‘Art and Independence: Polish Art in the 1920s’ (online)
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