Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie — Olga Boznańska

Sternly told not to photograph the art, but not before I’d collected most of the portraits. Museums in Kraków seem to dislike having their collections photographed. I can almost sympathise with a large retrospective like Olga Boznańska’s, but not really. It’s irritating, when everyone is clicking away with their smartphones. Never mind, I saw interesting stuff.

This is a lesson or reminder for me of that useful tool of consciously prioritising and paying attention to what women are doing. I’d turned up to see whatever, maybe find some interesting mediæval stuff, generally just commit to another museum. I almost didn’t go to the Olga one but then put-money-where-mouth-is, big retrospective of female artist from turn of the last century … and very glad I did.

Olga Boznańska. I’d never heard of her. Not surprising seeing how little I know. But I do know Hénri Bergson, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie, and two of the women who sat for Olga’s portraits were pupils of them. Then there were the other women, doctors, artists, opera singers, writers, philosophers, feminists, resistance fighters, highly accomplished women at a time when education for women—especially at that level—was not a straightforward proposition. The main notes on Olga hint at this, “She received her initial artistic education there [Kraków] in the only form available to women at the time.” Her Polish colleagues did the same and also were part of the Flying Universities.

By showing all and only portraits of women without comment, I would be misrepresenting the exhibition. There were many portraits of men also, however the emphasis in her portrait work seems unambiguously concentrating on women. She also painted landscapes, still life, children, and self-portraits in her atelier, each of which receives its own section. The portraits of significant women make up only a fraction of all this. And yet, they are the first ones to be seen, taking up the centre, right, and much of the left upon entering, and the prominent portraits are almost exclusively women. The works’ captions continue this. The subject’s name and a brief description—a couple of sentences to a paragraph—explain not merely who they are, but what they did as individuals. It makes a very strong point both as an exhibition and as an artist working one hundred years ago. To see women painted not as muses or object put in symbolically charged (and frequently naked) situations, eyes averted, but instead confident, educated, intelligent, political women sitting and facing the painter and viewer head on, to put them all side by side now or to paint like this for decades then, this is remarkable.

(A small note on the images: When I search for images of Olga’s paintings, they look a lot more saturated and contrasty than what I saw in the exhibition. It may be some of them are browner and less vivid than originally, and it may be also the lighting was a little dim and skewed to the yellow as far as my camera was concerned. Besides a small amount of contrast and sometimes colour and/or tone balancing, I’ve left them as they were (ignoring all the lens correction stuff), rather than the pretence of trying to make them ‘look good’. And forgive WordPress for lopping off all their heads in the thumbnails.)