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Paulina Ołowska: A Slavic Goddess

Pulina Ołowska during photoshoot for the „Vogue Art Issue” (Photo. Kacper Kasprzyk)

Paulina Ołowska, one of the world’s most fascinating artists, has become the guest editor of Poland’s first Vogue Art Issue, which will be available at newsagents from 10th October. The New York Times Style Magazine included Ołowska in their list of the 28 creative geniuses who defined culture in 2016. Poles should be particularly proud of her achievements, for her art deals with Polish culture and aesthetics.

In March 2018, at the Museo del Novocento—an impressive museum of modern art situated right next to Milan Cathedral—Ołowska showed a performance centred around Slavic goddesses. Slavic Goddesses and the Ushers was based on the work of the Krakow-born Zofia Stryjeńska, one of the most brilliant 20th century artists. Ołowska has drawn on Stryjeńska’s art on several occasions, for instance at the 5th Berlin Biennial. The costumes for the Milan performance were inspired by Stryjeńska’s lithograph series titled Bożki słowiańskie z 1918 roku. [Slavic Gods, 1918], which depicts the pagan goddesses Dziedzilia, Marzanka and Cyca, as well as other Slavic deities, such as Światowid, Radegast and Trygław. Slavic Goddesses and the Ushers was created in collaboration with Fondazione Furla, a Bologna-based foundation and art gallery set up by Giovanna Furlanetto, the president of the Furla fashion house.

Paulina Ołowska's work (Photo: courtesy of MSN)

In 2015, Slavic culture visited London's Tate Modern, where Paulina Ołowska presented her adaptation of The Motherby Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, aka Witkacy. The performance was titled The Mother: An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue, and Paulina herself played one of the characters.

Projects for Warsaw  

Paulina Ołowska has presented her work in numerous museums and art galleries, such as Kunsthalle Basel, the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, MoMA New York, Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, and during the Biennials in Moscow, Istanbul, Venice and Berlin.

In Warsaw, people know her thanks to the Volleyball Player. At the time of the Polish People’s Republic, the capital was famous for its unusual neon lights. In the late 90s and early 2000s, most of them had been destroyed. Paulina has rescued one such neon light—the Volleyball Player by Jan Mucharski. The sports shop advertisement featuring a woman returning a ball has been illuminating the socialist realist architecture of Konstytucji Square since the 60s. Ołowska financed its renovation with the money she had earned from selling her own works of art and started a countrywide vogue for neon lights.

Paulina Ołowska. Czar Warszawy (Photo: Press kit, Zachęta)

Another project that attracted a lot of attention was Nova Popularna, a temporary café and art salon opened by Ołowska in 2003 in collaboration with the Scottish artist Lucy McKenzie. Its interior decor alluded to various artistic ideas and aesthetics, such as modernism, impressionism, the Arts and Crafts movement, socialist modernism and Polish folk art. Nova Popularna was in operation for a month at Chmielna Street 5, behind the neo-Mannerist facade of the former Grand Hotel Garni restaurant pavilion. The building used to belong to Seweryn Smolikowski, a well-known bibliophile and art collector who was also famous for his penchant for sophisticated orgies. After the Second World War, the building housed the Society of Friends of Fine Arts. “As anexpression of nostalgia for a bar that could potentially be run by an association of artists, Nova Popularna was both a reconstruction and a deconstruction of a typical café for artistic bohemians. […] The powerfully avant-garde interior was a veritable mishmash of styles from different periods and places: Vorticism merged with a Polish version of Parisian chic, enveloped in the clouds of smoke puffed out by a juvenile offender sitting on a graffiti-covered bench,” writes Jan Verwoert, who also attended the exhibition Paulina Ołowska: The Spell of Warsaw.

Paulina Ołowska. Czar Warszawy (Photo: Press kit, Zachęta)

Polish sweaters and a Gucci meme 

The restaurant pavilion was designed by Stefan Szyller at the end of the 19th century. He was also the architect of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art, which hosted the opening of Paulina Ołowska: The Spell of Warsaw on 1st March 2017. This celebrated exhibition featured, among other things, a neon light installation titled Warsaw by night belongs to the bourgeoisie, which was a tribute to the city’s nocturnal heroes and heroines.

Volleyball Player (Photo: Jacek Marczewski, Agencja Gazeta)

The exhibition also included huge painted portrayals of women in sweaters, presented previously at the Metro Pictures Gallery in New York (2010). Torcik [Cake], Klaun [Clown], Pszczoła [Bee], Ela [Elly], Pejzaż [Landscape], Polowanie [Hunt]…are a series of paintings inspired by the postcards popular in the Polish People’s Republic in the 80’s—a period marked by economic crisis and growing consumerist needs. The postcards showed women in sweaters and provided knitting instructions on the back. Fashion dreams were confronted with the communist tragedy of unfulfilled consumerist needs. The painting Klaun made its way to a Gucci advertisement. In March 2017, the Italian fashion house released a series of memes featuring works of art. One of the memes showed a sweater called Klaun and a Gucci watch with a huge fly ornament.

Art brings rescue

Fashion and different conceptions of a trendy lifestyle are major elements of Paulina Ołowska’s art. Her first individual exhibition, in Lisbon 1999, featured works inspired by Ty i Ja [You and Me], one of the most important lifestyle magazines in the history of European editing. Published between 1960 and 1973, Ty i Ja was the work of prominent Polish artists, journalists, photographers and fashion creators. It featured articles about the Dior and Brioni fashion shows that were organised in communist Warsaw. It published fashionable literature and news from Paris, New York, Moscow and Rome. Its artwork was created by Roman Cieślewicz, who later worked for the Parisian Vogueand became art director of the French Elle magazine. Ty i Ja combined refined art and design with the dreams of luxurious consumerism.

Neon Museum of Modern Art, Paulina Ołowska (Photo: courtesy of MSN)

Paulina Ołowska rescues and protects the things around her that are dying. The 1976-born artist has seen the communist-era neon lights fall into ruin, the outstanding front covers of a cult magazine turn yellow and works by brilliant female artists fall into oblivion. She has seen some great artistic and cultural ideas wear thin. She has carefully analysed the fashion advertisements of the Społem co-operative as well as the meticulously arranged windows of department shops in People’s Poland. She has studied works by Zofia Stryjeńska and Alina Szapocznikow and  read books by Witkacy and Leopold Tyrmand. All that has shaped her sensitivity. Her international art draws on native elements. Does that mean that Paulina Ołowska is the most famous Polish patriotic artist?

Born in Gdańsk, Ołowska now lives near the mountain resort of Rabka Zdrój. She launched the initiative to paint the walls of the local puppet theatre Rabcio with murals inspired by the graphic art created by Jerzy Kolecki, an artist, stage designer, the theatre’s long-standing director and the creator of the resort’s emblem. Paulina has also rescued the unique Kadenówka villa, an outstanding example of wooden architecture from the interwar period. By purchasing the house, the artist has saved it from dereliction, perhaps even from demolition. It has become a place where Ołowska regularly holds artistic projects, for instance the Mycorial Theatre project, during which artists from different continents create art based on the nature and the atmosphere of the Beskid Mountains. The main characters in the Mycorial Theatre are Beskid mushrooms.


The special Vogue Art Issue, co-created by Paulina Ołowska, will be available at newsagents from 10th October. It can also be purchased presale from 2nd October during the Frieze Art Fair in London. You will find more information on this event tomorrow at Vogue.pl

Translation Elżbieta Pawlas/Solid Information Solutions

Marcin Różyc
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