“The Four Elements”

Panstwowa Galeria Sztuki

This exhibition drew loosely on Jungian archetypes and more directly on Gaston Bachelard’s observation that “the realm of the imaginary is ruled by four elements and that, accordingly, one can distinguish four types of material imagination that correspond to fire, air, water, or earth.” Interpreting the theory of this French philosopher rather freely and extending it to the plastic arts, Kinga Kawalerowicz curated this show based on the idea that “the works of women reflect a particularly strong conviction of the magical and mythical foundation of culture as well as a special sensitivity to the connection between our existence and the biological rhythms of Nature.” Though perhaps surprisingly archaic to many Western readers, this approach accurately reflects feminist discussions in Poland, which, after years of infrequent exchange with the West, have only begun to move beyond a simple affirmation of the presence of women artists to explore the relationship between art and society or the representation of the female self within a male-dominated culture. Given the ideological basis of the show, it was not surprising that feminist issues were presented, for the most part, in a muted way. Nevertheless they did surface, and not without a certain degree of subversion on the part of the artists.

Izabella Gustowska’s Sen Krystyny (Krystyna’s dream, 1992)—an aluminum box with a cover of transparent Plexiglas lined with wreaths of artificial leaves and illuminated by a green fluorescent light—was emblematic of “The Four Elements.” The box contained a silk-screened image of a female figure, barely clothed, lying inert in the grass. In this piece, Gustowska tried to incorporate the issue of “woman as subject” or “woman as artist” within a formal examination of the limits of perception.

Classified in the category of water, Malgorzata Niedzielko’s Untitled, 1991, resembled a wooden coffin or an infant’s cradle, lined with rusted steel and a strip of rust-soiled linen soaked in water. Referring to both birth and death, the work also alluded to a continual state of stagnation. Maria Pininska-Beres’ Wir na San Marco (Whirlpool at San Marco, 1993), also associated with water, looked more like a grand wedding cake made of soft fabric, the whirlpool suggested only by the title written in big letters directly on the sculpture. By painting the sculpture in classically “female” colors—beaming pink and white—the artist stressed the artificiality of such a categorization.

The most visually challenging works were by Natalia LL (Natalia Lach-Lachowicz), one of the pioneering artists of the feminist movement in Poland. In her series “Caput Mortuum,” 1990, (placed under the rubric of fire in this show), photographic self-portraits were juxtaposed with mutilated plaster casts of the artist’s head. Blending irony with meditation, she questioned not only the intrinsic value of female sensuality and beauty, but also the perception that art created by women artists is lyrical or nonconfrontational.

Other artists participating in the show were Marta Deskur, Elzbieta Felicyta Chachaj, Barbara Konopka, Krystiana Robb-Narbutt, Jolanta Rudzka-Fabisiak, Lidia Serafin, and Joanna Wiszniewska-Domanska. In their exploration of the symbolism associated with the four elements, they joined the other women in this show in their effort to surpass the curatorial stance and to communicate beyond the “realm of the feminine.”

Marek Bartelik