Sztuka kobiet – kobiety w sztuce. Artystki na Śląsku 1880–2000 (Women’s art, women in art: Female artists in Silesia 1880–2000)

Ed. Teresa Maria Kulak
Silesian Museum, Katowice 2016

Four years after the Silesian Museum’s exhibition Women’s Art, Women in Art. Female Artists in Silesia 1880–2000, the long‑anticipated book of the same title has finally been published. The book’s organising theme is its discussion of the well‑known question “Why were there no great female artists?” Although this question was first posed in 1971 by Linde Nochlin, and has been asked many times since, it has yet to be answered. Each voice raised in response is worth listening to and amplifying, especially those who for centuries have been denied the opportunity to express themselves freely. As one might suspect, the situation of female artists in Silesia mirrors those of universal struggles, affecting women whose creative activities were stifled by a system of imposed gender roles. Without the means to study or train, burdened by the responsibilities of being a wife and mother, female artists were somewhat forced to choose comfortable themes and marginalised techniques when it came to art; these factors contributed to the relegation of female artists to the periphery of art history. From forgotten corners and lost lands, their works may finally see the light of day on the pages of Sztuka kobiet.
Both the book and the exhibition in the Silesian Museum resemble Judy Chicago’s 1979 installation Dinner Party, for which the artist prepared a gigantic three‑cornered table with decorative place settings for women whose diverse achievements had been marginalised by history written from a male perspective. Each place setting had a different theme, inspired by a characteristic element of the life of a given heroine. This work was to be a symbolic recollection of 999 great women absent from history. The editor and authors ofSztuka kobiet,working from a similar premise as they transcribed these stories, present us with a few dozen little‑known female artists associated with Silesia. The key to their efforts is the description of the difficulties that talented women faced – not only their own doubts and creative hurdles, but above all the constant battle with the roles assigned to them by patriarchal society, demanding they become a mother‑nurse, a quiet wife, or perhaps an assistant to a male artist. Thus the title of the publication Sztuka kobiet – kobiety w sztuce (Women’s art, women in art) turns out to be significant. The rhythm of a cradle‑like repetition can be heard within it, a movement back and forth, forth and back, of repetition, testing, assurance, supervision, all rooted in the minutiae of the melancholic bustle of the everyday to which female artists were subject as mothers and wives. The second main contribution of the texts is the emphasis on the role of the Public Academy for Fine Arts in Wrocław and the Katowice branch of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, institutions which both accepted and encouraged talented budding female artists.
Sztuka kobiet,
the first book to map the activities of female artists in Silesia, posed a significant research challenge. The length of the time­span covered and the enormous size of the field of research is the main reason why, after finishing the book, the reader is left hungry for more. The book’s eleven short essays work as if clearing a path through difficult terrain. The structure of the book itself suggests the careful dusting of picture frames, digging through the archives, and the removal of yellowing files from cabinets. However, the focus on honouring as many female artists as possible results in narrowing the extent of the analyses and interpretations of artistic works themselves. It is difficult to rid oneself of the impression that the book submits above all to the principles of historic accuracy, resulting in a dry and slightly encyclopaedic register. We cannot explore the entrancing biographies or engage with the voices of the most prominent artists whose words echo throughout the book’s interviews. Instead, we find a precise mapping of their activities in a historic and geographic sense; this, unfortunately, can be interpreted as a kind of double silencing of their voices. The book lacks traces of living, breathing bodies, of human individuality.
Reading the book raises a recurring question‑conundrum: “What does ‘female ­Silesian artist’ mean? Is it exclusively someone who was born in Silesia?” In light of this ambiguity, the reader may experience an acute need for separate chapters dedicated to Zofia Rydet of Gliwice, to Natalia LL’s childhood spent in Bielsko‑Biała, to Urszula Broll’s activities within the Oneiron group, and to Justyna Gruszczyk’s experiments with olfactory perceptions of art. The task of rescuing forgotten female artists from oblivion, while intentional, did not allow for an emphasis on the most powerful creative individualities from the Silesian region. The compiled texts and accompanying works give one the impression that Silesian female artists were not innovators.
Nonetheless, if we understand the book as a sketch or as a point of departure for female historians, writers and curators who want to continue researching the artists discussed, and to position them in new contexts,Women’s Artis definitely worth reading. The book becomes not only an inspiration, but also a foundation for those who seek role models in history and encouragement for their own artistic experiments.

Marta Lisok

Translated from the Polish by Paulina Duda and Jodi Greig