Representing the Unrepresentable

Maria Malczewska-Bernhardt photoMaria Malczewska’s pictures are conducive to reflection. They call upon the sensitivity and imagination of a viewer capable of going beyond the sphere of concrete, directly tangible factuality; they appeal to the ability to recognize general meanings and senses. Basically, this type of sensitivity is indispensable in the process of understanding any work of art of value, which is in essence an artistic statement, a message enmeshed in a concrete, material means of transmission. The ways of making present what art communicates to us can be and are different; their selection lies at the foundation of the specific style of an artist or artistic era. In each particular work, however, it is important to appropriately combine these two factors: the ‘what’ and the ‘how’; as well as not to reduce the meaning of the work to only one of those factors.

Summoning up and making present new meanings, continually expanding the universe of the human spirit is the fundamental task of art, which is the basis of all knowledge. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a representative of philosophical hermeneutics, aptly described this task as ‘the enclosure and reinforcement of meaning in a fortress of artistic presentation’ 1. Max Scheler thought similarly about art, calling it a spiritual ‘substance of value’ which is disclosed in a sensual, material form that is at the same time its clothing, its covering (das Kleid, das Gewand)2.

Maria Malczewska’s originality and artistic courage consists in her ability to display the fundamental principle of art’s functioning and to provoke shared thoughts in an apt manner. Due to the great abundance of means of transmission which today’s artistic output has at its disposal, among a true cacophony of forms, colours and technical tricks, the artist has consciously decided to reduce her own means of expression; in a traditional pastel technique, she has great mastery of recreating mysterious and disturbing shapes which make their presence felt from behind a curtain of thickly folded material.

Maria Malczewska’s pictures are ambiguous at many levels of artistic structure. For compositions in pastel, they are of unusually large format (1 m x 1.5 m or 1.5 m x 2 m). Technical refinement and conscientious elaboration of the details of presentation contrast with the delicacy of the pastel technique itself. Among her painting-like presentations, we find patiently-studied folds of cloth, wrinkled, freely thrown about or purposefully arranged, but every time rendered with a skill worthy of a Renaissance or Baroque master. Appropriately-framed drapery forms in a conventional space suggest multi-leveled possibilities of perception: from a delight in ‘combinations of weighty aesthetic qualities’ – in accordance with the aesthetics of Roman Ingarden – to the discovery, according to rules used by Gestalt psychologists, of meanings hidden in the forms presented. These pictures are also extraordinary at the level of possibilities for semantic interpretation, which the artist has achieved by an arranged confrontation of realistic presentation with the strong suggestion of an indeterminate but current presence of mystery.

In Maria Malczewska’s painting, one can notice two parallel threads or types of artistic formation: [1] images superficially ‘nonrepresentational’ and ‘quasi-abstract’, devoid of clear, directly-emerging objective or figural associations, and [2] images with an interpretive key, containing in their form a certain type of semantic direction. This is particularly strongly evident in compositions suggesting by their arrangement of forms the presence of a veiled object or outline of a human figure. But here, as well, only our power of imagination is able to complete and visualize the meaning of an anonymous, veiled reality and, on our own strength, fill in its ‘places of indeterminacy’.

‘It is in the limitation of means that a master expresses himself,’ as Goethe used to say. The artistic intention and realization of Maria Malczewska’s pictures verify the correctness of this principle. Her pictures are fascinating; using a small quantity of means, she has achieved a unique kind of focus and, at the same time, tension – an internal dynamic characteristic of works of true value. Maria Malczewska’s compositions, despite an external similarity of individual realizations, which results from a conscious narrowing of the field of artistic inquiry, make an impression as oneof- a-kind and unique. The attractiveness of these pictures also results from the possibility of relating their form and content to the tradition of European culture – and that, of its most distinguished models. What emanates from them is an atmosphere which distinguishes some Greek sculptures – especially those which present female figures imaging Mnemosyne and the Muses, clothed in richly folded garments. In European visual culture, the garment was an image and, at the same time, a manifestation of the functioning of truth as αλήθεια [aletheia], founded on the oscillation between hiddenness and openness, between forgetting and remembrance. It also constituted an exemplum of the functioning of symbol on the principle of analogy of function: revelation and, at the same time, veiling as a protection. Its role raised consciousness that it is in the nature of symbolic cultural messages to constantly renew the identification of meaning. The Greek goddess Mnemosyne, as the personification of Memory, was at the same time the mother of the Muses, who in the European tradition are the patrons of various fields of human spiritual capacity. It is thanks to the presence of memory that human cultural activity is possible and takes place – memory also of cultural symbols preserving the meaning of the difficulty of human life, of symbols as unrevealed content demanding discovery and description in free interpretation, similarly to the unrevealed forms wrapped in non-transparent material in Maria Malczewska’s pictures.

The artist’s compositions inspire a wealth and depth of reflection on the meaning of human existence and the meaning of culture being created. They refer to ancient and Christian symbolism of the garment as a material, visible portion of creation. They also relate to the wonderful examples such as are the works of artists from the European Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque, in which masterfully-rendered shapes of garments were closely associated with the spiritual message of a work as a whole.

Maria Malczewska’s oeuvre also remains, to a certain extent, parallel to the meaning of the endeavors of some contemporary artists – such as, for example, Tadeusz Kantor’s emballages or Christo’s actions consisting of wrapping monumental natural objects or cultural products in non-transparent cloth as a sui generis ‘bracketing’. In both the output of these artists and the works of Maria Malczewska, the point is a dynamization of the viewer’s imagination and refreshment of his or her routinized view of the world. A unique quality of the artist’s pictures, however, is their deeper immersion in tradition, their attempt to initiate dialogue with its symbolic language, while retaining an intimate character as well as discretion in expression of associations, feelings and thoughts – both those referring to matters distant from contemporary life and those closely associated with the current problems of our times. I would include among this type of feelings and moods a clear evocation of the climate of alienation of the individual in contemporary society, a situation well known to the inhabitants of contemporary big-city civilization.

Maria Malczewska’s compositions are paradoxical images of the periphery of our existence – of its mystery as an important ingredient of human fortunes. They awaken the viewer’s imagination, touch upon the images and symbols, forgetting and remembrance inherent in it, caked in the subconsciousness. They induce us to reflect on the hidden essence of the thing hidden behind a veil of impenetrable material. They derive their power of expression from a persistent attempt to represent that which is unrepresentable.

Franciszek Chmielowski

Prof. Franciszek Chmielowski
Chairman, Interfaculty Department of Art History
and Theory Cracovian Academy of Fine Arts.




A graduate of the State Fine Arts Secondary School (PLSP) in Opole. Academic studies from 1970 to 1977 in the Faculty of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, in the studio of Prof. Włodzimierz Buczek and Prof. Zbylut Grzywacz. She received her diploma in 1977. From 1980 to 1982, the artist did postgraduate studies in the Faculty of Stage and Film Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Since completing her education, she has been continuously involved in artistic activity.

The artist’s works can be found works can be found in museum, city and private collections in, among other countries, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Poland, Slovakia, Switzerland and the United States.


Selected solo and group exhibitions:

1977 • MPiK Gallery, Kraków (PL)
1978 • Graduates, BWA, Chorzów (PL)
1979 • Generations - Tendencies, BWA, Kraków (PL)
• Graduates of the PLSP, Museum of Opolian Silesia, Opole (PL)
1980 • Post-Plein-air Exhibition, Museum, Rawicz (PL)
1981 • Graduates II, Pryzmat Gallery, Kraków (PL)
1983 • Artists from Kraków, BWA , Nürnberg (D)
1984 • PP Desa Gallery A, Kraków (PL)
1986 • Staatstheater foyer, Darmstadt (D)
1987 • Gallery Wiethoff, Düsseldorf (D)
• Gallery Großer Bachem, Köln (D)
• Eastern European Arts Center, Köln (D)
1988 • Staatstheater foyer, Darmstadt (D)
• International post-plein-air exhibition, Gavorrano (Tuscany) (I); Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt (D)
• „Salon zimowy”, Galeria Zwiazku Artystów Plastyków, Dusseldorf (D)
1989 • 5 im Zollhof 3, Zollhof, Düsseldorf (D)
• International post-plein-air exhibition, Mirabel (Ardeche); Château Communal, Hauterives (F); Mathildenhöhe, Darmstadt (D)
1990 • Art in TVG, Düsseldorf (D)
• Kunstspektrum, Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf (D)
• Art exhibition Stadthalle, Neuss (D)
1991 • BBK Exhibition Forum, Düsseldorf (D)
• Gallery Ulrich Gering, Frankfurt-am-Main (D)
• Art Cologne, Gallery Ulrich Gering, Köln (D)
1992 • Treffpunkt Düsseldorf, Landesmuseum Volk u. Wirtschaft, Düsseldorf (D)
• Art Basel, Gallery Ulrich Gering, Basel (CH)
• Art Cologne, Gallery Ulrich Gering, Köln (D)
1993 • Europa Unlimited, Schloß Neersen, Neersen (D)
• Art Cologne, Gallery Ulrich Gering, Köln (D)
1994 • Polish Artists in Germany Today, WDR Television, Köln (D)
1997 • Kunstpunkte, Open Studios, Düsseldorf (D)
1998 • Behind the Façade, Gallery Ulrich Gering, Frankfurt-am-Main (D)
1999 • Kunstpunkte, Open Studios, Düsseldorf (D)
2000 • Kunstpunkte, Open Studios, Düsseldorf (D)
2002 • 20 Years plein-air exhibition Mirabel - France from 1981-2001, Palace of Art, Kraków (PL)
• International Pastel Biennial, BWA, Nowy Sącz (PL); City Art Gallery, Zakopane (PL)
2003 • Palace of Art, Kraków; Wałbrzych Książ Castle BWA Art Gallery, Wałbrzych; Castle of the Dukes of Pomerania, Szczecin; BWA, Olsztyn; Castle Culture Center, PROFIL Contemporary Art Gallery, Poznań; BWA, Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski; Contemporary Art Gallery, Kołobrzeg; BWA, Bydgoszcz (PL)
2004 • Municipal Culture Center, Mielec (PL); BWA, Bielsko Biała (PL); Regional Museum, Sandomierz (PL); BWA, Sieradz (PL); DAP Gallery, Warsaw (PL); Gallery Kralingen, Rotterdam (NL)
• Kunstpunkte, Open Studios, Düsseldorf (D)
2005 • Beziehungsweise, Elisabethenstift, Darmstadt (D)
• Zeit und Ewigkeit, Großen Art Gallery, Essen (D)
2008 • 13th International Painting Symposium, The Legacy of Cyril and Methodius, Mojmírovce (SL)
2009 • Nowa Huta Art Salon, NCK, Kraków (PL)
2011 • International Pastel Biennial, BWA, Nowy Sącz (PL)
• Palace of Art, Kraków (PL)
• Alles auf Papier, Gallery Ulrich Gering, Frankfurt-am-Main (D)
• Winterausstellung, Inter Art Gallery Reich, Köln (D)
2012 • 2500 cm2 - Malen im Quadrat, Gallery Ulrich Gering, Frankfurt-am-Main (D)
• Museum of Opolian Silesia, Opole (PL)
• 24th Festival of Polish Contemporary Art, ZPAP Gallery, Szczecin (PL)
2013 • „Malarstwo i Rysunek”, Galeria CENTRUM NCK, Kraków (PL)
• „Nowe Prace”, Galeria Ulrich Gering, Frankfurt / Main (D)
• „Miedzynarodowe Biennale Pasteli”, BWA Nowy Sacz (PL) Palac Sztuki, Kraków (PL)
2014 • Lwowska Narodowa Galeria Sztuki im. Borysa Woznyckiego, Lwów (UK)
• „Teatr zycia”, malarstwo, Muzeum Narodowe, Zamek Nowy Wisnicz (PL)
• „Teatr zycia, malarstwo i rysunek, Muzeum Dwory Karwacjanów i Gladyszów, „Kasztel w Szymbarku”, Szymbark (PL)
• „Teatr zycia”, Malarstwo, BWA, Sanok, (PL)