Drifting somewhere between realism and abstraction, Polish painter Teresa Pągowska is known for portraying everyday objects and scenes through simple forms and heavy brushstrokes. Her earthy-coloured canvases, at times punctuated by bold splashes of colour, feature in the collections of the National Museums in Warsaw, Poznań, Gdańsk, Krakow, and Wrocław, and in private collections in Poland and abroad.
A charismatic painter, who taught for decades at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, Łódź, and Warsaw, among others, Pągowska often spoke of her work as if it were a mystery: “I ask my pictures thousands of questions,” she once said. She also described how she learned “with each picture: I start it as if I knew nothing about painting, as if it was a mystery to solve.” Despite the fact that she was featured as one of only two female painters in the 1961 exhibition 15 Polish Painters at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — as well as in the 1991 exhibition Voices of Freedom: Polish Women Artists and the Avant Garde at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, and multiple exhibitions at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris — Pągowska’s work is little known abroad today.
Pągowska was born in Warsaw on 12 June, 1926. She spent most of her childhood in Poznań, where one of her teachers was the wife of Wacław Taranczewski, a Polish painter who became one of the key figures in the Polish Colourist movement. At a young age, Pągowska began visiting Taranczewski’s studio and attending exhibitions at his gallery, Salon 35. The Colourists believed that colour was more important than form, and that art should be independent from historical tradition, avoiding the influences of literature and history. Being exposed to the Colourists’ philosophy at a young age no doubt influenced Pągowska as she began her own journey to become an artist.
One of the most characteristic elements of Pągowska’s style is her frequent exposure of the raw canvas
Pągowska graduated from the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Poznań, where she also studied under Taranczewski, in 1951, at the height of Social Realism’s popularity. Social Realist art and it depictions of working people was promoted during the early years of the Polish People’s Republic, when artists were encouraged to create works that promoted Marxism and Leninism. Like many artists, Pągowska was not interested in pursuing this politically-driven art and instead looked back to the pre-war avant-garde for inspiration.
In 1955, Pągowska’s work was featured in the seminal exhibition Against War, Against Fascism held at Warsaw’s Arsenal and featuring young Polish artists from around the country. This exhibition marked an important step in Polish artists moving away from the Socialist Realism. Pągowska won an award for the entire collection of her displayed works — mostly genre scenes and landscapes painted in bold colours which demonstrated her awareness of traditional 19th century Polish painting.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pągowska started to use the visual vocabulary with which we associate her today, working between figuration and abstraction in a style referred to as “new figuration”. During this time, Pągowska frequently visited Paris, where she took part in numerous exhibitions at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and was exposed to other artists working in “Nouvelle Figuration,” a term first used by the French critic Michel Ragon in 1961 to describe the revival of figurative art.
Pągowska usually painted with tempera, oil, or acrylic on canvas. Slipping seamlessly between figuration and abstraction, her elusive figures seem to come out of nowhere, a few brushstrokes that often merely hint at a figure or the shadow of one. In Dream about Empty Room (2002), the figure is not immediately apparent, blending into the sheets of the bed as if inhabiting an in-between world between dreams and reality. Devoid of specific characteristics, the majority of Pągowska’s figures are completely anonymous; an everyman or everywoman who are often depicted completing everyday mundane tasks.
One of the most characteristic elements of Pągowska’s style is her frequent exposure of the raw canvas. In her 1970s Monochromes series, Pągowska created nude human figures “negatively” by outlining their bodies with paint and leaving their forms to emerge out of the unprimed canvas. Through this, the figures are even more naked than other nudes in art: they are not even covered by paint. Created without paint and depicted without the use of any brushstroke, Pągowska was able to portray human forms without any detail at all.
In later works, such as Drying the Sheets (2004) and Mosquitoes (2006), Pągowska inverted this process, painting figures with broad brushstrokes but leaving them against backgrounds of raw canvas. Again, these figures are everyman or everywoman in any place, floating on a canvas with no landscape or background to ground them in a specific location.
At times, splashes of bold colors appear in her works, unexpectedly breaking up the beige tones of her canvases. In The Beach (1990), a neon green flashes on the horizon, whereas In the Red Room (1992) features not only red but also neon pink brushstrokes outlining the figure’s body. Pągowska’s occasional use of bold color, as well as avoiding references to place and time in her work, recalls the Polish Colorists she studied as a young artist. She once said of her work “we are not a beginning, but a continuation,” acknowledging the influence of her Colourist predecessors, while developing her own distinct style.
Pągowska believed that “formal simplification provides greater clarity of expression.” This can be seen not only in her style but also in her subject matter. Pągowska was drawn to simple routines and so documented sheets being dried, hair being washed, and other everyday activities. Her paintings could be read as a depiction of what it is to be human: daily tasks punctuated by dramatic moments represented by bold colour that flicker for a while before returning to monochrome. However, you never get a sense that she was bored by mundane tasks. On the contrary, she sought to elevate everyday actions. This is exactly why she named one of her series Magic Figures — to show daily life as something extraordinary.