Negotiating the Gaze: Olga Boznanska as a Portraitist *

Article excerpt

The Eyes Cast Down

The Polish artist Olga Boznanska's (1865-1940) paintings possess a certain quiet and unassuming quality. Over the years she distilled her gifts into a peculiar talent for chromatic understatement, vaguely delineated objects as if seen by a myopic eye, and subdued psychological commentary. On first glance the shift from her early colorful works to the muted paintings of her professional maturity seem a somewhat perverse striving for a deliberately undemonstrative style. (1) This pictorial development, however, reveals a strategy based not on limiting reduction but on careful substitution. Within this Post-Impressionist's masterful art of portraiture, the renunciation of a more vivid palette for the sake of tones comprising mostly black, white, and gray hues allowed her to create a subtle atmosphere in which she focused on perhaps the most enigmatic and certainly the most controversial aspect of the relationship between a portraitist and a sitter-the intricate exchange of gazes. Fascinated by Velazquez and Goya, Boznanska mingled these old masters' achievements with those of her immediate role models--Whistler, Vuillard, and Bonnard--to develop her own unmistakable style.

After attending art classes in Munich and traveling through Germany, Austria, and Italy, in 1898 Boznanska came to Paris, where she subsequently settled for good. She arrived in the bustling French capital approximately thirty years after the heady period during which the expatriate artist Mary Cassatt began participating in Impressionist exhibitions with other women painters, such as Berthe Morisot and Marie Bracquemond. While art during the 1860s in France was in a state of experimental ferment, the country's conservative gender politics, as in Victorian England, stigmatized women who "dared" to walk unchaperoned down the street or to exchange glances with men in public. Moralistic conventions of this nature, obsessed with notions of propriety and impropriety, inevitably affected the sphere of art. Appropriate subjects for female painters were confined to evocations of motherhood, scenes involving one or more women, or images of domesticity and family life. For a woman artist, who in painting men (particularly of her own generation) looked more closely at them than her profession minimally required, it meant to court the accusation of "impropriety" (Broude 36), of participation in an act of intimacy. Consequently, to avoid the likelihood of public censure, Cassatt and other women artists of the late nineteenth century painted only those men who were their relatives or were deemed "acceptable" acquaintances. Contrary to the widespread assumption that women painters of the early modern era thematized difference sexuelle by painting children and women, I adhere to Griselda Pollock's argument that these gynocentric themes were explored by women because their societies sanctioned no other subjects for female artists. (2) Ironically, theirs was a gesture of involuntary exclusion, of proscribing male presence in their overly "protected"' painterly world in the interests of coercive notions of "respectability."

To what extent did such societally-imposed controlling mechanisms at the turn of the century function in Boznanska's professional and private experience? Certain prohibitive factors rampant during Cassatt's French debut unquestionably operated in Poland during Boznanska's early years: rigid societal mores, intensified by the power of the Polish Catholic church and exacerbated by the rather parochial atmosphere of her native Krakow, then a provincial city on the border of the Austro-Hungarian empire; and, perhaps more prominently in the young Boznanka's case, the academism and conservative attitudes of the Krakow artistic milieu under the often oppressive aegis of the revered master of historical painting, Jan Matejko. Her protective but supportive parents notwithstanding, these factors prompted the serious young painter to seek her fortune in a less restrictive environment, first, in Munich, where she continued the studies she had begun at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, and later, in Paris, where she developed her considerable gifts as a painter and eventually established a career. …