Unlocking Religious Symbolism: An Exclusive Interview with Polish Artist Agnieszka Nienartowicz
Image courtesy of the artist.
Introducing Agnieszka Nienartowicz (b. 1991), a talented artist living and working in Kraków, Poland. We extend our gratitude to Nienartowicz for generously sparing time from her bustling schedule as she prepares for her imminent showcase with Nicodim Gallery for The Armory Show in New York.
Before we dive into our conversation with this artist, let's delve into the enchanting tapestry of Nienartowicz's artistry. Her hyper-realistic oil paintings, inspired by the Old Masters of the Renaissance, skillfully employ chiaroscuro techniques to conjure a sense of profound depth. Yet, it is not just her brushwork that carries depth; it is her compositions and narratives that are rich with symbolism. Nienartowicz's canvases exude an aura of sensuality and mystery, inviting us into serene and intimate settings inhabited by tattooed women in strong and fearless poses. Through her work, she grants us a glimpse into a clandestine realm of enigmatic puzzles and concealed thoughts.
What distinguishes Nienartowicz's art are the signature figures she meticulously crafts. These elegant personae, adorned in elegant attire, bear bodies and faces adorned with tattoos, often featuring religious iconography. This striking visual commentary illuminates the societal roles imposed upon women by the Catholic Church. By overlaying these revered symbols atop her portraits, the artist deftly strips these narratives of their biblical weight and patriarchal values.
Nienartowicz's artistic journey found its roots in the hallowed halls of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts. Her oeuvre has graced numerous exhibitions, including the recent "Agnieszka Nienartowicz: Sweet Burden" at Nicodim Annex in Los Angeles (2023, solo); "MATERNITY LEAVE: NONE OF WOMEN BORN," curated by Ben Lee Ritchie Handler at Nicodim in collaboration with the Green Family Art Foundation in Dallas (2023); and "Dream State" at Stolen Space Gallery in London (2023), to name but a few. Her paintings, coveted by collectors worldwide, adorn private collections, while also finding sanctuary in esteemed public collections such as the Museum of Gdańsk, The Bennett Collection, and the Hilton group. In recognition of her exceptional talent, Nienartowicz clinched 3rd place in the 5th Painting Triennial "ANIMALIS" in Chorzów, Poland, in 2020.
Now, dear readers, it is time to embark on an illuminating journey through our interview with the artist herself. We trust you will find her insights as captivating as her art. Enjoy!
Agnieszka Nienartowicz, "Dance to the End," (2023). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist? What or who inspired you to become one?
I've never thought about this that way. I have never planned to be one. It just happened. However, my entire conscious life, I've always wanted to paint and express myself with this medium. I love the process of painting.
I remember my conversation with my father, who graduated in Polish philology. He recalled his studies and discourses with his friends. They all wanted to be poets. They read a lot of poetry, and at that time, photographs of poets with a pipe or cigarette would be shown on the backs of poetry booklets, surrounded by curls of smoke. All of them then started smoking. It's a funny image of the situation because a poet is, after all, someone who writes poems, not someone who smokes cigarettes or dresses in a specific way. I somehow feel that beneath the desire to be an artist lies a broader vision of what an artist should be. And I think one doesn't decide to be an artist – instead, one creates because there's an inner need, and the label "artist" comes after.
I will honestly admit that for a long time, I didn't have the courage to call myself an artist, as that word always seemed serious and lofty to me. I also had to learn how to be an artist: how to navigate the art world, how to manage myself and my resources, how to manage all the paperwork and business things, and how to remain authentic by staying true to myself, my values, feelings, and emotions.
Agnieszka Nienartowicz, Close-up of "Dance to the End," (2023). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Do you have any specific rituals or practices that help you get into a creative mindset before starting a new artwork or project?
In my case, it's a process and a network of many small, subtle things that I do unconsciously or intentionally every day. For example, I use my phone as a tool to capture various interesting things. I always have it with me, so it's very handy. In the notepad, I make a lot of notes and jot down intriguing sentences, words, and ideas that come to my mind during the day. I also have an ordinary notebook and a sketchbook for writing and sketching things. I take a lot of screenshots on my phone, and I save a lot of pictures that speak to me. In my laptop, I have a veritable library of folders with various categories where interesting photos are stored: paintings, old engravings, icons, fashion pictures, clothing, jewelry, Madonnas, angels, saints in ecstasy, depictions of hell, skeletons, pearls, beautiful hands. I buy a lot of albums with art. I'm truly a collector of intriguing depictions. From this conglomerate of various images and saved words and sentences, ideas for paintings emerge - sometimes spontaneously, sometimes I have to intentionally sit down and work on them. It is an attempt to find an intentional order and create something out of the chaos of notes and pictures. During this process of taming thoughts, I enjoy the silence in my studio, solitude, a lit candle, coffee, tea, or matcha, and my cat Ida beside me—the ordinary, simple life.
Agnieszka Nienartowicz, "Cuts," (2023). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Can you describe the process of recontextualizing Old Master and Renaissance interpretations of bible scenes onto female bodies and faces in your paintings?
We are deeply immersed in Christianity and shaped by Christian thought in Europe. The main significance here lies in the concept of sin and holiness and the view of the world in a radically dualistic manner. Black-and-white perception is an essential but primitive and immature defense mechanism employed to cope with difficult matters. However, this mechanism, designed to protect us, eventually turns against us. It's a double-edged sword. I see that in Europe, we are maturing to reject the dualistic way of seeing the world, and at this stage, it's very necessary, as the pressure of Christianity harms many individuals. Nevertheless, I agree with Jung's idea that some myth conditions each of our lives, and it's impossible to live without believing in something. I also believe that there is a dark side to questioning everything, but undoubtedly, a multidimensional perspective is the most complete way of seeing the world.
I aim to convey that we are all marked by something. In Europe, in Poland, we are deeply marked by Christianity and its dualism. I draw from the Old Masters and paintings from past eras as records of previous worldviews. My paintings attempt to show these marks and imprint the religion has left while also engaging in a discourse with the past. This is also an effort and a desire to build strength from the past and to restore agency to women.
Agnieszka Nienartowicz, Close-up of "Cuts," (2023). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Can you share some specific examples of Polish cultural elements and memories that inspire your work?
Probably the most formative experience for me was the strong influence of Catholicism, a religion that defines every element of life in Poland. Fortunately, this has been changing in the last few years, and in Poland, we are witnessing a turn away from the church. Participating several times in pilgrimages on foot to the Black Madonna in Częstochowa was undoubtedly a strong experience for me. These pilgrimages are organized annually all over Poland, and people walk many kilometers for several days, reciting the rosary, praying, and singing on the road to reach the image of the Madonna.
As a teenager, I also regularly visited the monastery of nuns for retreats and silent days or just to spend the weekend there. My family on one side comes from Podlasie, the most Catholic region of Poland, and as a child, I spent entire holidays with my grandparents in the countryside. It was a wonderful time in a real traditional Polish village, where I ate meals prepared on a real stove, collected eggs from the chicken coop, ran through fields, petted cows, and drank freshly milked milk. However, I also experienced a very strong, regional, and folk Catholicism. For example, during a storm, my grandmother would sprinkle the whole house with holy water to prevent lightning strikes. Various rituals were performed in the village. People would kiss the feet of a plaster statue of Mary and kneel before wayside chapels. My grandmother was also part of the Rosary Society, and I used to accompany her and other village women to collectively recite the rosary. In the village, they also celebrated Dożynki, the Slavic harvest festival.
All of this was very beautiful. This mysterious and enigmatic world intrigued me. I remember all those rituals very well, and I have a lot of good memories. There was a lot of metaphysics and mystery in it. The world seemed to be full of magic, composed of infinite layers. That's probably why I like Olga Tokarczuk's novels so much; they contain precisely the atmosphere I experienced as a child. However, unfortunately, besides the mystery, the Catholic ideology also carried a cruelty that taught me not to notice and forced me to endure.
Agnieszka Nienartowicz, "M.," (2023). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Can you discuss the changing landscape in Poland as younger generations become more mobilized through activism and protest and how it relates to your artistic practice?
I'm glad that the younger generation is rebelling against rigid rules. They perceive the oppression and bondage of religion and have the courage to stand up against it. It's good that young people are fighting for their rights, and it's a testament to the strength of youthful spirit. I'm glad that psychology is talked about a lot today. I appreciate all of this and believe that good changes are coming.
Many people in Poland have experienced the painful and psychologically destructive force of religion, and today, they have the courage to say that they no longer want to live under its yoke. At the same time, I can't deny that religion brought me good things during my upbringing: a sense of security, higher purpose, community, and belonging. It defined the world according to clear rules and principles that, during adolescence, seem good to me because they stabilize a mind driven by raging hormones. The problem is that one should outgrow religion because it simply doesn't hold up in mature life: the world doesn't look how it tries to describe it. The world is much broader, multidimensional, and complex.
Lately, I've become interested in quantum physics, which shows that everything around us is different than it seems. But on the other hand, what is it then? Again, I will quote my father and his favorite phrase, which I find very wise, "Nothing is as it seems, but it's not different either." We must live believing in something; it's impossible not to believe in anything. We have to live according to some myth because that gives meaning to our lives.
It was the darkest and most gloomy period in my life when I lost religion and belief in Christian mythology. I fell apart into pieces; my world shattered and lost its meaning. I had to rebuild it from scratch - to reconstruct my new myth, purpose, and the meaning of life. Going back to your question, I believe that the transformations happening in my country now, in Poland, are good and necessary, and I believe in the power of the young generation. Young people have the power to overthrow the old, ossified, and no longer needed-world. But I know that old myths are replaced by new ones - and these new ones will also age and be replaced again. I am aware that this comes in waves. Believing that today's changes are perfect and final would be an illusion. Today's new demands also have their flaws. Indeed, the next, even younger, generations born today and those born in the future will point out errors in our generation.
Agnieszka Nienartowicz, "Happy Crappy," (2023). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Can you share your experience and reflections on your recent first solo exhibition titled "Sweet Burden" at Nicodim Gallery in Los Angeles, California? What was the inspiration behind the exhibition, and how do you feel your artwork resonated with the audience in that particular setting?
My first solo show in the US was a significant and important experience for me. Especially since it took place at Nicodim Gallery, an excellent gallery with a fantastic team, I hold high regard for the program they curate. I also believe that my work aligns with their context, and they understand well what I aim to convey through my paintings. I'm also grateful to the gallery, which has an important position in the art world, for placing their trust in me.
As far as I know, my exhibition was very well received. Many Americans have European roots, our cultures and religions are similar, and we share common experiences. I had many interesting conversations during the exhibition opening. The title "Sweet Burden" relates to what I discussed earlier in this interview - to the roots of Christianity, its sweetness, but also its terror.
Agnieszka Nienartowicz, "Glass Beads," (2023). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.
Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects or artistic endeavors that you would like to share with us?
September 8-10th, I will show my latest paintings with Nicodim Gallery at The Armory Show in New York. I can't wait!
Courtesy of the artist
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