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Maria Malczewska-Bernhardt: Theater of life - painting and drawing at The Museum of Opolian Silesia
Theater of life I, 1989, Pastel, 100 x 140 cm.

By: Dr. Kai Artinger

SILESIA.- Pastel painting flourished during the 18th century, at which time specialists in this dry-painting technique were found, in particular, in France. The star among them, known and collected throughout Europe, was a woman, the Venetian painter Rosalba Carriera (1673-1857), whose use of pastel colours left its mark on Rococo painting.

During the late 19th century and throughout the 20th, the French further developed pastel techniques. Edgar Degas, for example, used this medium in the most radical manner, expanding the use of both instruments and techniques. Impressionists, Symbolists, the circle of Nabis, the avant- garde, all used dry pigment to create masterpieces.

Since then, few artists, one of whom is the German-Polish painter Maria Malczewska-Bernhardt, have used pastel colours with such intensity. Her work is currently on display at a retrospective in Opole, Poland, a Silesian city about 400 kilometres from Berlin and part of a region in which history has been influenced by both German and Polish culture. In the 19th century, Silesia gained notoriety throug the revolt of the weavers, an event which in 1844 shook the local textile industry. Both the play “The Weaver“ (1892), by the German dramatist Gerhart Hauptmann, and Käthe Kollwitz’ cycle of etchings, “The Weavers’ Revolt“ (1897), stand as monuments to that Silesian worker unrest. Malczewska-Bernhardt’s oeuvre, too, evokes memories of this historical event.

Malczewska-Bernhardt grew up in the city of Opole, Silesia, where, at the age of fourteen, she enrolled at a special “art gymnasium“ where highly talented students were trained in the fine arts. Later, from 1970 to 1977, she studied visual art and painting at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. Poland was at that time a communist people’s republic and when, in 1980, strikes organized by the liberation movement Solidarność shook the whole country and led to the declaration of martial law, Malczewska-Bernhardt, who has German roots, decided not to return from a visit to Germany. She settled, instead, in Düsseldorf, where she still lives and works.

It is the “haptic quality“ of pastel painting that is for Malczewska-Bernhardt most fascinating. No other technique deals so directly with pure pigment; in no other technique is the painter’s hand itself such an important tool. During the last three decades, Malczewska-Bernhardt has worked above all on a cycle of pastel paintings she has summarized under the strange title “From the Pantomine of Folds“. These form a unique body of work in the history of pastel.

A number of artists have created a series of pictures of the same or similar subjects. For Cézanne, for example, it was the Mont Sainte-Victoire that he painted again and again; for Malczewska-Bernhard, the theme to which she repeatedly returns is draped, iridescent cloth, which she painstakingly investigates, in close-up, in terms of the innumerable possible differences in the fall of its folds. In some works the folds themselves are the focus of her interest; in others, veiled corpses are suggested.

The thing we call ‘cloth’ presents itself in various ways. Textiles, for example, an achievement of civilization, play an important role in the history of mankind: they cover; they veil; they fit a person out; they are the stuff of fashion. Malczewska-Bernhard has an affinity for cloths; for pastel painting, paper is normally used, but she has, unusually, chosen linen as the image-carrier for some of her pastels. Pastel can depict surfaces in an astonishingly photorealistic manner; it is, moreover, since the painter feels the pigment on his or her skin, colour which has a dimension of haptics. Few living artists have mastered its use to the extent that Malczewska-Bernhard has done so: her paintings, distinguished as they are by refinement and surprise, and by their apparently hyperrealistic expressive mode, are perfect.

The romantic German poet Heinrich Heine penned in 1844 the lines of his renowned work “The Silesian Weavers“. One reads there: “Germany, we weave the cloth of the dead
/ Threefold be the curse we weave ’round your head
/ We’re weaving, we’re weaving.“ Malczewska-Bernhard’s cycle of pastels entitled “Theater of Life“, painted in 1989, depict, rather than a shroud, veiled corpses whose existence prior to death we know nothing about. Why they are covered? What is veiled? Is there hidden there, something which cannot be spoken of? Undue hardship? Misery? An untimely death? Cloth, like the interpretation of pictures, is ambiguous. Do we see in Malczewska-Bernhard’s “Theater of Life II“ pastel, for example, a pair of lovers or two corpses?

If it is possible to find in a work of art collective memories, then Malczewska-Bernhard’s pastels may well be influenced by Silesian history, an influence that would help explain her extraordinary research into the world and life of folds. For the exhibition of her paintings, the Muzeum of Opolian Silesia seems to have been the best choice.

The exhibition runs from 31st August to 7th October, 2012.

Maria Malczewska-Bernhardt, Theater of life – Painting and drawing, in The Muzeum of Opolian Silesia, Opole / Poland; Catalogue Maria Malczewska-Bernhardt. Painting from the pantomime of folds 1988-2012, Krakow 2012, 60 pages, 22 coloured illustrations.

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