The forgotten wonder of Felicia Glowacka

Published 6 January 2016

A London gallery has unveiled a cache of tiny figure drawings by a little-known Polish artist, whose work shows a mastery of gestural skill.

  • At Natalia Zagorska-Thomas’s private gallery in Camden Town, Studio Ex Purgamento, in a small oblong room, among works by various contemporary women artists under the heading Secrets and Lies, there was a group of tiny drawings by a long-dead Polish artist called Felicia Glowacka. The drawings had been rescued from a shop in Warsaw where they formed part of a complete, if miscellaneous, portfolio, and now here were two or three of them, framed and displayed for the first time in what must have been a good many years. They were immediately intriguing, a small selection from some 60 works, half of which were in England with Zagorska-Thomas, the other half with her father in Warsaw. I wanted to see more.

    There were 30 drawings in all, on small scraps of paper cut from various sketchbooks, mostly in brown sanguine or sepia pastel, the colour you might see in sketches by Watteau, Rembrandt or Chardin. The drawings were essentially gestural marks that constituted figures, compact homunculi, some single, some in pairs, drawn with a nervous, minimalist sureness of touch. The calligraphies of the drawings curled about themselves, the marks now broad now very narrow, the whole establishing a dramatic ground or space that defined its own world. The figures were rarely more than an inch or two high but felt much larger.

  • Felicia Glowacka, Untitled

    Felicia Glowacka, Untitled, 1950-53.

    Photo Franek Strzeszewski.

  • There was something satirical about them too, the torsos and limbs appearing cramped but engaged in movement, as if animated by some internal drama. Although the figures were unlocated there was an implication of setting – street corners, main thoroughfares, possibly a park – as though they were in a half-physical, half-psychic ghetto. Nothing was fully described: they were all wiry lines spreading into a brown cocoon. They were masterful and spellbinding. Who was Glowacka? What survives of catalogue notes tells us that she was born in 1896 into a family of some intellectual standing, that she trained as a dentist and that, having survived the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, she started painting very late in 1948 without any formal training, but became seriously ill soon after and died in 1953. She wasn’t altogether unknown in her time. Her work, of which there must be considerably more than we can see, apparently included paintings, and she had exhibited at two national museums in Poland. There is even a photograph of her with Picasso. There was also a posthumous exhibition in 1957: the rest is, so far, a mystery. Glowacka is an intriguing, neglected figure. A forthcoming solo show of drawings at Studio Ex Purgamento could lead to a larger gathering of her work.

    It is interesting to know Glowacka had been a dentist. There is something tooth-sized, delicate, yet tough about the work that might in fact fit into a mouth. They are, in effect, cave paintings in miniature. The calligraphic style, reminiscent of Rembrandt’s sketches and full of allusions, might remind us of the drawings of Bruno Schulz or even of Käthe Kollwitz, but it has a more substantial context in Polish art, in the work of artists such as Stansislaw Witkiewicz and Witold Wojtkiewicz of the Mloda Polska (Young Poland) school at the turn of the 20th century. Take this dancing figure (Untitled, 1950-53; pictured) which seems to be wearing clogs. The woman’s face is hardly described. She seems to tip backwards before righting herself. Maybe it is her very lack of definition that enables her to emerge from a space on the far side of both the visual and the narrative imagination.

    Lost and Found: Drawings by Felicia Glowacka is at Studio Ex Purgamento from 9 January until 7 February.

    George Szirtes is a Hungarian-born British poet.