Too Beautiful to be True.

Roma Piotrowska



Too Beautiful to be True. On Anna Orbaczewska's Series "Suspicious 2" 

Anna Orbaczewska in her "Suspicious 2" series paints the things which are well known to her, the contemporary bourgeoisie. She Peeps at the society in which she was brought up and represents it in her paintings, consequently denouncing its suspicious activities. She asks to what extent we are able to identify ourselves with the things imposed onto us by culture and consider them our own needs. Orbaczewska's paintings usually present idyllic, often familial scenes, such as a walk in the woods or play in the lake – the scenes, the photographs of which might easily be placed in a family album. Everything is well and goodin them. A family album, as Susan Sontag writes, is the way in which a given family wants to be perceived. Orbaczewska, by the introduction of text into her paintings, makes her Arcadian scenes deal with that which is missing in such albums, that which is hidden underneath the pretty surface, what we would like to hide from the rest of society. There is no loneliness, tiredness, weeping, pain, frustration, violence nor fear in them. However, we can find all of these things in the artist's works, only seemingly idyllic. The painter, composing such scenes in installations, bestows them with an underlying meaning. She makes one ponder what can be lurking under the appearance of "the happy family" and undertakes issues which are feminist in character; she undermines the paradigm of the Polish Mother and, finally, she infringes on taboos. 

In analysing Orbaczewska's art, one cannot overlook the fact that the artist is a woman. One might be afraid of the divide between the creative work of men and women because of their sexes. Unnecessarily. Let us repeat after the American writer Erica Jong “that [...] an artist is neither a man nor a woman, the artist is both of them [...] female artists cannot avoid exploring their sexuality because there is an intimate link between one's sex and creation. Both are forms of concentrated energy, they link with and complement each other.” As mentioned at the beginning of the essay, Orbaczewska paints the middle-class, the society in which she was brought up. As she herself emphasises, bourgeoisie values have always reigned in her family. "I was charged with information which brought with it inner contradictions and this made me want to create. Well, these two levels have been fighting within me all the time. On the one hand I want to be well-mannered, on the other, I crave for total frenzy." The artist has somehow met the expectations invested in her: she got married and has given birth to children, despite the fact that she is an artist. I write "despite the fact" because the dominant trend in culture considers maternity a woman's duty (a fully realised woman is one who is a mother), however, maternity in the artistic world is a rare phenomenon. After all a mother who is active professionally (not only as an artist) very often has to do a double job: the next shift is waiting at home. Orbaczewska has decided on such a two-shift workload and her paintings talk about it, too. 

A picturesque scene from vacations at the seaside: a toddler runs along the beach and an adult woman follows the young child, probably the mother. Above the scene, the word "ever" appears with its multiple meanings of "at any time", "by any chance", "at all times". (The artist always gives English titles to her works because she finds this language more universal, moreover, she has a greater distance to it. What is said in English is less striking for Poles than utterances expressed in the Polish language.) The installation comprises two paintings, the adjacent canvas features a woman in an identical pose, walking along the beach and two words above her "never again". Thus, the whole composes "never ever again". We can only speculate that this is about children – never ever (any children) again. The woman is frustrated, at moments – unhappy, because she lost herself somewhere, devoting her entire life to the care of her children. However, this painting is not unequivocal, as nothing is unequivocal in Orbaczewska's works. "My point is to show duality. Something which seems beautiful can bring a strange story with itself", says the artist. If we separated these two scenes, then the painting with a women and a toddler would express positive emotion while the one with the woman on the beach only – loneliness and sadness, rather. Which is better? Living without children or maternity (and the work and fight related to it)? One's life after giving birth to children will never be the same again. However, it can also happen that it is children who motivate a woman to act, as it was in Sylvia Plath's case: her creative work simply burst forth after she gave birth to her child. A similar thing happened to Orbaczewska: "I am very happy I have my kids. I think it is good to be a mother but you need to be someone else. Parents should accept the fact that their child is an integral person who will soon grow up and leave home, so we have to retain our own identity, to give support and be good partners for children. After I had my second child, everything became so orderly in my life that now I can even organise myself better. Probably, I have to be a mother to be a painter but I will not be able to check it any longer", she says. 

Another "photo" from a family album. A scene showing a boy and a man walking in different directions (Double). Its composition is encapsulated in a horizontal oval and the painting is rendered in oil on canvas (as all of her works are). The silhouettes are rendered in a realistic way, however, the background is allusive, only suggesting some bushes and dunes, and bad weather, perhaps even a shower, somewhat as in William Turner's paintings. The depicted scene expresses a feeling of loneliness. A boy and a man, probably a father and son, have gone for a walk together but are not interested in each other.  The man's silhouette is shown from the back, but we know that he is looking in an entirely different direction than the boy. Being in a family can also mean being lonely. We seem to be together but we are separate in fact. Moreover, each of us leads a separate life outside home and, if we do not cultivate friendship within the family, with the years, the members of our family can become absolute strangers. 

Subsequent "pages in the album" feature child nudes, always in full figure, depicted from the back. A figure with its back turned often appears in the artist's works. Art history knows this motif for the first time from the time of romanticism, especially in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, who showed figures engrossed in contemplation, with their backs turned to the viewer. Such depiction has the German name of Rückenfigur. The viewer of Friedrich's paintings has to play the role of the Rückenfigur and admire the beautiful romantic landscape, spreading before him on the canvas ("The Voyager above the Sea of Clouds", 1818, "Chalk Cliffs of Rügen", 1818, "Girl before the Setting Sun", 1818). While in Friedrich's paintings, the stress is upon the spiritual union between man and nature, Edvard Munch's turned figures express loneliness, isolation and alienation ("The Lonely People" 1899, "A Girl at the Sea", 1896). Both Munch's and Friedrich's people gaze at a distant horizon, often a mountainous landscape or a seascape. Similarly, Orbaczewska's children usually stand in an open field, on a seashore or a lake, as in "You Never Know" (2010), "In the Water 2" (2010), or "Under Construction" (2010). There is something melancholy in these turned figures, loneliness, mystery and upset. We are not able to see their faces and, consequently, their feelings. 

The painting installation "Fuck Off" (2010) is also extremelyinteresting. It features a child, its back turned to us, against a green background, suggesting bushes. The picture would be banal, as it resembles the photographs of small naked children which parents often take of their kids, treating their carnality as something natural. It would be banal were it not for the small pictures, or rather – children's bricks – attached to it on both sides, saying "fuck off". It is the child who is saying "fuck off". Our society cultivates the myth that minor abuse is a rarity; however, the statistics say that 16% of children below 16 years of age have been sexually molested. Moreover, violence against children is most often performed by their close relatives. This is how the artist speaks about the problem "a child is so delicate and fragile that you can do anything to it. Using the art of painting, so favoured by the middle class, I want to tackle an utterly sensitiveissue. 

The issue of the child nude seems to be problematic itself. When a child nude is executed in a traditional technique, which painting is, this does not raise too much controversy; however, if the same representation were presented in a photograph, one would expect a scandal. A scandal broke out in Australia in 2008 when Bill Henson's exhibition, featuring naked teenagers, was closed. As Izabela Kowalczyk writes in her blog "Strasznasztuka" (Terribleart) "[...] in reply to this, the Australian Art Monthly placed a photograph of the six-year old Olympia Nelson, photographed by her mother. That seemingly innocent photograph also raised controversy. [...] The editor in chief of "Art Monthly" Maurice O'Riordan wrote: validate nudity and childhood as subjects for art." Child nudes have been created since ancient times; moreover these examples of depiction reveal a discomforting erotic element." Kowalczyk continues: "[...] nakedness in art (formerly) was the attribute of heavenly figures (but not only!). [...] Mythological themes and, even, religious ones enabled artists to undertake certain topics or to represent naked bodies, including children. Whether the bodies are heavenly or earthly, the problem remains. There is some erotic superimposition here." Kowalczyk gives precise examples: antique figures, representations of angels, Amors, Eroses. We should remember that Eros was most often rendered as a little boy. The writer recalls such paintings as Caravaggio's "Amor Vicit Omnia" (1601-02), "Amor" (1533) and "Madonna with a Rose" (1527-31) by Parmginiano and a rather controversial "Girl Playing with a Dog" (1783) by Fragonard. 

Orbaczewska, painting her child nudes subscribes to a long tradition with her works. This way, she expresses her disagreement with child abuse without making a taboo of the child's body; on the contrary – she depicts this body on canvas quite freely. In Great Britain, the fear of paedophilia is so great that one cannot even photograph children (even dressed ones) without the permission of their parents, and what I mean here is just regular vacation photographs where children can find themselves in the background quite coincidentally. It seems that what we need is an open discussion and information given to very young people about the potential threat and the possibilities of protection against it, instead of pretending that the problem does not exist. Orbaczewska has also painted a mural, tackling this topic, entitled "I Am Not Sexy" which is placed under a flyover on the way to Łażnia Centre for Contemporary Art in Gdańsk. It was her first work dealing with this issue. Her work "Under Construction" (2010) touches this theme, too, although indirectly. It features a child with facing away from the viewer, standing in water and playing with a reed. This scene is accompanied by the caption "Under construction", which means "being built" or "being constructed, formed". This painting speaks about how much a child is susceptible to manipulation when its character is still being shaped. The caption "under construction" can be interpreted as a ban to trespassers: "a child under construction", please do not touch. The picture "You Never Know" (2010) features a girl wearing only white panties, the thicket of reeds spreading before her. And the caption in gothic characters says "You Never Know", so you would like to add "Perhaps there is a snake in the grass". This image raises unrest and seems to warn against some invisible danger. 

The artist admits that she is afraid of these pleasantand ideal situations and views that she creates, like in the saying "too beautiful, to be true". She was brought up in such a way that even in the very best moments of her life she subconsciously expects misfortune. Perhaps this is why she paints her idyllic scenes so obsessively. What is strange in these situations though, is how impersonal her figures are, as if they have evaded confrontation, purposely hiding their faces. Orbaczewska emphasises that bourgeoisie, middle class hypocrisy is a nuisance to her. She accuses our contemporary society of the same vices of which Gabriela Zapolska rebuked her society a century or so ago, in her drama "Moralność pani Dulskiej" ("Mrs. Dulska's Morality"), namely: pretended morality, two-facedness and imposture. Orbaczewska tackles the issues of which no-one speaks, that they would prefer to be forgotten totally. Although her paintings are blurred, sometimes out of focus and, even, seemingly unfinished, they are beautifully painted, by which they pay homage to traditional painting. The artist remains faithful to the technique which has been declared dead many times. Her choice seems relevant in the context of problems she touches. Painting is a very popular artistic technique among the middle classes and, most probably, her paintings will be hung on the walls of many homes. 

Birmingham, Great Britain, 2010