Born on this day in 1927, Jolanta Owidzka belonged to a generation of female Polish artists who gained international recognition in the 60s and 70s for their work with textiles. At the time, weaving was still largely considered an artisanal and folkloric craft, but Owidzka and others expanded the discipline into the realm of fine arts. They moved textiles away from their utilitarian functions in the home, demonstrating the capacity of fibre to produce complex, structural forms.
Owidzka (1927-2020) studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art under Mieczyslaw Szymanski and Eleonora Plutyńska. They trained a number of experimental artists historically grouped together as the so-called Polish School of Textiles, including more-celebrated artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz. Not only did Plutyńska teach weaving techniques and Polish textile history; her pedagogy also incorporated collaborations with artisanal women weavers from the countryside. Swymanski, meanwhile, encouraged artists to use a variety of fabric textures within a single piece of work, notably by incorporating materials not previously associated with weaving, such as horsehair or metallic thread.
After graduating in 1952, Owidzka developed her workmanship for five years at the Industrial Design Institute in Warsaw, where she researched the role of weaving in relation to architectural space and the layout of contemporary populist apartments. She published several studies on these subjects and went on to design monumental fabrics for public buildings, such as Radom’s concert hall (1963, 1965), the Victoria Hotel in Warsaw (1965), and the Jan Kachanowski Museum in Czarnolesie (1983-1984).
Her work demanded to be looked at, rather than used as a rug or a throw
Throughout the 1950s, Owizdzka designed rugs, kilims, and wall hangings in interior design institutes and cooperatives. She also created experimental pieces using coarse, non-traditional fibres that probed weaving’s position in architectural space, which were included in group shows. Throughout her career, her work was characterised by varied textures, calm tones, and irregular geometric patterns sometimes reminiscent of landscapes. In Composing the Matter of Time (2017), a red line cuts across the abstract mountain view like a glitch in a computer screen.
Her first solo exhibition took place in 1960 at the Sachet Gallery in Warsaw. Alongside Abakanowicz’s own solo exhibition, which also took place that year, it was considered a breakthrough moment for Polish textile art. The exhibition brought greater visibility to Owidzka and established her at the foreground of the Polish School of Textiles. Critics noted the texture of her fabrics, as well as the balance between their compositions and colour arrangements. She began to exhibit internationally, notably at the Lausanne International Tapestry Biennale, the XII Triennial of Textiles in Milan, and MoMa’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition Wall Hangings. At the Lausanne Biennale, Owidzka and other artists of the so-called “Slavonic Wave” were framed as antagonists; their work was considered a rupture from tradition, feminine craft, and utilitarian concerns. There was intense and sustained interest in their lives behind the Iron Curtain, fanning what scholar Jessica Gerschultz called a sort of exoticisation.
Owidzka gained prominence during a period when artistic production was strictly regulated by the state. Art had to serve a function under the communist regime. From 1949 to 1956, the Ministry of Culture and Art strictly enforced Socialist Realism among Polish painters: it only approved of utopian depictions of communist life, produced in a realist style. Abstraction was censored due to its perceived ties to the modernism and the West. Textile art, however, was less regulated. Tapestry’s associations with folk culture and peasant roots carried ideological value in the Eastern Bloc; artists were encouraged to revive craft and vernacular culture. As Owidzka once said, “art weaving, with its well-defined functions, could well evade the dictates of socialist realism.”
State oversight was more lenient for textiles than painting, but it was not nonexistent. Authorities notably censored Abakanowicz’s seminal 1960 exhibition until they determined her works were intended for interior design (rather than as sculptures). This illustrates Catherine Amidon’s argument that “fibre art was modernism protected by its process” in Eastern Europe in the 1960s. Abstract painting was censored, but similar enquiries in geometry and colour were acceptable in weaving because they belonged to the medium’s traditions. Owidzka, Abakanowicz, and other fibre artists in Poland profited from the government’s narrow understanding of their medium as solely folkloric and decorative. They exploited the supposed division between fine art and craft to their advantage, blurring the boundaries between the two.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, women in the Eastern Bloc pushed textile art in new, expressive directions. The destruction of the traditional ateliers around Łódź during the Second World War and the subsequent collapse of the atelier system of production leveled the discipline, while the post-war shortage of materials encouraged media experimentation.
When Owidzka entered art school, textiles were still perceived as a craft due to their utilitarian function. They were linked to architecture and viewed as another element of a house, like curtains or pillows. Owidzka and other women artists such as Abankanowicz changed this perception. They experimented with the texture and the structure of fabrics, creating fibre work that was neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional, neither flat nor sculptural. Owidzka created the uneven plush relief of works such as Warsaw (1967) or Echo (1976) through her use of unconventional yarns such as hemp, cotton, linen, copper wire, wool, sisal, lurex, nylon, and silver tinsel. Her work demanded to be looked at, rather than used as a rug or a throw. She illustrated a new way of constructing art works that related specifically to the materials at hand, insisting on the primacy of sensory experience. In the broader context of modern art, Owidzka and the other women of the Polish School of Textiles changed our perception of weaving, permitted objects not previously considered art to be seen as such.