Integrity

The second year has passed since I decided to start this blog. The prospect of another cycle coming to a close makes me reflective. I think about where I am now and remind myself of the reasons why I embarked on this extraordinary journey with Otulina. The key for me was the struggle for my own integrity.

I see integrity as the ability to find my own voice, listen to it and give it room to act. After graduating and working for years, I felt I had lost this ability somewhere. It hid from the criticism, perfectionism and patronizing tone of those around me attacking from many directions. The constant resistance to them killed, somewhere along the way, the joy of contact with art. But I decided to win it back. The first step was to imagine what I needed to be able to hear myself. And so, Otulina was born.

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Jan Vermeer, View of Delft, ca. 1660-1661 © Mauritshuis, The Hague

I decided to trust the feeling of integrity of contact. First with myself. And then, if the readers (that is you who are reading this) feel safe with me, also with them. Watching the comments here and on the Facebook page, I can see that our relationship is slowly getting stronger. And I am very happy about that.

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Gabriel Metsu, Woman reading a letter, 1665 © National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

My adventure with art, or rather with the history of art, began in the last year of primary school, when I was 15. I had no special interest in art before that. However, I wanted to get into a good secondary school and I wanted to get the highest grades wherever possible. My teacher offered that I can take a test based on a textbook by Stanisław Stopczyk. My preparations were rather superficial, I was not concentrating too much on the content, just admiring the illustrations. I was sure that there could be nothing difficult in talking “about pictures”. I was wrong and failed miserably. However, I asked for a second chance. And then I dug into the material with full responsibility, trying to understand what it was all about.

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Piet Mondrian, Blooming Apple Tree, 1912 ©Gemeentemuseum, The Hague

One of the questions concerned Piet Mondrian and his process of developing the principles of Neoplasticism. I was asked to analyse a series of representations of an apple tree in blossom, in which the artist moves from a recognisable sketch of a tree to a completely geometrised composition. To be honest, I was overwhelmed by this task, I did not understand how nature, with its wealth of organic forms, could be reflected in the arrangement of verticals and levels. And from this lack of understanding grew my genuine fascination with art history. Because I wanted to understand why Mondrian thought he was right.

Piet Mondrian, Composition No 11, 1913 © Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

My search for answers led me in high school to a preparatory class for the art history contest. It was the most important event of my teenage life. Not only because I met people there who found the same things important and fascinating as I did. But most of all because I found my greatest love – the 17th century Dutch painting. And even though our paths diverged a little later on, I still take great pleasure in looking at these works.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1654 ©Louvre, Paris

Thanks to Rembrandt’s paintings, I understood why it is important to look at genuine works of art and not only their reproductions. I used to devour colour albums and catalogues studying the compositions. And I thought I already knew everything about them. But it was only when I stood in front of Rembrandt’s canvases that I realised how much I had been missing. Only the opportunity to see the authentic, painted surface gave me the chance to fully admire his mastery.

In a famous quotation from his Lectures on Aesthetics, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel wrote this about the Dutch paintings of the Golden Age: “…this is the Sunday of their lives, which equalizes everyone and removes all that is evil; people who can be so wholeheartedly cheerful cannot really be thoroughly evil and wicked”[my translation]. Although I did not know this description at the time, it perfectly captured the essence of my youthful fascination. In the genre scenes with house interiors, I was particularly intrigued by the silence and the atmosphere of concentration that filled them. They created a solemn atmosphere, unusual for simple domestic activities.

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Pieter de Hooch, Two Women Beside a Linen Chest, 1663 © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The landscapes, on the other hand, fascinated me with their luminosity, that was eminent even despite the steel clouds covernig the sky. Space depicted in them seemed endless, with even perceptible gusts of wind moving the heavy clouds. Nature was revealing its majesty in these paintings thanks to the low horizon line. I was so impressed by these views that when I experience a similar weather phenomenon in nature, I feel as if it was the painting. Therefore, I feel on my own skin the great power of illusion that art can create.

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Jacob van Ruisdael, The Windmill at Wijk near Duurstede, ca. 1670 © Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Learning about Dutch art also offered me the opportunity to strengthen my interest in equality matters, important for my integrity. As a teenager I read avidly about the freedom of Dutch women – their right to own property, of inheritance, as well as the “friendship” model of marriage. Today, this picture has more shades of grey, but it still brings me much comfort. Finally, I was pleased that so many names of women artists from the Netherlands is known, while many (still) question whether there were any women painters at all. Let the names of Judith Leyster, Maria Oosterwijk, Maria Sybila Merian (I wrote about her here), Clara Peeters, Rachel Ruysch or Maria de Grebber serve as an answer to their doubts.

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Judith Leyster, Self-portrait, ca. 1630 © National Gallery of Art, Washington

This is how my integrity shaped regarding the art history, extracting themes from it that resonated with me and my perception of the world. A lot has changed since then. My relationship to the field itself has had its ups and downs along the way. They have all been important and have led me to my current situation – running Otulina. Today I know that in order to write something about a painting, I have to engage into a personal relationship with it. To find in it something that fascinates me. I have to look at it like a newly met person and try to get to know it. Not every contact is equally fascinating, although there are moments of complete surprise. Such was the case with Pieter Nason’s Portrait of Johann Maurits von Nassau-Siegen. For months I passed it dispassionately in the museum, until one day I decided to get to know it better. You can see the result here and here.

Pieter Nason, Johan Maurits Count of Nassau-Siegen as a Knight of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, 1666 © National Museum in Warsaw

For a long time I kept silent about the various fascinations that the paintings evoked in me. I was driven by the fear of the critical eye (and speech) of those who always find a flaw in everything. It killed my integrity, which lost its space for experimentation. In order to save it, I set up Otulina and slowly overcame my reservations. Today, telling you about what I find most enjoyable in art is the greatest reward for trusting my own integrity.

Thank you for being here!

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