Scandalising and delightful. His erotic paintings were called „pornographic”

A new wave of criticism hit Nowosielski: it was said that his canvases resembled Modigliani too much and in fact were just “petty drawings with petty figures”. And although this “other spirituality” of his was shown at the Biennale in Italy, England and France, his compositions were accused of provincialism.

He amused the world with art, mixing styles, trends, colours, lines and shapes. Regardless of whether he created icons or nudes, he grounded them in the conflict between the mind and life; he followed the spirit, the matter, the beauty and the ugliness. The exhibitions, opened in December 2023 at the Royal Castle in Warsaw and at the Zachęta Gallery, present an artist fascinated by icons, corporeality and abstraction.

But icons or figurative painting are not the only important motifs in the artist’s oeuvre. Jerzy Nowosielski adored women filled with eroticism, his art is full of understatement, free and untamed. True.

Tadeusz Kantor, the master

Jerzy Nowosielski’s work was shaped by the Second World War and the decisions that had divided the world.

September 1939. The outbreak of WWII and the flight from the Nazis from Kraków being the capital of the General Governorate to Rymanów, 100 kilometres away (where his father was from), and the subsequent movement to Lviv were a dramatic experience. After a month, it is true, the painter returned to his hometown, where he set up a studio. He also returned to painting, but nothing was the same anymore. The death of his two brothers at the front was the last straw.

A loner, an outsider finding it hard to make friends, living in a world of plans, dreams and ideas, Nowosielski diverged from his mates. The trauma he had experienced, discussions with adults and overprotective parents – all that made him mature quickly – instead of children’s books he would devour the works of Orthodox semanticists and philosophers. Already then did he adore icons and the contemporary art: “All of a sudden, in some unique, unrepeatable way, all the anterior sensations that I had gained from looking at Van Goghs and Utrillos were revived in me. It was something that defies description. I just opened my eyes to art. It was as if I had begun to speak an unknown language fluently without having learned it, or as if I had started to swim, thrown into deep water, without training”.

In 1940, Nowosielski, a student at the Kraków Kunstgewerbeschule (an art vocational school set up by the Germans in place of the closed Academy of Fine Arts – ed.), met Zofia Gutkowska, his lover, confidante, muse, beloved wife and model, who posed for his first erotic paintings.

Self-restraint and silence disturbed by energy, a few repeating tones of the same colour and a dark, distinct were enough for Nowosielski to create a recognisable style, which however was nowhere near to Tadeusz Kantor whom he coddled.

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Nowosielski wrote of him: “Kantor… Once I told him that I liked painting, and he replied: . I’ve never said in my life that I’m not allowed to do something. At least when it comes to art I’m allowed to do everything”.

The author of “Dziennik z podróży” („Diary of a Journey”) didn’t limit himself to painting; he invented „objects of art” that “played” in spectacles and happenings; he believed that artists who were ready for new challenges would create amazing works, all they needed was inspiration and peace. The problem was that as much as they didn’t lack inspiration but they could only dream of peace and tranquillity. The war was on and there was no sign of its end.

Art against power

And when it ended it turned out that it was Stalin who had won it. And that he decided about the new world order. Acting on the principle: “Destroy your enemies with their own hands, and at the end of the war remain strong”, he defeated Hitler and established a regime in the conquered lands, subordinating all spheres of life to him. He also invented the only right style and demanded that artists obey him. In return, he offered participation in exhibitions and commissions for new works. Those who did not want to agree to this had to work underground. Tadeusz Kantor and his students opted for the latter.

Kantor knew the dilemmas of his students: on the one hand, he urged them to create liberated art, on the other hand, the rigid rules of socialist realism imposed limitations. Figures of workers forging iron, athletes and women riding tractors were the quintessence of a trend that contributed nothing to contemporary art, and the promises of exhibitions for artists glorifying the communist party quickly faded anyway.

So Kantor invented the Underground Independent Theatre, where, in addition to performances, discussions and exhibitions were organized. Nowosielski eagerly participated in meetings that gave him a sense of freedom, fulfilment and great peace, and when he met members of the 1st Kraków Group, Maria Jarema and Jonasz Sterna at one of the exhibitions, he began to dream of creating equally amazing art. There was one more reason why Nowosielski – one of the best students of the year, voraciously looking at exhibition catalogues and listening carefully to lecturers – came to the Krzysztofory Gallery: he wanted to bring something new to painting.

Various artists participated in Kantor’s happenings, and Nowosielski also found himself in them very well.

“Painters and performers, composers and architects, theatre creators and art critics. Debuting in the 1930s and born after the war. Uncompromising avant-gardists and those who claimed that they were more in tune with the old masters than with the 20th century revolution. Eroticised surrealists and lovers of raw geometry, creators of abstract worlds and bricoleurs crafting from scraps and remnants of the , masters of form and feverish seekers of new sensations. Practicing Catholics and non-believing Jews, ideological communists and lost Orthodox Christians. To put it in a nutshell – the Kraków Group”.

Kantor gave them freedom. Perhaps Nowosielski used it best in nudes that embodied mysticism, spiritual eroticism, loneliness, created in the margins, surprising and too authentic to pass by indifferently. Women with pointed breasts, square torsos, muscular calves and firm buttocks looked familiar, but it was not their forms but the vivid, expressive colours that puzzled the critics. Even then, Nowosielski scandalised some and delighted others.

The 1st Exhibition of Modern Art, opened in 1948, featured works by Marian Bogusz, Tadeusz Brzozowski, Zbigniew Dłubak, Maria Jarema, Mieczysław Porębski, Tadeusz Kantor, Alfred Lenica and Jerzy Nowosielski. Paintings, watercolours and spatial models were presented in a room filled with chairs. They were supposed to convince the authorities to accept modern culture.

“The spatial models collected in this room show how a modern artist understands and solves the elementary issues of their artistic language” – wrote Mieczysław Porębsk, later adding: “(...) the last idea was probably to fill the large room with chairs. I suspect that there was some inspiration here from surrealist exhibitions – those that they built, wrapped in strings and threads...

The authorities, however, did not like surrealism. Comrade Stalin did not accept the revolutionary, “degraded” style. Two months after the opening of the vernissage, during which the creators showed the audience around the exhibition, received devastating reviews and made several timid attempts to attract attention, the exhibition was closed. It was disturbing and honest. Terrifying and hopeful.

The only thing that the opponents did not predict was that the 1st Exhibition of Modern Art would be a milestone in the field of contemporary culture and that it would become a symbol of the soon-to-come thaw, although the boycott of the exhibition did not, of course, make people optimistic.

But then the world came to a standstill again.


On March 5, 1953, “the liberator of Poland, the Standard Bearer of Peace and Freedom of Nations, the Builder of Communism in the USSR, the Leader and Teacher of the working masses of the whole world” died, the press wrote. Despite the euphoria that gripped many people, memorial ceremonies quickly began to be planned (and it’s not about Moscow). The Social Committee of the National Front, established for this purpose in Warsaw, supervised the course of the ceremony, and everyone attended the procession organised two days later – from the elderly to children, and those who for some reason could not come listened to the broadcast on the wireless. To further commemorate Stalin, the names of cities, counties and streets were changed – Katowice was renamed Stalinogród, a monument to the Leader was erected in Warsaw’s Parade Square [Plac Defilad], and the Palace of Culture and Science, built less than a year earlier as a gift from Joseph Stalin to “dear party comrades”, was named after him.
However, the greatest gift from the leader of humanity was the thaw. In 1956, after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, many political prisoners were released, the sentences of others were shortened, and partial freedom of speech was restored. Changes also took place in cultural life – previously banned books began to be printed, painters and sculptors no longer had to follow the socialist realist canon so rigorously. Party leaders participated in exhibitions, but most works were still subject to censorship. In order not to fall into oblivion, the creators experimented with colours, although they remained faithful to socialist realism.

Jerzy Nowosielski loved this substitute for freedom. Each figure, surrounded by contours, was separate and independent, counterbalancing the vast, endless background. Small houses, cars and women without eye sockets were filled with magical images limited to crystal clear colours and open spaces.

Nowosielski remained an independent artist; even the unattractive, massive swimmers, gymnasts and basketball players, with their dejected faces emerging from the tangle of bodies, surprised by their forms, which were in keeping with the Stalinist promotion of sport and literature, did not always correspond to the style. The painter looked for inspiration in texts popular at that time:

“A new breed, pay attention... They’re all busty, aunty types, but they’re still girls. Calves... what calves! Here, father, there is no trace of lyricism or lute, everything is as simple as in an incubator. – Because every young social class striving for victory should field troops of such girls... They must give birth often and violently, the children must be voracious and ruddy, and the mothers must be powerful and fertile.

The olive complexion of women in Nowosielski’s paintings from the 1950s was a harbinger of a changing style. The painter was not very happy with the “triangular” compositions full of women with bold eyes, narrow hips, raised hands and straight legs. He became increasingly interested in sensual nudes and secular icons.

His erotic works were rejected by the authorities and were called pornography. Meanwhile, the artist gave vent to his fears, death and terror in them. Sadism and cruelty – two recurring themes echoing WWII and the naked shot bodies seen by the painter shocked viewers who saw the compositions for the first time in 2001 in Andrzej Starmach’s gallery.

Sacred and profane

Nowosielski received an invitation to the “Exhibition of the Eight” when he became fascinated by realism. Small houses, cars and women without eye sockets filled magical pictures limited to crystal-clear colours and open spaces.

A new wave of criticism hit Nowosielski: it was said that his canvases resembled Modigliani too much and in fact were just “petty drawings with petty figures”. And although this “other spirituality” of his was shown at the Biennale in Italy, England and France, his compositions were accused of provincialism. Meanwhile, the works that defied the norms of the time were unbridled allegories and signs. People flocked to him even though they didn’t understand the art he was creating.

At the Textile Faculty of the State Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź, the painter had star status, and a job at the State Directorate of Puppet Theatres provided him with a living. But not for long. After three years, the university authorities refused to allow him to continue his studies, citing the lack of a diploma and, apparently, mediocre results. With little choice, Nowosielski moved back to Krakow and took over the painting department, where he lectured for several dozen years, with brief interruptions.
In his spare time, he stood in front of the easel and elevated intriguing canvases to a higher level of consciousness. These works featured undressed, seductive women who played the role of saints, and the saints resembled ancient sages in tight-fitting chitons, as surprising as tiny heads, mouths and pupil-less eyes. Paintings resembling contemporary icons became works on the border between the sacred and the profane - the artist never abandoned them, returning to this topic many times. Striped compositions built with mountain ranges, elegant buildings and ship decks, the empty, “difficult to tame” centre of the canvas consciously referred to icons.

Twenty years later, the painter came up with a different solution – he placed a crouched woman (who did not fit in the frame) in the figureless centre of the painting, and the “monographs” created in this way, full of complex symbolism, intrigued the sphere of dreams deeply encoded in the compositions. He noted:

“Painting (…) is a revolutionary activity. It is something that permanently revolutionises our consciousness. It is anarchic, destructive, socially demobilising. (…) If society really realised what painting really is, it would ban painting.”

Nowosielski sacralised the body. He avoided emptiness and exaggeration, and the edges of the paintings, filled with figures, consciously referred to icons. He first saw them when he was 12 years old. He liked the static saints disappearing into the landscape so much that he decided to create similar works. The flat patch of colour, clearly separated by thick black outlines, stayed with him forever, as did the penetrating gaze that invited him to meditate. After seeing the exhibition in Lviv, Jerzy Nowosielski said bluntly: “It was the first time I encountered great art in such concentration and in such quantity. The impression was so strong that I will never forget this meeting. I simply felt physical pain while looking... I couldn’t walk from one room to another”.

The power of modernity and other problems

The 1960s were dominated by the celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of the baptism of Poland, organised by the Church, and the millennium of the Polish state, organised by the authorities. At the beginning of 1968, the only thing on the agenda was the removal of Adam Mickiewicz’s “Dziady” from the theatre poster. Students, actors and admirers of high culture eager for free, independent art took to the streets of Warsaw. This was part of the multi-faceted political crisis known as March ‘68.

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At the time of the riots in Warsaw, Jerzy Nowosielski was working on a series of paintings inspired by Tadeusz Różewicz’s unfinished novel “The Survivor” (the author later gave the notes to playwright Helmut Kajzar). The paintings were supposed to be the set for a play with the same title, but it was never realised. Each motif was a symbol for the painter, a metaphysical key to parallel worlds. Emotions were more important than the perfect reproduction of anatomy, and “Villa dei Misteri” – a theme taken from the residence in Pompeii showing sexual initiation – meant a metaphysical journey through life and death. The heroine of the painting looks at the viewer only once, but the glasses set deep on her nose make it impossible to pay attention to the world around her. Walking through the labyrinth, he comes into contact with difficult, strange things; the silence destroyed by the energy of hair dancing in the wind dispels the darkness and sparks hope.

“The painting is a kind of trap. We don’t know whether we are outside or inside the villa. We see various characters revealing themselves to us. We don’t really know whether we are invited to this villa, participate in everyday routine activities, or just peep what is shown to our eyes”, admitted Anna Budzałek from the National Museum in Kraków in a programme broadcast by Telewizja Polska.

There have been some misunderstandings surrounding Nowosielski’s paintings, with some calling the artist a heretic who destroys the sacred and profane in favour of surreal canvases leading to “areas of consciousness that normally remain hidden”.

Banned in iconostases, zoography never ceases to surprise: “(...) This is connected with a number of female nudes in bathrooms, in stadiums, airports, interiors of houses and cars, nudes reproduced in mirrors, mirrors and glasses. This part of Nowosielski’s painting is closer to theatre (…). His women have mouths and breasts, and in his latest black paintings they burn in fire and tar. In all this there is a painful experience of a child for whom gender was associated with the idea of sin and punishment, pain and hellfire. At the same time, through the act, the body N. strives for the salvation of contemporary painting (especially the one)”.

“Inner Beach” evokes similar feelings to “Villa of Mysteries”. The room in which the woman sits is a swirl of colour, the closed pose contrasting with the wide open door, the painting hanging on the wall, and the most important element of the canvas – the mirror on the floor. The artist sends the viewer to the sphere of dreams, and the impression of depth is enhanced by a mirror placed in an unusual place. Mystification and riddles clash with each other, inviting us to undefined painting.


At the time when Nowosielski’s series inspired by the Roman feast was created, a lot was happening in Poland again. Edward Gierek had become first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Portraying himself as an enlightened man who knew the rules of savoir-vivre, he obtained loans from the West and imported many previously unavailable goods to Poland. Gierek’s reforms also covered culture: previously banned programmes were shown on television, the remaining books banned under Stalinism were published, new exhibitions were opened, and those watched with increasing interest by the public were extended in time.

Nowosielski also received this privilege. He showed a lot of paintings then, a film was made about him, and his individual exhibition at the Krzysztofory gallery, where he exhibited as a student “centuries before”, was considered the most important cultural event in 1972. The artist did not complain about the lack of distinctions; 1st degree award received from the Minister of Culture, the Golden Cross of Merit and the later title of associate professor proved his talent, determination and will to fight. Poczta Polska [Polish Mail] honoured him and issued a stamp with “The Cellist” that made the painter famous.
Nowosielski happily took part in exhibitions, the paintings repeatedly shown at Zachęta attracted crowds, the exhibition “Seeing and Understanding” organized in the Sukiennice was no less successful, where the artist’s paintings were shown next to compositions by Brzozowski, Kantor, Stanisław Fijałkowski and Ryszard Winiarski, and numerous awards and distinctions confirmed his unthreatened position.

“Secular” icons surpassed paintings painted years ago, and women shown from behind have forever entered the canon of contemporary culture. He no longer had to prove to anyone that he was a champion of the same class as Amadeo Modigliani.

Nowosielski experimented eagerly, for example replacing the dark lines dividing even surfaces with pitch black. Bright, synthetically illuminated lines derived from black and red, and lines superimposed on framed figures are typical of the painter’s latest style. Colours coming from the darkness and beyond, complementing symmetrical lines, shiny, ecstatic colours compared to rubies found in Asia, gave the characters a tired look. Vivid colours that make you dance are a separate entity, feeding on emotions and opposing symbols. They identify with eternal truths, myths and dreams.

Resembling an image after the resurrection, the sun-burned bodies deserved separate contemplation. Filled with sadness, limited to symbols, the canvases are the painter’s personal vision, in which the interpenetrating reality and dreams gave the illusion of control over life and death. What did the artist say about these works?

“(...) in my artistic activity, or at least in my intentions, I take the opposite path, i.e. I try to transfer the most infernal elements of Eros and restore their metaphysical, spiritually positive meaning”.

A lifetime

In 2023, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the painter’s birth, many extraordinary exhibitions were opened in Warsaw, Kraków, Supraśl and Łódź, showing several dozen outstanding works from various periods of his work. Some of them in Warsaw’s Kordegarda - by the end of June 2023, the gallery’s collections were enriched with several unforgettable nudes. Among them are: “Gymnasts” and “Acrobats”, connoisseurs of still life enjoyed the works inspired by the paintings of Tadeusz Kantor, and urban landscapes completed the look of the exhibition.

Nowosielski’s work has been presented in a slightly different way at the National Museum in Kraków. Divided into three parts, the exhibition focused on landscapes, corporeality, forgotten and overlooked abstractions, but the most interesting part was the one devoted to icons. Anchored in spirituality, partly from the museum collection, and partly from Bishop Erazm Ciołek’s Palace, the works are surprising with their symmetry, lack of chiaroscuro, perspective, and only seemingly don’t fit into the abstract, alienated surroundings.

Since December 5, 2023, some of Nowosielski’s surprising pieces have been on display at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, alongside works by other artists.

The sacred and the profane interpenetrated, interacted with one another, and proved that only through emotions is it possible to interpret his symbolic, metaphysical art. Enchanted in stillness, the figures lived their own lives, motionless look, flat lines and big sphere separated with black strokes reflected “heavenly” painting in which heroes shared their thoughts on eschatology with the viewer. They expressed the fear that accompanied Nowosielski, they personified virtues and thought of the painter. They were alter ego of his, him having devoted his whole life to art.

–Małgorzata Giermaz

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

Quotations in the text are taken from the following works:

Jan Gondowicz, „Nowosielski”, Warszawa 2006
Jarosław Suchan, „Dlaczego Grupa Krakowska?” [in:] „Grupa Krakowska”, Kraków 1998
Klaudiusz Święcicki, „W kręgu II Grupy Krakowskiej: środowisko radykalnej awangardy plastycznej wobec zmian społeczno-politycznych w Polsce w latach 1945-1958”, [in:] „Historia Slavorum Occidentis” 1(4), 89-110, Toruń 2013,88/ktoredy-po-sztuke-odcinki,274079/odcinek-102,S01E102,329119, [access: 12.12.2023)
The exhibition of works by Jerzy Nowosielski at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art will run until February 4, 2024;
The exhibition „The Art of Seeing. Nowosielski and Others” at the Royal Castle in Warsaw will run until March 3, 2024.
Main photo: The 1993 exhibition of Jerzy Nowosielski’s works at the Zachęta Art Gallery. Photo: PAP / Andrzej Rybczyński
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