Zofia Stryjeńska: Polish Art Deco’s Most-Known Unknown

Her life was marked by extreme highs and lows but her devotion to art never wavered. Zofia Stryjeńska was born in Kraków in 1891. From a young age, she was drawn to art; on Sundays, her father would take her to the market square so she could observe people and draw what she saw. Her talent grew, and eventually outgrew the Fine Arts School for Women she attended in Kraków (Szkoła Sztuk Pięknych dla Kobiet Marii Niedzielskiej). Zofia graduated from the institution led by Maria Niedzielska, herself an accomplished artist, but left feeling unfulfilled and uninspired by the training she received. She decided that her talent would be better nurtured in Munich, at the Academy of Fine Arts.

The one catch was that in 1911, the Academy did not allow admission to women, none of the fine arts academies in Europe did at the time. But Zofia was determined to gain admission and so, taking her brother’s passport and clothing and cutting her hair short into a boyish style, she applied under her brother’s name, Tadeusz Grzymała. With her strong portfolio, she was accepted – one of 40 out of 200 applicants.

Zofia studied at the Academy for one year before her classmates began to grow suspicious. Eventually, she was found out and dismissed. Although she couldn’t continue her education in Munich, Zofia returned to Poland with the skills she acquired in the one year she attended the Academy. Almost immediately, her work drew attention. Some of her watercolors were picked up by the Kraków Society of Friends of Fine Arts (Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Sztuk Pięknych w Krakowie).

A signed photograph of Zofia Stryjeńska, for the readers of As magazine, a popular interwar publication

Polish Art Deco

After enthusiastic reviews, Zofia quickly found steady success – the bright colors and geometric shapes were indicative of an art deco style so popular during the interwar period. She put her own spin on the artwork and frequently painted themes focused on Polish paganism, fables, and folk, leading her to be known as “the princess of Polish painting” (księzniczka polskiego malarstwa). Art Deco style was colorful, ornate and elaborate, which loaned itself to her chosen themes quite well.

Two of her early projects were a series of postcards depicting the folk dress of Poland, as well as traditional Polish Christmas cards, between 1914 and 1916. These images would be copied and reproduced throughout Stryjeńska’s life, although, after she refused to become a national artist under the communist regime after the Second World War, she would not receive royalties for her work. The official policy was to ignore her as an artist, and so she became Poland’s “most known, unknown” painter of the interwar period, her work continuously exploited by the government. She worked tirelessly, designing toys, the lids of chocolate tins from E. Wedel, bank bonds, and theatrical sets, among others.

Early works by Zofia Stryjeńska, including her folk dress postcards as well as Christmas card
One of The Seasons murals from the Polish Pavilion, November-December

Zofia continued to create artwork which slowly grew larger and more elaborate and colorful. In the 1920s, she was part of the Rytm (Rhythm) movement, a group of not-quite conservative, not-quite avant-garde artists from Kraków whose political sympathies laid with then-leader Józef Piłsudski and favored Polish folk themes of the Podhale region.

In 1925, Zofia, along with a few other Polish artists, was granted the honor of designing the Polish pavilion at the World’s Fair in Paris. There, she designed and painted a series of murals that decorated the pavilion. These were by far her largest works, measuring 3 meters by 4 meters. Called The Seasons, they were inspired by the harvest cycle which once dictated the rhythm of life in the Polish countryside. In the years that followed, she would also paint murals on tenement houses in Warsaw.

The one remaining mural on a Warsaw tenament house, now restored
The Polish Pavilion at the World's Fair in Paris, 1925. The interior murals depict The Seasons by Zofia Stryjeńska

Marriage and Personal Struggles

Zofia’s work was punctuated by stretches of highs and lows in her personal life. She met architect and designer Karol Stryjeński at a workshop in Kraków and married him in 1916, later giving birth to three children. Their marriage was idyllic in the beginning. They ran in the same circles – Stryjeński was an architect in the same Podhale style that the art movement Zofia belonged to, Rytm, extolled.

However, their union quickly became fraught with conflict. Stryjeński was a party boy and Zofia was jealous, melodramatic, and quick to anger; she once punched her husband’s lover and chased her husband with a knife. On another occasion, she tore up her paintings during an argument, convinced he was with her only for her talent and fame. He, on the other hand, had multiple affairs (he later contracted syphilis) and had her committed to a mental institution when he couldn’t handle the drama of their relationship. This was decidedly the lowest point of her life. She divorced Stryjeński and entered a short-lived marriage soon after.

Zofia Stryjeńska, center, with a group of friends and artists in Zakopane

Zofia Stryjeńska worked throughout the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s but on more than one period she was left destitute. The financial crisis of the late 1920s hit Poland as well as the rest of Europe and North America. No one wanted to buy her paintings when they were struggling to buy food and basic necessities. Her free-spirited lifestyle and the dissolution of her turbulent marriage (and subsequent second, also unsuccessful, marriage) meant that she frequently was in debt. It was only in the late 1930s that her professional luck would turn around, although her personal luck never really improved; she remained single the rest of her life.

Zofia moved to Switzerland after the Second World War, however it would always be a foreign land to her. Not only did she not speak much French or German, she never felt at home there and missed the Poland she knew. Zofia Stryjeńska never returned to Poland, besides one visit in the 1950s. She died in Geneva in 1976.

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