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Teresa Jakubowska - smoke and mirror show

Smoke and mirror show. This expression is probably the best description of Teresa Jakubowska's art. The composition and execution of her prints seem to be coarse, even primitive, as if the artist drew inspiration straight from the tradition of folk woodcut


Ignacy Witz recalled that:

Her brutal, spontaneous, and often even 'primitive' linocuts and woodcuts seem to care little for superficial beauty. Although they don't correspond much to the program, their obvious "anti-estheticism" is not deduced in the slightest degree; it does not arise from calculated assumptions or resolutions. The ugliness, which the protest shows with its passionate affection, bears such a stigma of honesty that it compensates for the lack of the factor that results from the so-called 'artistic techniques' of printmaking alchemy, or perhaps simply a kitchen in which one brews a sophisticated meal, slightly tickling our dry and bored palates." 

- Ignacy Witz, Obszary malarskiej wyobraźni, Krakow, 1967, pp. 39-40


The same applies to the message that Jakubowska's work conveys, which is infantile and direct to such a degree that, at first glance, one might think that the artist makes mainly illustrations for children's stories. Indeed: at first glance. We glossed over Teresa Jakubowska's works too quickly. As Zbigniew Herbert once said, ignorance has the wings of an eagle and the eyes of an owl. And yet these works have so many stories to tell. Personal stories that are often not easy. Not to mention the stories that conjure up the aura of the bygone era and have significantly shaped Poles' contemporary cultural perception of those times.

The straightforward message in Jakubowska's works is only apparent, an accepted convention that often conceals a significant emotional charge. It's because all the works of Teresa Jakubowska are actually "cut out of life," as the title of her exhibition organized at the Warsaw Museum of Caricature in 2020 says. Jakubowska did not have an easy life. She got married at a young age, which was quickly followed by divorce. Then came a difficult period of moving and raising her child as a single parent. And that was during a time when it was challenging to live a respectable life even for wealthy families. Despite this, Jakubowska never stopped cutting more and more linoleum matrices, filling them with stories from her life. The beginnings of her creative career date back to 1948-1953, when she studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, where she obtained her diploma in the studio of Prof. Jerzy Hoppen. Jakubowska began to reach her artistic maturity during the Khrushchev thaw. The possibility of revising socialist realism led Jakubowska to make the decision to limit her work to woodcut and linocut at that time. Since 1956, she regularly participated in all major district, local, and national exhibitions. In 1963, together with Józef Gielniak, she represented Poland at the Paris Youth Art Biennale. The artist belonged to the Toruń Group and to the International Association of Woodcutters Xylon.


Perhaps the most striking aspect of Jakubowska's entire body of work is how she skillfully concealed her extraordinary reporting talent under the guise of playful naivety. Her works can be compared to diary pages on which the artist made a graphic record of her experiences. They also often contain ironic conclusions drawn from observations of scenes from Poles' everyday lives as they were absorbed by the reality of the communist People's Republic of Poland. Karolina Prymlewicz noted this duality in Jakubowska's work in her essay for the artist's exhibition: 

"The artist has developed two languages of visual expression, one being her own interpretation of realism, and the other, metaphorical, describes the aspects that are inexpressible and that would be unbearable in their literality and close to kitsch if rendered in a realistic way. This makes it possible to distinguish between two types of depicting reality: the reporting one (which occasionally includes "notes" from a personal or even intimate diary) and the metaphorical one."

Karolina Prymlewicz "Z życia wycięte..." [in:] Teresa Jakubowska: z życia wycięte, Eryk Lipiński Museum of Caricature. ed. Karolina Prymlewicz, Warsaw: Eryk Lipiński Museum of Caricature, 2020, pp. 7-8. 

Jakubowska used the "symbolic and reflective direction," as she herself named it, to describe daily life and the emotional states of society, as well as to highlight the problems and vices of Polish society during the times of communism. In these works, the artist used a variety of fixed motifs, including kites, ladders, wings, and cages, to metaphorically describe human urges. The second direction of her art was based on a comic-like depiction of scenes from the lives of the Polish and her own life. In this case, many scenes include autobiographical threads, such as, for instance, Childbirth (1958), Narcosis (1960), Divorce (1961), or Transition (1962), in which the artist presented the moment of moving from Toruń to Warsaw and compared it to balancing on a rope. The second direction in Jakubowska's work was the reporting direction, in which Jakubowska created collective portraits of Poles. This group includes works such as Intersection (1959), Solarium (1962), Summer of the Millennium (1963), or Smallpox (1963), in which the artist presented a cross-section of the hospital during the epidemic of smallpox in Wrocław. Another aspect of this direction is noticeable in a series of depictions of cities and their inhabitants, in which Jakubowska's reporting skills are clearly visible. The artist traveled a lot and recorded her observations on small pieces of paper. Later, very intricate, multifaceted compositions arranged in social panoramas were made from these tiny sections. It's interesting to note that Jakubowska included a small figure of herself in almost every such panorama. A good example of such a work is the artist's depiction of Warsaw's Łazienki Park, in which she condensed the most defining themes of this historically significant area of the city into an almost postcard-like form. The recipient might find the duality of Jakubowska's narrative works to be very alluring. As Karolina Prymlewicz noted:

"The duality of Jakubowska's prints, as well as their satirical aspect, are close to the work of Pieter Bruegel. This reporter of contemporary life and customs was also convincing at presenting metaphors of human fate."

- Karolina Prymlewicz "Z życia wycięte..." [in:] Teresa Jakubowska: z życia wycięte, Eryk Lipiński Museum of Caricature. ed. Karolina Prymlewicz, Warsaw: Eryk Lipiński Museum of Caricature, 2020, pp. 8.  

Another very interesting work employing the reporting method details the events of 1950, when Wojciech Fortuna made his legendary ski jump in Sapporo. The achievement of 19-year-old Fortuna earned him a medal in the Olympic championship. In the grim reality of the 1970s, his feat was more than just a success in sports. Fortuna not only gave Poles hope but also joy. Similarly, the works of Teresa Jakubowska were to evoke a smile on the faces of Poles. Using only a few means of expression, Jakubowska has mastered the art of interacting with her audience, which resulted in the works that provide an account of the outside world in a comic-like format. The artist frequently includes an ironic commentary on the observed reality in her prints, with a particular emphasis on the struggle against mediocrity, the vices of the petite bourgeoisie, and the academicism of art.


The offered work, Queue (1966), which blends both the reporting method and the reflective style, is one of the artist's most intriguing pieces overall. The composition combines several favorite themes of the printmaker. First of all, it is a satire on Polish society, full of irony and black humor. The top from which the Zakopane cable car starts is besieged by a crowd that is trying to get into a small coffin car at all costs. Even though there is only one car and a lengthy queue, the line has no end.


In Jakubowska's works, her form of expression is particularly fascinating. On one hand, the convex print she used-first a woodcut, then a linocut, and finally a horror vacui approach to the printed space-made her artwork look very naive, while on the other, it intensified the satirical intent of the pieces. Jakubowska's work is an art for the perceptive and the more sensitive, who can notice two very critical eyes under a jumble of coarsely cut, thick lines.