Gabriela Cichowska   »
ilustracje / illustrations


Gabriela Cichowska’s work is multidimensional. The artist is concerned with drawing, painting and graphic art, however, many of her visual compositions are closely related to another artistic domain which the book is. Thus considering the major part of her oeuvre we have to remember about the complicated relation between these two intellectual fields: the artistic and literary one.

The book illustration is one of the elements which form the harmonious whole of the artwork. It has been discussed over years to what extent this art is dependent, being largely autonomous at the same time. The significant question that is posed is if the illustrator has the right to interfere into the content of the literary work and indirectly influence its interpretation by their own artistic visions.

It seems that Gabriela Cichowska’s work could be defined as the expressive illustration aspiring to manifest distinct aesthetic meanings, aiming at image representation of the literary work. Creating her works the artist confirms that the book illustration is not only one of the so-called ‘functional’ or ‘applied’ arts. This artwork is a unique kind of visual arts – its goal is to seek the visual artistic expression for the text, preserving all the qualities typical of an independent artistic act.

Fräulein Esthers letzte Vorstellung / Miss Esther’s Last Performance (published by Gimpel Verlag, Langenhagen 2013) with the text by Adam Jaromir is a particular book. It tells a story of the last days of the Warsaw Orphanage run by Janusz Korczak. Despite the spectre of tragic end, preparations for the performance of The Post Office by Rabindranath Tagore are being made, under the tutorial of Miss Estera [Winogronówna]. The play was actually staged four days before the beginning of liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto. And nearly 3 weeks before Korczak and children’s last journey to Umschlagplatz and further to Treblinka…

The story told by the book is really moving. In the background there is hunger, fear and death. Nevertheless, there is also hope. Peace, order, common everyday activities and duties filling the life of the orphanage give an impression of normality. The created ordinariness stays in a conspicuous opposition to everything that is outside, to the reality behind the windows full of cruelty and awe.

Gabriela Cichowska created an artistic accompaniment for the literary content, she endowed it with an adequate visual expression. She harmonised illustrations with the style and spirit of the book. Duality of emotions evoked by the verbal description was depicted by contrastive means of expression. The tranquil form chosen by the artist to embody the moving meaning of words makes a stronger impact than the one marked by hysteria and pathos. Thanks to the applied solutions the imagery content gains the value of archival documents (it is worth mentioning that the work on the project was preceded by a thorough research and verification of resources).

The use of the monotype technique, collage, cutouts, limited colour palette makes us have an impression that we stand in front of a collection of old photos. People and facts slowly emerge from the depth of oblivion. Peeling paint, sorrow of dimmed earthly colours, texture of overlapping fully plastic and flat sketchy forms reflect the coarseness of testimonies of the past and the incompleteness of reconstructed existences. Gabriela Cichowska effectively uses collage, as if she looked back into the rich tradition of graphic layout of the 19th century magazines and books. What is interesting here, the means of expression used by the artist to some extent also correspond with children’s artistic sensitivity, and it is their perspective from which the last days of their lives are described in the book. Untypical perspectives, frames and views bring the depicted reality close to us: we sit in a big hall of the orphanage together with the characters of the story, we walk along the ghetto streets and we notice inconspicuous yet symbolic details.

By the character and quality of her projects Gabriela Cichowska relates to the tradition of ‘the old Polish school of the book illustration’, characterised by a tendency towards sometimes distorted poetic synthesis, spectacular colour solutions, and most of all to greatly individual art, direct and pretty warm, regardless of the subject matter.

The synthetic and cheerful, often humorous illustrations to Fantje / A Little Elephant (published by Gimpel Verlag and Muchomor, Langenhagen – Warszawa 2010) are addressed to the child’s sensitivity. It is another publication in which it is difficult to separate the verbal layer from the visual one (in the child’s perception the text and illustrations make the whole). They are complementary to each other. This work is also dominated by lyricism, carefully selected, rather dimmed palette of colours, synthetic drawing which intensifies expression of the main motives. A variety of points of view, the choice of the child’s perspective make everything that exists in the world of adults seem bigger and more complicated, which results in the peculiar relations of size of the imagery elements. Like in the reality, the viewer follows the characters of the story and, in the same manner as they do, he discovers and builds the world anew. The young reader is treated by the artist of the illustrations as an attentive, imaginative, sensitive and intelligent partner.

With every turned page the subsequent frames move in front of our eyes as in an animated movie. The association is probably justified – daring use of means of expression coming from other areas of functional art, first of all from the poster, animated movie or theatre stage design always resulted in the frequent use of lapidary way of thinking and metaphor.

The latter is a distinguishable complimentary element of the book by Sławomir Lachowski (Od warto¶ci do działania / From Values to Operation), published by Studio Emka, Warszawa 2013). The discourse concerning the essence of leadership is illustrated by numerous examples originating from different fields of human activity as well as personal digressions of the author. It sometimes tends towards the contemporary parable. The collage form of the illustrations moves the artistic message away from the only express point of reference. The images created by Gabriela Cichowska, to a larger degree than anywhere else, are independent expressions, created beyond the text. They are not a mere reflection of the content, they complete it in a creative way, prolong the text impact. They sometimes directly relate to the statements of the cited authority figures, however, more often they create a metaphorical-allegorical form for the essence of the reflection, the heart of the matter. They are the artist’s transformations of motives drawn from a variety of sources, from different cultures and epochs, which – as formal, semantic or stylistic inspirations – are used in accordance with the content of the illustrated publication.

It often happens that the author of the graphic layout interprets the literary text only from their own artistic point of view, treats it in a superficial way in order to leave it and move on to their own artistic projects. In such a situation the readers miss the relation between the images and the text, there is a conspicuous gap between both areas of expression. The disorientated readers are not able to follow the artistic-intellectual visions of the artist. As the author of illustrations Gabriela Cichowska employs her extreme sensitivity to find a balance while building the components of the literary-visual work.

The artist’s oeuvre which is not directly related to the art of the book reveals coherence with the fundamental field of her present activity. Drawings, graphics and paintings are characterised by poetic manifestations of nature of things with an inclination to grotesque – sticking to the concrete character of representation. The world created by Gabriela Cichowska is an array of recurring motives, such as the portrayed – though not really existing but imagined – children’s heads or various playful animals, typical of the land of the past recalled with nostalgia. The image is serene yet simultaneously disturbing, even a little surreal. The artist creates a moving vision of the world endowed with fabulous logic, characterised by poetic associations.

The works are dominated by the contrast of the main imagery motives developed in different techniques and the neutral broad background with hardly any details. The elements of the first plan gain a symbolic meaning – they become a sign of some specific experiences and emotions. That is the moment when the choice of means of visual expression becomes significant. Collage, the monotype technique, experiments within the surficial material layer of the work, great care for the selection of the proper background, its type and colour – in case of paper observation of the degree of its absorption and its influence on the obtained colour value – all of them make the work attractive and ambiguous, they evoke emotions.

Even in her early works Gabriela Cichowska made attempts to search for new ways of visual impact. Her graphic works, printed in big formats, reminded us of intricate tediously etched ‘metal works’, even though they were actually made with the use of a few stencils cut out, or in fact torn out from pressboard plates, additionally worked out with a knife and a gouge. When choosing various backgrounds and taking some additional measures such as wiping the paint, the same matrixes guaranteed different, often spectacular painterly effects. They had a character of abstract compositions, quite suggestive, which provoked the viewer to look for some specific realistic associations.

Gabriela Cichowska’s art is characterised by freshness and authenticity, originality of the applied craftsmanship solutions, those rooted in the tradition and those worked out by the artist herself. Her work, although often associated with the literary background, being an expression of someone else’s thoughts, might also function beyond the book. On the other hand, her pure art blessed with the poetic value of building moods, melancholic imagination, will probably be a stimulus for fantasies of artists who deal with words, being an interesting source of inspiration.

Dariusz Le¶nikowski

Translated by Elżbieta Rodzeń-Le¶nikowska