The Enigma of Jerzy Nowosielski

Culture & Science
1 August 2011, 15:01

Jerzy Nowosielskiwas a well-known Polish painter. Many art experts rank him among the greatest artists of modern times. However, the creativity of the Krakow-born Nowosielski, was somewhat strange, even exotic, by Polish standards. For the most part, he painted icons and murals, and a great mystical atmosphere permeates most of his secular paintings. The exoticism was no longer a surprise after the early 1990s, when Mr. Nowosielski talked to Ukrainian students in easy and relaxed Ukrainian and said that he debuted as an artist in the year that Bohdan Lepkyi, Ukrainian poet and painter, died. As time passed, Poles got used to Mr. Nowosielski’s Ukrainian roots which he often mentioned in interviews. Some began to add the Ukrainian spelling of his name in the bios published over the past decade. 

Nowosielski’s Krakow 

Nowosielski’s father, Stepan, was born in 1884 in Odrekhova, a village near the town of Sanok. The rural part of Sanok county was mostly populated by Ukrainians, while the county itself was tied to Lviv both historically and officially, being part of the Lviv province from 1920. As a 10-year old, Stepan found himself in Krakow. He got his education here, which earned him a post at the public railway administration, got married and saw the birth of his two sons both of whom died during the war. On 7 January 1923, which is Christmas Day in Ukraine, the Nowosielski family welcomed the future artist. The baby was baptized Yuriy Kiprian at the St. Norbert Church a year later.

Krakow, where Yuriy Nowosielski was born and spent most of his life, found itself on the Ukrainian national and cultural map during his father’s lifetime. In the late 19th and early 20th century Krakow became one of the centers where the Ukrainian intelligentsia from Halychyna , both professional and artistic, was formed, with the Jagiellonian University playing a major role. However, Nowosielski’s mature artwork began under conditions of a now single-nation Poland that was completely isolated from Ukraine. As a result, Mr. Nowosielski could only show his incredible talent in the Polish artistic and intellectual environment.

From Avant-garde to Icons 

Yuriy Nowosielski used to call “the land between Krakow and Pochayiv” his spiritual homeland and refer to himself as a lemko, a Western Ukrainian ethnic group, “the same as Andy Warhol.” Clearly, Nowosielski’s family home and his church were in Krakow. The home was essentially multinational as his mother, who was born in Yaroslav came from a family of polonized Austrian-Germans. Still, the “Polish ocean” had some “Ukrainian islands”. In addition to the Greek Catholic parish of almost 1,800 believers, there was also an office of Prosvita, the Enlightenment society for preserving and developing Ukrainian culture and education, arranging numerous speeches, vechornytsi[1], Shevchenko celebrations and requiems at the Rakowicki Cemetery where the participants of the Ukrainian liberation struggle are buried.

Chrystyna Cherny, a Polish biographer of Jerzy Nowosielski, suggested that Stepan Nowosielski could have participated in the fights of the Ukrainian People’s Republic army with Bolsheviks as a volunteer in 1920, based on what she heard from the painter himself and his friends. And even though Ms. Cherny warns that this could simply be a family legend, she stresses that during the 1920-30s, the artist’s father proved himself to be a true Ukrainian patriot who, along with his older brother Mykhailo was elected to manage the local Prosvita branch. Yuriy learned Ukrainian from them and read the Ukrainian newspapers and books that his father subscribed to.

Anti-Ukrainian repression in the Chołm Lands in 1938–1939, where Orthodox churches were demolished, intensified the painter’s frustration with the Polish policy. “I felt this to be a personal offence against me,” he recalled this time in the 1990s, immediately adding that “Before the war I was formally a Ukrainian. I felt this particularly strongly when Poland developed strong anti-Ukrainian propaganda. But during the war, when I saw that nationality turned into a reason for mutual killing, this concept stopped having any meaning for me”. Thus, Yuriy did not join the ranks of fighters who shed their blood, following the example of the knights of the old Galicia princedom. His vocation was to serve art, to follow the parh determined in the oldest Galician school of icon painting, where the deep red color of frozen blood dominated.  

The artist admitted in time, that he began to understand icons due to the experience gained during the process of communication with modern art, including avant-garde, which was revealed to him when he was still a pupil in secondary school, largely thanks to his father who took him to exhibitions, museums and his friend, Warsaw-based painter Volodyslav Yakhymovych. It was these conversations with the latter that resulted in Yuriy’s first artistic illumination. “My eyes just opened to art. It was as if without any studies, I suddenly began to speak a language that was unknown to me. I saw the paintings and knew that I wanted to be a painter.”

Nowosielski began his artistic path during the Nazi occupation. He entered the Decorative Painting Department at the Arts and Crafts School, which the Germans transformed into the Krakow Academy of Arts. With his school leaving certificate from one of the Lviv-based Ukrainian secondary schools, which was granted in October 1942, Nowosielski joined the St. John the Baptist Lavra at the Chernecha Hora, the Monks’ Hill, near Lviv, as a lay brother. He said later that he had chosen this particular Greek Catholic Studite Brethren monastery with an extremely strict lifestyle because he knew they painted icons: “It wasn’t a goodbye to art, just a leap into something unknown”. Soon, it turned out that this unknown offered him masterpieces of medieval Galician icon painting brought from both sides of the current Ukrainian-Polish border to the Lviv National Museum. This was a decisive moment in the establishment of the painter’s unique style that makes Nowosielski’s paintings so easily identifiable. At this stage, it is worthhile quioting his words: “In the winter of 1942-1943, I had the opportunity to rummage through the icon museum that was closed down by the Germans. There, for the first time, I came face to face with truly great art in such concentration and number. It left such a strong impression that I will never forget this encounter. Looking at the paintings, I simply felt physical pain, I didn’t have the strength to move from one room to another. (…) These were the first masterpieces in my life, the influence of which I experienced directly, in person, not through reproductions or photographs. I had never seen work of such caliber before, neither in Krakow, nor in Warsaw! Krakow museums only had several outstanding paintings, Warsaw museums also had few, while in Lviv, my consciousness was bombarded with a colossal amount of icons that were first-rate pieces of art.  (…) I went through a breakdown and an illumination that determined my path. I saw these icons as a separate and extraordinary phenomenon, one that was a perfect merger of ornamental and abstract elements, superficial and spiritual. I found all the elements of avant-garde in icons. (…) And it was this feeling alone, that determined my path in life. My conversation with Mr. Yakhymovych confirmed my illumination. Secondly, this time I clearly, I realized that my calling was to paint. Moreover, my artistic vision was shaped, once and for all. Everything that I later achieved in art was, although this may not have appeared to be the case at first glance, shaped by this first encounter with icons in the Lviv museum. (…) I entered my conscious art through two doors. One was the awareness of modern art, and the other was the consciousness of icons, philosophy and theology of icons.”

Vaccinated with Orthodoxy 

The theology of icons, described in great detail both in articles and interviews by Zbigniew Podgurski , the author of two books of dialogues with Jerzy Nowosielski, lifted the painter to the status of a prominent Orthodox theologian. Having witnessed the horror of war, Nowosielski returned to religion in the Orthodox faith, not the Greek Catholic, after decades of casting aside the “inherited faith” and conscious atheism. He treated Orthodoxy as his spiritual homeland. Our imagination, encumbered by the history of clashes between various branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, will no doubt bring forth some controversial associations. Still, in Nowosielski, whose writing makes mention of two “societies”; Roman Catholic and Orthodox Uniate, it is difficult to ascribe them to the ranks of typical Orthodox and Catholic clashes. The major issue in his vision of Eastern and Western Christian ecumen is not the one that led to their official split, but that of the spiritual substance that a participant of the liturgical life of his or her church can receive. The philosophical painter presents this clearly in an interview for the Przegląd Prawosławny (Orthodox Overview) weekly: “In general, the discourse way of thinking dominates in Western Christianity. Needless to say, it also exists in Eastern Christianity, but the pivot of Eastern Christianity is the experience of liturgical mysticism. I’m talking here about all Oriental (Eastern) Orthodoxy including Non-Chalcedonian or Old Oriental Churches, not just the church officially referred to as the Orthodox Church. (…) In fact, you cannot learn about Oriental Orthodoxy from books or reports. You need to touch it in real life. You need to take part in an Orthodox sermon during which an ambience of intense perception of spiritual, intellectual and poetic values emerges. This ambience arises from the series of musical and visual actions that an Orthodox sermon is comprised of. (…) These are the mysteries that that Roman Catholic or Protestant traditions lack. (…) In the West, there was a general trend to eradicate anything that seemed unclear, exotic from the cult. This meant cutting off gestures or behavior that had lost their direct expression. In contrast, in the Orthodox Church, over hundreds of years, the cult has developed its forms to a higher level of sophistication and symbolism, in everything that differs from regular, everyday behaviour.” If one reads deeper into episodes of the painter’s biography that come up in articles and stories and stories about him, it is easy to conclude that this mystical and cult core of Orthodoxy that was entrenched in Ukraine in the early years of the conversion to Christianity, resulted in his conscious choice of confession.  

It was this liturgical and mystical “virus of Orthodoxy” that Nowosielski tried to instill in Polish culture which, to his great sorrow, had been unilaterally shaped by the Roman Catholic mentality alone. He was convinced that modern Roman Catholicism would not survive the catastrophe of secularization unless it took that vaccine: “The Catholic Church really lacks this other depth of Christian consciousness which is Orthodoxy itself.” But if one looks at Poland’s mental and intellectual landscape, it appears that the “infection” offered by Mr. Nowosielski to Catholicism which, over the centuries has been developing an immunity to Oriental Orthodoxy, is clearly not a threat (even though some Roman Catholic churches have the painter’s murals) which is something that the artist-theologian could see for himself. In art, too, being a professor at the Krakow Academy of Arts and teaching two hundred graduates, Nowosielski did not have any disciples. Despite the appreciation of his artistic and intellectual grandeur, his arrival on the Polish cultural scene was episodic, limited by the years of the painter’s creative life. He might have shed a little “light from the East” that added new colors to the external layer of Polish culture but whether this ray of light peeking through the door that has ben left slightly ajar by the artist will penetrate deeper, is unknown.  


“There are many myths and controversies about Jerzy Nowosielski’s nationality. Indeed, little was known about his roots and family. He himself did not make it easier, since he felt absolutely no need for unambiguous declarations. (…) Yet, towards the end of his life, the old painter prayed (and counted) in Ukrainian. He would greet his guests with the ritual Ukrainian Khrystos Voskres! (Christ is Risen!) on Easter Day and sing Boh Predvichnyi (The Eternal God) and other Ukrainian carols on Christmas Day. He remembered his native language perfectly, often saying: “I too, am a Ukrainian.” This comes as no surprise – the older a person gets, the less powerful are the circumstances affecting him or her when “struggling for a place in life”, and the louder resonates the soul.”

Chrystyna Cherni, Jerzy Nowosielski’s biographer


Maker Tytko, a Krakow-based researcher who closely studied Nowosielski’s creative work, and a list of art trends in which he worked, which according to Polish art experts, included impressionism, fauvism, cubism, kapism and others, concluded with a conclusion-hypothesis on parallels with the Ukrainian neo-Byzantium movement of the early 20th century. If one compares the artwork of Nowosielski to the works of Mykhailo Boychuk, the most outstanding neo-Byzantium artist, it is possible to see a resemblance between them.

[1]Traditional Ukrainian evening gatherings with music, singing and rituals.

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