ESSAY by Ewa Toniak

When I look at the photomontages from Ewa Partum’s Self-identification (Samoidentyfikacja, 1980) series in which she, totally nude, crosses the street, stands in a queue, or blends into a crowd of women carrying shopping bags, in my mind’s eye I also see the artist Zofia Kulik,“a woman carrying bags”, running across a street in Mokotów, and jumping out from behind Partum, whose image has been pasted into the photo.

Run, Zofia, run. There’s a long road ahead of us.

Self-identification is probably Ewa Partum’s best-known series, consisting of six photomontages; in all of them, the artist poses nude in various places in central Warsaw. As she herself puts it: “Self-identification is about the places, streets and squares that were part of my daily life at the time”. Feminist critics might make a minor amendment here: these photos all concern the presence of women in public spaces. For example, in one of them, Ewa is standing beside a queue, where five women are bundled up in winter clothing. They are wearing hats and berets, carrying shopping bags and handbags, and some are dressed in high heels; the lone man in the group is lugging a mattress around with him. If not for the intervention of the artist, we would be looking at a scene typical of daily life in the Polish People’s Republic. The artist seems somehow absent, her face reveals no emotions, her gaze, directed outside the frame of the photo, is clearly distant. As in all the photos in the series, she poses nude, but in high heels.

This element of the performer’s outfit clearly irritated Zofia Kulik, especially in the context of the artist’s feminist declarations: “Well, if it’s meant to be feminism, why does Partumowa (the innocent looking -owa suffix in Polish changes the name Partum, signifying her as a woman carrying her husband’s last name) before undressing for a performance, first do her eyelashes, powder herself, and put on high heels, and only then is a “feminist”. There are so many women’s issues to sort out here”. In the 1970s, Zofia Kulik saw Partum’s actions as a performance of the masquerade of femininity.

In another photograph, Partum is again standing in a queue. Standing, and yet not standing. A queue is not the best place to pose nude. In a classical contrapposto, her body language tells us that she does not give a damn about what is going on around her. Although a micro-society has congregated in front of the pasted-in photo of the artist, a society of women, she herself seems totally alienated from them. A woman in a check coat and a beret, standing with her side to us, has struck up a conversation with another woman as they patiently queue for a taxi. Partum looks like a replicant of her. An unclothed doppelganger. A female nude coveting the gaze. The naked body is contrasted by the chequered-coated monster.

Run, Zofia, run. All that is left is “the worst stretch, from the tram stop by the zoo to the corner of Targowa and Wójcika”.

A windy Autumn day at a zebra crossing on Marszałkowska Street. While others rush along, carrying the things people usually carry; bags and shopping baskets, Ewa Partum carries herself with a dignified calm. Her high heels lift her. Ewa Tatar sees the Self-identification series as a kind of sketch for a public campaign. She ponders the medium chosen, since, as she writes, Partum could have made on-camera performances, stepping nude into the streets of Warsaw. She connects these works with a manifesto the artist announced in the ZPAF Mała Galeria. It is worth reading because it sounds as if it were written after the transformations that began in 1989: “A woman lives in a social structure that is alien to her, whose model, which is no longer suited to her current role, was created by men for their own benefit. A woman can only function in an alien social structure if she masters the art of camouflage and ignores her own personality” (emphasis mine – ET). The moment she discovers her own consciousness, which perhaps has little in common with the realities of her current life, a social and cultural problem emerges. Unable to fit into the social structure created for her, she creates a new one. This opportunity to discover herself and the authenticity of her experiences, to focus her efforts on her own problems and awareness through the specific experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society, an alien world, is the issue faced by the art movement we call ‘feminist’. It is the motivation for female artists to create art. The phenomenon of feminist art reveals a new role for women, the opportunity for self-realisation”Ewa Partum, Warszawa 1979.

Yet, in her photomontages she seems alienated from the crowd. She stands out through her nakedness which, in accordance with the canons of physical beauty, imposes a distance. If the female bod- ies at the tram stop in the black-and-white photomontages, roughly sketched out with their individual features blurred, are “anti-bodies”, Partum’s naked body restores their visibility. Their visibility as women. “Those things that are standing or running past, bundled up in winter coats, in berets, with puffy legs, with faces that are hard to remember, those are women,” she says. And she continues standing in the middle of the zebra crossing.

Ewa Tatar treats Partum’s “frozen” interventions as a political gesture, “marking the space of oppression”, within which the female subject, aware of her rights, cannot express her desires. The young feminist researcher sees Partum’s inserting of her own naked figure into photographs – that mainly depict women in their traditional, culturally accepted role as supporters, feeders, carers and other functions associated with reproduction and socialization – as a symptom of rebellion. I wonder if Partum could have seen other women on the streets of communist Warsaw. She could have. Inside taxis, for example.

Run, Zofia, run. With two baskets full of meat patties and cake, no one will recognize you in the crowd.

“Scoring oppression” in a photograph of a Warsaw street in 1980, is like a meeting with the Other. Leopold Tyrmand experienced a similar incident á rebours in 1954, which he meticulously recorded in Diary 1954, describing it as a traumatic experience. In a small shop in Mokotów, he unexpectedly encountered “the two role models for the film Adventure in Marienstadt. Female bricklayers, ladies employed in the building profession”. It is hard to understand precisely why, in a Warsaw that resembled one massive building site, Tyrmand was shocked by the presence of workers, but he reacted to them with panic. The “role model” that loomed up behind him was nothing like what was shown on the screen. The female bricklayers in the film: “looked attractive, though non-Western, lively and firm, a little burry (...) and yet clean and colourful, made for hugging and caressing”. Corporeality, its excess, and health connote a sexuality tamed through cinematic conventions, prepared for male consumption. The beginning of Tyrmand’s narration reconstructs the male fantasy concerning the “woman of the people”, whose “popular” nature implies not only the promise of erotic fulfilment, but also the availability signified by the stereotype of a woman from the “lower classes”. Their film representations, however, set in motion a train of erotic associations, while the “examples” of them encountered in the shop evoke fear and revulsion: “There was something prehistoric in them, a return to cave-dwelling, troglodytism of the female kind, not yet women, despite the painted lips and cigarettes in their fingers. Overalls, on top of them a shapeless working jacket, reveal a grim androgyny: the loss of feminine features, the clear lack of male ones, you can’t tell them apart if you don’t look in the right places, a regression to an earlier level of development, eliminated through civilization a thousand years ago, reborn under communism. They possess that special kind of ugliness of unattractive women who, fleeing from femininity, only deepen their disfigurement, becoming repugnant. Something in me is unable to believe that this thing that stood before me, on returning home, taking a bath and donning a pretty dress, would once again become feminine. Some hermaphroditism will remain”. “Ladies working on building sites” are a reminder of social decay. It is still 1954. Stalin is dead, but these ideologically constructed monsters still stalk the streets of Warsaw. Communism, as described by Tyrmand, appears as an epoch where something pre-evolutionary is being brought back to life, unaltered by the effects of civilization – the female body. It disturbs the “cognitive horizon” of the story’s narrator. It restricts access to women. A woman who, subjected to ideology turns into a bricklayer, becomes an excess, and her transformation appears irreversible. The way in which an “object of desire” is ultimately transformed into the rhetorical representation of the new ideological order is brilliantly illustrated by Wiktor Pental (1953–2000) through a female plasterer in Nowa Huta. The photographer treats the female worker from outside the categories of gender; a spot of plaster on the tip of her nose is the only indicator of the subjectivity of a woman whose hair is hidden beneath a headscarf and who has an androgynous, baggy body. Occupational emancipation, the entry into a sphere hitherto reserved for men removed the “charm created by distance and differ- ence, and imposed the woman upon men as an everyday co-worker”, something much lamented in the media in the mid-1940s. If not for the individual touches, a smile, a gaze boldly directed at the camera lens, a unique body movement, a slight lean towards the photographer, the feet together, arms behind the back, the inscription of their gender rationing the gestures of their bodies, large and small, hidden under layers of cotton drill. A photograph of eight female workers in helmets, padded trousers and overalls by Jerzy Lewczyński reproduces ideological desire in the same manner. Eight female workers as a frieze of related forms photographed against the backdrop of a scrapyard. In describing the non-carnal bodies of the female bricklayers, unaffected by culture, Tyrmand is angry. He is angry with communism. What makes Dwurnik angry thirty years later when painting his exceptionally unappealing Happy Female Bricklayer (Szczęśliwa murarka, 1988), a catalogue of cultural stereotypes about the “woman of the people” and women in general, is hard to say. Misogynistic rage is vented through an allegory of a system which is on its way out.

Run, Zofia, run. Just a few more paragraphs and we’ll run all the way to feminism and “little buzzwords”.

How could one woman look at another through the camera lens in the Polish People’s Republic? In the 1960s, Krystyna Łyczywek photo- graphed random women taking the waters in Eforie Nord in Bulgaria. Nowadays, we would describe them as having non-normative bodies, reminiscent of the heroines of Katarzyna Kozyra’s Women’s Bath house. A little out of habit, a little out of delight, Łyczywek photographed a line of female bodies plastered with invigorating mud, being warmed in the sun and set against a white wall, creating an aesthetic statement on the topic of black and white. Like Kozyra, Łyczywek instrumentalizes her heroines. But unlike her, she creates the illusion of an “exterritorial” world outside of gender, where women “do not reveal themselves”. Łuczywek’s photographs, full of nudity plastered in mud, register the female body as a politically neutral surface onto which culture begins to inscribe significance once they leave the territorial boundaries of the health spa. A crib sheet from Judith Butler. Does she look at them like a heteronormative male would look at the bodies of sexual non-objects? Or does she photograph them because a heteronormative male would not photograph them like that?

A little earlier, before Ewa Partum went out into the street, Natalia LL began to photograph herself and other women swallowing phallus-shaped and desired products in the 1970s. This activity was iconic and understandable for the 1970s. The middle of the Gierek era (1972–1975) was, according to historians, Poland’s greatest period of economic prosperity in the post-war era. According to the feminist researcher Izabela Kowalczyk, Consumer Art (Sztuka konsumpcyjna, 1972–1975) does not so much arouse the viewer’s desire to consume as it indicates the non-existence in Polish visual art of the time of certain types: the independent woman, controlling her own pleasures, aware of her sexuality. “She indicates that these are tropes of Western culture (...) which may allow women to break away from the stereotypes that function here (asexual woman) and allow her pleasure”. The liberating aspects of the series include not only its control over the male viewer and holding his gaze, but also its transgression of “socialist prudishness”. Do Partum’s photos transgress prudishness? Is manifesting approval of the normative female body and rewarding it with a gaze, while at the same time manifesting its difference, social isolation and foreignness in any way transgressive?

Natalia LL’s creativity was noticed very early on by Western feminist critics. In the mid-1970s, the artist began taking part in all the major reviews and group exhibitions, including Frauen Kunst — Neue Tendenzen in Ursula Krinzinger’s gallery in Innsbruck in 1975, where her works were exhibited alongside those of artists such as Marina Abramović, Valie Export, Rebecca Horn, and Carolee Schneemann. Ewa Partum was similarly active at the end of the 1970s. Natalia LL distanced herself from the critical assumptions of the movement and never took herself too seriously within it, although at the beginning of the 1970s it was she who Lucy Lippard saw as the leader of feminism not only in Poland, but in Eastern Europe. In a letter addressed to Natalia, she inserted Gizela Kaplan’s manifesto. Did she cut it out of the newspaper? Did she copy it out? “The philosophy of the manifesto was relatively banal and not especially insightful”, Natalia recalled in one interview. “It postulated that women needed to achieve in society that which in 1970s Poland, in a country with ‘real socialism’, we had already achieved. In our reality, apart from the difficulties of motherhood, we had already received the right to suffering, to hard work and to super-human responsibility. So, the feminists made me laugh somewhat. The convic- tion of the feminists who wanted to create their own feminist theories and art history was irritating. Seeing as they had chosen me as their representative, I refrained from criticizing their ideals”.

Does anyone remember that manifesto today? It was swept away, along with Natalia’s entire feminist correspondence on the waves of the swollen Oder River in 1987, which both literally and symbolically sealed the not over-complicated relations between Polish art and feminism. Na-talia herself recalls the manifesto with some irony, and thanks to that we have an idea of the reception to feminism in Poland in the 1970s. Incongruencies between the practices of artistic conceptualism and its theo- ries on either side of the Iron Curtain, which ressulted from differences in the traditions and significance of modernism, were termed “parallaxes” by Piotr Piotrowski.“The critical theories accompanying this art – Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis and so on – were not discernable here”.

Run, Zofia, run. We have run all the way to “polished catch-phrases”.

Zofia Kulik, who was critical of the actions of female artists, identified feminism with a social movement, and called the declarations like those of Natalia LL and Ewa Partum “catch-phrases”: “For me, it was too little. Ewa Partum, too – feminism, feminism. When I considered their feminism, I thought: well, there’s the Women’s League in Poland, why don’t they sign up there as activists. Let them establish contacts with international organisations. Or organise something themselves and come up with some proposals”. Zofia, how could they organise and propose anything, seeing as you too had your head in the bin at the time?

Yes, run, Zofia, I’m running after you, with two bags of Wrocłaska flour.

“Throughout the whole time we lived in Praga”, Zofia recalls, and I see her as she emerges from behind Partum, crossing Marszałkowska, “more or less every other day I went by bus to Mokotów to my mother’s and brought back food. I had two special straw baskets, from which the handles kept falling off under the weight. The worst stretch was the section from the tram stop by the zoo to the corner of Targowa and Wójcik, which I had to cross with these full baskets. Everything was in there, soup, meat patties, cakes, mostly things that were already prepared because I was embarrassed to take things like raw potatoes. Mum thought it was to save us time and effort, and not that we had nothing to eat”.

Ewa Partum’s photomontages are my personal parallax: Incongruencies between theory and experience were meant to lead the reader,even in this text, to interpret them as a “spectacle of narcissism”. The communicative openness of feminist discourse on art and its history, which has surpassed the limitations of post-colonial discourse, has been considered merely in terms of loss, a phenomenon that is bewildering and unparalleled in post-war art history. And woman artists themselves – as passive and subject to alien ideologies. Agata Jakubowska has written about the “appropriation” of the works of Natalia LL by Western feminist discourse. “In the case of the works of Ewa Partum, feminism is a derivative phenomenon, something that emerges from without.” Iza Kowalczyk speaks directly of the “importation of feminist ideas.” Regardless, I am sceptical of whether, for example, Ewa Partum’s manifestos could have expected to achieve communicative fulfilment and cross the boundaries of “imitative feminism”, as I like to call the attempts to adapt Western ideology onto Polish soil in the 1970s. I do not question the actual discursive potential of the artist’s performances in the public sphere – I wrote as much not long ago. Are the empty anagrams of “appropriation”, “imitation” and “importation” suspended in a vacuum, as were once Ewa and Natalia’s works?

“Suspended in a vacuum” – this is the way Jadwiga Sawicka described Ewa Partum’s works. This could as well equally well refer to women’s art in the Polish People’s Republic; it was “like being suspended in a vacuum, or passed by, or discussed ignoring the female perspective, as if discussing their execution in this context would be demeaning, restrict our horizons. Anyway, there was no such option as the ‘feminist perspective’, so it was difficult to say that it was rejected in favour of another. (...) it seemed unattractive, silly, because it was old hat, long since worked over, the problems of equal rights, access to education and the workplace had long since been solved. Real art was happening elsewhere, not in the home, and it didn’t focus on the body, which had its own, overly specific problems, like ageing (‘my problem is a women’s problem’ said Ewa Partum, summing it up well)”. In the 1980s, this issue was taken up by Teresa Gierzyńska in the Thirty-year-old (Trzydziestoletnia) series.

Gender trouble is an authorial vision of an authorial collection, constructed around the cultural categories of gender. It was especially important for me to confront the photography of the Polish People’s Republic. Confront and recognize. The observation of how Ewa and Natalia’s creative output spars and struggles with the iconosphere of the 1970s, when the female body, sexualized and instrumentalized, a symptom of occidentalization and the creation of an image of Poland as a modern country, becomes a necessity, an essential good. The resurrected prewar nudes fit in well with the soft pornography available behind the Iron Curtain. Reduced to an object of desire, the female body gains a new application as an instrument in the struggle against “inhibitions and regression”, as Adam Mazur put it. The compulsively swallowing or melancholically withdrawn bodies of Natalia LL and Ewa Partum recover that which could never be recovered: Female objectivity.

Run, Zofia. Run.


Mazur Adam. Historie fotografii w Polsce 1839–2009. Centrum sztuki Współczesnej, Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych, Warsaw 2009.

Opałka Ewa. Do trzech razy sztuka. Recenzja wystawy “Trzy kobiety”, Format, 61/2011, pp. 122–124.

Ewa Partum 1965–2001, (ed.) A. Stepken, exhibition catalogue, Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe 2001

Piotrowski Piotr. Sztuka według polityki, in: Sztuka według polityki. Od Melancholii do Pasji, Universitas, Kraków 2007.

Tatar Ewa Małgorzata. Pamięć czasownika pisać. Sztuka Ewy Partum teksty/8348

Toniak Ewa. Trzy kobiety: Maria Pinińska-Bereś, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Ewa Partum, exhibi- tion catalogue, Zachęta Narodowa Galeria Sztuki, Warsaw 2012.

Turowicz Joanna. Bunt neoawangardowej artystki. Rozmowa Joanny Turowicz, www.kulikzo-