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Modernist Universalism Revived: Linocut Portraits by Joanna Piech-Kalarus

By Barbora Kundracikova | Joanna Piech-Kalarus’ linocut portraits are recognized for their deeply personal yet equally alienating effects. Their monumental size only magnifies the display of a formal autonomous structure, which carries its own meaning and quality of expression. This autonomy of form resembles the principles of abstraction and speaks to the artistic strategy described in the modernist theory of “significant form.”

linocut "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Joanna Piech-Kalarus, 2012, photograph by Piotr Oles.

Image: Joanna Piech-Kalarus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 2012, linocut, 45 1/4 x 59 inches (115 x 150 cm), edition of 30, photograph by Piotr Oles.

. . . Piech-Kalarus is best known for her acutely personal but equally estranged portraits that are formally precise, untouchable, unbreakable and defined by some sort of conceptual “outer epidermis” rendered by a formal structure. The figure, who is captured within or by the context, is clear at first sight, nearly tactile and concrete, but the whole picture seems suggestive of a greater narrative, one that goes beyond just visually echoing modernistic traditions. The figures are undoubtedly real people, living people, breathing people with their own tragedies, losses, pleasures and boredom. Still, by their nature, these portraits work like an exterior facade or even a mask of the individuals they represent.

As exemplified by In Between Words I and II (2011), all of Piech-Kalarus’ figures are part of an accurately defined space that follows the contour of their bodies, such as the armchair or sofa on which they sit. This space is the person’s universe, internal as well as external, and is offered to the viewer as an interpretative strategy. The viewer is only permitted to observe how the person in the picture interacts with the given surroundings. Just through this act the figure opens up his or her mind for the viewer—but does so delicately, almost privately, and with sincere indifference. There is no breakdown, no pain or embarrassment on either side. The viewer is admitted only into the public sphere.

linocut portraits "In Between Words" by Joanna Piech-Kalarus. Photographs by Piotr Oles.

Images: Joanna Piech-Kalarus, In Between Words I (left) and In Between Words II (right), 2011, linocut, 61 x 37 inches (155 x 94 cm), edition of 30, photograph by Piotr Oles.

Intimacy comes alongside aloofness in Piech-Kalarus’ prints, as the viewer is led to a state of complete isolation from the person in the picture. This dynamic recovers the famous tradition of the European portrait, but even more so, represents the modernist notion of universalism. There is no chaos, no postmodern openness to plural interpretation. However, there is no simple answer to any of the usual questions: Who is this person? What does he think about? What does she regret? The only way to try and solve such mysteries is to observe the aesthetic appearance of how the figure fits into the context of all of the formal elements.

The visual experience is usually mediated, not only via medium or human sense, but through the design of a thing—a fortiori in the case of pictures. Design is one of the reasons why we continue to be interested in new pictures, because it is not just a means of communication, but it also changes how we perceive the world.

As spectators, we find ourselves in the middle of the fundamental mystery: the interaction of form (design) and content. Ultimately, as soon as the observer of a thing, the picture, becomes irreversibly interested in finding out about the techniques employed in designing it, the perceptual experience enters a transformation. Dominic Lopes wrote that, “Features of the design may inflect illustrative content, so that the scene is experienced as having properties it could only be seen to have in pictures.”1 Visible surface properties are thus in virtue of what a picture depicts . . .

[This article appears in full in the print and digital edition of CELEBRATING PRINT, Volume 2, Number 1.]


1 Dominic McIver Lopes, Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Images (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 123–124.


A full version of this article Modernist Universalism Revived: Linocut Portraits by Joanna Piech-Kalarus by Barbora Kundracikova appears in the print and digital edition of Celebrating Print, Vol.2 No.1, published in April 2016.

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BARBORA KUNDRACIKOVA is an art historian and curator. She received Master’s Degrees in history, art history and aesthetics from the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. In her PhD dissertation (also for Masaryk University), she examines the preconditions that affect the aesthetic evaluation of photography. Her areas of interest include technical representations of photography and printmaking, methodology of art history and analytic approaches to aesthetics. Kundracikova participates in the Central European Art Database (CEAD), a platform that presents regional artists from the second half of the 20th century. She currently works as a curator at the Olomouc Museum of Art, Czech Republic.

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