Date: 29 October 2020

Cultural Diplomacy: Polish Surrealism in the Form of Emotional Realism

Polish art, which astonishes the world’s exhibitions, has been called emotional realism – a new form of surrealism – by the painter Maja Borowicz. The editor-in-chief of The Warsaw Institute Review, Izabela Wojtyczka, interviewed the artist with a remarkable talent and great humbleness who stands behind this notion.

Izabela Wojtyczka: We meet surrounded by your beautiful works, which delighted me personally because they carry a deeper message and “something more.” First of all, could you please tell us what is the style of your art and what could be hidden behind the words “something more?”

Maja Borowicz: Starting with the basics – what I do is described as surrealism. Some people call it neosurrealism, but I do not quite like these terms. Surrealism is a very broad concept. To narrow it down, we can talk about magical realism, which is like a fairy tale, reminiscent of dreams, but it does not correspond to what I do in my works. Since there is currently no better definition to define it, I describe it as emotional realism. What I paint is mainly the relationship between reality and emotions we experience, so the term “emotional realism” fits me best. Although this phrase is not in the dictionary at the moment, I hope it will soon be.

Can we therefore say that you are a Polish pioneer of a new trend in art emotional realism?

Perhaps so, but I am simply going in such a direction to carve out a place for myself that I have not found anywhere so far. History will show whether this trend will reinforce, or perhaps it is only distinctive for my works. I think, however, that many artists create what is related to their emotions, but do not quite know how to name it. Time will tell whether this term comes into general use.

You have already revealed that you use oil painting as the main technique of your works. Are there any other methods that you use?

Oil painting is the most classic technique used by artists in history. This method was used to create the world’s most famous paintings. I must admit that I have been drawing and painting since childhood. I have painted with everything I could: acrylic paints, airbrush, inks, I have drawn with pencils, pastels – basically everything that I found. But now I dedicate mainly to oil painting. I have never attempted sculpting because it is necessary to have a completely different way of thinking. Moreover, it is simply a job that requires more physical strength.

You have mentioned your childhood – I wanted to ask you how such a talent develops when someone discovers that they are meant for painting?

I do not really know when someone discovers that they are meant for painting, but when I was a child, drawing and painting were the activities I performed better than some other ones. I could not find myself among my peers, yet I had always found my refuge in painting. I remember, for example, playing in a sandbox and that I very much enjoyed building cities and obstacle courses to play with “matchbox cars” with other children. And when they started to play with what I built for them, the fun ended for me. At primary and secondary school, teachers often approached me when they needed help with decorations for events, school newspapers, drawings in yearbooks, etc. In elementary school I won almost all art contests, and I attended extracurricular drawing classes. However, this proved to be insufficient. When I was choosing high school and taking the entry exams to an art school, I was not accepted due to my poor score from the art history exam. It proved to be a decisive factor. On the other hand, as a child, I preferred paying much more attention to painting and practicing to learning dates, places and names, especially since at that time I was already developing my oil painting skills, which back then were difficult to achieve for most of my peers.

If not art high school, what was next?

After this event, I decided not to paint ever again in my life and I graduated from a regular high school. Later on, when I had to choose a field of study, it was hard for me to pick something unrelated to art. Unfortunately, history repeated itself again and despite the excellent drawing skills, I was not admitted into college (architecture), so I did not even try my luck at the Academy of Fine Arts (ASP). The failures at the exams confirmed my beliefs that I was not good enough for art schools. Eventually, I graduated in landscape architecture at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (WULS-SGGW), where during classes I mainly worked on project concepts and made visualizations. You could say – these “pretty” things, so that the project would charm with its originality, the maps would be legible and the visualizations would simply be beautiful images. However, when I graduated from WULS-SGGW, I did not know that not being an alumnus of an art university excluded me from participating in national art contests.

A breakthrough came in the last year of my studies when I met a professor of painting, a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts. After examining my works, he noticed that what I really like to do is to draw, paint and create. He then suggested working on and defending a master’s thesis in landscape architecture from the works that I would make. His attitude changed me a lot – he showed me that I could go back to painting. While writing the thesis, I had to think about what was really interesting for me. What I paint, why and in what style. Then the history of art, my eternal problem, became interesting. Simultaneously to this thesis, I designed a series of fantastic art paintings, which I defended as my MA thesis. Thanks to this, I organized my thesis defense in the form of an exhibition, similar to the diploma exhibitions at the Academy of Fine Arts, which was the first of this kind at the WULS-SGGW. Even the Dean of the Faculty of Landscape Architecture, who came to the vernissage, was particularly impressed.

I must admit that at that time, after seven years of studying landscape architecture, I understood that I would never practice this profession.


Because of two things. First of all, while completing my thesis, I realized that I felt best at creating and painting, and I am not at all interested in issues related to plants, growing, fertilizing, nursing or road building.

Secondly, I have never been the picture of health. The troubles I have had since childhood, related to an undiagnosed chronic disease, made me finish my studies in 2007 in such a bad shape that I did not even have the energy to stand by an easel, let alone work on plants, an absolute requirement for any landscape architect. Then, after graduation, my life was limited to my house. While trying to find myself I decided to learn how to use computer programs and draw on a graphic tablet. Learning to use a stylus was a terrible experience – it drew so badly that it led me to tears. But the most important thing was that I could work at home, virtually lying in bed. And I drew. I was employed in advertising agencies for a long time, and after work I developed my own projects and ideas – everything was stored for later use.

Did anyone know that you were still drawing then?

Until 2013, I had not shown these works to anyone. I was convinced that I was not meant to be an artist because I never managed to get into an art school. But once, while working on advertising projects of a certain art gallery, I was asked to present my works. They were so good and intriguing that they were shown at its opening. There I had contact with other artists of the Polish surrealist movement for the first time and discovered that there are people who paint like me. These acquaintances resulted in the next step – submitting paintings for an art competition in Taiwan. There nobody asked about my art college diploma, which I did not have. All that mattered were skills and ideas. It turned out that the painting that I had executed a few years earlier and finished after years of break got to the final. And then it won the contest.

Was this the turning point that made you believe in yourself?

Not quite yet. I am this type of person who has to think everything through and it takes a lot of time. It was not a dazzle, I could not abandon everything and become an artist. The prize in this contest was an exhibition in downtown Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. I had less than a year to do about ten paintings. At that time, I worked as an ordinary graphic designer in an advertising agency. Having a regular job forced me to work on the paintings at nights. It seemed to me that I achieved that success by chance and people would not like my ideas. Nonetheless it turned out that all ten paintings charmed the organizers and art lovers in Taiwan.

Then something hit me again, I started to think about it. I thought I had to change my life. Combining a full-time job with art activity was impossible for me. With more and more competitions won, I increasingly felt that it is a waste of time and energy not to focus on painting. That way I gradually accepted the belief that I became an artist.

Today you are already a “full-time” artist. What message would you like to convey to the audience through your paintings?

I actually devoted one chapter of my thesis to this issue. In culture, we have general associations and symbols that appear on different levels. There are ideas that work worldwide, some only in Poland, other are understandable to people from a specific region or even characteristic and comprehensible only to the artist and its audience. For example, a “bird” means freedom, and a “white bird” (a white dove) means peace. I develop my own code, my own symbols which, as it seems to me, people understand subconsciously.

Let me give an example: multiple times in my life I felt that I was falling apart, that the situation overwhelmed me. I have conveyed this in my paintings. Later people found their own, similar feelings in them. I have come across several comments that my painting perfectly captures the feeling of disintegration that the given person is experiencing. Some of my works are very literal, but others remain imbued with symbols. They touch the emotions that we come across in real life, but tell about that in a symbolic way. This is why I call it emotional realism.

How to understand exactly your works? Do these symbols only represent events that are emotionally difficult?

In my paintings I always depict what I have encountered and the emotions I have felt. But everyone experiences emotions and feelings. They concern every person. My works are my way of telling and expressing what I face. It is extraordinary when the audience discovers their own way of telling what they feel. It is often difficult to find words, speak about emotions in order to be understood. My paintings give space and form to do this. It is incomparably challenging to talk about sad and unpleasant emotions that often feature in my paintings. But careful viewers often find other, not so obvious, hidden, and in my opinion beautiful feelings, such as love, devotion, tenderness, hope, longing, responsibility, empathy, etc. I believe that finding individual, personal feelings in my paintings is exceptional. After all, we will remember only those events from life that evoked emotions.

Is there any particular emotion that is significant for you?

One of the positive emotions that often appear in my works is hope. I want people to feel that there is something to fight for, something to strive for. I authored a series of such paintings in which I have expressed hope and responsibility. In these canvases, a stone face, a hand, and an animal are juxtaposed in a post-apocalyptic space. The animal usually protects itself in the hand from the surrounding reality. With this symbolism, quite a simple one, I try to convey that it is a great positive value to take responsibility for protecting those weaker and dependent on us. There is also a certain hope that nature will manage, regardless of the destructive power of humans. But I do not want this to be a chance. I believe that everything is in our hands and we take responsibility for it.

Are you guided by any “mission” when creating?

It is a difficult question because I feel a strong personal need to paint and it is basically my whole world. It would be hard not to look for any goal, sense in it. It is not that I feel some kind of a “mission” inside me and I look for a way to achieve it. Since painting is my whole life, I only make it with the things that I consider the most important, valuable and beautiful. For me these are things that have a positive value to our human nature such as responsibility, empathy, hope, support, love, or friendship.

I have to admit, although it may cause controversy, that I am very critical of art. Not only my own, but also others’. Of course, I have a lot of respect for the creators, but I notice that often, and maybe even most of the paintings have very schematic content. Personally, I do not like art produced under pressure. I associate it with making paintings on a given topic during art classes in elementary school. I require something more from the artist – individual thoughts and reflections, often acquired with experience. It is difficult for me to point out a group of artists who create high art – these are rather a few outstanding individuals. I believe that real art is created when you go beyond the framework of thinking because it is only when you are really free. When I organize exhibitions, collectors often put a lot of effort into understanding a certain painting because it speaks to them, and they feel its value. And this is the way it should be. Art should be so good that people do not forget the painting and the feelings it evokes.

You travel the world with your paintings. Do you notice any cultural differences in terms of emotions felt by people from different parts of the world?

At exhibitions abroad, I see a variety of reactions to my works. Random people and artists who approach me “experience” my paintings very much. I have to admit that never in Poland have I witnessed such strong responses as abroad where people were clearly expressing how shocked they were by my paintings. I guess it is a kind of cultural difference. Poles simply do not show their emotions so openly, which obviously does not mean that they do not experience them. They do albeit more discreetly – and this is distinctive.

Moreover, there is a tendency to include popular themes in paintings, e.g. political subjects. Currently, a lot of works refer to sexual minorities or the virus. In my opinion, this is a cliché, which, as I mentioned, I do not like. Possibly that is why my audience all over the world often experiences a shock because they see completely different things in my paintings, they understand that you can look at the world in an entirely distinct way.

Nevertheless, in the case of my paintings, people from different countries whom I have encountered reacted in a similar way – they were shocked, emotional, sometimes cried. They always similarly experienced feelings which I painted. This makes me think that deep down, beyond the divisions, people are very similar to each other. Regardless of the continent or nationality, there are people who are sensitive, loving, caring for others, and fighting for a better tomorrow. This gives me hope and always fills me with optimism.

Can we distinguish any specific cultural differences?

I think so. I have not been everywhere yet, but I already have some observations. For example, a lot of art lovers from the United States are used to easy, colorful, pleasant, and light themes. In the Far East, where the nations have similar war experiences to Poland, people have a better understanding of my creations. They are looking for less obvious meanings in them. On the other hand, it is worth noting that in the Arab countries the paintings often do not depict naked figures or humans in general due to cultural differences. I guess that there are even more such differences, for example, related to the symbolism of specific elements, colors, and characters.

Do foreign audiences associate you with Polish culture?

Good question. Sometimes I have an impression that foreign audiences see Polish culture only through the prism of my work. This is especially positive if my painting is awarded at an international exhibition. Along with other active Polish artists, we are constantly working to make sure that Polish culture is well received abroad. So much has already changed in terms of the perception of the value of Polish art, and thus the Polish state. However, it cannot be denied that there is still much to be done and support from state institutions would be helpful. Organizing foreign exhibitions in Poland is very expensive. I think that the image of our country is largely influenced by people like me, who attend world exhibitions, meet other people and talk about who they are, what they create, where they live and how they live. At international exhibitions you can meet people from very different backgrounds, for instance children on school trips, entrepreneurs, politicians. Then various questions are asked, not necessarily about art, sometimes also about the so-called ordinary life, what the country looks like, what people are like, how to study in Poland, what Polish autumn or Christmas are like. Sometimes the topics come down to history and we are able to find common themes. Another time there are attempts to teach Polish or to show typical traditions. When I am abroad at an exhibition, I always have the opportunity to attend countless meetings and exchange experiences.

What do you think should be done to help Polish artists to organize international competitions or vernissages in embassies?

I once approached this topic by sending emails to Polish embassies around the world although I had no contacts. However, this way of reaching out often does not give any results. Artists can join various associations and count on someone to provide them with such contact, but from my experience I know that it is best to organize something directly. Communication with embassies would certainly be helpful. We, the artists, are very eager to show our paintings outside Poland. The embassy could be one of the ways to present our works abroad. Exhibitions of Polish paintings, at a high level, could add splendor to various occasional embassy events of cultural, business and political nature, also raising their prestige. Moreover, the embassy may also have relations and acquaintances that could be valuable for artists. I have personally encountered multiple difficulties associated with international competitions or exhibitions on numerous occasions. Not knowing the place and language rules out the possibility of submitting documents and applying for a contest, exhibition or festival. Perhaps I, or another Polish artist, could impress the jury of the given country and win an international competition? It reminds me sports a little bit – members of the art community often remember the artist’s name and country. It would be nice to share such events with all Poles. The embassy could help Polish artists by providing information about international exhibitions and contests in the given country. This would be highly valuable as artists could participate in them.

From my own experience I can also say that the involvement of the embassy, even in seemingly simple tasks, such as transporting paintings, translating, coordinating, providing an address for correspondence, supplying tickets, showing the city, and dealing with a whole lot of similar matters when organizing an exhibition – it is a great help for the artist. Especially when attending an art exhibition in a completely different part of the world, which is often a reward for winning a competition.

I also believe that the Polish diaspora could play a similar role here. I have a lot of positive experiences connected to the Polish Honorary Consulate and the Polish community in Miami, FL (USA). I also had a good experience with the Polish community in Australia. However, the financial support that would enable us to act from the bottom up – by us I mean artists and people living in the given country, the Polish diaspora or the employees of the embassy – organizing exhibitions, meetings, residencies, lectures, or even workshops would, in my opinion, contribute substantially to promoting Polish art and culture in other countries.

Thanks to the fact that you exhibit your paintings abroad, they are becoming more and more popular across the world. Has it ever occurred to you that you will become a famous Polish woman?

I try not to think about it because it would overwhelm me. Just like in the case of my first competition – if I had treated it as a great challenge, knowing that it would transform my life, I would have not even taken part in it. Being famous only for the sake of fame, without any value behind, is meaningless and is an empty word. But if fame goes with specific principles that can be passed on and make people better, then this is worth the effort. I believe that being an artist is, above all, everyday work. It teaches how to be humble and patient. That is why I do not think too far into the future, I do not treat my work as anything special. I just keep trying to create the best possible paintings. It is the people, my audience, who will evaluate my work and give it the final value.

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