Rafał Olbiński, PENSÉES PAS TRCS POLIES, 2020, akryl i olej na płótnie 37 x 58 cm

Rafał Olbiński − a symbolist The esteemed artist known for his thought-provoking paintings.

Rafał Olbiński is an esteemed artist known for his thought-provoking paintings. The “Passion pour la creation” exhibition in the SZOKART Gallery in Poznań offers an opportunity to take a closer look at his recent work. In his practice, the artist draws on a variety of inspirations, combining antiquity, literature, music and Renaissance painting with symbolism and humour.

Olbiński insists not to take his paintings too seriously. In his view, they are a starting point of one’s own stories and tales. These associations and stories unfold through the portrayed elements that could be interpreted symbolically. The paintings of Rafał Olbiński are characterised by an individual and distinct style recognisable at very first glance. They are often based on symbolism that adds depth and meaning to visually intriguing narratives. The painter invites his audience to explore various modes of interpretation and engages them in a dialogue that goes beyond his art’s surface.

Rafał Olbiński, PENSÉES PAS TRCS POLIES, 2020, akryl i olej na płótnie 37 x 58 cm
Rafał Olbiński, PENSÉES PAS TRCS POLIES, 2020, acrylic and oil on canvas 37 x 58 cm, courtesy by the SZOKART Gallery and the artist.

Beyond surrealism

Rafał Olbiński’s paintings are often compared to those of René Magritte, a Belgian painter and uncontested master of surrealism. Olbiński himself mentions many other artists whose works he finds the most inspiring, such as Michael Angelo, Francisco Goya, William-Adolphe BouguereauEduard Manet and Paul Delvaux.

The meaning of Olbiński’s paintings goes way beyond surrealism, which was primarily based on a random juxtaposition of meanings, creating a brand-new art language. In Olbiński’s case, however, nothing is accidental. The figures and objects set up very purposefully as if they were actors and props on stage. All elements of these paintings are meant to stimulate imagination and associations as well as spur the viewer on to formulate their stories. The artist transports an audience to the idyllic land filled with bucolic landscapes, beautiful women and classical architecture. This tranquil and picturesque world offers a respite from the aggression and ugliness of surrounding reality. At the same time, these landscapes are unreal and distorted – the pathways are soaring like carpets, trees look like birds and vice versa, night and day or the sky and earth are fused together. Although these elements originate from the surrealist tradition, they lack the fundamental component, which is the existential dread. Olbiński tries to mesmerise the viewers and invites them to a world devoid of anxiety and discomfort, a safe space and oneiric refuge. Unlike the surrealists fascinated by psychoanalysis, who brought to the surface aspects of human sexuality suppressed by bourgeois society, Olbiński takes a different direction by aestheticising and polishing this theme.

Rafał Olbiński, TEENAGERS DREAM, 2022, acrylic and oil on canvas 71 x 54 cm, courtesy by the SZOKART Gallery and the artist.

The perfect woman

The paintings of Rafał Olbiński never depict femme fatales typical of the end of the 19th and early 20th century. The artist himself emphasises that he noticed a lack of motifs of romance, seduction and any love games drawing on the ancient myths. His portrayals of women follow the classical ideal of beauty, right proportions and harmony and imbue them with an oneiric quality. Thus, he departs from surrealism and its rapacious eroticism. Instead, Olbiński strives for the neoclassic and statuesque ideal originating from Renaissance representations of goddesses and nymphs.

The idealised physical appearance is connected to the symbolism of the initial stage of the relationship between a man and a woman. The man’s infatuation and fascination create a sort of illusion and an idealised version of his beloved. At the same time, the female figure stripped of any individual character traits could be interpreted as downgraded to the status of a symbol, which encapsulates an entire figure through her posture and movement. After all, these are not the portraits of any specific women but rather vessels that stand for youth, love or desire, which is often highlighted by red dresses they wear. This colour has multiple connotations as exemplified in the paintings “Strolling the Night” or “Przenikanie czasu.” Naturally, red is associated with love, but it can also signify power, strength and blood. In the old masters’ work, red robes drew attention to person’s high social status and importance. Perhaps Olbiński adopts the same method to emphasise the role of women in his paintings.

The motif of a woman is also linked the motif of love and relationships. “Love Is Hard Labour,” says the title of one of Olbiński’s paintings, in which a man pushes a boulder up the mountain as if from the myth of Sisyphus. Could love be a sisyphean task?

Rafał Orbiński, LOVE IS A HARD LABOR, Martynique 2023, acrylic and oil on canvas 83 x 91 cm
Rafał Orbiński, LOVE IS A HARD LABOR, Martynique 2023, acrylic and oil on canvas 83 x 91 cm, courtesy by the SZOKART Gallery and the artist.


Another recurring motif used by Olbiński is birds, which also appear in the paintings presented at the exhibition. They are associated with freedom and transcendence. In a number of paintings, Olbiński portrays birds soaring high above the ground, representing the human desire to free oneself from all constraints and to follow one’s dreams. They symbolise yearning for spiritual elation and search for the meaning of life. Perhaps such yearning for freedom is also experienced by the couple portrayed in the painting “Conventional Sentiment,” in which we can also notice the sea in the background – another common motif. Water has many figurative meanings in Olbiński’s art, as it often represents the subconscious, emotions and the transient nature of existence. The calm and still waters might reflect a sense of inner harmony and peace or, on the contrary, suggest the chaos and tribulations of life. Water symbolises the depth of human psyche and encourages the viewer to ponder their own emotional landscapes.

A type of bird that appears particularly frequently is the dove. Its connotations with peace and harmony, as well as the idea of agreement and unity, can be traced back to the Bible, where the dove heralded peaceful times after the Flood. This symbolism is also present in Greek mythology. Here, doves were used as messengers and signs of peace between gods and men. Doves can stand for the need of amity, harmony and mutual reconciliation between people. They also represent love and compassion, and their ability to fly can be interpreted in terms of pursuit of higher goals, transcendence and spiritual expansion. Depictions of flying doves can symbolise one’s desire for freedom and overcoming limitations.

Some paintings also portray swans, which are known for their graceful movements and striking beauty. In numerous artistic depictions, they symbolise elegance, sophistication and aesthetic perfection. Swans are often associated with love and romance, as they pair up for life. As such, they stand for faithfulness, devotion and the ideal of deep and lasting romantic relationships. These birds also undergo an astonishing transformation over the course of their lives as the cygnets turn into mature swans. This metamorphosis is also viewed in terms of personal growth and development. Swans can represent a journey towards self-acceptance and the pursuit of enlightenment. Flawlessly white feathers symbolise purity and innocence, as well as unadulterated beauty, purity of heart and a return to childlike innocence. In the painting “Reversed Composition” there is a swan next to the woman – is it her loyal companion or a symbol transformation and maturity for the young woman?

Rafał Olbiński, OPERA MAGIC, 2022, acrylic and oil on canvas, 43 x 53 cm
Rafał Olbiński, OPERA MAGIC, 2022, acrylic and oil on canvas, 43 x 53 cm, courtesy by the SZOKART Gallery and the artist.

Culture and nature

Architectural elements are often part of landscapes depicted in Olbiński’s paintings. Despite his academic background in architecture, the artist does not perceive buildings as key elements of composition. Classical structures can evoke associations with stability, order and aspiration. As with the figure of the woman, these are not particular buildings but rather generalised ideas of the architectural form. Architecture blends seamlessly with nature, creating a harmonious fusion between the man-made components and the surrounding environment. The frequent juxtaposition of nature and the products of culture is worth mentioning in this case. Trees grow windows, and branches surround the instruments or constitute their actual fragments. Here, nature is far from wild and free. On the contrary, the trees are trimmed precisely like in the baroque garden, subjected to human control and the artist’s imagination. Olbiński often describes his landscapes as the paradise lost, where nature provides a safe and mild sanctuary within no dark corners and thickets evoking a sense of dread. The unnamed though similar tree species and endless pastures are evergreen. There are no seasons in this world, which in itself might be quite symbolic.

Besides the earth, it is the sky in the majority of paintings that might be filled with meaning. Celestial bodies, especially the moon and the stars, are recurring symbols in Olbiński’s paintings. They can represent the mysteries of the universe, dreams and the connection between the earth and heaven. In some paintings, the night and day are intertwined. Their simultaneous presentation signifies a co-existence of the real world and its dream counterpart. “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” the title of a famous aquatint by Francisco Goya, alludes to the dangerous, mystical phenomena occurring in the world of dreams. However, in the case of Olbiński’s paintings, the night is far from perilous and the dreams are not nightmares. Instead, they are portals to another world that fulfils our deepest desires.

Rafał Olbiński, CODED HAPPINES, 2021, pencil and crayon 70 x 50 cm
Rafał Olbiński, CODED HAPPINES, 2021, pencil and crayon 70 x 50 cm, courtesy by the SZOKART Gallery and the artist.

Literature and music

As sources of inspiration, Olbiński cites poetry and literature, especially emotions he experiences while reading. His predilection for figurative language, symbolism and intellectual provocation is not accidental. This language stems from the fact that the artist’s first love has always been poetry and literature. The paintings are inspired by feelings and impressions stimulated during reading.

Music can evoke similar emotions. A number of paintings depict musical instruments, such as violin and piano. They symbolise music’s ability to stir up people’s emotions and express hidden desires across language barriers. Olbiński has also designed multiple posters for operas, whereas the painting “The Magic of Opera” shows that this type of spectacle can transport the audience to a different reality. As with looking at paintings, attending an opera can blur the boundaries between what’s real and what’s imagined, while immersive narratives engage the viewer’s imagination and emotions. The artist himself has stated that each painting is an idea for a poem and story that the viewer could create on their own.

Rafał Olbiński, THE WINNER TAKES ALL, 2021, acrylic and oil on canvas 89 x 62 cm
Rafał Olbiński, THE WINNER TAKES ALL, 2021, acrylic and oil on canvas 89 x 62 cm, courtesy by the SZOKART Gallery and the artist.

Hidden meanings

Symbolism plays an important role in the art of Olbiński. The artist uses a variety of signs and motifs full of figurative meanings, inviting the audience to delve deep into their layers and interpretations. Many motifs refer to the art of the past. During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, some metaphors and signs were widely present and clearly decipherable among an educated audience. Nonetheless, Olbiński avoids direct imitation of the old masters. Instead, he selects certain motifs that he subverts with a distance and humour. For instance, “The winner takes all” portrays two men on all fours preparing for a fight over an apple lying at the feet of a gigantic female figure. Here, the motifs from mythology and literature blend together to create an ambiguous and playful whole.

As a result, Olbiński’s paintings take on a poetic and introspective qualities, allowing the viewer to engage with deeper emotions and ideas expressed in these works. The versatility of Olbiński as an artist manifests itself through an exploration of a vast array of subjects. Not only did he make illustrations for books and magazines, but he also designed portraits. His works are can be found in collections all over the world, including the Library of Congress in Washington, the Museum of Art and Design in Toyama, the Carnegie Foundation in New York and the Poster Museum in Wilanów. The artist began as an illustrator and poster artist. His unique and ingenious approach to visual communication earned him a number of art awards, such as the French Prix Savignac and the gold and silver medals of the New York Society of Illustrators, as well as national distinctions, including the Gloria Aris medal (2005) and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (2012).

Over time, he has moved away from design to painting, through which he is able to express more diverse stories and emotions. Rafal Olbiński’s art is a testament to his creative vision and ability to convey complex ideas through visual storytelling. His paintings mesmerise the viewers with their rich narrative, multiplicity of meanings and technical proficiency.

Symbols in art are inherently ambiguous. Their interpretation is based on associations, which may depend on a person’s own experiences. Therefore, each painting can be interpreted and understood in many different ways. The symbolism in Rafał Olbiński’s paintings opens the door to deeper meanings, allowing the viewer to reflect on the complexity of human experience and contemplate universal themes. Olbiński uses birds, water, architecture, objects and human figures to create elaborate narratives that resonate with viewers on both a visual and conceptual level. His art is an invitation to delve into a tangled visual poetry that continues to uncover brand-new senses, connections and meanings.

About The Author


Art historian. Currently, she works in the Education Department at the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, where she creates educational programmes and workshop scenarios. Interested in architecture, artistic fabrics, and issues related to ecology.

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