Aleksandra Nowicka, Didn't those needles prick him, 90x130cm, oil on canvas, 2023

The Enduring Allure of Realism Exploring Authenticity, Memory, and Personal Connections in Aleksandra Nowicka's paintings

Aleksandra Nowicka, born in 1997 in Olsztyn, is a 2021 graduate of Art History at the University of Warsaw. She is currently a fifth-year student at the Faculty of Painting at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where she attends the painting studio under the supervision of Professor Antoni Starowieyski. In the New Image / New Look competition at UAP in Poznań, she received special recognition from the editors of Contemporary Lynx. Through the medium of art, Aleksandra Nowicka translates stories from her childhood onto canvas, drawing inspiration from vintage analog family photographs. By skillfully incorporating elements of realism, she masterfully portrays nostalgic narratives, creating a bridge between the past and the present on her paintings.

Aleksandra Nowicka
Aleksandra Nowicka

Magdalena Szczuka: You mentioned that realism and photorealism have a lasting relevance in art. Could you elaborate on why you believe these styles consistently fascinate people, despite the ever-changing trends in the art world?

Aleksandra Nowicka: In my opinion, realism is the starting point of all styles of art. Even if a work of art is created in opposition to “boring“, “old” realism, it is unable to free itself from it. Moreover, when an artist learns to depict what surrounds him convincingly and realistically, infinite possibilities open up – neither workshop nor creativity limit him. Unfortunately, I think that today more and more young people do not pay enough attention to the question of practising the art of painting. 

Realism is also a trend that will always be the most up-to-date. A realist painter, through his technique and language, refers to what is real in his time. In the words of Courbet: “To be able to represent the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my own era according to my own evaluation; to be not only a painter but a man as well” means that realism will always be about the events of the painter’s environment, about where the painter comes from, about the artist’s cultural circle and his true feelings and observations. 

It also seems to me that realism is “coming back” in today’s art – we are already bored with aesthetically pleasing abstractions or canvases full of geometric lines where we cannot tell one artist from another. I think our minds need to rest with something they know, something close and understandable. The amount of information that bombards us every day – from social media, advertising, streets, radio and television – makes many people seek solace in art and return to what is real and known. Often the recipient is no longer satisfied with a flat patch of paint on a canvas, and is looking for artists who fully demonstrate their workshop and technical skills. There is something meditative and comforting about perceiving the craft of an artist.

Aleksandra Nowicka, Uncle, oil on canvas, 105x145 cm, 2023
Aleksandra Nowicka, Uncle, oil on canvas, 105×145 cm, 2023

MSZ: How has your perception as a painter evolved over time, particularly when revisiting the same family album repeatedly? What insights or discoveries have you made during these moments of reflection?

AN: My perception has certainly changed over time, because each time I open the same family albums, a new theme catches my eye. At first, I was interested in photos of myself from my childhood. It was certainly an element of connecting with the inner child and a form of reckoning with the past. As time went by, I began to look at photographs that showed the realities of life in Poland in the 90s. My private memories no longer played such an important role, instead I became interested in the reality in which I grew up. Furniture, tablecloths, grandmother’s dishes, wood panelling, furniture veneers and heavy TV sets – these are the objects and the closest human surroundings that have become the heroes of my paintings. At first, I focused on my family members and the work was dedicated to them. As time went by, the interiors and everyday objects became the most important – because they say more about a person and the times they live in than their portrait.

With each painting I made, I felt more and more in touch with my Polish roots and my family. Even though sometimes I don’t paint events in which I took part, I feel more and more attached to the places I paint: my grandmother’s former apartment, my great-grandparents’ house, which I don’t remember, or my grandfather’s summer house, which I didn’t get to know. Thanks to this cycle, I certainly understood more of the history of my generation and felt part of my family on a new level. I felt the grief of generations, put my life into a new framework and felt part of something bigger.

Aleksandra Nowicka, Didn't those needles prick him, 90x130cm, oil on canvas, 2023
Aleksandra Nowicka, Didn’t those needles prick him, 90x130cm, oil on canvas, 2023

MSZ: Family albums and photographs have played a significant role in inspiring your paintings. Can you elaborate on how you choose the particular photographs that resonate with you? What qualities or elements make them ideal material for your artwork?

AN: This is an interesting question because it is very difficult for me to answer. The subjects that interested me last month didn’t interest me at all six months ago. It probably depends on how I feel and what works of art I have encountered along the way – in short, it consists of all my experiences.

If I were to analyse it more closely, it is the composition of these photographs that inspires me. When I choose a frame, I go back to the basic categories that make up a work of art: composition, dominant, contrast, rhythm and accent. If a photograph has these elements, it certainly seems more suited to the medium of painting than others.

I also dabble in analogue photography, which requires a sense of composition and a sensitivity to light, which creates atmosphere. Certainly, the experience I have gained in photography helps me to choose photographs that have a kind of compositional order and an interesting atmosphere. There must be a point in every photo that becomes a painting – it could be the movement of a character, an interestingly painted glass, a TV set or a piece of furniture typical of that period. Whatever it is, there has to be some tension in it. 

It is very interesting to look at the original photographs next to the paintings inspired by them. When I look at these photographs in front of the paintings, there is not the slightest hesitation between what is a photograph and what is a painting. It is clear as day which is which. The way I make these paintings is surprisingly full of texture, with visible brushstrokes and, here and there, a white canvas visible underneath the paint. However, when I photograph my paintings, their photographic nature brings them back to their originals – in digital space they begin to behave like photographs again.

Aleksandra Nowicka, Andrzejewo, 150x100cm, oil on canvas, 2023
Aleksandra Nowicka, Andrzejewo, 150x100cm, oil on canvas, 2023

MSZ: You mentioned the importance of analog photography’s imperfections in inspiring your art. Could you explain how these imperfections contribute to the authenticity and inspiration you find in analog photography compared to digital photography?

AN: Analogue photography is full of light. Flash, vibrant colours, sharp shadows – all of this adds a certain theatricality to the photos that can be transferred to the canvas in interesting ways. In addition, when photographic film was expensive (as it is today), the subjects were chosen very carefully. I feel fortunate that in my family there are so many photos of weekdays, of ordinary afternoons at home.

Analogue photography is unique, each photo is taken once, not in a series like today. It contains much more energy and tension than today’s photography, which is so developed that it can blend with reality.

I also really like the white overexposure effect in analogue photography. Then you really have to focus on the colour to convey the subtle differences in shading and texture that are hidden behind the white patches.

Aleksandra Nowicka, Wieczorynka ["Evening TV Cartoon for Children"], 150x100cm, oil on canvas, 2023
Aleksandra Nowicka, Wieczorynka [“Evening TV Cartoon for Children”], 150x100cm, oil on canvas, 2023

MSZ: Your focus on personal experiences and memories is evident in your artwork. How do you believe memory shapes our understanding of ourselves and our sense of belonging to a larger group? What draws you to explore these themes through your paintings?

AN: Memory is a huge topic. It is all around us these days. The media talks about remembering the forgotten, there is a discussion about intergenerational trauma, and our to-do lists grow longer and longer with each passing day. Social media helps us remember friends’ birthdays, important anniversaries, natural disasters from years ago, and the deaths of the most famous musicians on the anniversaries of their deaths. Everyone has to find themselves in this mass of information. It has even been said that life today is the art of forgetting, because it is impossible to keep up with all the information we are bombarded with.

As an artist, I try to place my life in a specific place and time. I want to understand where I come from, what my values are and what is important to me in the chaos of everyday life. This is where the role and power of memory comes into play – it is the door to human identity.

Each of us is made up of our own experiences, cultural circles, micro-communities and the cultural resources of our families – none of us is like a blank page. Our task is to understand where we fit into the larger context, and going back to our childhood and the culture we grew up in allows us to discover this.

That is why painting Poland in the 90s evokes in me feelings of nostalgia, longing and sometimes admiration for my family, who lived through more difficult times than I did. I know that many recipients of my art share these feelings and like to return with me to those years. Sometimes we need to go back in time to understand what is happening to us today.

Aleksandra Nowicka, Glass weather, blue glass, oil on canvas, 100x85 cm, 2023
Aleksandra Nowicka, Glass weather, blue glass, oil on canvas, 100×85 cm, 2023

MSZ: Looking ahead, are there any specific aspects of your experiences, life, or memories that you plan to explore further in your future artwork? How do you envision your artistic journey evolving and progressing?

AM: Future art projects are the only thing I can’t plan and predict. Interestingly, I am a very organised person and my calendar contains plans for six months ahead. However, what will appear in my paintings will surely surprise me.

Certainly, a huge inspiration for me now is Zofia Rydet’s series of photographs “Sociological Record“. I think there is something magical about them and I feel a great connection with them – after all, like her in her photographs, I also show people in their homes, which reflect the spirit of the times.

I don’t know what this inspiration will bring – time will tell. I certainly don’t plan to abandon the elements of realism. Perhaps there will be more slack and flexibility in my work, but I hope that a reliable workshop will always be present in my art.

Aleksandra Nowicka, Altarpiece, oil on canvas, 100x145cm, 2022
Aleksandra Nowicka, Altarpiece, oil on canvas, 100x145cm, 2022

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