Foto ©1995 Irena Nawrot. Black & white photography, hand coloured, 80/100 cm..

Lech Lechowicz

Soma and Psyche in the Photographs Irena Nawrot

   Every manifestation of creativity is something inevitably personal, a form of individual expression against the outside world, a form of expressing singular existence of an individual. Looking at art from this point of view one can say that it is a way of contacting the external and the internal world which is still also their description. It is one of more significant aspects of art, its cognitive function related to both these worlds.

   The art of Irena Nawrot has been connected with such matters for years. They have to do with most personal things - her own person and her relations with the external world. The works presented at the exhibition are the last stage of the search the artist has been consistently conducting by means of photographic images. She speaks about herself, about what she knows best, about what gives her the reasons to speak. It is the example of art which is centered around the artist, which leads to self-knowledge and simultaneously communicates with the world in matters transgressing any individual or personal dimension.

   The relation between the internal and external world, which is one of the main motifs of her art, refers to some omnipresent problems: identification, identity and existence. Her works arc not only an attempt to describe them, they are also a form of experiencing them through photography. The use of a photographic image is an important element in defining the sphere of her studies. Photography unlike any other form of visualization (except film and video) lets one lead a very detailed and intimate self observation.

   Since her early works she bas been interested in the problem of identification and the identity of an image and the object presented. This question of the relation between the image and the object, very important in photography, is broadened here by psychological problems due to the choice of the object - the author in her own person. In the case of Irena Nawrot this problem acquires a very specific meaning, it possesses deeper psychological motives, because she bas a twin sister. Looking at her art from a psychological perspective one can say that her earlier photographs - the series with a mirror or the series in a yellow dress from the middle of the 1980s - are a search for identification and the identity of the individual. The series of "Convex photographs" (1992) also refers to identity of a woman in a very particular state of pregnancy. The body transformed by pregnancy is mysterious and seems anonymous. Its different shape may be seen through thin fabric, clinging closely to the body. The mystery of these works is doubled. It refers to the shape hidden under the fabric and to what is the internal, intimate essence of this transformation.

Foto ©1995 Irena Nawrot. Black & white photography, hand coloured, 80/100 cm..

   The world of her works is undoubtedly the world of a woman who deeply and sensitively experiences her individuality and difference. Biographical context is significant here in two ways. First, because of her work as a whole, the place her photographs occupy in it, where all consecutive stages follow one another. And also because their internal questions are so closely related with her individual experience. Perhaps these beautiful works presented at the exhibition out of this context may seem somewhat mysterious and hermetic.

   One of the objects of her photography which keeps reappearing in her photography is - usually her own - body. But the body is not an object of narcissistic or egotistic contemplation. The visual attraction of her works is not based on anything like that, although it would seem that in a photographic image - so real and true - it is difficult to go beyond the visual attraction of nudity and the contents connected with it.

   The works presented at this exhibition are somewhat repressed in their expression. They possess a subtle and refined plastic beauty. But their attractive and discreetly perfect form should not erase their message. And the message has always been the most important element of her art, the motivation of Irena Nawrot's art. These photographs are connected by the problem of experiencing the border between a person and his/her environment, the external world, by the attempt at unification with what surrounds us, the attempt to cross the border between what is internal and external. The pile of sand erected where it touches the body takes on the colour of the body. Breasts barely visible above the surface of the water become one with it. On one of the photographs we see water inside the navel and a tiny fish swimming in it. Elements appearing also in other works, like water, the belly, navel or a fish, are not accidental, they carry heavy symbolism connected with life, creation, and the primal bonds with one's environment in the womb of a mother.

   The problem of experiencing the border between a person and his/her environment was also present in the artist's earlier works. They were anticipated by portraits with a mirror in the background and its mirror images. Another example of these border contacts may be the series shown at an exhibition "The Sting of a Cactus" (The FF Gallery, Lodz 1990). The tension which is the effect of the contact between a cactus with sharp needles and the delicate softness of a body defines the border with an almost painful intensity, not without an erotic sub-text. A border of this kind cannot be crossed. There can be no integrity between these two worlds.

   Photographs with a window pane also speak about the impossibility of crossing this border; photographs from the early 1990s. Physical contact with the glass which is invisible for the viewer forms a sphere where two worlds meet, deforming the body. The belly and the navel flattened on the glass becomes a skin fold which is difficult to recognize in the picture. The border of both worlds ends on the glass.

Foto ©1996 Irena Nawrot. Black & white photography, hand coloured, 50/40 cm..

The absorption of the body by the environment, which may be seen in the latest works by Irena Nawrot, possesses a significant psychological and symbolic dimension. Water appears as an element in its primal, archetypal symbolic meaning - as primal womanhood and motherhood. Unification with water may be seen as the expression of feeling of unity with the external world. It is also stressed by the form of these works - big enlargements showing parts of a naked body submerged in shallow water from close up. Some parts of the body are obscurely visible above the water. The lighting and the setting arc such that there are no clear borders between the body and the water. This impression is strengthened by the colour which is glazed on the surface of the pictures. The monochromatic colours of warm yellow and brown calms the white and black of the black-and-white print, leading to the integrity of the body and the natural element in the photograph. The gentle warmth of these pictures - the psychological warmth of the colour and the naked body - abolishes the sharp and dramatic border between the two worlds, which could be seen in her earlier works.

   The body shown only partly here cannot be univocally identified with a person. The problem of identification is pushed to the background. The person and the body devoid of clear and precise individual features seems to be experiencing existential unity with the world. The attempt at mimesis, the attempt to sink into one's environment is clearly set against the univocal identification visible in her earlier portraits, for example in the series in a yellow dress, where the silhouette of the figure was exposed by means of sharp, yellow colour, put on the surface of the print by hand.

   Irena Nawrot often resorts to transformations and manipulations of photographic images. She does it to achieve a definite visual effect going beyond pure photography. But her operations are not meant to turn against photography - on the contrary, they broaden it and put it to wider use. The artist colours most of her black-and-white photographs just like a painter. She glazes the surface of the pictures with many layers of delicate shades of yellow, brown and green. Thus she achieves an effect which is interesting and very important both for the form and the content, the effect of subduing not only the sharpness of black-and-white photographic images, but also of making them slightly less real. But the consequences also touch the contents and the message. The formal operations used subdue the bodily quality which attracts the viewer's instinctive attention. Close-ups, large scale, the softness of the lines and the subtle colours give the viewer a chance to go deeper, beyond the exterior and eroticism of a naked body. Nudity here is not an aim in itself, it is not provoking or aggressive - although it often is in this type of art, especially in the art defined as feminist.

   The works of Irena Nawrot also have their "media" aspect, as they are related to photography itself, to its imagery. The photographic image - and also film and video images, which she sporadically uses1 -lets her lead a specific and subtle psychological game which is impossible in traditional visual techniques. The simple operation of placing an image in another image - a mirror image in a photographic image, a photographic image in another photograph, a photographic image in a film, a film image in a video image - intensifies the problem of identification and makes it clearer, both in the purely visual sphere as in the internal, psychological one. The process of creating imagery is also a form of creating distance towards the object, in this case towards herself and her own body. Creating even the smallest distance is necessary to go beyond one's internal, individual experience, to be able to look at oneself, in an extremely personal or intimate way, from a wider, external perspective.

Foto ©1996 Irena Nawrot. Black & white photography, hand coloured, 50/40 cm..

   The problem of the body presented in her works is also a problem between what is psychological and what is biological, between the soma and the psyche. It is the problem of what is one's own, internal, and what is strange, external. The body is this sensitive border between the external and internal world, it is the sphere of constant contact between them. Conditioning our sphere of contact with the world it must influence us in many ways. One cannot free oneself completely from the body and all that conditions it - sex, age and beauty. Each of these elements has its psychological aspect. The art of Irena Nawrot is a story of the relation and the border between these two worlds, in the separation of which the body and the sex play an important part.

   The artist speaking about herself also speaks about a woman, about her different experience which is the result of the difference between her psyche and soma, and she also speaks about universal problems of mutual relations between what is internal and what is external, and what depends not only on the gender. Her individual experience after the process of sublimation achieves a universal dimension in art. It points to this specific and complicated bundle of relations that make up our existential bonds with the world and with other people.

   The evolution of her art is very logical, because it is natural. Art follows her own experience spontaneously. Irena Nawrot does not come up with her artistic problems, she rather discovers them within herself - and they are important and fascinating. She submits to the rhythm of natural changes in life spontaneously, without any kind of "artistic premeditation".

   The works shown at this exhibition close, I believe, a certain stage in her art and anticipate the beginning of a new one, which - I trust - will be just as natural and revealing in its pursuit after the experience of life.

October 1995, Lech Lechowicz.

Translated by Maciej ¦wierkocki


  1. Irena Nawrot is the author of three films: "A Yellow Film" (1985), "An Empty Liquer-Glass" (1987), "Eeenie Meenie Minie Lift Which Hand Holds the Gift" (1988), and a video-performance (about 1993), in which she takes part herself and during which she shows the films mentioned above.

    Tekst from catalogue of exhibition. Irena Nawrot, Galeria FF £DK, 1995 rok .

Irena Nawrot - biografical information.



Copyright ©1997 Galeria FF £DK, Irena Nawrot, Lech Lechowicz