Irena (Rena) Trzetrzewińska paints small compositions in oils and pastels, inspired by nature, its combined phenomena of decomposition and resilience. They are still lifes featuring fruit in various stages of decay, and also landscapes – primarily in the Tatra Mountains.
‘It is not without a reason that they are considered one of the most banalized motifs in painting. Nowadays, popular alpine views poison our perception of this type of landscape, repel painters and offend the public’s good taste. And yet the mountains still move hikers and tourists; they are not going to vanish as something banal. Can the alpine motif be questioned in modern painting then? And can we fail to see the need for it?’ Jacek Buszyński asked in a catalogue of Irena Trzetrzewińska’s exhibition in 1969.
While Tatra motifs were something obvious and indisputable in the art of the two decades between the wars, after 1945 things were slightly different as the young artists’ interests, and the changes in art per se, tended to eliminate those themes. That process was, however, never completed, owing to the graduates of Krakow’s Academy of Fine Art. A particularly intense power of expression can be found in the Tatra works of three of them: Andrzej Wróblewski (1927–1957), Irena Trzetrzewińska (b. 1934), and Władysław Klamerus (1956–1992). What emanates from their paintings is a suggestive, dark mood, full of tension, close to the Romantics’ vision. These compositions attack ours senses: we can feel, sometimes even hear, the wind in the mountains and find ourselves in a fearful awe of them. Those artists knew the topography of the mountains very well. One can’t help assuming that their works included depictions of the alpine peaks and valleys that they actually traversed. Nothing could be further from the truth. What these, otherwise very different artists, have in common is a vision or impression of the Tatras created by sheer experience of, or contact with, the mountains. They also share an extraordinary ability to translate into a visual language experiences and sensations that seem untranslatable. Jacek Buszyński aptly noted that Rena Trzetrzewińska ‘has taken up the grand and inexhaustible subject of the mountains. Painting the Tatras for the past few years, she has been reminding us that every affection can and should be expressed in art in spite of the currently prevailing prejudices and common opinions. Even more so when you consider that it is not easy to rediscover the mountains using the painterly means, i.e. to reveal one’s own vision of them on canvas. The artist behind these small pictures in oils has confidence in her own impressions and in the painterly matter. Applied lightly, the translucent areas of colour, their outlines and mutually permeating layers, are suggestive of homogenous alpine space: a hugeness of the massive rocks, a vastness of the sky and the clouds, a sheen of light forming a theatre of nature that is homogenous while filled with dramatic contrasts. We are not going to see a static panorama of the mountains or souvenir de paysage here. We rediscover, in an intimate setting, the motif of perennial mythologies and the aura of great Romantic exaltation – the pathos of the alpine landscape.’
Indeed, these small, seemingly intimate paintings emanate some primordial horror and fear of the unknown. ‘In Trzetrzewińska’s work, mountain tops emerge from a thoroughly thought-out play with painterly matter in dense pictures glowing with a kind of phosphorescent sheen,’ Jacek Woźniakowski, a unique connoisseur of Tatra landscapes, wrote in 1995. The impression is further intensified by the poetic titles – wordplays: Krzesany, Smutna, Gorzelisko, Błękitny. Each of them sounds like a name of a peak, a ridge, or a glade. It would, however, be a vain effort to look for them in Tatra guidebooks. Their nature is rather that of fantasy and legend; they introduce us to an unknown and unknowable world. The artist looks around in the Tatras much like Alice in Wonderland and paints what she has seen ‘through the looking glass’. The mountains remain unknown, and the still lifes small and quiet (‘małe ciche’).
If someone was born in Zapusta, in the lowlands near Sandomierz, termed a plateau to mislead the ignorant, then this must mean that they came into this world with a need to strive upwards, so as to forget, as soon as possible, about their unfortunately low, i.e. non-alpine, origin. Rena Trzetrzewińska’s interest in Tatra landscapes began even earlier than the plein air painting retreats at the Harenda during her studies, and imperceptibly turned into a fascination with the mountains, viewed for weeks and months from the village of Małe Ciche, still free from crowds at the time, or from the hamlet of Tarasówka above it.
Namely, from there the world can be viewed from its beginning to Osobita, and then all the way to its end, i.e. to Hawrań and Murań. A world that is different every day, and close by, within the reach of your hand (with Ganek and Kosista[!] visible with their smallest details), or distant, misty, or finally hidden behind curtains of rain after a halny wind has passed, announced by spectacles of clouds in unbelievable colours and shapes. (Jacek Gaj, 2008)
Irena Trzetrzewińska was born in 1934 in Zapusta-Czyżów near Sandomierz, into a wealthy family of landed gentry, always prepared to serve free Poland. As early as 1919, Irena’s grandfather Józef Targowski travelled to the Far East as a Minister Plenipotentiary and High Commissioner of the Republic of Poland, becoming the reborn state’s first representative in Japan and China. He was accompanied in his mission, in the capacity of chargé d'affaires, by Karol Frycz, a relative of his, much younger, a painter, interior and set designer, also responsible for the polychrome decoration of one of the chapels in Saint James’s Church in Sandomierz (where he endowed one of the angels with the features of Rena’s mother). Additionally, Irena’s talented aunt studied at Vienna’s Kunstgewerbeschule, possibly encouraged by Frycz’s example.
The manor at Czyżów was visited by Wyczółkowski, Skoczylas, Gombrowicz, poets, authors, musicians and theatre makers, so it cannot be ruled out that the atmosphere of the place, marked in those days by the presence of such prominent artists, shaped the future painter.
Between 1953 and 1961, she studied at the Academy of Fine arts in Krakow, obtaining three diplomas: in painting under Tadeusz Łakomski (1959), printmaking under Konrad Strzednicki (1961), and poster design under Maciej Makarewicz. She has taken part in over ninety group exhibitions at home and abroad (e.g. ‘Romanticism and Romance in Polish Art of the 19th and 20th Centuries, 1975; ‘Testimony to Community”, 1986; ‘Touch’, 1991, ‘Halny. Landscape Views and Impressions from the Tatras in Polish Painting of the 19th and 20th Centuries’, 2006–2007). She has received a large number of prizes and commendations, e.g. in the Salon of the Young (1965), the exhibition ‘A Tribute to Wyspiański’ (1979), and the Salon of Painting and Sculpture (1997).
Her works are included in the collections of the Archdiocesan Museum in Warsaw, the National Museum in Krakow, the District Museum in Radom, as well as a number of other collections at home and abroad.