Nature’s Warp and Weft

This feature on Barbara Levittoux-Świderska appeared online in the run up to the Independent Art Fair in New York:

Barbara Levittoux-Świderska, Frigate [Fregata], 1972.
Copyright Estate of the Artist, Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery London and Rome

Barbara Levittoux-Świderska (1933-2019) was among the “22 Polish textile artists” whose work was shown at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of a group exhibition that toured the United States in 1977-78. Apart from Magdalena Abakanowicz, most of the artists on view would have been virtually unknown to the American public. And yet the exhibition, showcasing the so-called “Polish textile school” (a term first used by Swiss critic André Kuenzi in the context of Lausanne’s International Biennale of Textile Art), found an enthusiastic response. Levittoux-Świderska’s monumental contribution—a set of nested funnel forms made out of sisal and suspended from the ceiling—especially captured the imagination of a Washington Post critic, who called it a “marvel”.

Impressive in their sheer scale, the artist’s loosely netted, see-through pieces, hand-woven from sisal and other rough fibers, are the best-known part of her varied output, which ranges from paintings and collages with drawn elements to woven sculptural constructions and wall hangings. For Levittoux-Świderska’s solo presentation at Independent 20th Century, Richard Saltoun gallery focuses instead on pieces in a more diminutive format. Spanning six decades of her practice, these see the artist experimenting with ephemeral organic materials such as dried grass, pine needles, seeds, leaves, branches, and twigs. Beguiling yet fragile, her creations speak to our new-found ecological sensibility.

“What I seek in artistic work is a connection with nature, clarity, simplicity, and calm,” Levittoux-Świderska wrote in the catalog of a group show coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the IXION Group, which she had co-founded in 1987. “Natural and diverse materials—wool, sisal, silk, branches, metal—in their natural colors give a sense of the nobility and a certain primordial quality of matter,” she elaborated. “The composition’s simplicity and compactness are meant to convey a feeling of calm and order.” This and other such authorial statements make her work sound rather austere and Zen-like. The art historian Irena Huml, an authority on Polish textile art, noted the affinity between Levittoux-Świderska’s orderly, ascetic approach and Japanese aesthetics. 

Take the 20cm square-shaped Smudges [Smugi] (2000), whose golden, lightly curved grass blade motif, set against a black nylon backdrop, recalls Japanese lacquer writing boxes. In a series of compositions made in the 1990s, squarish frames of aluminum function as miniature looms of sorts; different kinds of grass and pine needles are drawn through the warp as if they were thread. The vertical warp is replaced by a transparent plastic strip in Grass on plastic [Trawy na plastiku] (1994) in a way that brings out the contrasting qualities of the two materials. The wispy ends of the grasses and pine needles often escape the confines of the frame, or stray in a different direction, creating pleasing whimsical and asymmetrical effects.

Several of Levittoux-Świderska’s delicate collage works on paper, card, and board presented at Independent 20th Century also feature brittle natural materials, above all dried leaves arranged into abstract patterns. In Central Comp. II [Komp. centryczna II] (2002), for instance, withered maple leaves are grouped in the center of the composition, framed by graphite lines radiating out towards the edges of the paper, as if they were heaped on a grassy patch. By contrast, the center is left void in Central Comp. I [Komp. centryczna I] (2000) aside from three intersecting stems of Lunaria annua, known as the “silver dollar plant” in English on account of the metallic sheen of the rounded pods prized in dried floral arrangements. The rest of the collage plane, echoing the shape of the dark rectangular card support, is filled with overlapping oval membranes alternating in places with the round brown seeds.

The artist’s love for nature went hand in hand with an extensive knowledge of plants and mushrooms going back to her childhood. According to her granddaughter Maria Krętowska, an artist herself, Levittoux-Świderska always spoke fondly of the Ursuline nuns at Villa Matulinek, a boarding house near Warsaw where she spent much of the Second World War after her father, a doctor and a pilot in the Polish army, perished in a concentration camp. One of the nuns was a keen herbalist and she transmitted her passion for vegetation to the young Barbara.

The artist’s early painterly production, however, is dominated by minimalistic cityscapes and portraits in which the natural world seldom features. Gdańsk II (1963) the earliest of Levittoux-Świderska’s works selected by Richard Saltoun, is an exception in this respect, since a child-like tree (or is it a leaf?) appears to hang upside-down among the northern port city’s trademark timber-framed red brick houses. Elsewhere, nature is present in the guise of billowing clouds hovering ominously above a bleak industrial landscape in the Clouds series from 1977, or stacked neatly over the rooftops in White Houses with Clouds [Białe domy z chmurami] as if they were building stones.

Levittoux-Świderska alludes to the flow of water in the richly textured sisal wall hanging Drops [Krople] (1974), where a fringe of looped threads extends the earthy vertical fabric strips, evoking rivulets of rain and plots of land alike. The roughly contemporary and equally poetic Frigate [Fregata] (1972) uses five branches as a scaffold for the white threads that resemble nautical ropes complete with knots, conjuring up the image of a sailing boat. A textile collage whose elongated form suggests a stream of water, Transparent Seaweed II [Wodorosty przejrzyste II] (2009) owes its soft blue coloring to the addition of ink. Although the hue is unusual within the artist’s highly coherent body of work, the delicate rendering of aquatic plants is entirely in keeping with Levittoux-Świderska’s lifelong meditation on the natural world.