What is beauty? Spotlight on: Ewa Juszkiewicz

Warsaw-based artist Ewa Juszkiewicz has been creating 18th and 19th Century-influenced portraiture for nearly 10 years, but they come with a twist. The subjects of her paintings always have their faces obscured, be it with a piece of cloth, plants and fungi, or elaborate arrangements of hair. The concept of these paintings? They shatter conventional ideas about beauty.

Portraiture in the West goes all the way back to antiquity, particularly Ancient Rome and Greece, where lifelike depictions of people appeared throughout sculpture and on coins. In the 18th and 19th Century, artists depicted subjects in the latest fashions, and those in the Romantic era often painted portraits of ‘beautiful’ women. All you need do is a quick Google image search of portraiture for this era, and you’ll realise their poses, clothing, gestures and facial expressions are very similar and “show almost no individuality”. Portraits of women were simply for aesthetic pleasure, and the subjects became objects of beauty and perfection, erasing all personality and humanity from them.

On the idea behind her artwork, Juszkiewicz expresses a desire to “revitalise history” and was “particularly fascinated by projects that disrupt stereotypical canons of beauty and show the female figure in an innovative way, reshaping its form and image.” Her paintings adopt the visual conventions of portraiture and then deeply subvert them, altering them and asking her audience to consider the cultural afterlife of these images. Just some of the inspiration behind her work comes from the eighteenth-century portrait painter Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) and the modernist Paul Klee (1879-1940). By “deconstructing the original painting, she can deconstruct the conventions behind it”, creating a new idea of what beauty is.

Concealing the face does not hide the beauty of the figure nor undermine their societal status, but creates free and fantastical portrayals of women. Her artwork doesn’t try to rewrite history either, but creates “a new story; a future history for the paintings’ anonymous – and more often than not nameless – protagonists.”

Juszkiewicz’ work is sometimes described as “feminist appropriation art” as she typically reimagines portraits originally painted by men. The faceless women push us to ask questions about human nature and challenges the boundaries of what we perceive as beautiful. We can no longer admire their faces, so these women are freed of the male gaze, no longer objectified and judged against the rigors of ideal beauty. In this new life, they are completely autonomous, and empowered by depersonalisation.

There’s something quite surreal and disconcerting about these portraits. Juszkiewicz had already subjected traditional portraits to “various deformations” and examined “what effects [she] could achieve by means of distortion.” Her artwork disrupts the conservative image of female beauty, juxtaposing these portraits of traditionally attractive women with elements of the grotesque, creating new, surreal images. This forces viewers of her paintings to ask ‘what is beauty?’ and what makes something beautiful? The interweaving of elements of tradition and those derived from nature releases the vitality that is hidden “behind convention” and shows that anything can be beautiful; society just needs to dismantle its preconceptions.

The artist’s exhibition of new works at Gagosian’s Park & 75 space on New York’s Upper East Side runs through January 4, 2021 and is viewable through the gallery’s front windows. Juszkiewicz’s portraiture is inventive, subversive and incredibly imaginative, and reminds us that beauty is subjective, and even today, it can be both a blessing and a curse.


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Nerisse Appleby

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September 2021
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