Zofia Weiss is an art historian who specialises in the works of Wojciech Weiss, her grandfather, a prominent Polish painter and symbolist of the Young Poland movement. She is also the owner of the Zofia Weiss Gallery and the founder and president of the Wojciech Weiss Museum Foundation, which help young artists, students and graduates of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts by providing curatorial, financial and pastoral support.
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1. What inspired you to become an art historian?
I’ll respond with the question many people ask me: “What is it like to be a granddaughter of such a great painter?” I say it is a tremendous obligation, a life sentence, but one I have never wanted to free myself from. This is why I studied art history at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
My grandfather Wojciech Weiss (1875–1950) was a student, a professor, and the rector at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, as well as a member of the Vienna Secession. His works have been exhibited all over Europe and in the United States, from the Exposition Universelle in 1900 in Paris, through several Biennales in Venice, to the exhibition at the Pittsburgh Institute of Art. He died before I was born, but I grew up listening to the stories told by my grandmother Aneri Irena Weiss (1888–1981), also a painter and a poet.
It was a magnificent childhood, spent in the studio among paintings and the smell of paint, in the elegant interiors of the house furnished with great taste by my grandparents. The home library was full of books on art, which I devoured with great enthusiasm. I knew who I wanted to be long before finishing secondary school.
The Art History Institute offered lectures by wonderful world-class professors, then I encountered art history in England, primarily through the distinguished art historian prof. Marcia Pointon and prof. Richard Thomson, a great scholar of French art of the turn of the 20th century, which I was especially interested in. All the meetings with those experts, as well as my great passion, made it possible for me to continue working and developing as a researcher and museologist. And, what is more, it so happened that I have always been, ever since graduating, an expert on Weiss, writing and organising exhibitions. But I have also grown to love other artists.
2. Do you have an all-time favourite piece of art?
This, of course, is a question one cannot answer definitively. There are so many factors that influence our choices and affections that instead of one piece of art I can see an entire “musée d’imaginaire.” But there is one painting I love with my whole being. It was in our home until it was moved to the National Museum in Krakow. It’s a portrait of my grandmother Aneri Irena Weiss, painted in 1908 by her husband, Wojciech Weiss, when those two extraordinary artists were married.
It’s humble but full of deep expression. The double doors of the house are open, and she stands in the doorway. The open window lets in a beam of light, which reflects on her face and clothes. A long, black robe falls from her shoulders, revealing an informal morning outfit. One of her hands rests on her hip, while the other supports her tilted head. An oval ruby pendant glistens on her neck, and her dark hair is gathered at the back of her head, emphasizing the delicate, slender neck. In the painting, Irena is only twenty, and her face, filled with gentleness and peace, with the eyes made more expressive by the black eyebrows, is a picture of youth and great beauty. First shown at the XI Expositione Internationale d’Arte in Venice in 1910, and at dozens of other exhibitions afterwards, the painting seduces the audiences with its sensuality. Weiss himself used to say that painting is like a love letter.
3. What is the most useful thing you have learnt over the course of your career?
Art history is undergoing significant changes, the humanities in general are evolving, and the crisis of universities is a topic of debate. I follow all these transformations closely; in the 1990s I even taught a course called New Art History. It’s a term that covers all the phenomena in the Anglo-American history of art which have called into question the traditional model of art history. What have I learned over the course of my career? I have learned to be faithful to my beliefs and to respect the values with which I was brought up.
4. Is there a specific moment in your career that you are most proud of?
I established the Wojciech Weiss Museum Foundation. The idea had been germinating for a long time, while every year of my work with museums brought new experiences, and the international contacts opened new perspectives. Finally, we signed the deed in 2006. It was an incredibly important moment in the realisation of my family’s idea, which has ben there as long as I can remember. The Foundation is an attempt to fulfil the spiritual legacy I inherited.
The name Wojciech Weiss Museum emphasises its mission of providing access and education. It gives me the strength and the unending enthusiasm for work which have made it possible for me to complete so many projects, as well as extend the Foundation’s work to other artists, including young students and graduates of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. I have created for them the vast space of the Zofia Weiss Gallery. I’m interested in the phenomenon of the chain of generations, of passing down traditions, of new things growing out of what has passed but left its mark, an inheritance of ideas, forms, and colours.
5. What is your favourite contribution to Selvedge?
The November/December issue of the Selvedge is the first I have the honour of contributing to, but the cordiality of the editors immediately made me feel like I belonged to the circle of the contributors. My article discusses the unendingly inspiring culture of the indigenous Hutsuls of the Eastern Carpathian Mountains, which had such a powerful influence on the Polish artists of the turn of the 20th century, or the Pont-Aven School gathered around Paul Gauguin. It is worth noting that now, as the eyes of the entire world are turned towards war-torn Ukraine, we can discover artists there who are also inspired by this culture. My article has two protagonists: an old master, professor of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts Władysław Jarocki, and a young graduate of the Academy Julia Tsapurak, whose homeland is Ukraine. They are separated by over a hundred years.
6. Do you have a favourite issue of Selvedge?
Seveldge is a magazine which keeps the highest editorial standards. I became familiar with it thanks to my contacts with the William Morris Gallery and the friendship with Julia Griffin, the curator of the wonderful exhibition “Young Poland,” which took place in London at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022.
My favourite issue must be the current one, as it is the first one to contain my text. The article is a record of many important moments in my life and in one of the first big projects I realised just after the graduation, that is the monographic exhibition of Władysław Jarocki (1879–1965), with the accompanying publication available also in English. Like Jarocki, I have found the mysterious and incredibly colourful world of the Hutsuls fascinating. My meeting with the young Ukrainian artists who, as a student of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, brought her paintings of traditional Hutsul dress to my gallery was an incredible coincidence, and opened up new perspectives.
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Thank you, Zofia, for providing an insight into your childhood, beautifully expressing your thoughts on your favourite painting of your grandmother Aneri, and for imparting a seed of wisdom to be faithful in one’s beliefs.