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Untitled (after Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun)

Untitled (after Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun)
signed and dated 'Ewa Juszkiewicz 2015' (on the reverse and the stretcher)
oil on canvas
39 3⁄8 x 31 ½in. (100 x 80.1cm.)
Painted in 2015
Lokal_30 Gallery, Warsaw.
Acquired from above by the present owner in 2015.
Bielsko-Biala, Galeria Bielska BWA, Ewa Juszkiewicz, The Descent Beckons, 2015, p. 107 (illustrated in colour, p. 47; installation view illustrated in colour, p. 95; with incorrect dimensions).
Kraków, Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, Art in Art, 2017.
Bologna, Archiginnasio, Sirene, 2020 (detail illustrated in colour on the front cover and p. 23).

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Lot Essay

A young woman, her face hidden by hair, stands before an atmospheric sky in Ewa Juszkiewicz’s deeply enigmatic Untitled (after Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun) (2015). Adorned with crimson garb and an elaborate feathered hat, the sitter seems to emerge from the chiaroscuro depths of eighteenth-century portraiture. The painting is an early example of the artist’s celebrated historical appropriations. It is based on Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun’s original Portrait of a Young Woman (circa 1797), held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and previously loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ‘While I was fascinated by the amazing artistry of portraits from that period—their aura, richness, and harmony’, Juszkiewicz has said, ‘I realized that most of them tended to represent women in a very stereotypical, highly idealized way, according to a male ideal of beauty’ (E. Juszkiewicz, quoted in ‘Reanimating History: Ewa Juszkiewicz and Jennifer Higgie in Conversation’, Gagosian Quarterly, 1 November 2023). Disrupting a traditionally rendered surface of oils and glazes with contemporary, surreal elements—elaborately swaddled veils, insects, botanical profusions, and braids of hair—Juszkiewicz frees portraiture’s women from centuries of restrictive aesthetic standards. Held in the same private collection since it was made in 2015, the present work has been prominently exhibited at venues including Galeria Bielska BWA, Bielsko-Biała, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow and the Archiginnasio of Bologna.

Born in Poland in 1984, Juszkiewicz studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, Gdansk, and completed a PhD at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. She first began to stage her emphatic painterly subversions to historic portraits in 2011. Drawn to the indulgently smooth surfaces of eighteenth and nineteenth-century European paintings, their technical precision and boastings of luxurious silks, lace, jewels and feathers, Juszkiewicz has sustained an interest in the veneered nature of representation throughout her career. Here, the sitter of Vigée-Le Brun’s original portrait, an unidentified Russian woman portrayed in a conventionally genteel and pleasant pose, is transformed. Her facial appearance is obfuscated and disturbed by the uncanny presence of dark hair. The strange, visceral aberration rejects the male gaze, denying the viewer any pleasure in admiring her likeness. Brushing just over her lips, the thick curls of hair weave a troubling line between desire and repulsion.

Indeed, Juszkiewicz’s dialogic practice interrogates the unstable boundaries between subject and object, the human and monstrous. Charged with psycho-erotic drama, her canvases pay homage to the Surrealists in the early twentieth century, who through their art and writing sought to conjure the dichotomous workings of the unconscious mind, imagination and fantasy. Hair was of particular interest to the group, falling under André Breton’s famous vision of ‘convulsive beauty’. Man Ray photographed women’s hair—cut and disembodied or styled to uncanny effect—in the 1930s. Meret Oppenheim’s iconic Object (1936) comprises a found teacup, saucer and spoon lined with gazelle fur. At once banal and grotesque, hair is also art historically a signifier of female identity and social status. Curator Lisa Small noted that, for centuries, hair was an ‘important site of women’s self-fashioning’ as well as ‘the focus of male anxieties around sexuality and power’ (L. Small, ‘Ewa Juszkiewicz’, Gagosian Quarterly, Winter 2020). In the present painting, Juszkiewicz transforms the boundary of the female body into an abject surface. Writhing with ambiguity, it is a site of simultaneous fascination and disquiet.

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