Egga van Haardt

author: Anna Kaszuba-Dębska, 2012


translated by Scotia Gilroy

Egga van Haardt was born on November 2nd, 1912, in Lwów, according to the inscription on her tombstone in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Creating her own public image, she claimed to have had a Polish mother and a Dutch sailor as a father. According to another source, while the day and month of her birth are the same, she was born in Poznań as Elisabeth von Krammer, the daughter of Stanisław and Wiktoria. In Poznań society she was known as Frania, or Franciszka, and her husband, Jerzy Kazimierz Brodnicki, called her Ali. In her public life as a professional artist she used the name Egga van Haardt. Considering these numerous different names, one must assume that she used Egga van Haardt as an artist pseudonym. Interesting also is the enigmatic symbol in the shape of an arrow pointed upwards, crossed by two parallel lines, which she used. It could be interpreted as a heraldic crest. If this is what it really was, then we have to consider the old heraldic idea of the symbol of the fox representing cleverness, slyness and ability to make use of military strategies and remarkable intelligence for coping with challenging situations. In creating an image for herself with a symbol of an arrow crossed by two parallel lines, which she used as a seal not only in her work but also on her shirts and the ties that she constantly wore, did Egga wish to bestow upon herself and her work some kind of specific value? Did she perhaps subconsciously want to suggest some kind of cunning idea to the viewer? Maybe she did not want to be a salamander, as Bruno Schulz described her in the essay he wrote about her. Was it perhaps an ancestral symbol, identifying her as belonging to a specific social group?

In about 1937 Egga married Jerzy Brodnicki, son of Aniela Kierska, neé Szafarkiewicz. He was a lawyer from Poznań, five years older than her, living on Skarbowa Street. The Poznań phone book from 1939 indicates that at this same address, 3 Skarbowa Street, there was a pension run by Zofia Kierska, who was most likely a relative of Jerzy's mother. This was undoubtedly where Egga had her painting studio in pre-war years.

Jerzy Brodnicki belonged to one of the oldest and largest fraternities in Poznań, "Primislavia," founded while he was a student in 1927 by a group of young people who were descended from the landed gentry. He might have been one of the founders of this group. Affiliated with Poznań University, during its entire existence it maintained an elite character, with members that were young scholars from higher social classes. It was closely connected socially with another Poznań-based fraternity of landed gentry called "Corona." The main motto of the group was Vitam Patriae – honorem nemini [Sacrifice your life for the Homeland – sacrifice your honor for nobody]. It was connected to the conservative fraternity "Myśl Mocarstwowa" ["Powerful Thought"]. From 1932 it was part of a group of fraternities that formed a nationwide union of fraternities which supported Józef Piłsudski – the Federation of Polish Academic Fraternities.

Would Kazimierz Brodnicki, whose father, Witold, was from a family with the Łodzia coat of arms and was a descendant from members of the Great Sejm, and whose mother, Aniela Szafarkiewicz, was of the landed gentry with the Prus coat of arms, have brought into such an elite milieu a wife who was, according to Jerzy Ficowski, illiterate? Growing up in an environment with such aristocratic ideals, wouldn't he rather choose for a life partner a woman, perhaps a foreigner, from the proper social class and with the proper family connections? And if he really fell madly in love with an illiterate cigarette salesgirl, perhaps this symbol of the arrow, which connects her with an ancient coat of arms, added splendour to his beloved woman and became the way in which she signed her work? Egga's identity is difficult to unravel. In the territory around Poznań in the 1930s there were landowners with the surname Hardt, and in 1936 there was someone named Eryk Hardt, living at 10 Rymarska Street in Poznań, listed in the Polish Register of PKO Account Owners. This certainly proves the affluence of the Hardts, but there is no clear evidence showing whether Egga belonged to this family or not.

Not only do Egga's origins remain a riddle, but also the authenticity of her works signed with the crossed arrow. After her death, the authorship of her works was claimed by her lawyer husband, Jerzy van Haardt – Brodnicki. Egga, however, to a great extent seems to have been a talented and hard-working person, judging by the numerous works of art that she constantly produced. Could a lawyer, extremely occupied by his professional career, have created so much artwork on his own?

According to the biographical information gathered by the Jewish National Museum in Jerusalem in 1944, Egga created her first drawings and graphic works when she was eight years old. In 1925 she did her first watercolor paintings, and in 1931 she began to study sculpting and black-and-white graphic techniques. The following year she learned to do woodcuts and ceramics. She was an extremely prolific, versatile artist who was constantly seeking new, cutting-edge artistic techniques and ideas. She did illustrations with black paper cutouts inspired by African art, which, in the Polish art world of the 1930s, must have been seen as brave, fresh and avant-garde. With the technique of paper cutouts, she illustrated Bruno Schulz's story "The Comet" in 1937. She was the only artist whom Schulz, who was also a visual artist, allowed to illustrate his prose, and the only artist to whom he devoted a lengthy essay. In January 1938, Schulz stayed with her in Poznań. He wrote: I am staying with very nice, intelligent people. He met her with Witold Gombrowicz: Gombrowicz liked Egga Haardt very much, he intends to keep in touch with her in Warsaw, she impressed him very much. In April, Aniela Kierska, Jerzy's mother took Schulz's story, illustrated with Egga's arabesque cutouts, to Thomas Mann in Zurich. Perhaps this was an arrangement connected with the text about Egga which appeared in Tygodnik Ilustrowany [The Illustrated Weekly] after her debut in Garliński's salon in Warsaw, in June 1937, in which Bruno wrote: She dresses in a distinctive manner, in a somewhat artistic style, binding her dress tightly at her narrow waist with a broad leather belt. In her striking attire, on her slender legs, with her refined head, where occasionally lines appear, only to dissolve in her ideal, Modiglianiesque profile.

Were the long, slender legs of this elegantly dressed artist the cause of the jealousy, rivalry and flurry of letters exchanged between Gombrowicz and Schulz? This seems likely, even though in a letter to his friend Roma Halpern, Schulz wrote: As for Egga Haardt – I'm not involved with her, and in general there is not much danger of me being involved... Despite this, I will write to Gombrowicz asking him not to compete with me. It's very nice of him that he is dealing with this matter so amicably.

After the publication of Schulz's essay in Tygodnik Ilustrowany, there was a drastic estrangement between Schulz and Egga. To Schulz's great dismay, Egga introduced her own corrections to parts of Schulz's text concerning her art, without even consulting with him. It must have taken great courage and strength of persuasion to convince the editor that it was acceptable to introduce changes without asking for the author's permission. Not surprisingly, Schulz felt bitter about this and asked his friends for advice about making a correction in the press, while, at the same time, he was afraid of starting a scandal, claiming that Egga possessed too strong an influence, which would leave him in an unfavorable position. As a result, a correction never appeared. After Egga's debut in Garliński's salon, where 150 of her works were exhibited, including gouaches, pastel drawings and oil paintings, there were several other exhibits later that year in Munich, Katowice and Kraków. In 1938 she had an exhibition at Zak Gallery in Paris of 37 of her works, including her studies of ornamental art as well as her first graphic prints.

In 1939 she worked on a cycle of works from the perspective of a bird in flight. Unfortunately, at the outbreak of the war she lost almost her entire artistic output in a fire in Warsaw. She and her husband decided to emigrate. The Brodnicki family, together with his mother, Aniela Kierska, escaped from Poland and managed to reach the south of Europe. In 1940 they stopped in Rome, where Egga was productive and did 30 oil paintings, which she exhibited in the Excelsior Hotel. In organizing this exhibit and finding a place to stay in Rome, she probably made use of Aniela Kierska's family connections, in particular her cousin, Karol Mieczysław Radoński, who was a Roman Catholic bishop. They followed him to the Holy Land, and thanks to his help, they stayed in the center of Jerusalem at a Catholic travellers' hostel. Egga never stopped working. In April 1941, she went to an exhibition at the Collège des Frères that was inaugurated by Bishop Radoński, Jerzy's relative. Gazeta Polska printed the following on Sunday, December 28th, 1941: On the 26th day of this month at 11:30 a.m., Dr. Tarnowski opened an exhibition of art by E. van Haardt in the Collège des Frères, and welcomed crowds of distinguished guests. The room, which had a museum-like atmosphere, was decorated with Polish, English and Dutch flags, as well as bouquets of flowers that had been sent by admirers. The ceremony was honored with speeches by Bishop Radoński on behalf of the exhibition's patrons, Latin Patriarch Father Maat and O. Borkowski, a representative of the Franciscan monastery. Father Maat gave a speech on behalf of the Dutch consulate and colony, and then he awarded the artist with an emblem in recognition of her work in the name of culture and propaganda. The speeches emphasized the following issues: 1. That the work of this artist is highly valuable to Polish culture abroad, since in the nearly 200 works of art collected for the exhibition, all of which were created outside of Poland, the artist has expressed great talent, and has documented the boundlessness of the Polish spirit through her strength and perseverance. 2. That this is an exceptional opportunity for Palestinians to become acquainted with an outstanding, talented Polish artist with a very wide and varied range of material. 3. That the value of the propaganda aspect of this exhibit is of enormous significance for all of Poland. Ambassadors and consuls from American, Greek,Yugoslavian and Czech institutions are present in the crowd of people who have gathered.

Roughly 1,000 people visited the exhibition over the course of three days, Egga gave numerous interviews in the press and on the radio, and part of the money earned from the exhibition was collected by Bishop Radoński in aid of Polish refugees from Russia. The exhibition was very successful and there was a lot of coverage of it in the Polish and English-language press. Dr. Maizels, an esteemed art expert, stated in The Palestine Post: The exhibition, consisting of about 200 works of art, is surely the largest exhibit in Jerusalem by one artist, or at least by a woman artist. The qualitative value of the exhibit exceeds its quantitative value. She was referred to in the English press as a Polish-Dutch artist and connections were found in her work to Dutch painting and Van Gogh. Dr. Grunt dedicated a monograph to her, an excerpt of which was published in Gazeta Polska in February 1942.

Egga participated in many group exhibitions. In March 1943, Misze Narkiss, the director of the National Hebrew Museum in Bezalel, opened Egga's exhibition and purchased many of her works for the museum. He was a huge proponent of her art, and organized two more exhibitions for her. The Polish, English, Jewish and Italian press reported on the phenomenon of Egga's paintings. She began a stunning career. She had another exhibition in the National Museum in Eritrea, where about 80 of her terracotta works were displayed. Constantly in a creative fever, she did not waste time in idle social meetings, and was aware of the lack of time at her disposal. She contracted tuberculosis. She was conscious of her deteriorating health. She died on March 25th, 1944, at the age of 32.

Most likely her death resulted from a hemorrhage on a day when there was fighting between English troops and Jewish terrorists, and the doctor that had been summoned was unable to reach her in time.

After Egga's death, her widower, Jerzy Brodnicki, fell into despair and became suicidal, and spent all of his time drinking and painting. His mother, Aniela, tried to help her son. She contacted a correspondent in Jerusalem and coaxed him into writing that Egga van Haardt "was apparently buried but had not died, that apparently she had died, but had not been buried." And thus in The American Weekly on March 10th, 1946, an article appeared revealing that Egga van Haardt was none other than Jerzy Brodnicki himself. Two years after the publication of this article, Mosze Narkiss, director of the Bazalel Museum, stated in a speech at the opening of a van Haardt-Brodnicki exhibition: Resurrections in Palestine do not shock us. Nothing is able to surprise us anymore.

Egga van Haardt's final resting spot is in the Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem, and the inscription on her tombstone, "A Polish Artist," is still visible today.