Who were you, Egga?

by Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, art historianKUL University, Lublin, Poland, 2012

For a long time, Egga van Haardt was a mysterious acquaintance of Schulz, a usurper, a schemer and, in general, a suspicious person who, according to the artist’s account, made significant changes in the text regarding her art works written by him (“Tygodnik Ilustrowany” 1938, No. 40). We do not know what really happened and what was the cause of Schulz’s irritation and whether Egga really distorted some facts, bearing in mind that the above-mentioned “review” is maintained in the typical flowery style of the writer and Marta Bartosik, comparing it with fragments of prose, convincingly showed various inter-textual games in which it is entangled. Disregarding the course of events in the above-mentioned case, Egga van Haardt was an important person for Schulz. With unimportant people, as it is known, he did not deal. He was fascinated by Egga, he visited her in Poznań; undoubtedly, he was also impressed by her art; she remained the only person, apart from him, who illustrated his prose (short-story Kometa, “Wiadomości Literackie” 1938, No. 35), and this definitely could not have taken place without his approval. So, Egga van Haardt was an artist. Her identity can be determined today: even though she was born in Lviv, her father was, supposedly, a Dutch sailor – thence her name. The first fact is confirmed by an inscription on the tomb on one of Jerusalem cemeteries: Ś. † P. EGGA VAN HAARDT POLSKA ARTYS[T]KA MALARKA POLISH PAINTER BORN ON 2.XI.1912 IN LVIV DIED ON 25.III.1944 IN JERUSALEM Jerusalem newspapers also wrote about the Dutch father of the artist (“Gazeta Polska”, August 22, 1941; “Na Straży”, October – December, 1946). This is authenticated by the artist being awarded with, during a vernissage, a “Dutch emblem to show respect for her cultural and propaganda work” by a representative of a Dutch consulate (“Gazeta Polska”, December 28, 1941). Bruno Schulz wrote about her: “She dresses with individual elegance, with a slightly artistic hint, tying her dress tightly around her slim waist with a wide leather belt. In her impressive attire, with her slender legs and a subtle head whose features become enclosed in an ideal rotating oval of Modigliani – she could be mistaken for a young ephebe.” The author of such words was under a clear impression of his heroine; he did not grant a similar paean to any other woman, and he had many female friends. However, Schulz did not stop with oversensitive generalizations, yet indicated the sources of creativity of the forgotten artist: the statement “she is the participant of proto-beginnings” meant a turn to ancient roots of the European culture; at the same time, he emphasized that the artist maintained her “own, immaculate I.” He perceived her art as a syncretic work inspired by oriental, Egyptian and Mexican culture and former European art with Gothic in central place. This analysis could be extended by delineating a wider perspective, i.e. combining the character of Egga’s works with the tradition of turning points in culture, such as Mannerism and Rococo with the typical phenomenon of chinoiserie, Art Nouveau, as well as a narrower perspective – by conducting detailed comparative studies. The writer’s acquaintance with Egga began probably in 1937. At the beginning of January next year, he was writing in a letter to Zenon Waśniewski that he was staying in Poznań “at a friend’s” place and this friend is identified by Jerzy Ficowski as van Haardt. They probably also saw each other in Warsaw. Moreover, they wrote letters: the only preserved letter of Egga (dated at March 23, 1938, written in Poznań) confirms an attempt at making Thomas Mann acquainted with a work of Schulz written in German. The writer mentions this in his letter (of February 21, 1938) to Romana Halpern, having informed her earlier that Egga with a friend enthusiastically evaluated his prose and saw its affinity with The Tales of Jacob, which gave rise to the above-mentioned initiative. Egga assigned her arabesques to illustrate Die Heimkehr, similarly to Kometa before that. These events chronologically precede embitterment of their relation. Therefore, in the course of one year (1938), the acquaintance transformed from friendship to straightforwardly hostile relations. However, Schulz’s relations with Egga van Haardt cannot be separated from her personal story. Therefore, who was Egga? She could not have been anybody accidental, as was suggested a number of years ago by Jerzy Ficowski. Her story is very mysterious. Among her admirers was Witold Gombrowicz and her husband was Jerzy Brodnicki, a well known Poznań judge. The former played a decisive role in her life. This should not be surprising because he was her husband – however, his role is inglorious – everything indicates that Brodnicki, after Egga’s death, left for Paris and there, as an abstractionist, made a career under the name of Georges van Haardt, appropriating her artistic accomplishments. It is interesting that until the moment of Egga’s death in 1944, no fine art works signed by Brodnicki appear in exhibitions and in the press; however, one can find works signed “Egga van Haardt.” On the other hand, just a few years later, in 1951, in the Parisian Galerie Nina Dausset, a presentation of works of Georges van Haardt is held. The painter rapidly acquires recognition, which is noted by the experts, such as Michel Seuphor and Pierre Courthion. They write that van Haardt was born in Poznań as Jerzy Brodnicki and debuted before the war with an exhibition in the Warsaw salon of Garliński (in reality, Egga’s exhibition took place there). This was the moment when the tradition of putting the name of Jerzy Brodnicki in brackets after the name Egga van Haardt began in Poland. This practice is meant to explain that even though the work was signed by her, it was produced by him. This version is sanctioned by an entry included in 1962 in the popular Vollmer lexicon. It was maintained by press releases, as well as reliable scientific studies. It was also present in catalogues of national exhibitions of works of Brodnicki – van Haardt, which took place in Poland between September 1967 and March 1969. In the correspondence with Janusz Bogucki preceding preparations for an exhibition in the Warsaw Galeria Współczesna, van Haardt wrote straightforwardly: “I am happy that the exhibition will be held <a few> metres away from my very first exhibition in 1937 at <Garłacz> (Garliński), almost directly opposite Tuwim’s flat, on the 60th anniversary of my life and the 30th anniversary of my uninterrupted painting (disregarding the period between 1916 and 1925).” Possibly, there must been some gossip circling in Warsaw or Bogucki found out something on his own and was asking questions, because in one of this letters, van Haardt explained: “The issue of my current name [emphasis by the sender of the letter] was definitely dealt with by Polish authorities after the passing away of my first wife in Jerusalem [in] 1944 and by English authorities at that time in Palestine (Israel did not exist then), as well as by French authorities in order to avoid any misunderstandings; it was important for me, according to Egga’s last words to save <the company> which [sic!] I started so well […] at Garliński’s etc.” he added categorically: “Obviously, Egga did not sign any of my works” and emphasized that the issue was unpleasant and painful for him, but should it be necessary, he would present “all OFFICIAL photocopies.” On the other hand, in the proposals of corrections to the biographic note which was going to be included in the catalogue to the Warsaw exhibition, he took into account bibliography, including “an extensive article” by Schulz from “Tygodnik Ilustrowany” regarding Egga, as it is known. It is interesting to note that even if people were gossiping in Warsaw, they officially believed one party and accepted one course of events. Could this be solely explained by the fact that Egga was dead and therefore it was easier to forget her, whereas Brodnicki lived, painted and it was difficult to undermine his words? His version was maintained, even though Mieczysław Choynowski, writing about his visit at Egga’s and Jerzy’s just before the war (in their Poznań flat), emphasised that during the conversation he got an impression that she was the executor of his artistic concepts. It is clear that he did not know how to evaluate the situation: on the one hand, he believed Brodnicki and on the other, he was ready to accept Egga’s contribution to their joint (?) work. Choynowski’s memoir appeared in response to the edition of a volume of poetry of Bruno Schulz, where Jerzy Ficowski included the writer’s letters that were found and, among them, the correspondence with Romana Halpernowa, which is quoted here. In the commentary, he added that the Egga mentioned in the letter was a Swedish graphic artist. After the war, this was the only case of this type – even though we do know today that the commentary is imprecise, yet Egga is considered an artist. Choynowski’s text had the nature of rectification of information provided by Ficowski. However, Ficowski stated in this reply that similarly to Schulz’s contemporaries, he fell prey to mystification, but that there was too little information to definitely settle the riddle of the Poznań couple. He wrote in his well-balanced commentary: “Never in Poland – until today – has it been stated publicly – and, what is more, never has it been proved that Egga signed the works of Jerzy Brodnicki and not hers. Revelation of mystification from the Seuphora dictionary has its only source in Brodnicki’s statement (Georges van Haardt) made after Egga’s death. I do not intend to question the credibility of the French painter, but it is not necessary to prove now that this version can be accepted at this moment solely as a possibility and not as something certain.” Soon afterwards, this meritorious and outstanding expert on Schulz’s biography corrected his opinion and became inclined to Brodnicki’s version, maintaining his standpoint in subsequent publications, including the last one, the monumental edition of Schulz’s correspondence: Book of Letters of 2002. In the commentary to the above-mentioned Egga’s letter to Schulz, we can read: “Egga van Haardt (approx. 1914 – approx. 1944): first name and family name given by Judge Brodnicki to his young concubine whom he got to know when she was selling cigarettes at a Poznań restaurant. The circle of his friends believed the opinion promoted by him that Egga was a talented artist, a foreigner, who was supported by Brodnicki in her artistic development. He co-organized her exhibitions and illustrative cooperation with such magazines as <Wiadomości Literackie>. Already at the beginning of the war, in 1939 or in 1940, they were both abroad. Egga died after a few years in France. Then it was revealed that all the graphic works signed by her name were created by Jerzy Brodnicki. Brodnicki was their actual author, but apparently holding important functions in a state office he preferred not to expose himself as an artist. On the other hand, Egga was just <a company>, which he took over after her death with her name, operating in France as Georges van Haardt – male embodiment of the beautiful Egga, who played her Poznań role so well that neither Schulz, nor Witkacy nor any other representative of art ever questioned her personal data and profession – even when forged deformations of Schulz’s text about her should have evoked distrust as activities which did not respect the elementary principles of grammar and basic sense. Presented as a mysterious Scandinavian Muse at snobbish conventicles, Egga confirmed this by her broken Polish. Only few knew that she was a concierge’s daughter, half-illiterate, who finished only a few grades of common school; nevertheless, she was also full of charm and had a significant dose of inborn intelligence.” As can be seen, numerous misunderstandings arose with respect to Egga’s identity as with respect to her artistic accomplishments. Was Egga really a usurper and her friend, Kazimierz Jerzy Brodnicki, a Poznań judge between 1933 and 1939, hid his authorship of works signed by her in fear of the “anathema” of his milieu? Jerzy Ficowski’s perspective, adopted finally mainly on the basis of – treated by him solely as a possibility – Brodnicki’s own version recounted by various authors, gives rise to questions. If I were a declared feminist, I would say that it promotes solely male point of view. Men’s words can be trusted, whereas women – similarly to children and fish – should not speak. Superiority of male arguments – in common reception – was increased in this case by the fact that, as I mentioned before, their representative lived longer than his victim; the woman robbed of her artistic accomplishments, as well as her biography, could no longer claim anything. If we agree on Brodnicki’s version and believe that Egga also conceded to it, not revealing officially before anybody that the works presented during the pre-war exhibitions were not her own, then how are we supposed to treat the post-mortem exhibition of her almost three hundred works organized in the Jewish National Museum in Jerusalem in September 1944? These were very interesting oil paintings, pastels, watercolours, linoleum block prints, leather engravings, terracotta, wax and majolica sculptures, pencil drawings, as well as pen and ink drawings. A small catalogue published on this occasion contains only a list of items. The character of works, the talent and the invention of the author, the impressive freedom in using different materials, the boldness of various means of expression, the courage of composition, the skill of making reckless perspective shortcuts is described in a brief “attempt at synthesis” by Aleksander Schorr, provided with many reproductions and entitled simply Egga van Haardt, published in Jerusalem also on the year of the artist’s death (edition of Polskie Centrum Informacji na Wschód in two hundred copies in two languages – Polish and English). It is interesting to note that Egga’s exhibitions were widely commented upon by the press; critics mentioned that when leaving the country, she took some of her works, but lost them. However, when she settled in Palestine, she immersed herself in work in order to repair this damage. This was a difficult task, because she was living in bad conditions and suffering from tuberculosis, which killed her. Finally, she left approx. one thousand drawings and several hundred paintings, graphic works and sculptures. Unfortunately, today it is not known where they are. What made Brodnicki hide the truth and why were his works still shown under his wife’s name (in press reviews, she is sometimes referred to as Egga van Haardt – Brodnicka)? What was further fate of such works and what would be the story of these two people if Egga did not die prematurely? She died after a few years of war-time wandering; the route may be reconstructed on the basis of stamps in Brodnicki’s passport, preserved in the Polish Library in Paris. Most probably, already in 1939 both of them left Poznań for Warsaw and from there, they set off to the south – through Romania and Italy (from 1941 they stayed in Greece and then in Turkey); finally, they arrived in Palestine. Under the new name – Georges van Haardt – Brodnicki presented his works for the first time during the 8th UNESCO Conference in Beirut, where he lived between 1948 and 1950 (from 1950 with his second wife, Czesława Pogorzelska, called Czi by her friends). Subsequently, the married couple left for Paris, where they settled. Soon, he started to participate in artistic life – successfully. He created paintings in varied poetics of non-geometric abstraction; sometimes, these were delicate collages in which he used dried plants. Signs which he used in his paintings seem to echo far-eastern calligraphy. Sometimes, they resemble action painting – compositions of Hans Hartung made with a single gesture. Egga’s cut-outs also had exotic filiations, emphasized by reviewers of the exhibition at Garliński’s. Mieczysław Wallis wrote accurately (similarly to Schulz): “[…] from the point of view of form, it is difficult to compare such compositions with anything else in the contemporary Polish art. Their weirdness, their peculiar exoticism brings to mind scarecrows and hybrids of Roman miniaturists or flat puppets from the Java theatre of shadows.” In the inter-war period, reaching for non-European sources was a clear sign of independence in thinking about art, a mark of individuality; therefore, it had a completely different weight than after the war, when the echoes of far-eastern calligraphy widely resounded in abstract painting, both European and American. In this context, the following issue appears: does the probably common source of inspiration allow for surmising that there was an artistic relation between the works singed by Egga and her husband? Her and his creativity is brought together by the name – but is there something else? This is definitely a problem requiring wider treatment. It is equally important as the problem of graphological determinations (there are letters signed with Egga’s name regarding issues related to exhibitions; it would be worthwhile comparing them with post-war signatures of Mr. van Haardt). The answer in both cases may be affirmative – I cannot deny it. The core of thinking about a painting as a separate, autonomic, anti-narrative or even an abstract whole is similar in both cases, whereas the duct of certain signatures of Brodnicki – van Haardt (“van Haardt”) resembles the nature of signatures left by Egga (“Egga van Haardt”) under her correspondence preserved in the Institute of Art of PAN addressed between 1938 and 1939 to the predecessor of this institution – the Institute of Art Propaganda, including to its director, Juliusz Starzyński. However, if it turned out that Brodnicki really wrote letters to the Institute of Art Propaganda signing them as Egga, it cannot be ruled out that she did not have her share in the execution of works which appeared at exhibitions as her own, especially in the light of materials provided by the above-mentioned catalogue and numerous reviews of her exhibitions from the 1940’s, i.e. from the period preceding her premature death. Therefore, it would be more just to assume that both of them were artistically talented and cooperated. In any case, Egga has to be given her biography back. Egga lived. It is known when she lived; it is known how she looked and where she was buried. Therefore, her biography has a real framework, which would be good to activate, to revive what was within it, to recall the patriarchal spell. Would Schulz’s role be of key importance in this process? It seems that if it were not for his acquaintance with the “young ephebe” in spe, we would be dealing with a completely overlooked biography. Artistically, accomplishments of Egga van Haardt defend themselves and do not need any male support.