In Search of ‘Wonderland’

by   JAN WIKTOR SIENKIEWICZ

 

From Antonowo to London

Halina Maria Krzywicz‑Nowohońska1 was born on
2 February 1914 in Antonowo in the Vilnius region in
the district of Grodzieńsk on a family estate belonging to
landowner Antoni Krzywicz‑Nowohoński2 and his wife
Larysa Domańska. At the beginning of the Polish‑Bolshevik
war the Nowohoński family were forced to abandon their
estate and leave the area of Vilnius. Together with her family
Halina found herself in Jarosław on the Volga. Just after
her arrival in Ukraine, Halina’s father died unexpectedly.
In 1920 Halina returned with her mother to Antonowo,
which was seriously damaged during the war; however,
they would not stay in their family house for long. Shortly
after, they moved to Warsaw3, then they moved back to
Antonowo, only to settle in Vilnius were Halina started
regular school at the age of ten. After finishing a 3‑year
education at the Czartoryski Gymnasium, she continued
her secondary education for 6 years at the Liceum
Filomatów in Vilnius. Upon graduation she moved on to
study painting at the Stefan Batory University under the
supervision of Professor Michał Rouba. Previously, she had
attended evening courses on painting run by the Professor
already during her secondary education — mainly because
of the encouragement she received from her arts teacher at
school, Kazimiera Adamska, who happened to be the wife
of Michał Rouba. So even though, as she said herself, there
was no tradition of painting in her family, her choice of
studies was seriously influenced by the atmosphere of her
family home, in which they cultivated musical traditions4.
In 1936, at the age of 22, Halina Nowohońska married
an engineer called Stanisław Jastrzębiec‑Więckowski, Capral
of the Third Regiment of Podhale Rifles (Strzelcy Podhalańscy
— the name for the mountain infantry units). During the
campaign in September 1939, he served as an aide‑de‑camp
to General Józef Ustroń from the 21st Mountain Division.
The marriage did not last long. Halina Więckowska’s
husband died in 1941 in one of the German POW camps.
Her mother died in the same year, on the way of their escape
to Lithuania, from where Więckowska planned to leave for
Canada through Vladivostok. Finally, due to the beginning
of the German‑Soviet war Halina found herself in Moscow.
With the assistance of her uncle General Strzemiński, who
was staying at that time in England, she received a British
visa and through Odessa and Turkey she reached Haifa6. That
was where she joined a women’s assistance service at YMCA
which was forming by the II Corpus of the Polish Army,
where she became a decorator, helping with decoration of
military interiors, like community centres, casinos, officers’
quarters, soldiers’ tents etc., and creating scenography for
school performances. As she later recalled, “for many years
I would decorate day‑rooms for soldiers in military clubs;
I would organize and prepare performances to commemorate
anniversaries, festivals and visits of important officials, for
instance that of General Władysław Sikorski. We even staged
Halka with stage‑props made with whatever bits and pieces
that were at hand. We turned Australian hats into highlander
hats and out of various pieces of fabric we would sew stage
costumes”7. For the scenography for Halka Halina received
special thanks from General Sikorski, and he “promised to lead
her in the first pair in a traditional Polish dance, the Mazurek,
which they would dance in Warsaw in a free Poland”.

 

The new geopolitical situation in Poland after 1945
practically obliterated the prospect of her return to
Poland9. Halina Więckowska, like thousands of Polish
women forced in 1939 to leave their homeland behind
them, had to find her place in a new situation. In 1946,
after the demobilization of the army, she worked for a year
in a convalescence home for recuperating soldiers and then
in a fashion shop Aida‑Rowell in Jerusalem. “I remember
her — Stanisław Frenkiel said in 1992 — from the time of
war, from Jerusalem. She worked at that time in a section
dealing with education and propaganda run by the Polish
authorities in Jerusalem. She was an exceptionally beautiful
and elegant woman with exquisite personal charm and an
attractive figure”.

Jerusalem turned out to be a short stopover on her
way to her home in Europe. It was there that she attended
a 3‑month course in general medicine, medical care and
first aid. She also did hospital practice under the terms of
the British Red Cross in order to qualify as an assistant
nurse. She passed the exam with the Medical Commission
approved by the Delegate of the Polish Government and
the Polish Red Cross in Palestine.

However, she did not become a nurse. As a result of
English‑Palestinian riots in Jerusalem, she was forced to
leave again. In 1848 she arrived in Lebanon, where she
signed a contract to leave for England as a member of the
staff of the European Volunteer Worker. “I never thought
— as she recalled in 1986 — of going to England, even
though in the Middle East I was engaged to an English
colonel. We planned to leave for South Africa at the end
of the war. Unfortunately, he was demobilized and left
for England, and I was left alone under bombardment in
Palestine. I was waiting for the British visa, which would
never come. Finally, in order to obtain it, I had to sign
a 5‑year contract for a job in Britain. However, I imagined
that I would work in my profession as a decorator or
painter, or at least that I would be working on some artistic
projects. As it turned out, I was commissioned to work in
a spinning factory. And it was an incredible experience.
I was among a group of women from all around the world,
who were often very simple or even primitive. It was very
unlike the lifestyle I was used to in the Middle East”.

In Great Britain Halima Nałęcz was assigned to work in
a cotton spinning factory, from where she was moved to
one of London’s stockings factories13. In 1952, “after five
years of hard work — as she remembered — I decided
to end it. I went to a ball in the White Eagle Club and
there, during one evening, I received several proposals of
marriage. I chose Mr Zygmunt Nałęcz, [a pre‑war graduate
of the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius]. Our marriage
lasted 33 years”.

As of that time, assuming the artistic pseudonym
‘Halima’, which eventually substituted her first names
Halina Maria, a previously unknown Polish woman made
her entrance into the artistic circles of London.
After marrying Zygmunt Nałęcz, Halima decided to
return to her painting studies, which had been interrupted by
war activities. An opportunity like this for Polish expatriates
was created by the School of Easel Painting under the aegis
of the Academic Society of the Stefan Batory University
organized and run by Marian Bohusz‑Szyszko, which
later, in the 1970s, became part of the Polish University
Abroad (PUNO) as the Institute of Fine Arts. The Polish
University Abroad came into being in 1949 in London at
a meeting of professors and academics, in majority the staff
from the previous Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, who
had been living as expatriates in Great Britain since the end
of WW II. The stimulus behind the organization of this
academic centre for the Polish emigrant community came
from a profound concern of the émigré society about the
future of scholarship and national culture and also from the
need to preserve unity among the large diaspora of Poles,
who had adopted Great Britain as their new homeland15.
An important feature of the School of Easel Painting
was its tradition, which dated back to the war. The school
was a continuation of the Rome School of Painting, which
was created on Italian soil and included soldier‑artists
within the structures of the II Corpus of the Polish Army.
When the II Corps was moved to England in 1946, the
school changed its profile and name into the so‑called
Company of Artists, and then it developed into the
School of Easel Painting. The founding father and the
Head of the school until his death in 1995 was Marian
Bohusz‑Szyszko.

Halima Nałęcz was one of the first graduates of the
School. She received the diploma from Bohusz’s studio
in 1953, and then she continued her painting studies
outside Great Britain. In France she studied under Belgian
abstractionist Jean Henri Closon in his Paris studio. It
was also in Paris that she met the owner of a prestigious
gallery of modern art Denise René and thanks to her she
was able to broaden her creative horizons with a range of
inspirations from French modern art, which at that time
was hardly known in the British Isles.

This is where Halima had the first thought about
starting her own art gallery. On her arrival back in London
from Paris in 1956, Halima organized an exhibition of her
own paintings, the result of her French inspirations, at the
Walker’s Gallery in New Bond Street. Opened by the wife
of then President August Zaleski, the exhibition brought
two‑fold benefits for Halima: first, the exhibition earned
her a favourable reception from the critics, who appreciated
Halima’s abstract oil compositions and second, the occasion
led her to meet two English painters Denis Bowen and
Frank Avray Wilson. It is these two painters who convinced
Halima to the idea of opening a new art gallery together with
them, which came to be called the New Vision Gallery.

From the New Vision to the Vision of one’s own
Gallery

It is commonly accepted that the presence of modern
art in London galleries was initiated with the opening of
the New Vision Gallery in 1956 and the Drian Gallery in
1957. However, English painter, art critic and co‑founder
of the New Vision Gallery at the same time Denis Bowen
believes that some trends connected with the appearance of
avant‑garde art on English soil were to be observed much
earlier: in an interview in 1986 Bowen recalled that already
in 1950, he and Halima Nałęcz were organizing exhibitions
of the works of students from the Central School of Art and
Hammersmith School of Arts and Crafts in London. At
that time the arts centre of the capital of Britain was situated
in Bond Street, with its most prestigious and legendary
Walker’s Gallery. However, in its exhibition and promotional
activities this gallery tended to avoid artists who would not
be generally known or those who would create so‑called
‘difficult art’. “When I had my first exhibition in Bond
Street — as Halima recalled — it attracted many artists, as
it was the first exhibition of abstract painting in that gallery.
At that time we would complain that there was no place
to exhibit our works, as there were only three galleries in
London which showed any real interest in modern art”.

In the middle of the 1950s, the main aspiration of
Denis Bowen, his friend Frank Avray Wilson and Halima
Nałęcz was to establish an art gallery which would focus
on artists whose work was disregarded on Bond Street and
who, therefore, did not stand a chance of appearing in
prominent exhibitions.

In 1956, the aspirations of the three artists became
a reality. Bowen, Avray and Nałęcz opened together a new
gallery of modern art, and the place they chose was situated
at 4 Seymour Place, Marble Arch. The idea of starting
a gallery was, as a matter of fact, a continuation of an
earlier initiative of Bowen, who had started a New Vision
Group five years earlier with the aim of integrating young
artists from artistic schools in London. As Denis Bowen
recalled, “Through her connections in Paris, Halima
made it possible for us to meet artists from France, which
contributed considerably to the professional image of the
New Vision Gallery. Thus from the very beginning our
activities had an international profile and I think that both
of us (after the opening of the Drian Gallery) exhibited
artists from all around the Commonwealth, Australia,
Pakistan, India and even the USA, Japan and the majority
of European countries. I would concentrate on abstract
painting, but Halima was the first to discover the huge
potential in the painting of new figuration”.

Hence it was not only the narrow field of abstract
painting, Halima’s main passion in the 1950s and 60s, that
she would consider as her chance for artistic fulfilment.
More so, she would recognize her chance in applying her
creativity to vast areas of art with thematic content and
representational motifs. As well as that, she decided to seek
her professional fulfilment in running her own gallery.
The fact of Halima’s somewhat abrupt departure
from the project of the New Vision Gallery was not
considered as an act of ‘secession’ caused by the rules of
competition on the art market. On the contrary, through
the subsequent years these two galleries, the New Vision
Gallery and Halima’s Drian Gallery, cooperated with each
other very closely, as it was obvious to the owners that the
expositional space in London at that time was of immense
value and the few commercial galleries which were on the
market were unwilling to support young artists24. Denis
Bowen believed that only a few artists had a sufficient
knowledge at that time about modern art and the limited
number of magazines dealing with art would not devote
too much space even to already renowned artists, hidden
along the Cornish coast.

In 1957, Halima Nałęcz, as she says, “became mature
enough to start her own gallery”. At 7 Porchester Place, in
a building situated near the New Vision, she opened such
a gallery, which she called “Drian.”

From 1957 the Drian Gallery of Halima Nałęcz
and the New Vision Gallery26, together with the already
important Gallery One, managed by Victor Musgrave
and the Obelisk Gallery run by Jimmy McMalem, were
the only exhibitional institutions which would facilitate the
presentation of works by young and promising avant‑garde
artists28. “But in fact — as Denis Bowen says — it was
only our two galleries which facilitated the exhibition of
works by artists from outside the mainstream tendencies
in exhibition and promotion of art”, which were limited
to the small area of London Mayfair.

In the year of the opening of the Drian Gallery Halima
Nałęcz was forty three years old. She was about to embark
on a new and totally independent stage of her professional
life, which lasted until the end of the 20th century. The
road she had to travel in order to find her own place in the
London art market was often difficult and sometimes even
painful.

Drian Gallery — Mondrian and the Butcher’s Shop

It took Halima Nałęcz less than a year to move from
the concept of starting her own gallery to the decision
to leave the New Vision. “I grew up to a moment — as
she remembers — at which I decided that I could have
my own gallery. Near the New Vision I found a building
at 7 Porchester Place, which was a closed butcher’s shop
Clark & Son. The place was perfect and I rented that
spot. But in order to hang pictures instead of meat on the
butcher‑hooks in this location we had to work unbearably
hard on repairs and adaptation of all rooms”.

“In […] 1957 — as we read in one of the manuscripts
by Halima Nałęcz — I decided to give it a try and open my
own ‘Drian Gallery’. Various travels through France, Italy,
Spain and Germany would interrupt my hard work. Visiting
galleries and exhibitions all over Western Europe, meeting
painters and sculptors of divergent nationalities opened the
world to me. I started buying paintings according to the rule
that for every one of my paintings that was sold I would buy
a sculpture or a painting done by friends. Soon, the list of
candidates for an exhibition in my gallery started to grow.
As payment (especially from young artists) I would take
a painting or a sculpture. Each penny earned through selling
was invested in further collections and due to intensive
advertising campaigns the prices would increase. In order
to build a capital for managing the gallery and helping my
friends, I would sell to make profit. In the end the gallery
became famous. I was interested in difficult and unknown
works and artists. I organized exhibitions which were
historically important [on British soil]. I was the one to show
for the first time the works of Vasarely and Stephenson”.

The main expositional room of the gallery, with its
main, safe and representational entrance from the street,
was prepared on the ground floor of the building. Soon
after, with the help of friends and artists, the first‑ and
second‑floor of the building were adapted for the exhibition
activities of the gallery, and they were also designed to hold
the archive and the store of the gallery. “At the time of
repair and building work on the upper floors — as the
artist remembered in 1989 — we held ‘coffee parties’ in
the spacious basement, during which artists like Crozier,
Irvine and Tamir would decorate the walls with mural
paintings, which are to be found there to this day”.

During these intense preparations some other interesting
incidents occurred. Among the more interesting, the painter
would often recall the day that the floor‑boards were being
prepared to be put in the main room of the gallery. She
remembers she noticed that one of the boards was missing.
To her surprise she discovered that in a surge of creative
energy Peter Clough was using it as a board for painting.
The result was so good that instead of a fragment of the floor
she had a new painting for the inaugural exhibition, and the
item was sold immediately to an important collector34.
The adaptation of the rooms was just half of the work
that needed to be done before the opening exhibition. The
second half, that is the name of the gallery, as Nałęcz would
often emphasize, was as important in creating the first
impression as the elegant interior and the works gathered
inside. Consequently, the choice of the name was crucial to
the success of the new exhibition centre as a whole.

The idea for the name of the gallery Halima explained
in 1963 for the London “The Studio” in the following way:
“It was a need to create an original name, which would
summarize and emphasize the character of the gallery
rather than the name of its owner and which would carry
within itself something more than just a message that there
appeared just another gallery outside Mayfair”.

Thirty years later Halima Nałęcz would describe the
very moment of inventing the name in much simpler terms:
“I wanted a short name. So I opened a book about art, and
I saw the name Mondrian. It was some kind of a solution
— an abstract painter and I valued this mode of painting
very much. Thus the abbreviation “Drian” seemed to fit
the character of the planned gallery and my own tastes”.

And the very function of the butcher’s shop changed from
exhibiting meat products into exhibiting human talent in
the form of paintings and sculptures — in order to become
the spiritual food for aesthetic minds.

Finally, on 23 October 1957, the first gallery of
modern art in Great Britain organized and managed by
a Polish artist initiated its activities38. “It was — as Halima
remembered — a new quality on the London art market.
Even the very place, which was a bright, well‑lighted and
open space was something unusual and even avant‑garde,
especially in view of the fact that London galleries at that
time were arranged in a traditional way: with dark light
and plush tapestries on the walls”.

For the three subsequent years the gallery was spelled
in the singular: Drian Gallery. The name changed into
plural Drian Galleries in November 1960, when the gallery
hosted a large individual exposition of the works of Belgian
abstractionist Joseph Lacasse40 and Halima Nałęcz extended
the exhibition area of her gallery with new rooms, renting
an additional flat in the adjacent tenement house41. After
connecting both buildings through the ground floor and the
first floor a new exhibition space was created, which would
allow for the organization of exhibitions twice the size of
those organized so far. For the next 16 years the gallery of
Halima Nałęcz functioned in the rooms of both buildings,
and it was only in 1976 that the owner of the gallery returned
to the situation from before 1960 using one building only.
This was caused by the high costs of maintenance, including
rent and heating, of a large expositional space like that. Still,
the name of the gallery remained unchanged.
With the opening of her own gallery this educated
painter became at the same time a recognized and respected
patron of the arts.

“She managed to combine painting — Stanisław Frenkiel
would remember — with running the gallery. So as the owner
and manager of the gallery she would wear a different hat than
at the time when she was a painter. However, these two areas
are intertwined, as she would also show her own paintings in
the gallery. But her opinion as art patron and manager of the
gallery was totally independent […] Her gallery was always
perfectly administered in terms of business management.
Halima Nałęcz would have complete trust of the artists,
and the gallery hosted various colourful people from the
area of Polish and foreign art”. Apart from that, the gallery
was visited by a plethora of personalities from the artistic
world of London, both English and Polish. Participation
in the opening nights at exhibitions in the Drian Galleries
functioned at times as a specific form of manifestation of the
attitude of the Polish emigrant community, which consisted
in rejecting cooperation with communist Poland. However,
Halima Nałęcz never supported the attitude of the so‑called
‘unbreakable’ London, which boycotted as a rule all initiatives
in the area of broadly understood cultural activities43. An
attitude like that would often create a situation in which
artists living in London who decided to show their works in
Poland “were often exposed to the criticism from the Polish
emigrant circles”. As Rafał Habielski wrote, “the way of
thinking of the Polish London, that is its ‘unbreakability’
had also an apolitical dimension. It manifested itself in
expressing nostalgia for the past, in cherishing memories
about history and in evaluating the outside world through
a traditional perspective. The concern for preserving Polish
culture against ideological deformations to which it was
exposed within the native borders directed the attention
of some emigration groups to focus on matters exclusively
Polish. Thus the emigrant community would isolate itself,
partly on purpose and partly inadvertently, in a world created
by themselves for themselves. The inevitable consequence of
an attitude like that was a lack of trust and antipathy towards
the outside world”.

Halima Nałęcz was far from assuming radical attitudes,
which would close her off from the possibility of choosing
artists also from behind the “iron curtain” and showing their
artistic output, even though her interest in Polish artists
working in Poland and in their work was significantly smaller
than that of Mateusz Grabowski, who ran another Polish
gallery. Apart from that, some exhibitions, like for example
the jubilee exhibition of the works of Marian Bohusz‑Szyszko
in October 1963, with General Anders and Edward Count
Raczyński present on the opening night, were undoubtedly
a manifestation of a power centre competitive towards then
President of Poland‑in‑Exile August Zaleski. This power
centre was the so‑called the Council of Three, from 1954
till 1972, the organ of the executive authority of the Polish
emigrant community, including Władysław Anders, Tomasz
Arciszewski and Edward Raczyński.

In a relatively short time from appearing on the cultural
landscape of the capital of Great Britain, the Drian Galleries
established a very distinct profile among London galleries
dealing in the promotion and sale of modern art. Already
the very first decade of the functioning of the gallery on
the London art market established its position among
avant‑garde institutions of a similar profile, turning Halima
Nałęcz into one of the leading experts in the field of modern
art and co‑organizer of London artistic life. At that time
the media compared the Polish painter and gallery owner
to a New York ‘monopolist’ of Pablo Picasso’s works —
Eleonore Sidenburg, or the Parisian gallery owners Denise
René, Collette Allendy and Madame Prévot, with whom
Nałęcz maintained close professional relationships.

The main feature of the activities in the Drian Galleries
was not the commercial side, but it was most of all “the focus
on important, contemporary trends in the world of art and
promotion of young, creative artists”. Compiled over the
course of more than 40 years by the gallery owner herself
as a result of regular exhibitions, the collection of works of
art by Polish and international artists was a reflection of
Halima Nałęcz’s own tastes. As Stanisław Frenkiel would
also emphasize, “Halima Nałęcz always had broad horizons
and both as an artists and as a person she had an exquisite
feel for art. And she had a strong temper. Her decisions
were irrevocable, and her behaviour was often apodictic.
She would not take into account the opinions of others,
but she knew what she was doing. Both as an artist and
as a person she was conscious of her goals, and she was
determined to achieve them”.

Yet those who would expect a complete coverage of all
tendencies, styles and trends in international or Polish art
in the exhibition activities of the gallery from 1957 till the
end of the 20th century on the basis of the gallery’s extensive
presence on the market is bound to be disappointed to
some degree. The collection of Halima Nałęcz, in spite of
a considerable stylistic divergence of collected works did not
register all artistic events which occurred over the second
half of the 20th century. It would be a futile task to search
for all major issues from contemporary art, especially if one
were interested in the record of key events starting from
the second half of the 1970s till the end of the previous
century. Neither was there a place in the promotional and
exhibition activities of the Drian Galleries for recording,
in a sense, representative phenomena of the 1960s, which
Jerzy Ludwiński categorizes as two intertwining tendencies:
the ‘destructive’ one consisting of a whole range of events
like the happening, event and ephemeral art, and the
‘constructive’ one with various visual experiments like the
multiple, minimal art and environment.

Today, in the new century, after the gallery has been
closed, we can claim with certainty that despite the open
attitude of Halima Nałęcz towards new and little‑known art
and while struggling to become a part of the European artistic
elite, the Drian Galleries was to a large degree, which was also
noticed by Dorota Hill, a gallery of a ‘traditional’ character. It
understood ‘tradition’ as a form of artistic expression, which
in the case of the Drian Galleries meant in the majority of
cases a classical painting, sculpture or graphic.

On the decision of 84‑year old Halima Nałęcz the
Drian Galleries ceased its activities in 1998. Eleven
years earlier, in 1989, art lovers could participate in the
opening night for the last exhibition at Porchester Place.

Thus the 1990s marked the stage of a slow decrease in the
activities of the gallery, which was only partly involved in
organizing exhibition events. In the period between 1957
and 1989 Halima Nałęcz organized in her gallery over 320
documented exhibitions, both collective and individual,
which allowed more than 400 artists from all around the
world to present their work to the public.

“I never suspected — Halima Nałęcz said in 1986,
twelve years before the closing of her gallery — that the
gallery would survive for so many years, even more so
because of the fact that I did not have any capital at the
very beginning, and year by year there would appear new
competitive galleries in London. It was becoming more
difficult. But I would not give up. And at the time when
I was very tired after carrying and hanging pictures for the
next inaugural night and knowing that the exhibition was
good — I would regenerate”.

In spite of difficulties connected with preparing and
organizing exhibitions, which would change, especially
in the 1960s and 70s, every fortnight, Nałęcz had always
aspired to maintain the high standards she had set herself. As
she would say herself, “in London there are many galleries,
which are primarily commercial, which would accept only
those artists who were easy to sell. But I was against that.
I would present those artists who were difficult. And if I am
satisfied, it is mainly because I survived this hard time, and
now those difficult painters are recognized in the world
and those easy ones are long forgotten”.

Denis Bowen perceives the situation on the London art
market at the beginning of the 1960s in a similar way when
he says the following words: “Since about 1960 many artists
from all over Europe started to arrive in Britain in order
to have their first exhibition in the Drian Galleries or in
the New Vision Gallery. Today those artists who achieved
success and fame, in their biographies always refer to the
fact that they had exhibitions in London in our galleries”.
Also Julie Lawson, the director of the London Institute of
Modern Art in the 1980s, would have a similar opinion
on the promotional activities organized by the Polish artist
and gallery owner, saying that Halima Nałęcz is a splendid
example of a person who devoted herself to her artists with
immense enthusiasm. For many years she would promote
artists who now have become very famous, like for example
John Bellany, whose works she would present at the very
beginning of his artistic career. Other artists, like for instance,
Douglas Portway or Denis Bowen also achieved considerable
fame due to Halima’s support. She never complained but
was very enthusiastic about this hard work, instilling in her
artists an understanding and love for art.

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