OLA OKUNIEWSKA (OLA
former pupil of Johannes Itten in Vienna and
Except for a few reproductions in Johannes Itten's book "Design and Form", relatively little is known about the first nucleus of sixteen students whom he taught in Vienna and who followed him to the Bauhaus in Weimar in the fall of 1920. They were to form the Basic Course at the newly opened Bauhaus and Ola Okuniewska (Ola Wolpe), was one of them, and one of the few Itten's students who were to became painters.
In 1938 the political situation in Austria forced Ola to emigrate, first to Yugoslavia, then to Switzerland, and finally to London where she became a resident until her death in 1985. Her early work was unfortunately destroyed in a fire. However, we now have a precious collection of more than thirty works dating back to 1959 which we would like to show, as an homage to her work and memory.
Anna Hollering, a close associate of Itten, acknowledged the fact that Ola was the only one of Itten's pupils who carried through what he taught between 1918 and 1920. She was referring mainly to Itten's "analysis of the works by great masters" (which included works by Giotto, Cranach, Grunewald, etc). The purpose of these exercises, often done in charcoal, was to capture by touch, the essence or spirit of each work, and this was done in a few lines and tonal modulations. But to that which she learned from Itten, through her personal journey, she developed adding her originality and vision and her extensive understanding of the techniques of painting and use of colour, which make her paintings equal in beauty to the works of another of the Bauhaus great artists and teachers: Paul Klee.
Because of the quality of her painting, there is no doubt that Ola Wolpe's works deserves a place in the history of XXc. art, particularly amongst its female representatives, and the time for a comprehensive exhibition and appraisal of her work, although posthumously, is not only largely due but necessary.
Katharina Wolpe, Guillem Ramos-Poquí. London, August 2002
The Bolting Horse. O. Okuniewska, Vienna 1919
In the Introduction of his book "Design and Form"
Johannes Itten explains how he studied with Adolf Hölzel
in Stuttgart "
the principles of the theory and practice
of colour. Hölzel explained in his lectures the pictorial construction
of the Old Masters and the pictorial use of light and dark
how in 1916 Itten moved to Vienna.
OLA OKUNIEWSKA (OLA WOLPE)
(b. Brno, Czechoslovakia 1902, d. London 1985)
A Letter to the Missions (floor piece, in four sections)
1974-75 Oil-tempera and pastels 1.52 x 1.52 m
The Bauhaus phenomenon has been the subject of extensive books, research and exhibitions world-wide, not only because of its innovative programme but because teachers at the Bauhaus were amongst the most important and influential artists of the XXC. century.
And yet relatively little is known about the first nucleus of sixteen students who Johannes Itten brought from Vienna to form the first course, and how they were able later to develop (with the exception, perhaps, of the painter Max Bronstein - later known as Ardon, and Friedl Dicker). However, amongst this first nucleus of Bauhaus students was Ola Okuniewska (Ola Wolpe), possibly one of the few of Itten's pupils to become a painter, instead of a designer. It is the case that the discovery, appraisal and public exhibition of Ola's work as a painter, although posthumously, is long overdue.
Ola Okuniewska (Ola Wolpe) was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1902. Her father was a surgeon attached to the Austrian Imperial Navy. The family lived in Pola on the Dalmation coast until 1914, then for the period of the war they lived in Vienna.
In Vienna Ola had her first painting lessons from Elizabeth Laske. In the next four years she progressed very remarkably as a painter. Eventually Elizabeth Laske decided to introduce Ola to Johannes Itten.
Johannes Itten (1888-1967), her mentor, had studied with Adolf Hölzel in Stuttgart between 1913 and 1916 and had to move to Vienna in 1916. Ola joined his painting class in Vienna from 1918 to 1920, and, in the fall of that year, (as Itten records in his book "Design and Form - the Basic Course at the Bauhaus") followed him to the newly founded Bauhaus School in Weimar, Germany. The director of the Bauhaus at that time was Walter Gropius, and teachers included Feininger, Klee and Kandinsky.
Later, Ola completed her studies at the Akademie der Bildenden Kuenste
In 1938 the political situation in Austria forced Ola to emigrate,
first to Yugoslavia, then to Switzerland and finally she came to England,
whilst her husband, from whom she was later divorced, fleeing the nazi
persecution, emigrated to New York- where he made his permanent residence.
In 1959 Ola started a series of paintings, most of which are in Austria, USA and UK private collections. For eight years she travelled to Austria to stay with her friend Irma Shunberg, each time providing her with a new painting. Also for eight years, until his death, Ola had a strong relation with Czech Jewish poet Hahn, who converted to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed, and this event deeply affected her. In 1967 Ola, from London, started her studies in the lay Society of Saint Francis de Sales in Paris. It was the writings and theology of love and beauty of this R.C. saint (1567-1622) and Doctor of the Church, which inspired not only her life from then on, but her work as an artist, together with other sources of inspiration such as the pre-Renaissance or early Italians artists: Giotto, Piero de la Francesca, Fra Angelico, as well as the early icons, and Cézanne.
Aged 60 she retired from teaching and concentrated fully on her own
work. She began to do a series of paintings and portable murals, culminating
in a large landscape, a View of Annecy - the birthplace Saint Francis
de Sales, the author of the "Treatise on the Love of God",
who so much inspired her work. She continued this work on until her
death in 1985.
|I met Ola in June 1971, through her daughter Katharina Wolpe, the pianist,
when we were both teaching at Morley College in London and she told me
about her mother's background. I was 27 and became deeply impressed by
her work. I found her paintings beautiful, contemplative, and original.
Also, at that time, Ola and I both shared an admiration for frescoes by
Giotto and Piero de la Francesca, she wanted to capture the essence of
these works using a contemporary language.
It is here that, to better understand Ola's work we need to refer to the context from which it developed:
First of all her understanding of Johannes Itten's studies from the masters (which he describes in his books) as taught in Vienna and the start of his teachings at Bauhaus (before he became heavily involved in design). Far from being mere exercise on abstraction the students had to capture with charcoal, in just a few lines, and with sensitive touch, the "essence" or spirit of the work, and this meant the artist's intention, similarly to the way a musician may wish to capture the spirit of a particular piece of work - by trying to enter the composer's mind. Therefore, when working and developing a composition, she would apply her inspiration to capture, with reverence, the essence of the subject and reveal the figures. In this way the abstract and figurative elements were one and the same. Anna Hollering, a close associate of Itten, acknowledged the fact that Ola was the only one of Itten's pupils who carried through what he taught between 1918 and 1920 in Vienna and on his arrival at the Bauhaus.
'View of Annecy'. Mural in six sections, 1977-1981 (This was Ola's last work)
Secondly, her use of the "grid" when planning a mural, which one could relate it to Itten's use of a grid of colours - e.g. in his exercise on the "seasons"-, or to Paul Klee's use of the grid as a device - in his botanical gardens and other compositions. However, in Ola's murals the grid had a function, it served as a means of dividing the composition into sections of an imaginary wall (St Vicent Pallotti mural), imaginary floor slabs (the Letter to the Mission mural), or the folds of a very large cloth (the Annunciation mural).
Finally we need to refer Ola's passion for music. The house where she
lived in Hampstead in London was always full of musicians and beautiful
sounds: with her daughter Katharina either playing and rehearsing for
concerts, or giving piano lessons, with the conductor Laurence Lenard
rehearsing his next symphony, with a music critic from the Guardian,
or guest musicians in residence. Indeed, Ola composed her paintings
like a symphony and made constant reference to musical terminology when
discussing her paintings. The colours were organized in sequence and
in relation to the sections which divided the composition as a whole.
She developed the subject from the inner centre to achieve a unity bringing
together the abstract (the formal and spiritual) and the figurative.
And when dealing with colour and technique she made very personal discoveries
which makes her work and her contribution as an artist very special.
Over a white gesso ground she applied, using a palette knife, a "putty"
made of a mixture of gesso and oil paint from the tube, this provided
a beautiful colour ground with a sensitive texture, from which she build
the colours in thin layers of diluted oil paint and also very fine cross-hatching
directional brush work, often combining paint with wax, and sometimes
adding charcoal and pastel, with a final effect not unlike that of a
The Annunciation 1969-70. 183 x 183 cmOil-tempera, and pastels
on muslin over gesso primed watercolour paper. Portable mural in 24 sections
|Through her spiritual reflections, and analysis of the colours of masters
such as Fra Angelico, and the study of Goethe's colour theory, she had
discovered a theology of colour whereby, like the impressionists and Cézanne,
she built up "light" and "darkness" by using only
the three pure colours of the rainbow, giving to this a Trinitarian symbolic
significance. Her use of earth colours combined with that of the primaries,
whereby intending to bring heaven and earth together, as when Pissarro
talked about bringing the sky and the earth in a landscape, through the
colours of the distant horizon. She also developed an understanding of
the unity of composition of the three pure forms or formal movements:
the square (interpreted by the visual planes - defined by the depth of
the horizon and the plumb), the triangle (or diagonals), and the circle
(or open curves). This was apparent at the start of a composition, when
her use of forms had a certain similarity to the lines in the "sinopia"
(or preliminary wall drawings) of an early Italian fresco. She worked
in a sensitive and exquisite, spontaneous and unassuming manner, making
her works, if compared to other XXc. artists, equal in beauty to some
of the paintings by Paul Klee.
From her studies of Arthur Segal's method of teaching painting (much later to be published by his daughter Marianne in 1976 under the title "The Objective Laws of Painting") she used the early stage of building up a painting by covering the canvas or board with flat colours (without gaps between them). This stage of the process looked very "abstract" with a "flatness" capable of creating the optical effect of space by colour alone, without recurring to shading to render three-dimensional effects. The results were similar to the first layer of colours in the painting of a Byzantine icon or the based colours of the early frescoes, and Ola often used it as a technique to provide colour backgrounds for her images.
When referring to her murals, I ought to also mention another important
element in Ola's works: the fact that they were, as she called it: "life
size" and they were also "site specific". By "life
size" she meant of the height of a person, so one could relate
to the work in terms of the human scale. By site specific we mean that,
although the work may not be a commission, it was conceived as "belonging"
to a specific physical space. This was true of her mural of Saint Vicent
Pallotti, conceived for a modern building of the Palottine sisters in
Beechwood, Manchester Road, Rochdale; Ola had met the architect who
was concerned about the bare walls - Ola's mural, made of "cardboard
stones" as it were, intended to bring warmth to them. For the Annunciation
too, she had in mind an abandoned baroque chapel in the garden of the
Monastery of the Monastery of the Visitation in Vienna. And the mural
"Letter to the Missions" was conceived also as a portable
mural, made of cardboard sections, for a very basic missionary building
in India. In all these cases the idea of "portable murals"
related to the spiritual concept of poverty and the lack of a permanent
building, as if living in a tent (according to the spirit of renewal
of Vatican II Council), and whilst she worked in her mural of the Annunciation
she folded the work and carried it back and forth from London to Austria
during her summer vacations, so she could work on it . But she never
mentioned to people the places where these works "belong in spirit"
and therefore they never knew that they were done for them.
|Unfortunately, Ola's works before 1959 were destroyed by
a fire in her previous home. In sharp contrast to the fast production
of large quantities of work by contemporary artists, Ola worked very slowly,
in anonymity and solitude. She considered her work like a prayer or religious
meditation and some paintings could take more than three years to complete,
one of the reasons why we only have at our disposal about thirty of her
In the secular culture in which we live, and because of the religious
content of Ola's paintings I once asked her about her choice of subject
matter, and she replied "This is not a subject matter, I mean it".
This came to me as a surprise - since I was brought up to believe (as
in a pagan tradition stemming from the Renaissance) that subject matter
in art was a pretext for an artist to display his artistic skills. Fascinated
with her work, and being a practising artist and a lecturer in art,
I became her closest artist friend and for a period of about four years
I visited her in her studio, a small room in her daughter's house in
Hampstead, twice a week. This gave me an insight into her ideas and
sources of inspiration, techniques, and methods of work
One will ask why there were no attempts made, during Ola's time, to hold an exhibition of her work in a museum, art gallery or prestigious public space (for example during the "50 Years Bauhaus" show at the Royal Academy in 1968). The reason is that during her lifetime she refused to be interviewed by the press and hold any shows in a commercial secular environment. Instead, after some persuasion, she agreed to show some of her work in to two church centres: in 1977 thirteen of her paintings were shown at the basement rooms of St Mary's Church, in Hampstead, London, and in the summer of 1980 two of her portable murals were exhibited at Westminster Cathedral North West Crypt during a collective exhibition. Neither of these shows provided a proper context to her work, or the opportunity to discuss her unique contribution as an artist, and no catalogue or records were kept. Ola was never militant in church matters, the relationship between her faith and her work as a painter was a very personal humble intimate affair, she treasure her anonymity and solitude, and often referred to Cézanne's attendance at church on Sundays in Aix en Provence.
In February 1980, for health reasons Ola moved to the Elderly Peoples Home in High Close, Hertford Road, Hampstead, London NW3, where one of her paintings is still on display. She continued to paint until shortly before she died on Holy Wednesday 3rd of April 1985. Her funeral service was held on 11th of April in St Mary's Church, Hampstead.
Because of the quality of her painting, there is no doubt that Ola's work deserves a place in the history of XX c. art, particularly amongst its female representatives, and the time for a comprehensive exhibition and appraisal of her work, although posthumously, is not only largely due but necessary.
A former pupil of Johannes Itten in Vienna and at the newly founded Bauhaus in Weimarb. Brno, Czechoslovakia 1902, d. Lodon 1985
CATALOGUE OF WORKS
1. Still Life. 1959 (ca.) Charcoal on tissue paper (several,
each. 26 x 35 cm approx.). Collection K. Wolpe
Guillem Ramos-Poquí was born in Barcelona
in 1944 where he studied painting in the Fine Art School (1960-65),
then moved to Paris (65-66) and New York (67-68), when he was involved
in the avant-garde movements of that time: Povera and Conceptual.
Katharina Wolpe obituary
Katharina Wolpe escaped from Vienna in 1938 and began to play the piano in a refugee camp