Homo sentiens
Ula Dzwonik – painting exhibition

Painting exhibition
September-November 2023

Foyer NFM
Wrocław, plac Wolności 1

Curator: Piotr Sarzyński

Exhibition opening:
7 September 2023, 6 pm
foyer NFM

HOMO SENTIENS. This is how Ula Dzwonik decided to title her retrospective exhibition. Exhibition titles are random and showy, promising more than their content has to offer, sometimes seem accidental. But not here. Homo sentiens hits the heart of the artist's achievements and  could easily become the motto behind her work in general. So let's take it seriously and take a closer look at it.

Homo is a seemingly simple and widely known word. Yet, depending on the context, it carries an immeasurable wealth of meanings and emotions. We have the ecce homo, touching and cardinal for Christian civilization.

We have the warning homo homini lupus, the proud homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, the pessimistic omnis homo mendax, the discrediting homo unius libri. These Latin maxims could be multiplied on and on.

And there is also science, which also makes use of homo, naming successive historical ancestors of the human species homo erectus, homo neanderthalensis, and finally, placing us at the top of the pyramid of living beings (deservedly?): homo sapiens. Do all these phrases and terms have something in common? Yes. They all emphasize the importance of human affairs, focusing on humanity and its various aspects, both those lofty and beautiful, as well as low and even vile.

For Ula Dzwonik, the context is clearly defined: homo sentiens means “a feeling human”. Interestingly, this title can be applied to both the artist herself and the subject matter of her works. In the case of the artist, it is – in a way – a discreet declaration that she treats the people in her paintings with attention, sensitivity and understanding of their weaknesses. In this, she somewhat resembles Olga Tokarczuk's “tender narrator”, who knows and understands his characters, tries to present them without prejudice, but himself remains in the background, discreet, devoid of narrative ego. At the same time, the artist – whether she wants it or not – is part of the traditional dispute over whether acts of artistic creation come from the head or from the heart; flow from the mind or the gut, be part of a dispute or a confession, perorate or rather cry and shout? Looking at her paintings, we have no doubts. The piece titles Balance shows two worlds colliding: essential, quivering humanity and chaos of content clashes with rationality, logic, and the beauty of cool form. And we have no doubts which side the artist embraces.

It is by all means an interesting combination. Usually, art that speaks to emotions tends to be very personal, emphasizes the author's identity, reworks their experiences and feelings. Meanwhile, Ula is deeply hidden behind her works, she avoids expressing herself in the first person singular, although all the other persons are easily found: you, he, she, it, we, you, them, them. We never know how autobiographical the painting before us is – how much of the author is enclosed in it, and how much of her sensitive perception of others. This certainly makes the message more universal.

But the title homo sentiens may also refer to the characters that we see in Ula’s paintings. It is worth noting that very few works in her oeuvre do not feature a human figure. The human being is at the center, and life happens around and in it. What the man feels does not always come from the sphere of pleasure. Sometimes it's shame, disappointment, anger, lack of fulfillment, but it is also (often) ecstasy, infatuation, satisfaction. Same as in life. And as in life, a “clear day” can quickly turn into a “disturbingly clear day”. Relationship remains  the most important thing for the artist. A man can become fully sentient only in relation to others. Sometimes this other is a partner, sometimes family, but it can also be someone you meet by chance. Yes, a man becomes sentiens also in relation to nature, animals, and even works of culture, but the essence of humanity is expressed in what connects us with (and divides us from) other people. And even if we turn away from each other (a frequent motif in artist’s works), we still have a lot in common.


Ula Dzwonik's paintings are not only rich in content but also take  a uniquely original form. The pessimistic approach to the history of art assumes that everything has already been done before, and that the next generations can only juggle long-discovered conventions, symbols, ways of depicting, compositions, relations between a line and a patch, or between individual colors, etc. There is probably a lot of truth in this. However, there is still room for separateness, individuality, exploring one’s own language in painting. This room is not huge, but those who have a strong personality will get there for sure. It should be a source of great satisfaction for an artist, when somebody who only once encounters her work is able to unmistakably recognize any other works of her in the future. And this is definitely the case of Ula Dzwonik. The way she shows the world is hers and hers alone. She is not pretending to be anything else makes her style unmistakable. This is a dream of many artists.

And what is her way? Probably quite compatible with the values that the artist wants to share with us. Man is central for Ula, but does that mean that he has to be perfect? On the contrary. After all, without the support of Photoshop, human beings are rarely perfect. We have pimples on our cheeks, persistent cellulite, some body parts too fat and some too thin. Ula seems to suggest  we should drop pursuing the superficial, and stop succumbing to the mirages of various artificially imposed canons of beauty. Let's focus on what's more important: on what is inside. The people in her paintings have large heads, disproportionately massive necks, short legs and arms. They are as if hewn from a tree trunk by a careless and unskilled carpenter. Thanks to this, we stop perceiving them in relation to aesthetic expectations. In fact, we subconsciously identify with them, understanding their imperfection that feels so close to us. And thus their problems also become close.

The way the paintings are made does not make it easier for the viewers to grasp the meaning. The artist multiplies details and understatements, forces us to make an effort and take a closer look, warns us not to draw hasty conclusions, to look for tracks and clues. For those accustomed to the image culture of the Internet, this is a gigantic task: to stop rushing forward. You will not get the whole picture at a glance, you will not understand the meaning in a second, as is the case with an online meme. But she throws us one lifeline: titles. The captions under the artist's paintings should definitely be read, since they serve as a signpost, indicating the most appropriate ones in the tangle of possible meanings (which does not mean that we should refrain from building our own personal, completely different narratives).

It happens that in these titles Ula plays a psychologist or even a coach of human souls (It's Up to Me, Suppression, Between Fear and Courage, Together Not Together, Yesterday I Was Happy or Don't Whine). At other times, she navigates towards philosophy (The Presence of Possibilities, Irrational Rationality) or sociology (Party Games, Street Games). She usually puts herself in the role of an observer, but sometimes becomes a delicate contester, for instance when she paints Adam and Adam and Eve and Eve, separately.

I am aware that nowadays finding arguments for the “women are from Venus and men are from Mars” thesis –  be in in life or in art – is not well received, however, I cannot refrain from emphasizing that the paintings by Ula Dzwonik's have features that are very difficult to achieve by male artists: psychological inquisitiveness, subtlety of assessments, attentiveness in observing, delicacy in defining. The world would be so much beautiful if we all tried to explore, understand and accept human nature in all its complexity as deeply as the artist does.

Piotr Sarzyński

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