Thursday December 14, 2023 | by Jana Elsayed

CONVERSATION: Marta Klonowska, on childhood memories, discarded beauty, and her major exhibition at the Finnish Glass Museum

Once upon a time, a little girl in Poland picked up a piece of glass, placed it up against the sky, and marveled at how it altered the light hitting her eye. As children do, Marta Klonowska then dug a small hole in the ground and filled it with leaves and pieces of a drawing she had torn up. Covering her creation with the piece of glass, she knelt down and looked down at her artwork transformed by the shadows and unusual cast of light. This childhood game wasn't forgotten many years later, when Klonowska was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wroclaw, Poland, and came across shards of broken glass in her studio. Though she was studying ceramics and sculpture, something about the glass rekindled her interest, and she began creating sculptural assemblages of glass shards to create figurative objects imbued with the beauty and symbolic power of a shattered material.

Klonowska's aesthetic approach of finding beauty in discarded items rescued and remade may hearken back to her childhood years, but there's something very grown-up about the way she takes what others may overlook, or dismiss as garbage, to not only use but to create beautiful things. At the Finnish Glass Museum, where Klonowska's latest exhibition "Movements" is currently on view, creatures are brought from the obscure corners of paintings and take center stage in three dimensions, bristling with the alluring sparkling edges of the shards from which they were constructed. 

Klonowska has made a career of rescuing animals from the shadows of paintings, transforming them into something glamorous and even dangerous to be touched. Inverting them from bystanders to main characters. To complete the swap, and ensure viewers get her source material, she includes a monochrome inkjet print of the original painting in the background, foregrounding what is more interesting to her.

This fascination with the idea of extracting animals from paintings, seeing them as enigmatic beings that are challenging to communicate with. Writing about Klonowska’s work in the Summer 2006 print edition of Glass (#103), David Revere McFadden said “Klonowska brings the unreal world of real people and animals in paintings into focus, and reminds us that our perceptions of the real are always tempered by our expectations and memories.”

Klonowska's work is often described as belonging to the realm of utopian art. Her bold and daring objects occasionally push the boundaries of taste, sparking questions about artistic depth and standards. She intentionally aims to provoke such discussions. Martin Lorch, Klonowska's art dealer, shared his take on Klonowska's artwork, and the complexity of pulling together her work for an in-depth exhibition such as the Finnish Museum's ambitious show. “There is a lot of help and effort needed to make such an exhibition possible,” Lorch said, adding that the artist's color pallet, which ranges from pink to red, resonates with deeper meaning and sentiments hidden beneath the veneer of adult consciousness. To Lorch, all of Klonowska's work harkens back to childhood joy and the yearning for a world of fairy-tales. 

Inside Klonowska's exhibition, Movements, Photographed by Ella Tommila

The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet recently caught up with Klonowska by telephone to discuss her exhibition and where she is focusing her energies currently.

Glass: Your exploration in showcasing not only shoes and dogs but also monkeys, koi fish, and devils reflects an attentiveness to the essence of these creatures and also the emotions they convey. Have you always found yourself drawn to capturing the details and emotions often overlooked by others?
Marta Klonowska: The details that are overlooked are interesting to me, the things that other people don’t see or notice. I like to create a world and ideas from the paintings' motifs, not to copy them but to extract them and create a three-dimensional idea that people don’t see that often. The motifs that I search for carefully have to be not so unoriginal. I explore the motifs and paintings create more emotion surrounding them, and add a bigger interpretation from the artists of that time. The process of searching for a painting, one that isn’t very famous, is very fun for me. I choose creatures that nobody notices at first glance, but after a second glance, it’s very interesting. For example, my sculpture of The Goat that I created was derived from the painting by Alexander Keirincz and Cornelis van Poelenburch where the goat is sitting with its back to the viewer. It’s a very small figure sitting in nature in the far background of the painting. To the viewer, the goat is not interesting in the background, almost invisible. However, for me it is special and it conveys a special emotion. I had never seen this animal sitting before on its hind legs, as the goat doesn’t normally sit like that, so I found that funny. It was surreal and it created a multifaceted two-dimensional emotion in the painting, almost conveying a neutral vision of the world so I knew immediately I had to delve into it to develop it as a three-dimensional sculpture.

Marta Klonowska's sculpture, The Goat after Alexander Keirincz and Cornelis van Poelenburch, 2008

Glass: In your earliest pieces between 2000-2003, the glass you used was created by smashing glass bottles. Since then, you’ve grown into using sheet glass produced in the south of Poland. How has the way you structure and build these sculptures evolved? How are your newest works different from your first efforts – how has your technique and approach evolved?
Marta Klonowska: In the time of my academic studio work, I found glass an interesting material and I wondered what I could do with the broken glass pieces. I thought about it and created an installation with these pieces. I created it on the wall and glued some pieces of glass creating a big chair. After that, I made another object because I felt it was interesting and that nobody used this in contemporary sculptures. I thought maybe this broken glass was nothing, it was waste or garbage. But for me, it was interesting to change this narrative and make it something. I started looking through books full of old paintings and I saw the small animals, starting with dogs. The dogs were a symbol, all the paintings of rich people from that era were full of symbols, like a theater, from the clothes to the jewelry. I thought it was a great idea to use this rather cheap material of broken glass to make glamorous shiny art in a rich form, relatively from garbage. The idea had to be a little bit crazy and a little bit ironic. 

It was rather difficult to smash the bottles into the shapes and pieces that I needed. I had to search for the bottles from recycling companies and later on from restaurants. I had to take around 30 bottles, wash them, break them, and use the small pieces. It was hard work, and the colors were restricted as I could find mainly only green or blue bottles. Now with the glass sheets, I could use a lot more colors and it’s a lot easier. 

Marta Klonowska's piece, The Morning Walk after Thomas Gainsborough, 2004. Features the dog, and shoes pulled out of the painting.

Glass: In your earliest exhibition, I observed how you adapt the colors of the paintings and images from which you derive your creatures to match the hues of the glass you meticulously use in crafting them—such as green when working with Spanish paintings, and the red for paintings full of emotions. I'm curious, is there a specific meaning or significance behind the colors you choose for your newest sculptures?

Marta Klonowska: Yes, in the beginning, I would align the colors with the origins of my projects. For Spanish paintings, I would use green, and with paintings from Germany, I would use blue. It was important for me to have the connection in my head and align them with the colors in my idea. Also, due to the glass bottles, I would only use three or four colors. Since I started using glass sheets, I had access to more versatility. I now combine different colors, and you can find one of the hues in a sculpture from the original painting. I tend to take one shade from the original painting and build on it with colors that are more joyful and playful. 

In the instance of Venus and Adonis, after Peter Paul Rubens, I used pink along with different hues complimenting it. That was the first pink sculpture I created, and in the original painting, Venus and Adonis are naked. The pinkness of the body color is then reflected on the greyhound. In reality, a greyhound is nothing sweet, as the pinkness would suggest. In the painting, Venus and Adonis are going to hunt, and Adonis is going to die, it’s very dramatic. The pink color has nothing to do with dramatics, it’s something soft and sweet. I like to create the opposite of what you would normally expect. In a dramatic situation, you wouldn’t expect pink. I use pink with the goat, Chamois, after Albrecht Dürer. I enjoy the abstractness of pink, it’s funny to me and almost comes out of nowhere. I also tried to create sculptures using transparent glass. It’s something sweet to me like a bonbon. Makes me think of my childhood and the sweets and candies I consumed at that time. The goat color was reminiscent of that period in my life. I often have to change the real colors of the animals, the colors should not be the same as the reality, so I want to alienate my creatures from nature to create a more abstract vision and impression. It’s something that nobody would expect.

Marta Klonowska's sculpture titled Venus and Adonis after Peter Paul Rubens, 2008

Glass: You’ve written, “My interest in the medium has been with me since childhood, and in some sense, the art I create today has its roots there.” I’ve researched that your Uncle is also a sculptor, and at a young age, you began sculpting people and animals out of clay. Can you elaborate on the childhood experiences and influences that initially sparked your interest in the artistic medium you work with today, and how these early roots shaped your current creative expressions? 

Marta Klonowska: I have drawn a lot since my early childhood. I was a “gifted child”, and I have always painted and drawn a lot more than my peers. But my parents didn’t consider that to be something unusual, which was a good thing. When I was 8 or 10, I used to prepare Christmas presents out of play dough for the whole family. They were groups of original characters, or “situations” that I collected and was happy with. And there were always many positions to create, for around 15 relatives. I remember creating a plasticine group: it was a “Christmas party of marinated cucumbers”, a whole family of cucumbers, with a Christmas tree, all of which was submerged in the water in a preserving jar. I realized that the work I created was always under a bit of tension, and time pressure, and had a lot of emotions. I still use this way of working today, my older sister claims the way I work is the same as it was 50 years ago: no one is allowed to watch me do my work, as I need absolute concentration and a lot of adrenaline. I have to find an idea, one project, a motif that interests me, that is special to me, very original, and then I can realize it. What drives me is that I want to see my results. What will it become and what will be the end? But when it's finished (a sculpture), it's no longer that interesting to me. The work process is exciting for me, I then look for a new motif and create one new sculpture.

When I studied at the art academy in Düsseldorf, I tried to find an idea for my artwork. I drew a lot and also worked a lot with a beautiful printing technique, lithography. You draw on smooth, polished limestone slabs and then make prints of them. I also painted. But none of this gave me any results that made me truly happy. And then, I thought, I have to go back to my “roots”. What I loved were three-dimensional objects, the origin was in plasticine or clay figures. And the exciting feeling of first looking for great ideas. My thought back then: to go back to my roots, led me back to plastic, and three-dimensional objects. I realized that in a creative process, being direct and honest with yourself is very important. Because a work of art is created in this way, such energy radiates back: directness, strong power, energy, and expression. That's why I remembered my childhood and how I realized my ideas. They were always extraordinary, a little surprising, and a little mysterious. I wanted to achieve this kind of effect in my art.

Clay sculpture molded by Marta Klonowska, photographed by Artur Gawlikowski

I remember one of the children's favorite games back then: we made small pictures out of leaves, plants, and pieces of paper, then placed everything in a small hole in the ground, placed a small piece of glass on top, and covered it all again with earth. The thrill afterward was to get to see it again: push away a bit of earth and admire the picture under the glass through the small hole! It was mysterious and surprising. And a bit glamorous through a piece of more glittery chocolate paper in the picture. And such impressions are also in my current art. My figures are made from broken glass, from “Mühl” or garbage. They attract and glitter. I hope they surprise you too. On the one hand, they attract the viewer, on the other hand, they repel him, you can't touch them. You can hurt yourself. For me, this is to awaken a kind of childish longing in the viewer, the longing for a dream, for an idea. It is a “beautiful naivety” that cannot be achieved. A symbol of the longing for a utopia within us. And that is an honest feeling. The aesthetic form of my sculptures is on the verge of kitsch, but the “honesty” of the idea means it is not kitsch. But it is a “manipulation” of the audience.

My family actually had a tradition of art. My great-grandmother painted and she wanted to study it in the 1880s, but she started a family. Nevertheless, she continued to draw and paint; her pictures hung in every house in my extended family. My great cousins studied art, one of the first women in Poland. Other women in the family studied medicine or chemistry in Switzerland and were fellow students at Maria Curie-Sklodowska at the time. I have had beautiful and strong female role models. And in further generations, there have also been artists, painters, and a sculptor. When I was 10 years old, I was allowed to work with clay in this sculptor's studio and learned how to fire the ceramics. It was a fascinating place, a studio full of paintings and sculptures piled on shelves, and in every corner, it was really great. The sculptor, my uncle, was about 60 years older than me, but he was the first person I could call a friend who understood my addiction to art. We were very close friends with him and his wife, my aunt, who was a painter, until her death. So, art, and works of art were present in my family. But I always said that I couldn't become an artist because I was afraid that I wouldn't have enough ideas to last my whole life. But now I know that I won't be able to realize all of my ideas, unfortunately, as life isn't that long. I have many ideas, some of which have their origins in family history. For example, I would like to build a “flying machine”. It would be an art object, in an old wooden barn (unfortunately I have to restore the barn first), the room would be transformed into an art object. The origin lies in the middle of the 19th century when my great-great-grandfather had a special room where he built a “flying machine”. But he never finished it. It was a mysterious object. 

For my next project, I have decided to search through the art history material that my great-grandmother and her daughter subscribed to and collected in the 19th and 20th centuries, old art magazines. Luckily they have been preserved -- and I have become an artist.


"Marta Klonowska: Movements"
Through December 31, 2023
Finnish Glass Museum
Tehtaankatu 23, 11910 Riihimäki
Tel: 050 500 1956

NOTES: Following the exhibition in the Finish Glass Museum, Marta Klonowska will be having a solo exhibition at Achilles Stiftung, Hamburg, Germany. It'll start on February 25th, 2024. In 2025 Marta will also be having exhibitions are the Center of Polish Sculpture, and Reiss-Engelhorn Museums (REM) in Mannheim

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.