Born in the southern highlands of Poland, the paintings of Naïve artist, Roman Golla, reveal an intimacy with nature few urbanites experience. Rural people’s lives weave across the warp of the seasons. They understand the physicality and seemingly capricious demands of weather. They are familiar with the smell and feel of soil, the path of water, and the comfort and solitude of living and being among the breath of the earth. With a childhood spent in intimacy with nature, Roman’s paintings make visible a reality far from the urban shores of Lake Michigan and his adopted home in the Polish communities of Chicago. He brings to the present a deep love of the earth, particularly the flora and fauna of the Polish Highlands of his youth.
Landscape settings dominate nine out of ten paintings in Roman’s oeuvre, even when he ventures into fantasy. His comfort with the natural world is such that he can easily visualize the natural space his imagined subjects inhabit. Interestingly, Roman deepens our awareness of his love of nature through several fantasy paintings revealing women of power found in goddess mythology. Four noteworthy paintings are devoted solely to deities who in some way guard or protect nature: Flora, the Roman Goddess of Spring, The Maiden, Dziewona, the Slavic Goddess of the Hunt, Oynyena Maria, the Fire Goddess, and The Zorya, the three Auroras who serve the Slavic sun god, Dažbog. Each of these female deities comes to life through Roman’s imagination, moving in step with the parade of string players, singers and gypsies populating his other open-air images. Though male deities connected to nature exist in primitive Polish culture, Roman does not seem to be interested in placing them in his work. Roman did paint a few images of significant male figures, Jesus, Casmir the Restorer, and the sea god Neptune, but, unfortunately, these have no discernable thematic connection. Examining them first, however, will give us a deeper appreciation of the images Roman does connect to nature.
The largest and most complex work, The Baptizing of Jesus, is a brilliantly composed image focusing less on the person of Jesus, who stands next to the Baptist with his back to the viewer, than the response of the crowd. Roman lifts imagery from 15th century paintings of Gospel stories by placing the beatific face of God the Father in the sky, while the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. The moment Roman invokes is one of blessing, and given the deep roots of Christianity in Polish culture, one might imagine a larger Catholic influence in Roman’s other paintings, but The Baptizing of Jesus stands alone. A couple of sketches of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse exist, but there is no evidence of these being preludes to paintings. Two paintings from the same moment in Polish history, Casmir the Restorer and The Captive, do deal with male figures, but like The Baptizing of Jesus, both focus less on the heroic element of male power than on the experience of the common people.
In Casmir the Restorer and The Captive, Roman addresses a time of great turmoil for the Polish people. The Kingdom of Poland emerged in the late 900’s under Casmir’s father, Mieszko II, who converted to Catholicism and was crowned King of Poland in 1025. Political infighting after Mieszko II’s death in 1034, coupled with years of drought, prompted the peasant population to revolt against the Christian religion and return to paganism. Casmir tried several times to reunite the Polish nobles, but to no avail. Finally, with support from the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, Casmir reestablished the boundaries of the kingdom, and, despite never being crowned king in his father’s place, brought Poland a time of relative peace. The resulting time of unity endeared Casmir to the Polish people. His name gained added importance during the Polish Partition of the 19th century. Roman’s sympathies for Casmir, however, are not so clear.
If Roman were interested in honoring Casmir’s legacy, one might imagine him depicting an important battle or event. Casmir the Restorer and The Captive, however, both depict the internal subjugation of the pagan peasants in an effort to reunite the country under the folds of the Catholic faith. Roman’s sympathy for the human experience of the peasants may have something to do with his own captivity in a forced labor camp during WWII. Given the lack of any first person account, definitive conclusions are illusive, but, visually, Casmir the Restorer and The Captive, seem less celebratory of male heroes than concerned with the effects of male domination.
Curiously, the only other image of male power in Roman’s oeuvre is Neptune with Two Mermaids in an Aquarium. The title alone is sufficient to indicate Roman’s view. Neptune, the great sea god, is here confined to an aquarium with two of his consorts. They stare out toward the viewer, as many of Roman’s people do, with expressions of wonder, or is this confusion? Neptune, depicted not as a merman but with legs, lounges in the corner while fish and sea creatures swirl around the picture plane. One further twist of reality is the most disturbing of Roman’s expressive tropes. Here, as he does in several other paintings of shirtless males, Roman depicts Neptune with knob-like breasts. Such androgyny is hard to explain, but not unique in the world of Outsider Artists. This may have something to do with Roman’s sense of humor, just as he turns all of the beings in his adaptation of George Catlin’s Buffalo Hunt from American Indians to Amazons.
Roman’s depictions of women, however, are another story completely. The Maiden, Dziewona is a stunning application of Roman’s ability to build compositional interest through a magical use of a single color. Dziewona is the Slavic goddess of the hunt. Her name is a derivation of the Slavic word for Maiden, which is how Roman titles her. Her role in Slavic lore is comparable to the Roman Empire’s Diana the hunter, goddess of the moon and nature. In Polish paganism, as in pagan Rome, she is a virginal goddess. Slavic primitive religions, much like Celtic and Norse, were both pantheistic and animistic, believing in a symbiotic relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds, including the presence of a soul in all living organism and the transcendent importance of magical places.
Roman Golla imagines Dziewona entering the world pulled by four white horses. She floats behind them, standing on a bright white cushion or lozenge that seems to issue from the lining of her cobalt blue gown. A pale yellow moon frames her bobbed dark brown hair in halo-like fashion. The color blue pervades the image, tinting and mixing with the white of the horses, the yellow of the moon, and the orange-tan sky. Dziewona’s compositional placement is high on the right hand side. She lifts her left arm, raising a hunting bow in the air, allowing one breast to be exposed. Behind her, birds scatter in her wake. Her hair, as well as her complexion, are dark and her blue eyes look off to the right.
Dziewona’s right hand holds the reigns controlling the four steeds, kicking up the sea-like clouds in patterns of blue, white and green. The horse to the left stamps its foot, another tosses its head, while the remaining two charge forward. Roman uses a well-honed cultural device to assert Dziewona’s power. It appears in paintings of royalty and hero-worship from Diego Velasquez’ Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback to Gilbert Stuart’s Washington at Dorchester Heights: a person who can control a horse with one hand could guide a nation. Roman, however, takes the idea further: a person who can control a horse with one hand is a leader; but one who can control four is a god.
Roman carries this idea of goddesses on horses into the other two paintings derived from Slavic myth. Both Oynyena Maria, the Fire Goddess, and The Zorya, the Three Auroras ride on horses. The Zorya, three goddesses representing the Morning Star, Evening Star and Midnight Star each have Polish names: Zwezda Dnierca – Zwezda Wieczorniaia, and Zwezda Polnoca. They play a very important role in the night sky as guardians of the Doomsday Hound as he threatens to break his chains and consume the little bear seen in the constellation Ursa Minor. Slavic mythology asserts, if this happens, the universe will end. Curiously, with this incredibly important role, Roman depicts the Auroras riding across a tree-lined plain, their faces serenely quiet and enclosed by short blond hair. Though identical, they appear to be dressed more like stenographers calmly going to work than goddesses responsible for the fate of the world. With eyes closed, they ride at full tilt and, perhaps, we can all rest secure in this. Their pert posture and self-contained expressions seem to say, “Relax, we have everything under control.”
A polar opposite to the smug and subtle complacency of The Zorya exists in the Fire Goddess, Oynyena Maria. Known as “Fiery Mary” in Slavic lore, Oynyena Maria assists Piorun, the god of thunder. Unlike the other goddesses Roman paints, Oynyena Maria explodes with fury and power. Depicted naked upon a dark brown horse rearing and skidding through solar flares emanating from the red and yellow star behind her, Oynyena Maria fully lives up to the name “Fiery Mary.” Planets and stars zoom across a dark blue sky as she prepares to hurl a flaming red ball into space. Like The Maiden, Dziewona, Oynyena Maria controls her wild-eyed steed with one hand, her dark black hair trailing behind her. In size, few images in Roman’s oeuvre are as small as Oynyena Maria, but none is as terrifying.
Roman Golla’s respect and admiration for these Polish pagan goddesses is an extension of his love of the natural world, and so his incorporation of the goddess Flora into his imaginative pantheon is less about the intrusion of Roman mythology into Polish culture as it is a sign of Roman’s wide ranging intellect. Flora is the goddess of spring and fertility and Roman presents her in a moment within a floral parade. The form of her body visible beneath her sheer garment, Flora sits on a flower-encrusted wagon surrounded by six musician, a dancer, and four attendants. The sound and color present incredible harmonies. There is a harp, two lyres, a horn, a mandolin and an accordion. There are myriad shades of pink, blue, yellow, red, white and green. Cupid sits, bow and arrow at the ready, singing in front of her. Full breasted, Flora’s physical attributes embody the hope present in the flowering of blossoms for a good harvest at the end of the growing season. She sits in profile, looking forward, while waving her right hand. The total composition is one of joy, with flowering blossoms and plants covering nearly every inch of the canvas.
Though Roman Golla painted many other images of women, these four paintings expand our understanding of Roman’s interior affinity with nature. Allowing these imaginings to enter his visible world enabled Roman to share a dimension of his experience, his deep understanding of rural culture, and his memories of Poland with those who viewed his work. The ritualistic process of anamnesis shares not just the story, but also the transformative potential of the experience of faith. Viewing Roman Golla’s paintings through this lens may not allow us to fully see the religious underpinnings of Roman Golla’s past, but we can experience his deep embrace of creation and his yearning for hope in the world. Art being the communication of an idea about a subject by an artist through an artwork, there can be no better experience for an audience than those who paint from the heart. And this is the importance in finding artists as honest and unassuming in their work as Roman Golla.
More about Roman Golla exists on this site’s other blog posts. Source information regarding Primitive Polish Mythology can be found at http://www.polishtoledo.com/pagan/