Maria Korsak (*) was born in 1908 in the village of Pogórze near Vilnius. The Vilnius region was at that time part of the Russian Empire. After World War I and the Polish-Bolsevik War (1919-1921), the city and region of Vilnius were incorporated into the Polish nation.
In her childhood and youth, Maria helped her parents on the family farm and provided extra income by weaving carpets and curtains. In the course of 1939 she met her future husband. Married life was short-lived because at the outbreak of World War II (September 1, 1939) her husband was mobilized for the Polish army and left for the front.
My new dress (1985 or earlier). Acrylic on canvas 74×108 cm.
After the war, the couple’s reunification encountered serious obstacles because Vilnius was assigned to the Soviet Union by the peace treaty. Her husband had settled in Warszawa after his demobilization and, as a former combatant, ran on repatriation the risk of being prosecuted by the Russians on suspicion of loyalty to the Polish government in exile in London.
Maria’s emigration to Poland required permission from the Russian authorities, which turned out to be practically impossible. Obtaining the necessary documents resulted in years of Kafkaian struggle against the Russian bureaucracy. In the end, Maria decided to look the beast in the mouth and left for Moscow in the late 1950s for a last attempt.
Marriage in spring. Painted under pseudonym (1985 or earlier). Acrylic on canvas 47,5×63 cm.
During her visit to Moscow, Maria visited for the first time in her life a museum: the Tretyakov Gallery with one of the richest and largest collections in the world. She was so impressed by Andrey Rublev’s medieval icons, Ilya Repin’s Volga tugs and Impressionist masterpieces that she decided ‘on the spot’ to become a painter’. In her enthusiasm she even forgot that she had an appointment at the repatriation office. During a follow-up appointment, she received a positive-looking commitment for her emigration. She paid for the application form with photos by selling the braid of her hair. When she returned, she immediately got to work. Her first works were in the style of the famous works she had seen in the Tretyakov. In 1958 she received the coveted emigration documents.
The reunion of the spouses was a bitter disappointment. After the short marital togetherness in 1939 and the separation of almost 20 years, they turned out to be completely estranged from each other. Her husband became furious when he discovered that his docile young wife had turned into an assertive self-managing woman and that her paintings were flawed. He had the idea that he had married a disturbed person and preferred to deposit her paintings on the balcony in the rain.
Spring at the lake. Painted under pseudonym (1985 or earlier). Acrylic on canvas 51×71 cm.
Her husband’s anger and disapproval made little impression on Maria. She had an unwavering confidence in her choice of art and the path she had traveled since then. She continued her painting activities on a steady course and enrolled at the regional center for art and culture on Elektoralna Street in Warszawa. There she followed the lessons of Prof. Barbara Jonscher who helped her to perfect her style and expression in the spirit of naive realism. Her favorite subjects were scenes from her childhood and youth and the parks and architecture of Warszawa.
She quickly gained appreciation for her work in a small circle, made contacts with institutions that traded naïve art and her paintings began to sell. During an exhibition at the regional art center, an American visitor purchased two of her paintings. The man then passed on his enthusiasm to the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Miami, who arranged a solo exhibition with a beautiful catalog for Korsak. This success made a big impression in the Polish art world and Maria’s name was established. Soon her painting brought in such an income that she was able to stop producing and selling the fashionable curtains for household use that she loathed.
Landscape with lake and swans (1985 or earlier. Acrylic on canvas 74×108 cm.
In the 1960s, the famous director Andrzej Wajda filmed Maria feeding the swans in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park from a boat. Swans in a park-like environment, people bathing and winter landscapes became common motifs in her paintings. Her winter landscapes in particular were highly sought after. They were by Polish standards sold for staggering prices.
Although she had built up security for herself and her husband, she suffered from the fact that she had remained childless. When her husband died, she came up with the idea of adopting a child from her own family. It became 14-year-old Anna, daughter of poor relatives who had not asked for repatriation because they felt more Russian than Polish. Anna turned out to be extraordinarily bright. When she arrived in Warszawa she didn’t speak a word of Polish, but four years later she graduated from high school and went to study at the Sorbonne. Maria paid for her studies and living expenses and also supported a series of poor relatives in her native region.
In the mid-1980s, we visited Korsak twice at her home in Warszawa and made video recordings there. We bought four of her paintings, two of which were under the pseudonym S. Borysewicz. Using a pseudonym gave her the opportunity to operate in two markets.
Maria continued to paint until her death in 2002. She was considered one of the best naive painters in the country and the Polish Minister of Culture praised the quality of her work. She had many solo exhibitions in prestigious galleries and museums in Poland, England, Germany (Heidelberg) and the United States. Her works are included in the permanent collections of various museums, including the National Ethnographic Museum in Warszawa (18 pieces) and in important private collections at home and abroad.
FOR MORE PHOTOS SEE:
INSTAGRAM ACCOUNT WILLEM OTTEN (#mariakorsak)
FOR VIDEO IMAGES SEE:
Visit of Alina-Ludmila and Willem Otten to Korsak in 1984 (Polish language 18 minutes)
(*) This biography used information from an unpublished book by Ludwig Zimmerer on Polish folk art, prepared by his daughter Katarzyna Zimmerer.