Erna Rosenstein
Portrait of Erna Rosenstein by Adam Sandauer. Right: A Bower Far Away Erna Rosenstein Oil on canvas 94 × 76 cm, 1977. Image courtesy of the Zachęta Collection.

Multi-disciplinary artist, poet, and fiction writer Erna Rosenstein became a leading cultural voice in 20th century Poland. Yet it is only now that the West is beginning to discover her surrealist masterpieces.

The Early Life of Erna Rosenstein

Erna Rosenstein (1913–2004) was born to Austrian-Jewish and Ukrainian parents in Lviv, Austria-Hungary, now Ukraine. When she was five, the family immigrated to Kraków, Poland. 

The young Rosenstein studied at Wiener Frauenakademie and the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, which she graduated from in 1936. Two years later, in 1938, she visited the International Surrealist Exposition, organized by André Breton in Paris—a formative experience that shaped her aesthetic approach.

Already a committed Communist and member of the leftist Kraków Group of artists, her early work focused on life as a Jewish woman living under Nazi occupation in Poland.

Fountain of fire and silence by Erna Rosenstein
Fountain of fire and silence Erna Rosenstein Mixed media on canvas 63 × 48 cm, 1982. Right: Detail. Image courtesy of the Zachęta Collection.

In 1942, the family attempted an escape from Warsaw. Both of her parents were killed on the journey, and Erna only barely survived. She spent the rest of the war years under various aliases.

Rosenstein routinely returned to the memory of Nazi occupation and the unspeakable trauma of the Holocaust, while developing a visual language all her own—stunningly abstracted surrealism.

After a Soviet-backed government was established in Poland, Rosenstein lived out her political ideals without turning a blind eye to hard realities. Among the tensions of the Cold War and the fallout of so much destruction from World War II, the Communist-led Polish People’s Republic faced ongoing strife and pursued a clampdown on civil liberties—while also delivering universal health care, education, the rebuilding of Warsaw, and the eradication of illiteracy.

Fountain by Erna Rosenstein
Fountain Erna Rosenstein Oil on canvas 146,5 × 117,5 cm, 1965. Right: Detail. Image courtesy of the Zachęta Collection.
Twilight of the Painting by Erna Rosenstein
Twilight of the Painting Erna Rosenstein Mixed media on canvas 48 × 63 × 3 cm, 1978. Image courtesy of the Zachęta Collection.

The Rise of Rosenstein

Rosenstein’s long career saw her rise to the top of Eastern European art. She routinely returned to the memory of Nazi occupation and the unspeakable trauma of the Holocaust, while developing a visual language all her own—stunningly abstracted surrealism.

Though she never aligned herself with the officially sanctioned socialist-realist style, by the mid-1950s Rosenstein’s work began to take hold in the public consciousness. Soon, she was one of the most revered artists in the Poland scene.

Rosenstein’s biomorphic figures extend beyond painting into multimedia work made out of found objects.

In March 1968, student communists and other leftists took to the streets to protest the failures of the Soviet-backed regime. The result was brutal repression, and, after this, Rosenstein turned away from painting and focused on literature for a time—perhaps as a form of resistance.

As a writer, Rosenstein primarily wrote fairy tales and poetry. These pieces all featured surrealist subtexts, blending form, aesthetic, and meaning into a hypnotic brew.

Her biomorphic figures extend beyond painting into multimedia work made out of found objects. This fascination continued into the 1990s. Throughout the decade she made several ink drawings of these items—trash, organic matter, stones. She found them haunted by meaning and expressed these hidden stories visually.

Though a major name in Eastern Europe for much of her life, it was only after her death in 2021 that Rosenstein received her first monographic exhibition outside of Poland—“Once Upon a Time” at Hauser & Wirth

Eternity breeds the moment by Erna Rosenstein
Eternity breeds the moment Erna Rosenstein Mixed media on canvas 49 × 64 cm, 1982. Image courtesy of the Zachęta Collection.

The Surreal Appeal of Erna Rosenstein

I must now understand it all myself alone.

Ever deeper

and ever heavier.

Only it will remain.

— From “Rock (1)” by Erna Rosenstein

Rosenstein’s output of visual art and poetry tells a tale all its own. For the artist, “there are no distinct borders” between literature and painting. In this way, all of her work contains a driving narrative, a mythos that reverberates through every line and choice of color.

It is this narrative thread that binds all of her works together. It tells the story of a life lived among massive historical events, able to retain and reimagine the human dimension among the horror and ecstasy of existence.