The painting’s title, 'Shtetl', refers to the traditional Jewish village or small town with its tightly-knit community that was common throughout Eastern Europe before the Holocaust. Kowalska conjures up a classic Polish shtetl with archetypal villagers gathering round the water pump at its centre. Nevertheless, a horse-drawn cart winding up a street lined with typical, single-story houses warns of a fast-disappearing way of life as it disappears into a narrowing perspective. Pavements and streetlights signal approaching modernisation and a church in the distance underlines the presence of the wider community.
Originally from Poland, Kowalska lived in Berlin and Paris, where she worked among the École de Paris (a loose group of mainly Jewish émigré painters). Many of her paintings recall her homeland and their folk-like quality, bright palette, unnatural perspective and Chagall-like figures reflect her naïve style. During the Second World War Kowalska and her husband joined the French Resistance and were shot in 1942.
Where to see this painting?
Ben Uri, The London Jewish Museum of Art
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