Kulik’s self-portrait alludes to Tudor-era images of Queen Elizabeth I that depict the British monarch wearing Spanish-inspired gowns and surrounded by symbols of her reign. Instead of the scepters, swords, and globes that are often tasked with representing the Virgin Queen’s royal attributes, the Polish artist holds a weed-like flower and a cucumber—humble, perhaps humorous substitutes that indicate the stark realities of her daily life. Kulik composed this work from her vast archive of images using a photographic montage technique. The elaborate dress is constructed from scores of male figures. By weaving their bodies into the warp and weft of her gown’s material, the artist has emphasized a specifically female authority and personal agency.
Myriad details unite to form the overall portrait, a visual game pitting part against whole that mirrors the functioning of the individual within society, and the home in relation to the state. Growing up in postwar Poland, Kulik experienced a political landscape—a Communist government and widespread social unrest—that inflected her views on power and authoritarianism. In the image, a cross and sickle hang behind her, symbols of the complicated histories of her country’s church and government. The work’s intricacies reveal her numerous interests: costume and fashion design, feminist histories, contemporary Catholicism, and totalitarian iconography. At the center of these allusions stands Kulik, a symbol of domination who boldly challenges male-centered systems.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)