Chana Kowalska was born in 1907 in Włocławek, Poland. Her father, a rabbi, senator and Zionist, made their home a meeting point for intellectuals, and the Yiddish writer Sholem Asch wrote his first book there. Kowalska began drawing at the age of 16, but at 18 became a school teacher. In 1922 she moved to Berlin, where she met her future husband, the writer Baruch Winogora.
Kowalska later moved to Paris and settled in Montparnasse, borrowing the studios of her friends to paint. She was actively involved in the Paris Kultura-Liga and in Jewish communist circles, and also worked as a journalist and wrote about painting in Yiddish journals including Presse Nouvelle and the daily Le Journal de Paris. She held the post of Secretary of the Jewish Painters and Sculptors Association and participated in the 1937 Jewish Cultural Congress. During the Second World War, she was involved in the French Resistance with her husband; arrested by the Gestapo they were either shot, or deported and then killed, in 1941.
Despite Kowalska’s naïve style of painting, her strong lines, bold colours and simplified figures often disguise a more complex message in which a series of contrasting images are linked both literally and symbolically. In Shtetl – the traditional Jewish village or small town with a tightly-knit community that was common throughout eastern Europe before the Holocaust – Kowalska conjures up an archetypal scene with, at its centre, villagers gathering round the water pump. Nevertheless, the horse-drawn cart winding up a street lined with traditional, single-storey houses (a motif also used in her painting The Bridge, Ben Uri Collection) warns of a fast-disappearing way of life. Pavements and streetlights signal approaching modernisation and a church in the distance underlines the presence of the wider community. Many of Kowalska’s paintings recall her homeland and their folk-like quality, bright palette and unnatural perspective have affinities with the work of Chagall. This is one of two works by Kowalska in the Ben Uri Collection.