Annette Polan
Fragile Strengths: Thoughts on Aging
September 13 - October 13, 2018

Closing Tea: Saturday, October 13th, 4-6pm

Fragile Strengths: Thoughts on Aging is a multimedia self-portrait by Annette Polan that looks inward. In keeping with Feminist traditions, this visual autobiography invites dialogue to raise consciousness about issues confronting aging. It investigates aspects of a life of a single, mature woman who although powerful and confident, can feel disenfranchised, invisible or muffled, as she grows older. 

Growing old has changed in the 21st century. There is now potential later in life to replenish a capacity for positive change and access untapped strengths. It seems to be a new kind of liberation for some and new restrictions for others - and everything in between. Talk about aging, however, remains taboo.

In recent years, Polan has turned to nature to record memories of times past and of the brevity and fragility of life. Her new self-portraits portray an inner self that is both vulnerable and powerful. The self-portraits evolve from memories and dreams and offer a flexible paradigm open to fresh approaches of exploration. These multimedia portraits offer a glimpse of different aspects of self – always changing realities.

“Throughout my career, I have used likeness to explore complex realities that lie behind appearances in myself and in others.  I started making self-portraits as a young mother in the 1980’s. As I look back on my younger self through my art, I can see the maternal and the seductive; the determined and the wavering. I made a portrait when I decided not to have more children and another when I divorced. Self-portraits have not only marked milestones, they have connected me to others and given me strength to move forward.” -

-Annette Polan.


About the Artist
Annette Polan was born in Huntington, West Virginia and lives in Washington, DC. She studied at the Tyler School of Art, Corcoran College of Art and Design, and École du Louvre. Polan is a portrait painter, photographer, art educator, and former chair of the Painting Department at the Corcoran School of Art. She was chair and founder of Faces of the Fallen that honored American servicemen and women who died in Afghanistan and Iraq with 1,323 portraits by artists from throughout the United States. Polan has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in Europe, Asia and Australia.

Additional Exhibition Notes from Annette Polan

There have been many times in recent years I felt overwhelmed or depressed. There are times NOW I am frightened that I’m not up to a challenge. I can see all of that in my work. Art has always been my comfort and my motivation  - through deaths, divorce and cancer. It is the language I use to communicate. I appreciate now it has also gives me a way to look back on my life and understand who I was then and who I am now.

The art I make is a visual journal. The palette, the composition, the texture of the paint – these formal elements are keys to my inner life. So it seemed only natural for me to use art as a vehicle to explore the aging process and to give a voice to those who are too often marginalized by society as they age. Art became my own protest of sorts against ageism.

Throughout my career, I have used likeness to explore complex realities that lie behind appearances.  I started making self-portraits as a young mother in the 1980’s. As I look back on my younger self through my art, I can see the maternal and the seductive SUNLIGHT; the determined and the wavering. I made a portrait when I decided not to have more children WINGS and another when I divorced MOONLIGHT. Portraits have marked milestones.

 As I’ve aged, I’ve continued to investigate my life and the Nature of Self through an ongoing series of intimate, introspective self-portraits. “Fragile Strengths: Thoughts on Aging”, my work in the Atrium Gallery In Buchanan Hall, honors Feminist traditions and invites dialogue to raise BOUND UNBOUND consciousness about issues confronting aging. It investigates aspects of a life of a single, mature woman who although powerful and confident, can feel disenfranchised, invisible or muffled, as she grows older. With this piece, I wanted to show INNER BEAUTY – that inner light. 

My new self-portraits show an inner self that is both vulnerable and powerful. The self-portraits evolve from memories and dreams and offer a flexible paradigm open to fresh approaches of exploration. These multi-media portraits offer a glimpse of different aspects of self – always changing realities. VANITAS These self-portraits also so that others project themselves into their ideas of you.

Intrigued by a Honoré de Balzac’s short story, The Unknown Masterpiece, I have created art whose mission “…is not to copy nature but to express it!” UNKNOWN MASTERPIECE

“The Unknown Masterpiece is a story about a great painter, Master Frenhofer who, although he has mastered his technique, he admits that he has been unable to find a suitable model for his future masterpiece that he has been working on for a decade. A young artist, Nicolas Poussin offers his own lover, Gillette, as a model. (I won’t get into this now, but…) Inspired, the great painter finishes his masterpiece quickly. Finally, he opens his door and invites two young artists to see the finished work. He’s extremely proud. What they see is a swirl of colors – not the beautiful model. The Master has obliterated the figure – only a foot remains. Did he ruin his masterpiece or create something never seen before? Met with disappointment and misunderstanding, Frenhofer is driven to and he destroys the painting and dies that night.”

This short story is a study of what makes great art. Balzac’s allegory is a reflection on art and the nature of creativity and had an important influence on modernist artists.

Picasso was fascinated by the text and identified with Frenhofer so much that he moved to the rue des Grands-Augustins in Paris where Balzac located Porbus' studio. There he painted his own masterpiece, Guernica.

ZOETROPE Like Balzac’s fictional Master Frenhofer, I have been pursuing this (Self) Portrait for years. Time, in fact becomes an essential element in the creative process for Balzac and for me. Inspired by literature, direct observation, and my own personal story, my imagery tracks the ever-changing nature of an evolving Self to give it meaning over time. These images connect observation with feeling and offer an opportunity to reflect on creativity and the idea of self. The work percolates somewhere between conscious and sub consciousness - a distillation of memory and desire.

ANONYMOUS PERSONAE My own personal blend of symbolism and use of non-traditional materials seek to imbue the work with an ephemeral, magical quality. It creates tensions between vulnerability and aggression, innocence and seduction, beauty and decadence, and ultimately, life and death. Relying less and less on traditional drawing and painting, I’ve used gossamer silk, dried Maple leaves, mirrors, photography and video to explore universal themes and the passage of time. The art in this work is intuitive, coming from the senses, emotions, and imagination but it appeals to the rational. It evokes the masks we wear to camouflage the effects of aging.

DIARY OF A MAPLE TREE In recent years, I have turned to Nature to record memories of times past and of the brevity and fragility of life. Henri Cartier-Bresson said “… through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us… A balance must be established between these two worlds – the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a single reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one…”

I have found a beauty – sometimes savage, sometimes peaceful – in nature no matter what season. METAMORPHOSIS Over and over I turn to a Maple Tree – slow growing, strong, a beautiful structure when bare in winter or leafed in summer, a blaze of color in the fall and a source of a sweetness in early spring. The layered transparencies of “Metamorphosis” are out of focus when you look at the piece up close but zoom into clarity from a distant perspective. This is my chosen metaphor to represent the aging process.

Annette Polan