Polish History in Images [PART 2]
The second part of our visual guide to Polish history spans the time when Poland was not on the map (but it sure was present in paintings) and takes Polish history all the way to the present.
The Kościuszko Uprising (1794)
Even before the third partition took place, the first Polish national uprising broke out. The Uprising of 1794 (or Insurrection as it is also called) led by Taduesz Kościuszko, a Polish general of Belarusian descent, embraced the majority of the old territories of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The biggest military success of the insurgent army came in April with the battle of Racławice. The battle was won thanks to an attack by the kosynierzy (scythe-bearers or scythemen) – mostly members of a peasant militia armed with war scythes. Kosynierzy quickly became one of the symbols of the struggle for Polish independence, but the uprising fell the same year.
Polish Soldiers in Haiti (1802)
From 1797, in an attempt to regain independence, Polish soldiers formed so-called Legions, and joined the army of Napoleon to fight in Italy and Egypt, but also Haiti. There, in an ironic twist of fate, Poles who volunteered for the army inspired by the the Napoleonic ideals of freedom and equality were now to suppress the rebellion of the people of Haiti against French colonial rule.
Poland as Prometheus (1831)
The November Uprising of 1830 started in Warsaw and was soon to cover huge parts of the territories that after 1795 where part of Russia. In many Western countries, the suppression of the uprising which took place a year later, was met with dismay, in Poland it started a new period marked by intense emigration to France and England. The painting by Horace Vernet symbolizes the crushing of the uprising, with the eagle symbolizing Russia.
Galician Slaughter (1846)
The next Polish uprising erupted in Kraków in 1846 but lasted only for nine days. Led by members of Polish nobility and directed against Austrian Empire, it was very soon suppressed by a much larger social protest, that of the Galician peasants. The peasants led by Jakub Szela revolted against the oppression caused by serfdom and corvée labour. In the aftermath of the Galician slaughter (also called the Peasant Uprising of 1846) about 1,000 Polish noblemen were killed and 500 manors destroyed. The incidents were famous for their brutality, and to some extent inspired by the Austrian administration. The painting shows peasants coming to the representatives of the Austrian administration with the heads of Polish noblemen, for which they were paid a reward.
January Uprising (1863)
Artur Grottger's Polonia features a series of nine black-and-white drawings, representing scenes from the January Uprising of 1863, the third of the national uprisings, and just like the two previous ones, also unsuccessful. Grottger’s style was essential to developing a representation of the Polish patriotic identity.
Polish drive to freedom, which manifested in national uprisings, as well as many milder forms of resistance, was met with severe repercussions. During the whole 19th century thousands of Polish patriots who opposed Russian rule were deported to Siberia. The painting by Symbolist painter Jacek Malczewski depicts the death of one of the deportees along the way to the point of destination which could often last for several months.
Revolution of 1905
The revolution of 1905 brought workers’ protests across the whole country. The demonstration in Warsaw which ended in bloodshed is portrayed here by the expressionist artist Witold Wojtkiewicz.
Miracle on the Vistula (1921)
Considered as one of the most important battles in the history of the world, the battle of Warsaw effectively halted the Communist march towards Western Europe, in Poland it affirmed the position and legend of Marshall Piłsudski. Called (at first with ironic intent) the Miracle at the Vistula, the term became a common reference of the battle in Poland – traces of this quasi-religious perspective can be seen in this painting with Mother Mary surrounded by belligerent choirs stepping down from Heaven.
One of the most iconic painterly representations of the Polish experience of WW2 came from Andrzej Wróblewski. Born in 1927, Wróblewski painted his Executions series in 1949, the year Socialist Realism was introduced in Polish art. Arguably the most famous of the series, the so-called Surrealist Execution (VIII) seemingly shows a group of men being executed. In fact it is a depiction of one person represented in different stages of death.
Communists Rebuilding the Country
More than any other work, Podaj cegłę (Pass on the Brick) by Aleksander Kobzdej became to symbolize the art of Polish Socialist Realism. Painted in 1949 this big canvas shows a team of three bricklayers (the so-called trójka murarska) in the process of building a house. The trójka method, where one person prepares the brick, the other passes it on and the third one lays it in the wall, was developed after WW2 as the most effective and quick way of building. The re-construction effort practised at numerous construction sites of devastated Warsaw, like Mariensztat or MDM, was essential in raising Warsaw from ruins.
Martial Law (1981)
Painted in 1982 by Łukasz Korolkiewicz, December 13, 1981, Early in the Morning is a photo-realist take on one of the most familiar motifs in recent Polish history. On this day, early in the morning General Wojciech Jaruzelski announced on national TV the introduction of Martial Law in Poland. This meant clamping down on democratic opposition and introducing a whole array of restrictions and repercussions, with key opposition leaders like Wałęsa and Mazowiecki being interned. Martial Law became a formative experience for many young Poles.
Polish art keeps keeping track of Polish history. One of the most controversial contemporary Polish paintings is the work Smoleńsk (2011) by Zbigniew Dowgiałło. Inspired by the catastrophe of the Polish plane on April 10, 2010 near Smolensk (Russia) in which 96 people were killed, among them the President of Poland Lech Kaczyński and his wife, the painting features victims of the crash with their hearts ripped from their chests at the moment of the explosion. Smoleńsk was a key piece in the exhibition dedicated to new national art shown in Warsaw’s MSN in 2014.