Stanisław Wyspiański - The Theatre of Interiors


Stanisław Wyspiański, "Self-Portrait", 1902, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
Stanisław Wyspiański, "Self-Portrait", 1902, photo: National Museum in Warsaw

The multifaceted artist and playwright of the Young Poland era applied his idealistic approach to the arts in the realm of design, with the aim to create a coherent, conceptual structure for his interiors, drawing from man’s ties with nature, to the roots of civilization in antiquity and in Christianity, to the tradition of national craftsmanship, handwork, local art, and folk culture.

In the early fall of 1904 Stanisław Wyspiański received several commissions from private investors that allowed him to carry out three various concepts of public interiors. In September, at the new headquarters of the Friends of the Fine Arts Association in Kraków in the Pałac Sztuki on Szczepański Square, he began preparations to set up rooms to be used for an exhibition of the Sztuka Polish Artists’ Association. The exhibition was affiliated with the 50th anniversary of the Friends of the Fine Arts Association. Below the ceilings he made a frieze with a running geranium motif, and partly covered the walls with shelves of paneling made of massive, symmetrically laid "seats." He covered the doors with curtains of gray wool, embroidered with geraniums identical to those of the friezes. In the free space on the background walls, between the frieze and the paneling, he put pictures and sculptures by his friends from the Sztuka group. He himself was present at the exhibition as a set designer: he brought parts of his theater decor from Bolesław the Brave into the space he had designed, calling the room "The Bolesław Day Room." And thus, for the first time in Poland, a new field of art – stage design – was lifted to the rank of high art.

His next task was to design the interiors of the Doctors’ Association House on Radziwiłłowska Street in Krakow. The building was to become a center for the integration of all doctors’ associations; it was to be a local club, modeled after the English clubs, with a library and reading room,  and a place for academic and social meetings. The building had the latest modern conveniences: central heating, ventilation, electricity, and even a telephone. Wyspiański emphasized the functions of the investors’ demands  by covering  entire rooms, including the ceilings, with color as he did in his other interior designs. He harmonized the color schemes of the woodwork around the doors, sparsely rounded off with decorative ornamentation, a kind of classical fluting emphasizing the architecture and grandeur of the doorway. Characteristically, the symbolic criteria were more important for Wyspiański than the aesthetic principles. He used the former as his point of departure, to which he subordinated the aesthetics of the space. He gave the interiors a dramaturgy like that of the ancient tragedies, with a protagonist and a chorus, written in accordance to the clients’ wishes. Every room had its decorative program and particular order.

Upon entering, the grand staircase slowly reveals its attributes, with a final astonishing  view of the entire design on the upper floor, and a wall of three stained-glass windows. The artist subordinated all the elements of this interior to nature, the subject of the natural sciences’ research, represented by the users of this house. The intense yellow walls light up the interior and have a symbolic significance, as a reflection of the rays of the sun shining from the Sun God, Apollo(1) in the central stained glass. The extraordinary effect is increased by the enlarged chestnut inflorescences among the leaves on the balustrade. Their clusters modeled in brass plating accompany Apollo like an indispensable chorus, rhythmically protruding their heads to find the sun. This rhythm is repeated in an identical scale on the frieze running around the staircase. The ceramic flooring is sand-colored, aiming less to cover the floor than to ensure that nothing should disrupt the sunny harmony of the space.

The next space is the grand assembly hall, all in tones of Pompeii pink. Its furniture is simply shaped, with restrained decor repeated on the door woodwork and on the face of the mezzanine balustrade. The chairs’ armrests are inclined toward the sitter, providing no support for the arms – this lack of comfort was meant to help focus attention on the speaker. "When the chairs are comfortable, people doze at meetings. The chairs are designed so that if a man falls asleep, he will gently slide to the floor: this is the aim of the straight backrest, the smooth leather cushions and the curving arcs of the armrests…."(2) The frieze that runs around the wall just below the ceiling is a strong decorative note in this room, repeating once more the geranium motif, whose flowers are alternately painted gold and silver. The chandelier cut from chrome plate, used as a "reflector" for the bare, downward-pointing light bulb in the center, harmonizes with its snowflake shape, joyfully exhibiting a new marvel of technology – Krakow had electricity in 1904.

The repeating ornaments in the interiors of the Doctors’ House were taken from nature. Wyspiański chose motifs affiliated with Kraków – the chestnut and the geranium, colloquially known as the "Krakowiak." He also drew inspiration from the local monuments: the pillars of the balustrade from the staircase were based on the column of the Collegium Maius courtyard, and the friezes below the ceiling hail from the tradition of friezes in the royal chambers of Wawel Castle. One more factor affecting the interior decor which might be assigned a significant role in Wyspiański’s work was the presence of antiquity. Apart from his illustrations to the songs of Homer’s Iliad, published in 1903, the above-mentioned stained glass with the monumental, motionless figure of Apollo occupies a special place in the artist’s output. Hampered by the cithara strapped to his back, surrounded by the moving ellipsoidal heavenly spheres with the personifications of the planets, he appears as the Sun God. In an interpretation that matches the spirit of antiquity, this solar motif draws from the patron of the Doctors’ Association – Nicholas Copernicus – and is a tribute to the greatest achievement of the Polish natural sciences, i.e., the theories contained in Copernicus’s work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Sphere. This stained glass design, with its complex conceptual scheme and its modern and synthetic form, is among Stanisław Wyspiański’s most remarkable artistic achievements.

In the same year, Eliza Pareńska commissioned the artist to decorate the apartment of her daughter Zofia, newly married to a young medical doctor, Tadeusz Żeleński, who was to become an outstanding journalist and writer. As with his previous interiors, here, too, Wyspiański consistently defined the function of the color, and subordinated the furnishings to it. The salon was distinguished with a triumphant amaranth, smoothly painted on the walls and used for the furniture upholstery, made of uniformly dyed homespun cloth. The gray door curtains of hand-woven fabric received convex embroidery with motifs of pink-amaranth geraniums. The salon furniture suite, made of light, varnished sycamore, its shapes restrainedly rustic, was designed for short visits, with no sympathy for guests in search of comfort. The amaranth color scheme, punctuated only by the gray door curtains, the Wyspiański paintings, and the symmetrically arranged groups of golden sycamore furniture, was no doubt dazzling in its originality. In contrast, too, was the apartment’s simplicity, since  apartments of the time were usually cluttered with heaps of electrical appliances and countless knick-knacks.

The other rooms were consistently arranged. The bedroom was gray, and the dining room was dark blue. Not much survives of the apartment’s furnishings (best described by the apartment’s owner, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, in his article The History of Certain Furniture), except for what can be seen in old photographs. Boy-Żeleński’s opinion is worth quoting, particularly as his wit was among the epoch’s finest. Here he displays a self-effacing critique of his own aesthetic preferences in the form of admiration for the artist: "…the only thing Wyspiański did not entirely account for was (…) the anatomy of the human body, and human requirements. (…) Severity was the most outstanding attribute of this furniture." The space of the dining room was surely too slender to fit Wyspiański’s vision, which aimed to create an ideal symmetry of the high backs of the chairs surrounding the simple table. They were decorated with a centrally located "sun" motif,(3) repeated on the panels of a large cupboard. According to the original plan, which the insufficient space did not permit, this was to be one of four analogous parts of the "paneling." The blue of the walls and the wandering "sun" marking the rhythm of life on earth, the seasons of the year, the days, and finally the meals, were for some time the conceptual program of the dining room.

All the formal tactics used in these auteur interiors (as in his stage design) – the conscious allusions to ethnic motifs in the theatrical costumes and the props for Bolesław the Brave, the use of the struts from wooden folk architecture as independent decor for the furniture in the Żeleńskis’ salon, the native and original architectural details in the portals and the balustrades, or the crenature in the  Bolesław seats in the Art Mezzanine – amount to mere details in building an interior which, according to the principles of the gesamtkunstwerk and "synesthesia," were meant to have had an effect on the whole of the interior. Its dominant element was color, which always had symbolic significance. This was the deciding factor  on all parts of the furnishings, in accordance with the auteur conception of harmony. When he was executing interiors in 1904, Wyspiański was already a mature artist, consciously and confidently using his experience from conserving and designing sacral spaces (the Franciscan and Holy Cross churches in Krakow), and also (and perhaps most importantly) from being a playwright and a stage designer. Theater was his element, he saw and recognized drama everywhere around him, and conceived of reality through its categories.

Having been brought up without the basic comforts, in the harsh interiors of his father’s sculpture workshop, Wyspiański had no bourgeois habits that hampered his vision. He treated interiors on the one hand as quasi-theatrical spaces, and on the other as a realm for the soul, material to be used as places to express his own personality. The various commissions of fall 1904 were treated as challenges, as attempts to formulate questions about the identity of his fellow citizens in another sphere, addressed toward the people themselves. His ambitious demands formulated in his dramas required the liberation of individual potential, understood as the internal freedom of the intellectually capable person, disciplined and free of formulaic thinking.

Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907) was a multifaceted artist of the Young Poland era, painter, graphic artist, designer, playwright, and stage designer. He was a founding member member of the Sztuka Polish Artists’ Association, director of the Życie arts weekly, and a member of the Kraków City Council. He worked in both monumental and easel painting, interior design, furniture, fabric, posters, and typography, as well as the conservation of antique wall paintings and stained glass. He was also a playwright who founded his works on historiosophical polemics with modernity, also producing his own dramas and designing custom sets and costumes.

Author: Marta Romanowska, edited by Agnieszka Le Nart, November 2012

Notes:

(1) In Greek mythology the son of Zeus and Leto, the twin brother of Artemis, god of the sun, light, and oracles; the patron of poetry, music, art, and the sciences. He had healing capabilities. His attributes were a golden cithara, a bow, a quiver, and a chariot.
(2) This quote, which allegedly repeats Wyspiański’s own words, comes from T. Boy Zelenski’s article "Historia pewnych mebli" [in: "Wyspiański w oczach współczesnych", ed. L. Płoszewski, vol. II, Krakow 1971, pp. 215, 217]. Boy commented: "[…] this merciless severity was in the very core of the furniture, not in any details. It was linked with Wyspiański’s severe view on life and with his art, and its aim was to rouse and not to soothe, to keep people from nodding off […]."
(3) "Sun" ("słonecko," in the highlanders’ dialect). The motif of the sun, interpreted from the dawn of time by all the cultures of the world, Sol invictus, a heroic and benevolent strength, creative and guiding the state of solar symbolism, is a symbol of active principle, a male element. Subjected to countless stylization, it finally adopted a very similar form in the highland art of many nations. 

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