Chopin’s Funeral March – Władysław Podkowiński
Unlike many Polish modernist nocturnes, Władysław Podkowiński’s unfinished final painting goes beyond realist conventions.
Marsz Żałobny Chopina (editor’s translation: Chopin’s Funeral March) is the last work of Władysław Podkowiński, who prematurely passed away in 1895. The nocturne landscape evokes the ambience of a black night with its cloud-veiled sky faintly filtered by moonlight. Trees and flocks of birds loom in the feeble luminescence. On the left side of the painting, a celestial cortege of winged angels carries the open casket of a woman. To their right, nearly in the centre of the composition is a man dramatically throwing one hand up in the air and the other one to his side. His mouth is wide open and he’s probably screaming in despair after the passing of his beloved friend. The whole scene is towered over by gloomy bells.
Nocturne, the painting genre Podkowiński was involved in, entered the mainstream in painting at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries and became popular in Poland because of Aleksander Gierymski’s series of urban night landscapes (e.g. Paris Opera in the Night) or Józef Pankiewicz’s works (Swans in the Saxon Garden). It corresponded to the modernist theory of painting, according to which the form was the basis for the appraisement of a work.
Firstly, as an artistic challenge, a nocturne could prove an artist’s painting skills. A limited palette and the lights of the night could either highlight masterly skills or expose the inadequate craft of an artist. Moreover, like no other painting genre, a nocturne could create an atmosphere and arouse strong emotions in its audience. Skilful escalation of Stimmung emanating from a painting was the second important element appreciated by the then critics. A nocturne also expressed the fin-de-siècle atmosphere of melancholy.
Unlike other Polish modernist nocturnes, Władysław Podkowiński’s March goes beyond realist conventions. Although the nearly-tangible atmosphere of a nocturnal landscape is vividly depicted via artistic means, the scene itself surpasses reality. The ephemeral, glowing figures of angels and the unsettling presence of the man suggest the painting’s link with symbolism. The peculiarity of the artwork is generally explained by its author’s biography. It is interpreted as his personal cry of despair and dread before his death. In this frame, the subject of Chopin’s Funeral March would be the most tragic human experience embodied by the young, terminally-ill artist’s tragedy.
Podkowiński himself claimed that Kornel Ujejski’s poem Marsz Żałobny (Funeral March) served as the inspiration for the painting. His work is often juxtaposed with the following verses (transl. by Bradley Kirschberg, Wadsworth Olivier in: Weekly Gazette 26 December, Schenectady 1935):
A thousand bells from hidden lofts clamour in my brain,
As these slowly pacing priests drone a sad refrain;
While before me, just two paces moves a slow black cart,
Deathly shadows cloak my eyes, darkness shrouds my heart.
I am walking, floating, moving without though or will
Aching head and aching heart, body cold and chill.
Claws so sharp and claws so crooked digging at my soul,
I hear ugly ravens croak as death bells slowly toll.
Ujejski’s poem was also the inspiration for a different work: the famous fragment of Fryderyk Chopin’s Sonata 2 in B Minor op. 35. The aforementioned poem is one of the transpositions of musical compositions included in Ujejski’s collection Tłumaczenia Szopena (Chopin’s Translations) published in 1866.
Thus, experiencing the pictorial forms in Podkowiński’s painting was supposed to be combined with impressions left by poetry and music in order to synthesise a new artistic character. The idea of syncretism, combining different genres of art, was characteristic of the turn of 19th and the 20th centuries and it was already grounded in romanticism.
The concept of correspondance des artes (correspondence of arts) employed by Chopin, Juliusz Słowacki, and Cyprian Norwid materialises the idea of the communion of arts and their universal language, which exists despite different means of expression, specific for each genre of art. The attempts at unifying them in one artwork were supposed to increase their expressiveness, while conditioning special synthetic reception of art. It was largely based on reading paintings through other paintings evoked in memory, concretised in the recipient’s imagination and actualised in their experience.
• Elżbieta Charazińska, Władysław Podkowiński: Katalog Wystawy Monograficznej, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warszawa 1990
• Hanna Faryna-Paszkiewicz, Władysław Podkowiński, Warszawa 1987
• Henryk Piątkowski, Władysław Podkowiński 1866-1895, Warszawa 1896
Originally written in Polish by Magdalena Wróblewska, Jun 2011, translated by AP, 5 Nov 2017
Marsz Żałobny Chopina
oil on canvas, 83.5 x 119.5 cm
National Museum in Kraków's collection