Refuge, from the Polonia cycle – Artur Grottger
Refuge, the fifth panel from Grottger’s Polonia cycle, depicts a tense scene centred around a wounded insurgent and a medic attending to him.
The scene takes place in front of a small village manor. In the centre of the composition stands an insurgent with bandages wrapped around his head, while next to him is a young woman in a black dress with her sleeves rolled up. The soldier looks carefully into the distance, shielding his eyes with one hand, while holding a gun in the other. He the follows an old Jew’s hand pointing towards what is probably an approaching Russian regiment. Two of his fellow soldiers are seen entering the manor, but he is hesitating, while the woman pulls him towards safety. Numerous details suggest impending danger: the scared expressions on characters’ faces, the dog cowering by the fence, the suspicion on the face of an old peasant woman, a child with raised arms, and even the dark, gloomy clouds in the sky.
The painting is not, as it may seem, a scene taken straight from January Uprising. Grottger, even though he depicts events contemporary to him, depicts them utilising devices connected with historical painting. He captures the moment of the climax of the events, enabling the viewer to guess what happened before that and what is going to happen next, and to get the meaning of the whole scene.
The ‘climactic’ element in the painting is precisely the aforementioned central pair. It is the soldier’s decision and the woman’s reaction that build the dynamicity and tension of the whole scene. The wounded soldiers who are entering the refuge are the element showing us what was happening before, and the central insurgent probably would have followed them if it wasn’t for the message from the Jew, who points to something outside of the frame. We can only guess that he informs them of Russian military, who are soon going to enter the village.
Even if the viewer is not fully aware of these ploys that Grottger uses, it is possible to understand the meaning of the scene thanks to clear composition and a little over-the-top gestures. The emotions shown on people’s faces and in their movement, as well as seen in the animals’ behaviour are yet another medium to convey the contents. Grottger’s characteristic psychological message but the readability of the work are what influenced the popularity and recognisability of his artistic vision after the January Uprising.
The woman shown on the drawing is also quite an interesting figure. Grottger’s output is rich in depictions of brave soldiers and insurgents, but rarely can one see women engaged in the fight. However, sometimes women’s gestures are key elements in Grottger’s works, for example in the panels Mournful Tidings and People or Jackals, both from the same Polonia cycle. Overall, women are most often depicted as weak and passive. They mourn the dead, wear black, pray, cower in fear, or get hurt. The depiction in Refuge is different, as here the woman is strong and is taking care of the insurgents, not the other way around.
A woman taking care of a wounded man is an image deeply rooted in culture, from mythology to modernity. Probably the most thorough interpretation of this trope connected with the January Uprising was undertaken by Stefan Żeromski in his novel The Faithful River (1912). The main heroine at the beginning seems to be the exact replica of the woman from Grottger’s drawing. A wounded soldier that is being treated and guarded by her in a manor sees an angel in her, as you can see in this description:
He was looking at a beautiful woman pottering about the house. Her head noble in every position, her raven hair covering her cheeks, her gentle and symmetrical face with subtle grace, her rouge mouth always smiling – it all captured his eyes. She wore a dress that was fashionably wide at the bottom, but not as wide as crinoline. Her cheeks and hands were red with blood. Looking at that strange but charming creature who entered his most personal being, who washed his wounds and filthiest grime with cheerful simplicity, it all made him struggle to hold back joyous weeping.
Refuge is not strictly a work about the medic and the insurgent, but juxtaposed with Żeromski’s description it helps recreate how women who helped soldiers in 1863 were perceived. They were idealised as biblical Samaritans, wearing modest, black dresses always clean and fresh. That’s what the woman on Grottger’s drawing looks like – her hard work is signalled only by rolled up sleeves.
It is important to point out that besides their domestic help, many women participated actively in the January Uprising, organising field hospitals, tending to the wounded, and establishing supply routes for troops. Many wives of doctors or apothecaries helped, as they had basic medical knowledge and could access medical supplies. Sometimes they went even further, working not only on a grassroots level, but also organising under the Polish National Government.
Helping wounded insurgents out of the goodness of their hearts, in their household and without capturing much attention, wasn’t something unusual for women at the time – it was socially accepted and associated with compassion and lenience. That means that Grottger’s composition does not stray from the contemporary tradition of women’s representations, which is why the medic from Refuge is not an active character at all. Further proof of that is how the work was interpreted by 19th and 20th century critics.
These critics focused mostly on the tension between the soldier and the nurse. He is described as brave and unyielding, while she is seen as weak and scared. The man wants to go back and fight, the woman literally drags him back into the manor. On the one hand, she is praised for exposing herself to danger by treating wounded soldiers, but on the other she is condemned, as her help proves to be a liability. Paradoxically, Refuge’s heroine becomes a personification of womanly passivity contrasted with manly activity.
Author: Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka, December 2016. Translated by ASCulture.pl