Painted in 1898, the painting was more or less the debut canvas of the 28 year old painter. The composition is based mostly on the masterly usage of space and modes of expression. The large format of the painting clearly stands in contrast to the motif and the means of its representation. The painting features nothing but a dark sky covered with clouds, a field and merely roughly marked figures of oxen and a ploughman.
The work proved to be a unique visiting card for Ferdynand Ruszczyc as immediately following its presentation, the painter swiftly came to rank among the top young artists of St. Petersburg (he participated in an exhibition entitled "Miru Iskusstva" in January 1899 and next in the Spring Exhibition of the Petersburg Academy) and Warsaw (a solo exhibition in the Zachęta Gallery in December of that year). At that time, Ruszczyc was not an anonymous painter in both capitals of the Empire: two years earlier his "Spring" had been purchased by Pavel Tretyakov from the graduation exhibition of the Petersburg Academy. But it was "The Land" that secured his position as an artist for good. It was probably the strongest position among all Warsaw-based painters of the Young Poland movement, who received their education in Russia and were inclined towards its symbolism (such as Kazimierz Stabrowski, Edward Okuń or Konrad Krzyżanowski). The painting also won him acclaim from the Warsaw art critics and, above all, the literary circles.
As much as the latter one comes as a surprise, one should bear in mind that writers showed a vivid interest in the painting of Young Poland, which was frequently considered as 'literary' as it often used symbols and anecdotes. It was one of the most imitated and well-received in diverse circles.
Stefan Popowski and Zenon Przesmycki read the work as an allegory for human existence; Cezary Jellenta as a representation of unchangeable laws of nature; the circles of Naturalists and followers of Positivism considered it to be a praise for the farmer’s toil; Antoni Chołoniewski perceived it as an illustration of the Mickiewicz’s vision of a man between the earth and heaven; Leopold Staff (in his poem entitled "Orka" / "Ploughing") interpreted the painting through the prism of Nietzsche’s "triumph of the will"; Henryk Piątkowski in the pre-existentialist spirit while Napoleon Rouba in the Christian one. In the interwar period, Mieczysław Limanowski (by the way, the painter’s friend) went as far as claiming that "The Land" was a religious painting corresponding both with Christ’s Resurrection and Eleusinian Mysteries.
The most widely discussed question was, and still is, that of the painting’s form, which does not follow any then present trend. Ruszczyc himself (as well as some of the work’s interpreters) explained that the painting’s form corresponded with that of his masters, the brilliant landscape painters: Ivan Shyshkin and Arkhip Kuindzhi. Their art, however, was of a more peaceful and contemplative nature; it was closer to the naturalistic representation of reality. Although inspired by a plein-air workshop held near the artist’s family estate in Bohdanów, Lithuania, Ruszczyc’s painting is by definition an expression, in which the manner of nature representation is not derived from nature itself but carefully shaped by the painter. Thanks to the employed framing technique, a small hill seems much higher. While in order to enhance the dramatic effect, the painter placed only the treeless farming part of the hill within the frame, which in reality takes only a small fragment of it.
Some critics would trace the roots of Ruszczyc’s painting back to the German Romantic "religion of nature" or, with regard to his Danish mother, to the Scandinavian Realism. It seems, however, that these were merely desperate attempts at finding a formula for defining the austere monumentalism of the work. "The Land" has been commonly considered as a painting-manifesto, but it has been more difficult to determine what precisely it manifests. Perhaps, Agnieszka Morawińska has the point in linking Ruszczyc’s painting with his return to his hometown of Bohdanów. For a young man brought up in a cosmopolitan family who would move from town to town first with his family, and then alone as a student, it was a big decision to search for his roots and define himself as a Lithuanian in terms of a regional identity, and as a Pole in terms of a national identity. The work would then express the artist’s attachment to the land, a sort of declaration of 'locality'.
There is a striking correspondence between the fate of two "child prodigies" of the Young Poland movement, that is the two most outstanding talents of Warsaw and Kraków of that time: Ferdynand Ruszczyc and Wojciech Weiss. Both artists achieved immediate success (making their debut in 1897); reached their artistic maturity dazzlingly fast at a very young age (Ruszczyc at the age of 28 while Weiss at merely 23); and eventually both of them took shocking decisions at the peak of their careers that broke their lives into halves. Circa 1906 Weiss totally withdrew from the Modernist poetics and consciously returned to the style of salon painting that he followed throughout subsequent years. While in 1908 Ruszczyc abandoned painting.
After 1908, Ruszczyc enjoyed success working as a stage and applied arts designer, but mostly as a teacher and Professor of the Vilnius University. In the interwar period, he was one of the most respected citizens of the town. Thus, his interest shifted from shaping a painting form into shaping reality achieving equally remarkable effects in the second stage of his life. Still, in both cases of Weiss and Ruszczyc, the exceptionally original chapter in the history of the Polish painting was closed too early and irrevocably.
Author: Konrad Niciński, March 2011. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska, December 2011.
• Ferdynand Ruszczyc
"Ziemia" / "The Land"
1898, oil on canvas, 164 x 219 cm
The Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw