10 Unmissable Paintings in the Collection of the National Museum in Kraków
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The National Museum in Kraków is the oldest state museum in Poland, housing a magnificent collection of artworks that dates back to the year 1879. From among the many, many paintings permanently displayed at the museum, Culture.pl recommends 10 unmissable classics. Among them, you’ll find works by such acclaimed painters as Olga Boznańska, Julian Fałat and… Leonardo da Vinci.
‘Girl with Chrysanthemums’ by Olga Boznańska
This striking painting was created in 1894 by Olga Boznańska (1865-1940), who is considered one of the most important women painters of Polish modernism. Boznańska received a thorough artistic education and became a creator of international renown, working in places like Munich, Vienna and Paris. She painted many portraits and is known to have been inspired by such artists as James McNeill Whistler and Edouard Manet.
Among the most noticeable elements of Girl with Chrysanthemums are the girl’s dark eyes, which contrast strongly with the white of the flowers she’s holding. The limited greyish colour scheme found throughout the rest of the painting (apart from the golden hair) seems to highlight the portrait’s expressionism.
11 Unmissable Paintings in the Collection of the National Museum in Warsaw
Due to the look of these eyes, which gaze directly at you with tension, curiosity and boldness, the portrayed establishes a psychological rapport with the viewer, almost like a hypnotist. The portrait emanates an atmosphere of thoughtfulness, sadness, mystery and ambiguity similar to the aura of Maurice Maeterlinck’s poems, which Boznańska knew and valued.
From the description of ‘Girl with Chrysanthemums’ by Urszula Kozakowska-Zaucha, www.mnk.pl, trans. MK
‘Lady with an Ermine’ by Leonardo da Vinci
While the Louvre has the iconic Mona Lisa, the National Museum in Kraków offers the equally captivating Lady with an Ermine. Both of these classic portraits were made by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).
Leonardo painted Lady with an Ermine in 1490. Around the year 1800, the piece was purchased by the Polish aristocrat Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who gave it as a gift to his mother, Izabela Czartoryska. At present, the painting – arguably the most-recognised work of art in Poland – is in the collection of the National Museum.
Polish History in Paintings (Part 1)
In Lady with an Ermine, you can see Cecylia Gallerani, who was the lover of the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza. But when the painting was being made, arrangements were already underway for the duke to marry another woman. Therefore, no direct portrayal of the duke’s affection to Cecylia could be included in the image.
That’s why the Renaissance master added the ermine, which is an allegory of the pair’s love. Sforza was a recipient of the Order of the Ermine, and due to that, he was even sometimes called the White Ermine. So, the white critter affectionately held by Gallerani discretely points to the relationship she had with Ludovico Sforza, without causing trouble for the duke’s marital plans…
Here’s what the Polish art critic and curator Marek Rostworowski wrote about the painting in his 1994 book Gry o Damę (Playing for the Lady):
Polish History in Paintings (Part 2)
In this case, for the first time, the painter decided to abandon traditional conventions. He seems to have freed the figure from the portrait, her gestures and look directed beyond the field of view; she isn’t petrified […] she’s active […] she isn’t confined to the painting’s surface; instead, she’s drawn into the dark space, from which the light brings out only those shapes and colours that are directed towards it.
‘View of Konodai and the Tone River’ by Utagawa Hiroshige
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'View of Konodai and the Tone River, No. 95' from 'One Hundred Famous Views of Edo' by Utagawa Hiroshige (Ando), 5 month of 1856, sheet: 36x23.5cm / image: 34 x 22.2 cm, woodblock print, photo: National Museum in Kraków
Here’s another prominent work at the National Museum in Kraków made by a foreign artist. The creator of this piece is the acclaimed Japanese woodcut artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). View of Konodai and the Tone River, created in the year 1856, is part of his series of a hundred views of Edo (today’s Tokyo), portraying the city amidst changes in season. The view at hand, No. 95, appears to show the summertime.
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From the heights of Kōnodai, a site fortified by a series of military barons in the mediaeval period, Mount Fuji is clearly prominent in the distance. This long bluff along the eastern side of the River Tone, now the Edogawa, is the first high ground of any sort [that is] east of the River Sumida, allowing an uninterrupted panorama to the southwest over the seven-mile interval of the flat delta stretching out to Fuji.
The beautiful woodblock is a great specimen in the extensive collection of traditional Japanese art owned by the Museum. It’s worth adding that art of this kind was influential to Polish modernism, impacting artists such as Stanisław Wyspiański. The Polish Nobel Prize in Literature winner Wisława Szymborska was also a known admirer of Utagawa Hiroshige’s work, and she even devoted a poem to him, titled Ludzie na Moście (People on a Bridge).
Revolving around the nature of time, the poem comments on Hiroshige’s woodblock Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ōhashi Bridge, which is another of the hundred views of Edo also found in the Museum’s collection. Here’s an excerpt:
Stanko Transposes Szymborska's Verse into Chords
It’s hard to leave this without a comment:
This is by no means an innocent drawing.
Time has been stopped here.
Its rights have been violated.
It’s been left with no influence on the course of things.
It’s been disregarded and insulted.
By some rebel
One Hiroshige Utagawa
From ‘Ludzie na Moście’ (People on a Bridge) by Wisława Szymborska, trans. MK
‘Snow’ by Julian Fałat
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'Snow' by Julian Fałat, 1907, oil on cardboard, 70 x 86 cm, photo: Pracownia Fotograficzna MNK/National Museum in Kraków
Another noted Polish creator known to have been fascinated with the aesthetics of Japanese art was the watercolour painter Julian Fałat (1853-1929). He is especially valued for his winter landscapes showing the countryside near the village of Bystra. Fałat’s appreciation of Japanese aesthetics transpired through the asymmetrical compositions of his landscapes – where a prominent role is played by the clear, white surfaces of snow, often disrupted by diagonal elements like tree trunks or streams.
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Among Fałat’s winter landscapes, Snow (Śnieg), created in 1907, is one of his most valued work. Here’s what Światosław Lenartowicz writes about this oil-on-cardboard piece on the website of the National Museum in Kraków:
In this case, Fałat has employed a low perspective point, thanks to which the attention of the viewer focuses on the shoreline, covered by heavy lumps of snow, on the reflections in the water. The composition is devoid of additional elements like animal tracks or animals themselves. The local colours found in the shades (blue) and highlights (pink) were applied masterfully. The fragments of the riverbank that are devoid of snow, maintained in various shades of brown, are places not covered at all by paint, making use of the natural colour of the cardboard.
‘Frenzy of Exultations’ by Władysław Podkowińśki
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'Frenzy of Exultations' by Władysław Podkowiński, 1893, oil on canvas, 310 x 270 cm, photo: Paweł Czernicki/National Museum in Kraków
What we have here is arguably the most famous work by Władysław Podkowiński (1866-1895). This uncompromising artist started out as a realist painter and later, after a visit to Paris, turned towards impressionism. In the final years of his short life, marked by inescapable poverty, he began making symbolist works; Frenzy of Exultations (Szał Uniesień) is one of them. Podkowiński died of tuberculosis at the age of only 29.
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When the painting went on display for the first time in Warsaw in 1894, it immediately became a hit – thousands flocked to see it. Yet, due to its scandalizing form, no one wanted to purchase the canvas. The poet Kazimierz Tetmajer described the painting (which he greatly appreciated) in the Kurier Codzienny newspaper in 1894 (trans. MK):
On a huge, wild horse, on some apocalyptic beast thrown into chaos, into the commotion of whirling clouds and nebulas, a half-naked woman lies, wrapping her arms around the horse’s neck; pushing her face, bosom and body against the horse; convulsively squeezing its sides with her legs.
It is often said that the painting’s symbolism points to the destructive nature of instincts and passion, which can overcome rational thinking. Interestingly, just before the end of the Warsaw exhibition, the artist destroyed the painting with a knife – possibly because the woman showed in it reminded him of an unfulfilled love. After the artist’s death, the painting was restored by the painter and art restorer Witold Urbańśki.
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‘Woman Combing Her Hair’ by Władysław Ślewiński
Another noted Polish painter whose artistic path was influenced by an encounter with France was Władysław Ślewiński (1856-1918). Ślewiński went to Paris in 1888, where he studied painting and also befriended Paul Gaugin. The latter introduced the Pole to his post-impressionist doctrine of synthetism, which involved painting with simple forms and flat patches of colour. This influence can be noticed in the fine painting at hand, created in 1897 and titled Woman Combing Her Hair (Czesząca Się).
Selected works by Władysław Ślewiński – Image Gallery
Synthetism, which Ślewiński adopted from artists close to Gaugin, can be seen in the simplification of form and content, as well as the in the harmony of the colours dominated by the copper-bronze tone of the hair, the white-gold carnation of the model’s body and the shades of green of the couch and curtains. The artist also employed highly impressive, soft, art-nouveau lines, which are especially noticeable in the back, hair and arms of the model.
From www.mnk.pl, trans. MK
What’s interesting about this painting is that the artist managed to portray a rather mundane activity – the combing of hair – as something rather intriguing. The identity of the model is unknown, which adds to the somewhat mysterious atmosphere of the canvas. The reflection in the mirror lying on the couch is a curious detail, as it doesn’t belong to the model but, quite probably, to the artist observing her.
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‘Polonia’ by Stanisław Wyspiański
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'Polonia', part of a design of the stained glass window 'The Vows of King John Casimir' for the cathedral in Lviv by Stanisław Wyspiański, 1892-1894, 320 x 193 cm, photo: National Museum in Kraków
This painting – a stained-glass window design for the Gothic Cathedral of Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Lviv – also focuses on a woman. But this time, the topic is much less ordinary. Polonia, designed in the year 1894 by Stanisław Wyspiański, is an allegorical presentation of the fall of Poland.
The work references the period of the Deluge, when Sweden invaded the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-17th century, bringing profound destruction to its lands. The figure of the fainting woman in the right side of the painting represents the artist’s suffering homeland.
Poland the Woman: How the Polonia Allegory Weaved Her Way into Art History
‘Polonia’ (…) shows a personification of the country in a crimson coat adorned by white eagles, with a sword by her side, falling with her hands hanging helplessly, with a grimace of pain on her face. She’s surrounded by horrified figures representing (…) the Polish nation. The scene’s tragedy is highlighted by the expression of the composition – the dynamic presentation of the Polonia and the lively gestures of the people accompanying her. These gestures are replicated by the unsettling, diagonal lines of the thorny vines, flowers and the arms of the mourners begging for mercy and help, which are stretched toward the Madonna.
From www.mnk.pl, discussing Wyspiański’s pastel replica of the design, trans. MK
The impressive design was never realised, as the Lviv cathedral saw its pro-independence message as provocative at a time when Poland was still partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria.
Queen, Victim or Doll? 7 Remarkable Paintings of Polonia
Wyspiański, one of Poland’s most prominent artists, was not only a creator of paintings and stained glass, but a playwright, theatre director and stage designer, who also designed furniture and interiors.
‘Prussian Homage’ by Jan Matejko
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'Prussian Homage' by Jan Matejko, 1879-1882, oil on canvas, 388 x 785 cm, photo: National Museum in Kraków
Another painting strongly linked to Polish history, Prussian Homage (Hołd Pruski) was created by Jan Matejko (1838-1893) in the years 1879 to 1882. Matejko is considered Poland’s most important historical painter – he masterfully portrayed a number of crucial episodes in Poland’s history (for example, the Battle of Grunwald and King Jan III Sobieski’s triumph in the Battle of Vienna).
Prussian Homage shows the homage that Albrecht Hohenzollern, the Duke of Prussia, paid to the Polish King Sigismund I the Old as a result of a treaty signed between Poland and Prussia in 1525. According to that treaty, Prussia became a fief of Poland. This development was confirmed by the duke’s visit to Kraków, where in the Market Square he swore allegiance to the Polish king.
Battle of Grunwald – Jan Matejko
Created in a Poland partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria, this outstanding painting recalled the lost glory of the painter’s fatherland, in a time when Poland had the upper hand over its oppressors.
In ‘Prussian Homage’, the ‘tight’ composition characteristic of Matejko’s multi-figure depictions was somewhat loosened. The figures surrounding the main scene of the depiction are grouped around the characters that are the most important: the king and the duke kneeling in front of him. In similarity to Matejko’s other great canvases, the painting includes many historical characters. Among them is the heir to the throne, Sigismund II Augustus, as a boy a few years old, clad in a red dress. […] The painter’s wife, Teodora née Giebułtowska, was portrayed as the queen Bona Sforza.
From Culture.pl, trans. MK
‘Angels Visiting Piast’ by Zofia Stryjeńska
Like Matejko’s painting, this intriguing piece also has a strong historical context. Titled Piast (Angels Visiting Piast), it references a legendary episode which – according to the mediaeval historian Gallus Anonymus – predated the rise of the first historical ruler of Poland, Mieszko I. As shared by the Kurpie Culture Museum in Ostrołęka:
Artist, Mother, Man: The Diaries of Zofia Stryjeńska
According to Gallus Anonymus’ account, on the day of the first haircut of the sons of Prince Popiel, ruler of the Goplans, certain mysterious visitors came to witness the ceremony, but were dismissed from court. They eventually came to the house of a poor wheelwright, whose son was preparing for the same ritual. There they were entertained hospitably, and in return, they miraculously multiplied their host’s food and drink and cut the hair of the young Piast, giving him the name Siemowit. The chronicler says that the boy later became the protoplast of the Piast dynasty and the great grandfather of Mieszko I.
Angels Visiting Piast was created by Zofia Stryjeńska (1891-1976) in the years 1932 to 1936. She was one of the most important artists in Interwar Poland, known for her fascination with folklore and the ancient times of the Piast dynasty. The intriguing painting is characteristic of her style, which often employed lively, saturated colours and geometric forms. Her compositions have been described as reminiscent of reliefs.
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‘Marysia and Burek in Ceylon’ by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
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'Marysia and Burek in Ceylon' by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1920-1921, oil on canvas, 90 x 83 cm, photo: Mateusz Szczypiński/National Museum in Kraków
This painting was also made in the Interwar period, in the years 1920 to 1921. Titled Marysia and Burek in Ceylon (originally: Marysia i Burek na Cejlonie), it is the work of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939) – one of the most influential artists of his day, a painter, photographer, novelist, playwright and art theorist.
Selected works by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz – Image Gallery
In 1914, Witkiewicz sailed with the eminent Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski to South Asia, stopping in Egypt and present-day Sri Lanka (at the time Ceylon). Witkacy was employed as an illustrator for the expedition, which made a significant impact on him as an artist. The amusing Marysia and Burek in Ceylon is an echo of that journey, of which the artist wrote the following in a letter (trans. MK) to his father, Stanisław, also a painter:
Strange, olive-green sweet flags. On the ponds – purple-violet nenuphars. The greenery is ever wilder, and the people are ever more brightly, but wonderfully, dressed (violet, yellow, purple, sometimes emerald green). (…) The hills seem to be something soft made of peat. (…) The leaves on the trees have unbelievable forms, some are huge and wavy, others are tattered into small bits of different shapes. (…) The trees are covered with flowers, with colours that range from purple and orange to violet and white with lacquerware.
In the painting, you can see three fantastic characters shown in a landscape with palm trees. The woman is Marysia, Polish for Mary. ‘Burek’ is a colloquial Polish expression for mixed-breed dogs, so that’s quite probably how the dog-like beast got his name. As to the identity of the dark, cat-like critter, it seems the artist left that undisclosed…
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Written by Marek Kępa, Jun 2019