8 Awe-Inspiring Paintings from the Young Poland Period
#photography & visual arts
full-width, 8 Awe-Inspiring Paintings from the Young Poland Period, 'Old Apple Trees’ by Ferdynand Ruszczyc, 1900, photo: National Museum in Warsaw, center, stare_jablonie_ferdynand_ruszczyc1900_muzeum_narodowe_w_warszawie.jpg
Art from the turn of the 20th century is already quite present in Polish popular culture, most often represented by artists like Stanisław Wyspiański, Jacek Malczewski or Józef Chełmoński. Here, however, Culture.pl reminds you of some key works created in that era that remain – rather unfairly – in their shadow.
‘By Candlelight’ by Konrad Krzyżanowski, 1914
Konrad Krzyżanowski, called ‘Krzyżak’ by his friends and students, is probably the most talented – and most overlooked – Young Poland painter in the history of art. He was an innovator who, on the one hand, belonged to the Young Poland movement, but at the same time, he boldly forayed into expressionism. His students adored him for his personality and his teaching method that was far from the usual academic conservatism.
Young Krzyżanowski was kicked out of St. Petersburg’s Academy of Visual Arts after a dispute with its rather timid rector. His more traditionally-oriented colleagues and critics complained about his ‘hacking away with the paintbrush’ and ‘mud-painting’. Today, it is mostly art historians who remember Krzyżanowski.
But his astonishing portraits remain among the Young Poland paintings that have stood the test of time surprisingly well. The synthetic compositions, flat blurs of paint, bold and well accentuated brushwork, as well as flashes of a single saturated colour that explode amid the general darkness of the composition. This makes for a unique visual language that cannot be mistaken for that of any other painter of the era.
By Candlelight represents Krzyżanowski’s favourite genre – an interior portrait filled with darkness and lit only by candles, just as in the paintings of the Spanish and Dutch baroque masters. However, the iconographic convention is the painting’s only link with the past, as otherwise, it could not be more different in terms of artistic expression.
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‘Road to Werka’ by Konrad Krzyżanowski, 1907
Krzyżanowski’s landscapes are quite similar to those of Jan Stanisławski, but again, as is usual with Krzyżanowski, they seem to be one step ahead – more synthetic and more expressive at once. Strongly associated with Vilnius and its surroundings, Krzyżanowski predominantly painted bucolic landscapes of Eastern Poland, but these were far from pastoral.
While his portraits are dominated by the dark colour palette corresponding to the cluttered interiors of pre-modernist bourgeois interiors, his landscapes are a display of an absolute chromatic madness. Clean colours, saturated to the limit, connect with concise, but confident brushstrokes, each marking a single element of the painting. Such features make these of Krzyżanowski’s works appear extraordinarily dramatic.
The artist’s inclination towards experimentation is marked also by the composition of each of the landscapes. Arranged together, they show that, in contrast with most of his contemporaries, Krzyżanowski did not develop a single preferred arrangement dominated by the sky (as with Ferdynand Ruszczyc), the earth (as with Władysław Ślewiński) or the balance between the two (as with Jan Stanisławski). The structure of each of Krzyżanowski’s landscapes is different and often leaves the viewer surprised.
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‘Peasant Study’ by Fryderyk Pautsch, 1913
The work of Fryderyk Pautsch is dominated by chłopomania (an almost exaggerated fascination with peasants) and a love of expression – both traits very common among Young Poland painters. But Pautsch’s fascination with the folklore was never of the caricatural variety portrayed by Stanisław Wyspiański in his 1901 drama The Wedding. It was quite deep and resulted in a kind of ethnographic practice. For example, the artist lived for several months in Pokucie, where he observed the lives of the Hutsuls, whom he portrayed in a series of works.
Peasant Study exhibits Pautsch’s characteristically tight composition – a very liberal, almost ‘pastel-like’ sense of composition and an affinity for lively, contrasting colours resembling the paintings of Boris Kustodiev and other Russian contemporaries. Irena Kossowska wrote that Pautsch:
Saturated generic motifs with an intensified expression and sometimes made them undergo a brutal transformation. […] The emotional charge of Pautsch’s composition situated his works at the border between realism and expressionism and distinguished his style amongst other Young Poland artists. At the symbolic level, his art carried a universal message relating to the communion between the human existence and the rhythms of nature, as well as to the subordination of the human being to a transcendental reality.
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‘Elegy’ by Karol Tichy, ca. 1900
Karol Tichy’s name is not immediately associated with painting. He was one of the lead reformers of Polish industrial design, but he was educated as a painter and tried his luck in this field as well. Although at first glance, it is nothing like his sculptures, similar experiments can be seen here.
Tichy based his furniture designs in the tradition of art nouveau, but he reduced the role of ornamentation to the bare minimum. He focused on the juxtaposition of simple cubes and shapes and looked for the decorative character in the structure, rather than in embellishments. His paintings, on the other hand, exhibit influences from French symbolism or even distant echoes of Whistler’s formalist experiments.
We can see many of these characteristics in Elegy, one of Tichy’s few remaining canvases (most of his paintings were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising). There is a sense of moodiness, a softness to the composition, a restricted colour palette and a decorative air of the composition. Similarly to his industrial designs, Tichy cuts down the details in favour of a subtle play with a rhythmic composition.
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‘Confession’ by Vlastimil Hofman, 1906
A year before he painted Confession, Vlastimil Hofman, a Young Polish artist of Polish and Czech origin, joined the Group of Five, an avant-garde formation – at least for the standards of the era – that endeavoured to realise Baudelaire’s idea of correspondence between arts.
Another of Hofman’s idées fixes was his dream of reviving sacred art. In conjunction with his typical Young Polish chłopomania, this resulted in paintings, such as Confession, which connected sacred and folk motifs – composed in a simple, flat and hieratic manner owing a lot to the forms Malczewski created in his own paintings.
Hofman’s symbolism is strikingly simple and direct. In Confession, the Christ who is listening to a peasant relay his sins is literally a field cross figure that has come to life. As Hofman treated his artistic agenda very seriously, this simplicity quickly became evident and ultimately worked against him. During the course of merely a dozen or so years, and as a result of the rapid changes that took place in the Polish art at the beginning of 20th century, Hofman ceased to be seen as an innovator and became known as a staunch conservative.
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‘Falling Star’ by Witold Pruszkowski, 1884
Witold Pruszkowski, who was a very close friend of Malczewski, was essentially a person suspended between two eras. His imagination was full of romantic images and sensibility, but he died in the mid-1880s, at the dawn of the Young Poland movement.
In terms of style, Pruszkowski absorbed everything that lied in between. From the Munich painters, with whom he studied, he took his love of mood and scenes suspended between night and day. His ability to use free, vibrating brushstrokes is inspired by the impressionists. And from the realists, his attachment to the specific and to precisely sculpted details grew.
Since Pruszkowski was a student of Jan Matejko, the younger artist, too, tackled historical themes – but ones seemingly possessed by the romantic spirit. These were based on legends, rather than credible sources, and supplemented by supernatural elements.
Falling Star is another example of Pruszkowski’s fascination with nature, but not with its earthly aspect: this nature full of loftiness, slightly uncanny and mysterious, is portrayed, of course, in a partly personified manner.
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‘Old Apple Trees’ by Ferdynand Ruszczyc, 1900
By contrast, Ferdynand Ruszczyc’s paintings were dominated by clear landscapes. He transformed the everyday character of the Vilnius region by enveloping it in his expressive brushstrokes, with a tinge of symbolism.
Old Apple Trees is one of the relatively lesser known of his paintings, but it also happens to be one of his greatest. While Ruszczyc usually contrasted the expanse of the sky with a small patch of land overwhelmed by turbulent clouds, in this canvas, he focussed on a simple motif of trees in an orchard.
Similarly to the Belgian symbolist Leon Spilliaert, Ruszczyc managed to find an extraordinarily emotional and expressive substance in such a simple subject. The naked trunks, illuminated by a supernaturally bright moonlight, crack through the middle of the canvas like bolts of lightning in the night sky and introduce an air of uncanniness and anxiety.
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Originally written in Polish by Piotr Policht, Oct 2018; translated by MW, Oct 2018