Death is an inherent part of life. Despite humanity’s huge advancement, we still don’t possess the science for immortality, though some believe we will one day. Back in the 19th century there was only one way of preserving one’s immortality: create art that moves people.
In Poland, All Saints’ Day is when one traditionally takes time to remember those that have left us. But death is a subject that pops up repeatedly in many famous artworks by Poles. Below Culture.pl presents a selection of exceptional Polish paintings from the late 19th century exploring that most morbid motif.
Trumna Chłopska by Aleksander Gierymski
Made in the years 1894-1895 by one of Poland’s most valued realist painters Aleksander Gierymski, this painting’s title translates as ‘Peasant’s Coffin’. At the time of its creation, this heart-breaking scene showing the grief caused by death among simple folk was like none other in European art. The gravity of the situation is accentuated by the simple composition and peculiar colour scheme whose most conspicuous element is possibly the blue children’s coffin to the right. Apart from being called a ‘masterpiece’ countless times, Trumna Chłopska has also been keenly described by the painter and art professor Janusz Marciniak as a ‘painting essay on human fate’, a fate sealed right from the very beginning by the inevitability of passing away.
Pochód Śmierci by Czesław Tański
The author of this piece, Czesław Tański, is remembered both as a painter and, somewhat surprisingly, as a pioneer in aeronautics. In 1896, he constructed what is considered Poland’s first glider. Because of his achievements in both art and technology, he’s sometimes compared to Leonardo da Vinci. Pochód Śmierci (editor’s translation: The March of Death), created by Tański around 1898, is an interesting variation on the motif of Danse Macabre or the ‘Dance of Death’ which emerged in the Middle Ages. Drawing on its inspiration, the painting shows that everybody, no matter whether rich or poor, young or old, is equal in the face of death, represented here by the eerie, scythe-bearing figure leading the crowd. Among the group, clad in 19th-century attire and acting as a pars pro toto of society, you can find a dancing couple, a clear reference to the Danse Macabre scenes of old.
Marsz Żałobny Chopina by Władysław Podkowiński
This unfinished work was the last painting by the noted impressionist and symbolist Władysław Podkowiński. When he was working on it, he was already very ill with tuberculosis, and the sickness eventually killed him. Some say the artist sensed his life was nearing the end, hence the painting’s dramatic form and its title, which translates as ‘Chopin’s Funeral March’. The despair of the man in the centre pointing toward a woman’s body in an open casket carried by a luminous group, may be the despair of the artist himself. Interestingly, before he died, Podkowiński said that this 1894 painting wasn’t inspired by Chopin’s famous composition, but by a poem inspired by the piece, namely Marsz Żałobny (Funeral March) by Konrad Ujejski.
Śmierć Paganiniego by Edward Okuń
The symbolist and modernist painter Edward Okuń created this unsettling image in 1898, the same year he moved to Italy where he stayed for over two decades. The painting, whose title stands for ‘The Death of Paganini’, references a myth about the titular Italian composer and virtuoso violinist, saying that he had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical talent. In Okuń’s depiction, the devil, seemingly believing the time of payment has arrived, is providing violin accompaniment as the virtuoso lies dead. Okuń also gave his painting a second title Sen Paganiniego (editor’s translation: Paganini’s Dream), which possibly links the piece to the story of Giuseppe Tartini, an Italian composer who claimed he had composed his Devil’s Trill Sonata after he dreamt of the devil playing the violin.
Śmierć Każdego Ułagodzi by Marian Wawrzeniecki
Here we have a piece created around 1899 by Marian Wawrzeniecki, whom the art historian Andrzej Pieńkos describes in his book Motyw Śmierci w Malarstwie (The Motif of Death in Painting) as ‘the only Polish artist consistently referring to the macabre and perverse depictions of death in symbolism’. In the catalogue for the National Museum in Kraków’s 2000 exhibition Images of Death, you can find that the Wawrzeniecki expert Hanna Grzeszczuk writes that Śmierć Każdego Ułagodzi (Death Will Soften Anyone) is ‘a depiction of a woman as a symbol of death and of nakedness as a symbol of truth (…). The bull – a symbol of power, vital energy – becomes an attribute of the death-girl’.
Śmierć Ellenai by Jacek Malczewski
This 1883 piece whose title translates as ‘The Death of Ellenai’ was created by the noted symbolist painter Jacek Malczewski. It depicts a scene from the narrative poem Anhelli by Juliusz Słowacki, one of Poland’s most valued Romantic poets. The verse is a fantasied vision of the harsh fate of the Poles who were exiled to Siberia after the November Uprising, an early 19th-century rebellion against Russian rule over a large partition of Poland. After witnessing much suffering, the pure-souled protagonist Anhelli platonically befriends Ellenai, who ‘had once committed a grave crime’ and the two start living together in a secluded hut. His sole companion eventually dies of sadness, an event in the face of which Anhelli ‘sat at the end of the bed, and wept’. The scene’s drama is highlighted by the limited colour scheme and the hieratic composition positioning the deceased horizontally and the living vertically.
Pogrzeb by Wojciech Weiss
Whereas the previous painting shows a fictional scene, everything about Pogrzeb (Funeral) seems to be real: the anguish of the mourners, the poverty of the cemetery, the landscape. The authenticity of this 1895 painting stems from its creator’s personal experience. The noted modernist painter Wojciech Weiss had to say about his piece: ‘I painted Funeral when I was only 20 years old. An expression of pain. A group of people at a country cemetery grieving and kneeling in front of a fresh grave. I’d seen that when I was young.’
Ukojenie by Piotr Stachiewicz
‘Solace’ is how one ought to translate the title of this piece by the valued painter and draughtsman Piotr Stachiewicz. It is the last of five paintings from the series Widma w Pracowni (Phantoms in the Atelier) made in the years 1883-1885. Director and journalist Józef Kotarbiński says that this series is about ‘an artistic soul’s struggles against human irony and envy, against the sadness and misery of reality’. Stachiewicz also gave the painting a second title Śmierć, which stands for ‘Death’, leaving no doubt about the nature of the apparition at the centre of this intriguing composition. Taking into account both titles, it seems that Death, covering an empty bed with a white shroud, is shown as a friend – a friend that comes to put an end to one’s worries.
Author: Marek Kępa, October 2017