Exploring The Lunar Landscapes Of Polish Painters
The total lunar eclipse on 27th July is going to be the longest of its kind in this century, lasting for 1 hour and 43 minutes. Even though the Moon will be shrouded in darkness, you’ll still be able to enjoy its sight should you miss it thanks to art by some of the finest Polish painters.
Moonrise by Stanisław Masłowski
Wschód Księżyca (Moonrise) by Stanisław Masłowski, 1884, photo: National Museum in Kraków
It only seems fitting to start a selection of lunar landscapes from one that shows the moonrise. Realist painter Stanisław Masłowski said that his atmospheric 1884 image was inspired by Beniowski, the famous digressive poem by Juliusz Słowacki, one of Poland’s most important Romantic writers. Published in 1841, the poem tells of the travels and adventures of the young nobleman Maurycy Beniowski. The protagonist sets off on his journey, leaving behind the village of Ladawa with the following lines:
Above the castle you could see,
The pondering oak married to a poplar.
Like a sad actor playing Hamlet,
A blood moon entered the stage
And shined on Ladawa’s lake
In the catalogue for the 2015 exhibition Polish Painting at the Presidential Palace which featured Masłowski’s Wschód Księżyca (Moonrise) curator Wacława Milewska writes:
Nocturne (Graboszyce) by Rafał Bujnowski
A much later painting, made in 2013 by Rafał Bujnowski, is Nokturn (Graboszyce) (Nocturne (Graboszyce)). It shows a view from the artist’s home village of Graboszyce in southern Poland. Here’s how this intriguing piece is described at the website of Warsaw’s well-known Raster Gallery:
(…) The artist’s gesture is maximally simplified, depersonalised, reduced to an almost purely mechanical motion. The programmatically minimal means of expression amount to a full image, the black ‘close to nothing’ includes ‘everything’: light, space, time and story. Bujnowski creatively develops the tradition of minimalism and conceptualism creating paintings that are unique, both abstract and figurative at the same time.
Interestingly, despite the many decades separating the creation of Moonrise and Nocturne as well as the evident aesthetic differences, there is plenty these two paintings have in common, aside from the shared topic: the moon rising over a lake. In both cases a full moon is shown in the left side of the image and clear horizontal lines cut through the entire canvas. Also shades of black are predominant in both pieces. Perhaps Bujnowski was inspired by Masłowski’s work, a painting that is widely considered a classic.
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Nocturne: Swans In Warsaw’s Saxon Garden At Night by Józef Pankiewicz
Nokturn Łabędzie w Ogrodzie Saskim w Warszawie Nocą (Nocturne: Swans In Warsaw’s Saxon Garden At Night) by Józef Pankiewicz, 1894, photo: Piotr Ligier/National Museum in Warsaw
Like in Bujnowski’s painting, the palette is very limited in Nokturn. Łabędzie w Ogrodzie Saskim w Warszawie Nocą (Nocturne: Swans In Warsaw’s Saxon Garden At Night). It was created in 1894 by Józef Pankiewicz, one of Poland’s early impressionists and symbolists. Art expert Ewa Micke Broniarek describes it as follows:
[At the time] he limited his palette almost solely to shades of black, greenish greys (…), shrouded by darkness or mist, evoking the ambience of the era’s symbolist poetry. In this nocturne the painter showed almost apparitional, fluffy silhouettes of sleeping swans on a background of the pond’s black water surface gleaming with the silver light of the moon.
Quote from the 2015 book Mistrzowie pejzażu XIX wieku (19th Century Landscape Masters)
The painting’s symbolism can be decoded through a sonnet by the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé titled This Virginal, Long-Living, Lovely Day…
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This virginal long-living lovely day
will it tear from us with a wing’s wild blow
The lost hard lake haunted beneath the snow
by clear ice-flights that never flew away!
A swan of old remembers it is he
superb but strives to break free woebegone
for having left unsung the territory
to live when sterile winter’s tedium shone
Some say the poem’s trapped swan illustrates a poet in creative crisis. Pankiewicz, an admirer of Mallarmé’s poetry, himself was undergoing artist’s block just before he painted his Nocturne.
A Moonlit View Of The Palace And Theatre In The Baths by Zygmunt Vogel
Widok Pałacu i Teatru w Łazienkach przy Księżycu (A Moonlit View Of The Palace And Theatre In The Baths) by Zygmunt Vogel, 1795, photo: Piotr Ligier/National Museum in Warsaw
This is a view of another Warsaw park, the famed Royal Baths. Apart from an almost full moon, you can also see the classicist Łazienki Palace which King Stanisław August Poniatowski used as his summer residence.
Despite the capital’s troubled history, the palace’s look hasn’t changed since it was completed in 1793. The original shape is known thanks in part to a series of watercolour paintings by Zygmunt Vogel made on Poniatowski’s request. The one in question, titled Widok Pałacu i Teatru w Łazienkach przy Księżycu (A Moonlit View Of The Palace And Theatre In The Baths) is from the year 1795.
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We owe a rich collection of paintings presenting the history of this garden to Zygmunt Vogel. He used a tripartite composition which consisted of the foreground (a pond, a meadow), the theme proper (a building or a structure amidst flora) and a high sky which occupied more than a half of the painting. The act of moving architectural structures to the background allowed for achieving deep perspectives.
Quote from ‘Royal Łazienki (Baths) in the art of Zygmunt Vogel’, an article by Anna Szendi published in 2014 in the quarterly Ar
An interesting historical detail captured by Vogel is the party of midnight sailors. That’s a sight one doesn’t usually see nowadays, even when the moon shines bright enough to illuminate the whole pond…
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Starry Night by Józef Chełmoński
Noc Gwiaździsta (Starry Night) by Józef Chełmoński, 1888, photo: National Musuem in Kraków
This eye-catching painting may not show the moon, but nevertheless it still made it to our selection. It’s here to remind us that even when the moonlight is gone (say during a lunar eclipse) you still have the stars shining through the night, bringing a bit of light into the darkness.
Noc Gwiaździsta (Starry Night) was created in 1888 by the realist painter Józef Chełmoński. What may seem surprising today is that his work originally stirred quite a bit of commotion. In the aforementioned exhibition catalogue, Wacława Milewska explains why:
The painting was far off from the standards of academic landscape painting. It showed a random fragment of nature, devoid of any lofty idea or exceptional beauty (…)
In the catalogue, you can also find examples of how Chełmoński’s work was received. For example, the noted writer Bolesław Prus disliked the painting:
Bolesław Prus (Aleksander Głowacki)
Spangled dots instead of constellations, placing Orion on the July sky or Hercules in December is as much a scandal as painting a horse with horns or orange trees on the summit of Mount Świnica [a mountain in Southern Poland – ed.].
On the other hand, the painter and architectural designer (and also writer) Stanisław Witkiewicz, defended Chełmoński’s vision:
Truth in art doesn’t rely on the realness of the depicted situation (…). Chełmoński’s sky, with all of its astronomical disorder, is perfectly true.
Moon by Jan Stanisławski
Next up we have a moonlit view by the modernist landscape painter Jan Stanisławski. It shows the Benedictine abbey in the former village of Tyniec (now part of Kraków), picturesquely located on a rock on the River Vistula. Dating back to the 11th century, it is one of the oldest sacral complexes in Poland.
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[The painting] surprises with its innovative composition, the artist’s characteristic fragmentarism and manner of building scenes almost completely devoid of contours. The painter created an atmospheric nocturnal depiction where the lead role is played by water – the Vistula river gleaming in the moonlight, flowing by the Benedictine abbey which looks as if it were a stern stronghold.
Quote from the website of the National Museum in Kraków
Księżyc (Moon) was created by Stanisławski in 1902, only two years after he turned toward symbolism. The painter’s creative stance is explained in Culture.pl’s Polish article about him, written by Irena Kossowska:
Księżyc ‒ Poland word by word
At this time, the creator displays a pantheistic approach, in a small fragment of nature he notices a representation of the cosmos, an embodiment of the laws of the universe, whose essence lies in the sphere of spirituality.
Moon by Gustaw Gwozdecki
Same title, different painting. Gustaw Gwozdecki, who studied under the aforementioned Jan Stanisławski at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, created his own Księżyc around the year 1908. Stanisławski’s tutelage was formative to Gwozdecki’s style, but the aesthetically diverse painter (and sculptor) also had plenty of other influences:
The characteristic trait of his art was its stylistic variety, the means of expression Gwozdecki used evolved from symbolist synthesis through Fauvist expressionism to mannerist decorativeness and stylisation. His artistic stance was formed under the influence of the expressionist theory of the ‘naked soul’, preached by Stanisław Przybyszewski [celebrated Polish writer of the Young Poland era – ed.] and Edvard Munch’s formula of expressive art.
Quote from Irena Kossowska’s Polish article about Gustaw Gwozdecki on Culture.pl
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The painting in question, due to its dynamic composition and rich colour scheme, may be compared to Promienny Zachód Słońca (A Beaming Sunset), an expressionist landscape by the noted modernist painter Wojciech Weiss also created in accordance with Przybyszewski’s artistic views.
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Landscape With Moon by Tadeusz Makowski
Pejzaż z Księżycem (Landscape With Moon) by Tadeusz Makowski, ca. 1906, photo: Krzysztof Wilczyński/Muzeum Narodowe Warszawie
Last but not least we have a painting by Tadeusz Makowski, another of Stanisławski’s students. He created Pejzaż z Księżycem (Landscape With Moon) around the year 1906, when he was still learning at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków.
A fascination with the oeuvre of the older and more mature painter [Jan Stanisławski – ed.], who had the build of a giant and a heart of gold, guided Makowski on his search for new artistic paths. Working mostly in the outdoors of Zakopane, he developed an appreciation for the beauty of nature and a tendency to depict it in an impressionist manner. There isn’t much information about the artist’s life in this period, but looking at the mellow landscapes made in it one can come to the conclusion that he was accompanied by peace of mind and good spirits.
Quote from the article Filozof wśród Malarzy – Tadeusz Makowski (A Philosopher Among Painters – Tadeusz Makowski) by Paulina Kam
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Although we don’t know much about the painter’s student times, we do know he created Landscape With Moon whilst visiting France, where he would later move to.
Bolesław Prus (Aleksander Głowacki)
In this painting (which may be ‘impressionistic in manner’ but not necessarily ‘good-spirited’, being gloomy as it is), the crescent moon is much less conspicuous than in the other lunar landscapes in our selection. Actually, it’s partiality may bring to mind a moon just that’s just about to go into eclipse…
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2018