Paintings in a Frame: The Films of Andrzej Wajda
#photography & visual arts
default, Scene from 'Ashes and Diamonds' directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1958, photo: Polfilm / East News, center, fo_film_popiol_i_diament_01_5788441.jpg
He took inspiration from the works of European master painters and Edward Hopper. For the camera, he recreated the canvases of Wróblewski and the patriotic classics of his nation. He reached for the works of the Young Poland symbolists and entered into dialogues with the creators of socialist realism. Here are a few painterly examples from Andrzej Wajda’s oeuvre.
In the history of Polish cinema, there has hardly been a more artistically attuned director, who, thanks to his references to others’ works, created his own stories, meanings and metaphors. Andrzej Wajda, whose search for inspiration led him to the Academy of Fine Arts, was not only a chronicler of Polish achievements and diagnostician of societal ills; he was an artist who immortalised the work of Polish painters – and more – with the help of celluloid.
‘Canal’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Man’s Head’ by Andrzej Wróblewski
Andrzej Wróblewski was one of Wajda’s greatest inspirations – and the very reason why Wajda decided to give up painting in pursuit of cinema. Years later, the director reminisced of their meeting:
When I saw him, I thought that what I wanted to paint had already been painted.
Wajda used Wróblewski as a reference point often, seeing in his artwork representations of the wartime trauma that haunted their generation. In Canal, Wajda referenced one incredible work of the painter: Man’s Head, from 1957.
Scene from 'Ashes and Diamonds' directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1958, photo: Polfilm / East News; 'Execution’ by Andrzej Wróblewski, 1949, oil on canvas, photo: Polish Army Museum in Warsaw
Wajda returned to Wróblewski’s works constantly. His paintings can be found in Everything for Sale, and in Lotna, the carp scene is directly referencing Obraz na Temat Okropności Wojennych (Painting on the Subject of the Evils of War). Wajda even directed a documentary about the painter.
Echoes of Wróblewski’s most important works can be found in Wajda’s grandest film – Ashes and Diamonds. In it, the death of Maciek Chełmicki would have been much different if not for Andrzej Wróblewski’s cycle of paintings titled Execution, a painterly tale of the meeting between life and death.
‘Ashes and Diamond’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘The Land’ by Ferdynand Ruszczyc
Scene from 'Ashes and Diamonds' directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1958, photo: Wiesław Zdort / Film Studio Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl; ‘The Land’ by Ferdynand Ruszczyc, 1898, oil on canvas, 164 x 219 cm, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
Although the patron of Ashes and Diamonds was Wróblewski, Wajda referenced many other artists as well. Ferdynand Ruszczyc’s The Land has been interpreted by dozens of artists; in Wajda’s work, it comes alive to represent post-war changes in Poland. The plough driven by the workers in the film is a symbol of political shifts that disrupt the previously held societal peace.
‘The Wedding’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Self-Portrait in Armour’ by Jacek Malczewski
Next to Wróblewski, the Young Poland movement left the strongest impression on Wajda’s works. A striking example of the director’s love for this era is his film The Wedding, a brilliant adaptation of Stanisław Wyspiański’s national drama.
Wajda transferred not only Wyspiański’s literature to the silver screen, but also his predecessor’s paintings. The film’s bridesmaids wore golden orange ribbons similar to the ones worn by Eliza Pareńska in Wyspiański’s portrait of her. The two leads of The Wedding, Ewa Ziętek and Daniel Olbrychski, are styled to look like Wyspiański’s Self-Portrait with Wife.
The Wedding is a veritable goldmine of artistic references, and Wajda even has time to include another of his favourite artists – Jacek Malczewski. It’s hardly an accident that Marek Walczewski’s moustache in The Wedding was curled to match Self-Portrait in Armour.
Scene from ‘The Birch Wood’ directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1970, pictured: Emilia Krakowska and Daniel Olbrychski, photo: Renata Pajchel / Film Studio Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl; ‘Self-Portrait with Thanatos’ by Jacek Malczewski, 1919, photo: private collection
Malczewski also became the inspiration for another of Wajda’s films – The Birch Wood, a tale of love and death that the director pulled from the works of Polish symbolist painters. In a scene between Emilia Krakowska and Daniel Olbrychski, he re-created the famed Self-Portrait with Thanatos.
‘The Birch Wood’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Death’ by Jacek Malczewski
Scene from 'The Birch Wood' directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1970, pictured: Olgierd Łukaszewicz, photo: Renata Pajchel / Film Studio Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl; ‘Death’ by Jacek Malczewski, 1902, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
What’s more, the main character, played by Olgierd Łukaszewicz, was meant to be the same figure from Malczewski’s Death, a painting that represents death as freeing people from their earthly suffering.
‘The Birch Wood’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Poisoned Well’ by Jacek Malczewski
The cinematographers Zygmunt Samosiuk and Edward Kłosiński, long-time collaborators of Wajda, expertly recreated Malczewski’s rich symbolic canvases. In later scenes, the film referenced Malczewski’s Poisoned Well and Narcissus – which, under Wajda’s artistic vision, came to represent a tale of ephemerality and passion.
‘The Wedding’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland’ by Jan Matejko
Scene from 'The Wedding' directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1972, photo: Renata Pajchel / Film Studio Zebra / Filmoteka / www.fototeka.fn.org.pl; ‘Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland’ by Jan Matejko, close-up, 1866, photo: Royal Castle in Warsaw
There was no end to Wadja’s inspirations from Young Poland. It was equally common, however, for the director to reach back to earlier artistic styles. In The Wedding, the groom, played by Daniel Olbrychski, tears open his shirt much like the eponymous Rejtan from Jan Matejko’s Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland. Still other characters bring to mind figures from important historical paintings, who are meant to stand in for Poland’s vices and flaws.
‘The Wedding’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Peasant Coffin’ by Aleksander Gierymski
By linking his filmic output to classic paintings, Wajda honoured his nation’s artwork and highlighted the sources of his own artistic sensibilities. After Malczewski, another Polish painter referenced in The Wedding is Aleksander Gierymski, whose Peasant Coffin inspired one of the film’s tableaus.
‘Lotna’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘The Death of Czarniecki’ by Leopold Löffler
Wajda’s references to the 19th-century masters abound in his work. In Ashes and Diamonds, he recalled Chełmoński’s Landscape with Cross, as well as the paintings of Suchodolski, Géricault and Goya.
In Lotna, he reached for Juliusz Kossak’s Faithful Companion, as well as the patriotic paintings of Kossak’s son, Wojciech. In one scene, he even recreated Leopold Löffler’s The Death of Czarniecki.
‘Man of Marble’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Pass Me a Brick’ by Aleksander Kobzdej
In his later films, Wajda began a dialogue with the painters he referenced, sometimes paraphrasing their works or using them as a way to build a meta-context. In A Generation, he created connections to socialist realism, while in Man of Marble, one of the most important films of his career, he referenced the propagandistic painting of Aleksander Kobzdej – so as to include it in a tale of communist illusions and the myths of socialist realism.
‘Sweet Rush’ by Andrzej Wajda / ‘Morning Sun’ by Edward Hopper
popiół i diament
człowiek z marmuru
Although the majority of Wajda’s inspirations came from his homeland, his works hardly lack in references to international masterpieces. His most recent work, Sweet Rush, is one such example.
The opening scene of the film is of a woman, cigarette in hand, looking through a window brightened by the midday light. Played by Krystyna Janda, the woman resembles the figure from Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun, which Wajda considered an exemplary painting on human loneliness. Along with Paweł Edelman and screenwriter Magdalena Dipont, he recreated the American’s famous work, using it to further a tale of grief and isolation.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by AZ, Sep 2019