Stanisław Wyspiański's Theatre of Interiors
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Theatre of Interiors, Chandelier with snowflake motif by Stanisław Wyspiański, 1904, from the staircase of the Kraków Medical Association House, photo: Michał Korta, Chandelier with snowflake motif from the staircase of the Krakow Medical Association House, 1904, Photo: Michał Korta
Stanisław Wyspiański, the multifaceted artist and playwright of the Young Poland era, applied his idealistic approach to the arts in the realm of design. His aim was to create a coherent, conceptual structure for his interiors – drawing from humanity's ties with nature and the roots of civilization in antiquity and in Christianity, as well as traditions of national craftsmanship, regional art and folk culture.
In the early autumn of 1904, Wyspiański received several commissions from private investors that allowed him to carry out three distinct concepts of public interior spaces. In September, at the new headquarters of the Friends of the Fine Arts Association in Kraków, located in the Pałac Sztuki on Szczepański Square, he began preparations to set up rooms for an exhibition by the Sztuka Polish Artists’ Association. The exhibition was affiliated with the 50th anniversary of the Friends of the Fine Arts Association.
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Below the ceilings, he created a frieze with a running geranium motif and partly covered the walls with shelves of paneling made of massive, symmetrically laid 'seats'. He covered the doors with curtains of gray wool, embroidered with geraniums identical to those of the friezes. In the free space on the background walls, between the frieze and the paneling, he placed pictures and sculptures by his friends from the Sztuka group. The artist himself was present at the exhibition as set designer. He brought parts of the scenery he designed for his drama Bolesław the Brave into the space, calling the room 'The Bolesław Day Room'. Thus, for the first time in Poland, stage design was elevated to the rank of high art.
Wyspiański's next task was to design the interiors of the Doctors’ Association House on Kraków's Radziwiłłowska Street. The building was to become a centre for the integration of all doctors’ associations. It was to be a local club, modeled after the English clubs, with a library and reading room, as well as a place for academic and social meetings. The building had the latest modern conveniences: central heating, ventilation, electricity and even a telephone. Wyspiański emphasized the functions of the investors’ demands by covering entire rooms, including the ceilings, with color, as in his other interior designs. He harmonized the colour schemes of the woodwork around the doors, sparsely rounded off with decorative ornamentation – a kind of classical fluting emphasizing the architecture and grandeur of the doorways.
Characteristically, symbolic criteria were more important for Wyspiański than aesthetic principles. He used the former as his point of departure, to which he subordinated the aesthetics of the space. He gave the interiors a dramaturgy like that of the ancient tragedies, with a protagonist and a chorus, written in accordance to the clients’ wishes. Every room had its own decorative program and particular order.
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Upon entering, the grand staircase slowly reveals its attributes, with a final astonishing view of the entire design on the upper floor and a wall of three stained-glass windows. The artist subordinated all the elements of this interior to nature. The intense yellow walls light up the interior and have a symbolic significance, as a reflection of the rays of the sun shining from Apollo, the Sun God, in the central stained glass. The extraordinary effect is increased by the enlarged chestnut inflorescences among the leaves on the balustrade. Their clusters, modeled in brass plating, accompany Apollo like an indispensable chorus, rhythmically protruding their heads to find the sun. This rhythm is repeated in an identical scale on the frieze running around the staircase. The ceramic flooring is sand-colored, aiming less to cover the floor than to ensure that nothing should disrupt the sunny harmony of the space.
The next space is the grand assembly hall, all in tones of Pompeii pink. Its furniture is simple, with a restrained decor repeated on the door woodwork and on the face of the mezzanine balustrade. The chairs’ armrests are inclined toward the sitter, providing no support for the arms – this lack of comfort was meant to help focus attention on the speaker. In his essay Historia Pewnych Mebli (A History of Certain Furniture), Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński repeated Wyspiański's alleged words on the subject:
When the chairs are comfortable, people doze at meetings. The chairs are designed so that if a man falls asleep, he will gently slide to the floor: this is the aim of the straight backrest, the smooth leather cushions and the curving arcs of the armrests…
From 'Historia Pewnych Mebli' by T. Boy-Zelenski in 'Wyspiański w Oczach Współczesnych' ed. L. Płoszewski, trans. MR
The frieze that runs around the wall just below the ceiling is a strong decorative note in this room – repeating once more the geranium motif, whose flowers are alternately painted gold and silver. The chandelier cut from chrome plate, used as a 'reflector' for the bare, downward-pointing lightbulb in the centre, harmonizes with its snowflake shape, joyfully exhibiting a new marvel of technology – Kraków had electricity in 1904.
The repeating ornaments in the interiors of the Doctors’ House were taken from nature. Wyspiański chose motifs affiliated with Kraków – the chestnut and the geranium, colloquially known as the 'Krakowiak'. He also drew inspiration from the local monuments: the pillars of the balustrade from the staircase were based on the column of the Collegium Maius courtyard and the friezes below the ceiling hail from the tradition of friezes in the royal chambers of Wawel Castle. Another factor affecting the interior decor which might be assigned a significant role in Wyspiański’s work was the presence of antiquity.
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Apart from his illustrations to the songs of Homer’s Iliad, published in 1903, the above-mentioned stained glass with the monumental, motionless figure of Apollo occupies a special place in the artist’s output. Hampered by the cithara strapped to his back, surrounded by the moving ellipsoidal heavenly spheres with the personifications of the planets, he appears as the Sun God. In an interpretation that matches the spirit of antiquity, this solar motif draws from the patron of the Doctors’ Association – Nicholas Copernicus – and is a tribute to the greatest achievement of the Polish natural sciences, i.e. the theories contained in Copernicus’s work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. This stained-glass design, with its complex conceptual scheme and its modern and synthetic form, is among Stanisław Wyspiański’s most remarkable artistic achievements.
The salon furniture suite, made of light, varnished sycamore, its shapes restrainedly rustic, was designed for short visits, with no sympathy for guests in search of comfort. The amaranth color scheme – punctuated only by the gray door curtains, paintings by Wyspiański himself and the symmetrically arranged groups of golden sycamore furniture – was no doubt dazzling in its originality. In contrast, too, was the apartment’s simplicity, given that apartments of the time were usually cluttered with heaps of electrical appliances and countless knick-knacks.
In the same year, Eliza Pareńska commissioned the artist to decorate the apartment of her daughter Zofia – newly married to the aforementioned Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński. As with his previous interiors, here, too, Wyspiański consistently defined the function of colour and adapted the furnishings to it. The salon was distinguished with a triumphant amaranth, smoothly painted on the walls and used for the furniture upholstery, made of uniformly dyed homespun cloth. The gray door curtains of hand-woven fabric received convex embroidery with motifs of pink-amaranth geraniums.
The other rooms were arranged consistently. The bedroom was gray and the dining room was dark blue. Little survives of the apartment’s furnishings (best described by Boy-Żeleński, also the apartment's owner), except for what can be seen in old photographs. Boy-Żeleński’s opinion is worth quoting, particularly as his wit was among the epoch’s finest. Here, he displays a self-effacing critique of his own aesthetic preferences in the form of admiration for the artist:
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[...] the only thing Wyspiański did not entirely account for was […] the anatomy of the human body, and human requirements. […] Severity was the most outstanding attribute of this furniture.
From 'Historia Pewnych Mebli', trans. MR
The space of the dining room was surely too slender to fit Wyspiański’s vision, which aimed to create an ideal symmetry of the high backs of the chairs surrounding the simple table. They were decorated with a centrally located 'sun' motif, repeated on the panels of a large cupboard. According to the original plan, which the insufficient space did not permit, this was to be one of four analogous parts of the 'paneling'. The blue of the walls and the wandering 'sun' – marking the rhythm of life on earth, the seasons of the year, the days and finally, the meals – served for some time as the conceptual program of the dining room.
The conscious allusions to ethnic motifs in the theatrical costumes and the props for Bolesław the Brave, the use of the struts from wooden folk architecture as independent decor for the furniture in the Żeleńskis’ salon, the native and original architectural details in the portals and the balustrades or the crenature in the Bolesław seats in the Art Mezzanine... All of the formal tactics used in Wyspiański's auteur interiors (as in his stage design) amount to mere details in building an interior which, according to the principles of the Gesamtkunstwerk and 'synesthesia', were meant to have had an effect on the whole of the interior. Its dominant element was color, which always had symbolic significance. This was the deciding factor on all parts of the furnishings, in accordance with the artist's concept of harmony.
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While executing these interiors in 1904, Wyspiański was already a mature artist, consciously and confidently using his experience from conserving and designing sacred spaces (including the Franciscan and Holy Cross churches in Kraków) and also – perhaps most importantly – from his work as a playwright and stage designer. Theatre was his element. He saw and recognized drama everywhere around him and conceived of reality through its categories. Wyspiański treated interiors as quasi-theatrical spaces, as well as a realm for the soul – material to be used as a place to express his own personality.
The various commissions of fall 1904 were treated as challenges, as attempts to formulate questions about the identity of Wyspiański's fellow citizens in another sphere, addressed toward the people themselves. His ambitious demands formulated in his dramas required the liberation of individual potential, understood as the internal freedom of the intellectually capable person, disciplined and free of formulaic thinking.
Originally written in Polish by Marta Romanowska, edited by Agnieszka Le Nart, Nov 2012