To sleep, perchance to dream… We spend a great portion of our lives sleeping, our minds wandering in the realm of dreams. And so, even though most portraits tend to depict people who are very much awake, people were bound to be caught while they were sleeping too. Among these seven artworks by different Polish painters, you'll find an adorable napping baby, a sweet sleeping doggy and… a fossilised druid.
Perhaps one of the most famous Polish ‘sleep paintings’… If by any chance you’ve forgotten what it’s like to sleep like a baby just one look at this utterly sweet painting will take you back. The peaceful expression on the toddler’s face shows that he’s resting peacefully.
In the painting, Sleeping Staś, created in 1904 by one of Poland’s most valued artists, the playwright and painter Stanisław Wyspiański, he depicted his own son, Staś. The artist also painted his two other children, Helena and Mietek. The National Museum in Kraków described Wyspiański’s paintings of his kids in the following way:
The depictions of children, made with great tenderness, show the charm, innocence and honesty of these exceptional models in an amazing way.
Śpiąca Kobieta z Kotem
The woman sleeping in this painting seems to be quite comfortable as well – the presence of her furry companion, a green-eyed cat, gives the scene an additional sense of cosiness. The painting, titled Śpiąca Kobieta Z Kotem (‘Sleeping Woman With a Cat’), was made in 1896 by the noted painter Władysław Ślewiński. His style has been described as reminiscent of the symbolism of the French artistic group Les Nabis. How would one decode the symbolism hidden in this piece?
The colour black is associated with dreams as in Ancient Greece the Oneiroi – spirits that ruled over human dreams – often had black attributes, such as wings or clothing. The colour green, on the other hand, is associated with calm. In the 1921 book Symbolism of Colour by Ellen Conroy, you find that green ‘is calming and soothing in its influence (…), it is said by the mystics to be a feminine colour’. So perhaps by juxtaposing these two tones, the painter is conveying that the woman is having a pleasant dream? The cat, however, was often used as a symbol of liberty and may point to the freedom with which we dream our dreams. Katharine M. Rogers wrote in her 1998 book The Cat and the Human Imagination:
The cat's resistance to restraint suggested a love of freedom to Cesare Ripa, author of ‘Iconologia' (1593), an influential and often reprinted handbook of emblems for artists.
Kiki, Śpiący Piesek
What we have here is another furry companion, one that must’ve been especially dear to the author of this painting, the eminent modernist painter Wojciech Weiss. He portrayed the animal with such care – the title of this heart-warming piece created ca. 1937 is Kiki the Sleeping Doggy.
Interestingly, in the 1930s another important Polish modernist painter, Olga Boznańska, depicted a dog named Kiki as well. In her piece entitled Kiki, Piesek Artystki (‘Kiki, the Artist’s Doggy’) you see her pet which is quite similar to the canine shown by Weiss – a small, dark brown pup. However, despite extensive investigative efforts, Culture.pl has so far not found any evidence proving that the two Kikis were, in fact, the same doggy…
An artistic trend especially interested in sleep, or more precisely, in the dreams that accompany it, was surrealism which emerged in France in the 1920s. Here’s how the art historian Katarzyna Nowakowska-Sito described surrealism’s Polish influences in a Polish Radio broadcast from 2017 entitled Nierzeczywistość W Sztuce, Czyli Sen Nocy Letniej (‘The Unreal in Art or Midsummer Night’s Dream’):
[In Poland – ed.] we didn’t have a leading, canonical surrealism comparable to the French surrealism. (…) There wasn’t much talk of dreams, instead, the focus was on creating a certain ‘altered reality' or ‘disturbing reality', many terms were used to describe this… it was disturbing art with a hidden meaning.
One of the not-so-numerous examples of concentrating purely on a dream vision in pre-War Polish painting is this 1930 piece whose title is translated simply as Dream. It was created by the noted painter Marek Włodarski, member of the Lviv-based artistic group Artes, which was also inspired by French surrealism.
Chwila Tworzenia – Harpia We Śnie
The renowned symbolist painter Jacek Malczewski was also inspired by dreams, which is visible in his Sen Malarza (Painter's Dream) and Moment of Creation – Sleeping Harpy or Moment of Creation – Dream of a Harpy (the Polish word sen means both ‘sleep' and ‘dream'). The latter has a unique oneiric ambience. Here's how Irena Kossowska decoded Malczewski's symbolism in her Culture.pl article:
The chimaeras in Malczewski's paintings use their sensual beauty to tempt the artist; they embody the material sphere of art (‘Moment of Creation – Dream of a Harpy', 1907). The element of music [notice an instrument's pegbox in the right hand of the artist who portrayed himself in the painting – ed.] becomes an antithesis of that sphere, it is abstract and symbolises (…) the transience of imagination.
Intriguingly, in Malczewski's ‘moment of creation,' the harpy is asleep. Possibly because otherwise it could snatch the elusive products of his imagination – after all in Greek mythology harpies were responsible for sudden disappearances of people and things…
This is another symbolic work, created in 1894 by the acclaimed modernist painter Leon Wyczółkowski. It is widely considered to have been inspired by the 1840 historiosophical drama Lilla Weneda by the classic Polish Romantic author Juliusz Słowacki. Set in ancient times, it is a fictitious story about the fight between the Veneti and Lechite tribes. Lilla Weneda includes the following passage:
Wake up! Wake up, oh Roman knight in golden armour, in fiery cuirass! New ghosts stand in front of you: behold the mountain covered with green grass, on top of which there are twelve druidic stones (…)
Also in Słowacki's story, the strings of a magus' lute break, which symbolises Poland's loss of independence in the partitions that took place toward the end of the 18th century.
In his Fossilized Druid, Wyczółkowski took certain themes from Słowacki’s drama and mixed them with a popular Polish folk story which said that the massive Giewont mountain in the south of the country was actually a sleeping medieval knight, who one day would awaken to fight for Poland. As a result, the painter created a stony druid or a ‘fossilised harp player', according to an 1894 article from the daily Słowo, who is as strong as was Poland’s determination to reappear on the map of Europe. Perhaps, when Poland won back its freedom in 1918, the ‘broken strings of the harp’ were made whole again?
The title of this 1930 piece by the celebrated Tamara Łempicka translates as The Sleeper. The title was originally in French because, at the time of its creation, the Polish artist was living and working in Paris. Although Łempicka is thought of as a symbol of Art déco, her painting style is also strongly associated with an aesthetic from a much earlier period. Here’s what the art historian Patrick Bade wrote on the subject in his 2006 book Tamara de Lempicka:
(…) It was her love of the precision and classicism of the Italian Renaissance that had the most profound impact on her compositions. Lempicka frequently acknowledged her indebtedness to the Italian Old Masters and how their style profoundly impacted her art: ‘I discovered Italy when I was a youngster, and my grandmother took me away from the cold climate of Poland, where I was born and lived, to take me to the sunny cities of Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice and Milan. It was under her attentive guidance that my eyes took in the treasures of the old Italian masters, from the Quattrocento, the Renaissance'.
Today, Lempicka’s paintings reach astronomical prices. This particular piece was sold at an auction in 2011 for $6,5 million. Guess most people can only dream of hanging a painting like it on their wall…
Author: Marek Kępa, March 2018