The Hidden Paintings of Polish Cinema
#photography & visual arts
default, The Hidden Paintings of
Polish Cinema, A still from ‘Sweet Rush’, directed by Andrzej Wajda; 2007; pictured: Krystyna Janda; photo: ITI Cinema, center, tatarak-wajdy.jpg
What does Fyodor Dostoevsky have to do with Edvard Munch? Why did Andrzej Wajda curl Marek Walczewski’s moustache, and why is Aleksandra Waliszewska more interesting than Walt Disney? Culture.pl presents some surprising ways paintings have inspired Polish cinema.
'Ashes and Diamonds' by Andrzej Wajda & 'Shooting on the Wall' by Andrzej Wróblewski
A still from ‘Ashes and Diamonds’, directed by Andrzej Wajda; 1958; pictured: Zbigniew Cybulski; photo: Wiesław Zdort / Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa
Andrzej Wajda could vividly remember the first time he saw Andrzej Wróblewski’s works:
When I saw [the painting], I came to the conclusion that what I always wanted to paint had already been painted.
Wajda and Wróblewski met at the Academy of Arts in Kraków and their meeting was the beginning of a new direction in the director’s artistic journey. Thanks to Wróblewski, Wajda abandoned painting to convey the war trauma of his generation through moving pictures in the cinema instead.
Wróblewski According to Wajda Premieres in Madrid
The director often referred to Wróblewski’s works throughout his career. His paintings could be seen in Everything for Sale and Wajda even filmed a documentary about the painter. There are also traces of Wróblewski’s works in Wajda’s most important film, Ashes and Diamonds. The scene showing Maciek Chełmicki’s death would have looked totally different if it weren’t for Wróblewski’s touching paintings from the Shootings on the Wall series, showing the meeting of life and death.
'The Mill and the Cross' by Lech Majewski & 'The Procession to Calvary' by Pieter Bruegel
A still from ‘The Mill and the Cross’, directed by Lech J. Majewski; photo: Instytucja Filmowa Silesia Films and ‘The Procession to Calvary’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1564, photo: Kunsthistorisches Museum
The history of cinema may be full of references to paintings, but direct adaptations of paintings are hardly ever created. That is what accounts for the value of The Mill and the Cross, directed by Lech Majewski, an adaptation of The Procession to Calvary by Pieter Bruegel.
It all began with a 1996 essay called The Mill and the Cross by Michael Francis Gibson, who described the painting with utmost precision. The American art historian gave his book to Lech Majewski, hoping that the director would create a documentary about the famous painting. Instead, Majewski created a feature film in which he brought the painting to life, describing it through the eyes of distinct characters, events and scenes.
Bruegel. The Mill and the Cross - Michael F. Gibson, Lech Majewski
Most of the filming process took place in the mountains. The shots later underwent digital post-production, thanks to which the setting resembled the landscape from the Dutch canvas. That is how this star-studded film (Charlotte Rampling, Rutger Hauer, Michael York) was created. It is one of the few film adaptations of a painting and a fully fledged original piece by a Polish master.
'The Lure' by Agnieszka Smoczyńska & Aleksandra Waliszewska’s Mermaids
A still from ‘The Lure’, directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska; 2015; photo: Kino Świat and ‘Untitled’ by Aleksandra Waliszewska, guache on paper, photo: courtesy of the artist
Agnieszka Smoczyńska is the director of one of the most captivating Polish movies of the last decade, The Lure. With this film, she rejected the pop culture fantasy about likeable mermaids and created a horror musical, where romantic motifs met camp aesthetics.
As she explained to Albert Kiciński, from the Polish Filmmakers’ Association:
Mythological mermaids kill people and aren’t actually as nice as Disney portrayed them. This is also why our protagonists behave in such a way. My first inspiration were photos by Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. Arbus portrayed poor, lumpen people, similar to the way I see mermaids with their tails. Aleksandra Waliszewska was my great inspiration in terms of visuals.
7 Cool Depictions of the Warsaw Mermaid
Smoczyńska deftly reconciled several extremes; in her movie, musical and comedy went together with romance and horror. So it shouldn’t be surprising that her ethereal and seductive mermaids had sharp teeth and disgusting fish tails, created in collaboration with Aleksandra Waliszewska, who captures eroticism, violence, internal demons, and budding sexuality in her perverse and often ruthless works.
'A Gentle Spirit' by Piotr Dumała & 'Smiling Spider' by Odilon Redon
A still from ‘A Gentle Spirit’, directed by Piotr Dumała; photo: Studio Miniatur Filmowych; ‘The Smiling Spider’ (L'Araignée) by Odilon Redon, 1887, photo: Catalogue Mellerio, 1887, lithograph, print: Lemercier, Paris
In a conversation with Krzysztof Biedrzycki (Film 16/1986), Piotr Dumała said:
I created 'Flying Hair' and 'A Gentle Spirit' together with Munch, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Redon, Daumier.
Watching Piotr Dumała’s films is a journey through various periods and styles in art history. The director first made his name thanks to his adaptations of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prose. In his later films, he created a space for an intertextual discussion between the most important artists in the history of culture. Dumała wasn’t afraid to borrow from other artists – he used Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro, for example. In one scene from A Gentle Spirit, one of the characters resembled the figure in The Scream by Edvard Munch, and the symbolic spider (seen in the photo above) hiding beneath the protagonists’ table resembled the one in Odilon Redon’s painting.
In Jacek Dobrowolski’s words, Dumała ‘traverses the restless waters of liberated imagination, visited before by other symbolist visionaries: Goya and Max Ernst, Odilon Redon, Daniel Mróz, Edward Gorey, Jonathan Swift, Kafka, Borges, and Edgar Allan Poe.’ But Dumała’s greatness lies in that, by doing so, he creates his own unique world.
A Foreigner's Guide to Polish Animation
'Loving Vincent' by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman & Paintings by Vincent Van Gogh
During the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, Dorota Kobiela said:
I’ve always wanted to combine my two passions: painting and film. The solution was to make a painted movie.
Loving Vincent was created by Kobiela and her collaborator and husband, Hugh Welchman. It is the first fully painted feature film, as each and every frame of the film was hand-painted. A biography of Van Gogh, the film is comprised of 65,000 Vincent-style frames, hand-painted by 125 artists from all around the world.
Loving Vincent Nominated for an Oscar
In their story about the investigation on the mystery surrounding Van Gogh’s death, Kobiela and Welchman pay homage to the painter by incorporating more than 90 of his works. Their film proved to be a huge commercial success and was released in 130 countries. It was nominated for the most prestigious international film awards: an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA.
'Sweet Rush' by Andrzej Wajda & 'Woman in the Sun' by Edward Hopper
A still from ‘Sweet Rush’, directed by Andrzej Wajda; 2009; pictured: Krystyna Janda; photo: ITI Cinema and ‘Woman in the Sun’ by Edward Hopper, 1952, photo: Columbus, Museum of Art
A woman with a cigarette in her hand looks through the window, caressed by the midday sunshine. She tells the story of the last months of her terminally ill husband. This scene is how Sweet Rush by Andrzej Wajda begins, and is an unexpected mix of fact with fiction. The woman is played by Krystyna Janda and her several-minute-long monologue is based on the last days of her real-life husband Edward Kłosiński, an excellent cinematographer who died the year before.
In this scene, Wajda wanted to refer to a classic painting by Edward Hopper, one he considered the most accurate depiction of human loneliness. Together with Paweł Edelman and art director Magdalena Dipont, he set about recreating the famous work on screen.
7 Powerful Films by Andrzej Wajda
In a conversation with Tadeusz Sobolewski, Janda said:
Edward Hopper’s painting was crucial to this scene: a lonely woman in a hotel. Andrzej Wajda knew that my words weren’t fictional, so he wanted a bold form from the very beginning. He checked whether the wall paint was the exact same colour as in Hopper’s work, whether the window was in the exact same place.
'The Lamp' by Roman Polański & 'The Doll' by Hans Bellmer
A still from ‘The Lamp’, directed by Roman Polański, photo: FilmPolski.pl
Although Roman Polański’s cinema is usually associated with literature and not necessarily painting, his early works were actually full of inspirations from visual arts, especially in his short pieces from when he was a student.
One example is his When Angels Fall from 1959, a subversive story about a washroom attendant reminiscing about her youth, intertwined with frames inspired by paintings by Wojciech Kossak, Artur Grottger and Jacek Malczewski. The work distanced Polański from the turgid tone prevailing in other films from that period.
Roman Polański – Film Posters – Image Gallery
Another good example is The Lamp from the same year. The film also referred to art, but this time without any trace of ridicule. This excellent piece tells the story of a toy shop that goes up in flames one night. The burning dolls in Polański’s film resemble installations by Hans Bellmer featuring dismembered and destroyed dolls, often interpreted as the artist’s reaction to the cult of the body spread throughout Nazi Germany.
'The Wedding' by Wojciech Smarzowski & 'Motherhood' by Stanisław Wyspiański
Fifty-five years after Polański’s When Angels Fall, another director, Wojciech Smarzowski, used similarly ironic methods in his debut feature film, where he portrayed the overidealisation of Polish history that is often inconsistent with the actual coarse reality.
Smarzowski incorporated various intertextual allusions in The Wedding, a comedy variation on Stanisław Wyspiański’s play and Andrzej Wajda’s movie adaptation. The characters in the movie intertwine their drunken dialogues with quotes from Wyspiański; a mother sitting at the table and feeding her child looks like the woman in Wyspiański’s Motherhood; and in one of the rooms of the fire station, where the wedding party takes place, there hangs a copy of Forging of War Scythes by Artur Grottger – a trace of the storied past.
Meeting With Polish Filmmaker Wojciech Smarzowski In Tokyo
Smarzowski referred to the works of Polish classics to show the chasm between Polish national myths and the raw drunken reality portrayed in his film.
'The Wedding' by Andrzej Wajda & 'Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland' by Jan Matejko
A still from ‘The Wedding’, directed by Andrzej Wajda; 1972; photo: Renata Pajchel / Studio Filmowe Zebra / Filmoteka and a detail from ‘Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland’ by Jan Matejko, 1866, photo: Royal Castle in Warsaw
Smarzowski’s debut tragicomedy came to grips not only with the history and tradition of Polish literature and painting, but also with an earlier masterpiece adaptation of Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Wedding, directed by Andrzej Wajda. This 1972 production is loaded with allusions to various paintings.
When the groom, portrayed by Daniel Olbrychski, tears his shirt apart, he looks like Rejtan from Jan Matejko’s famous painting. The bridesmaids have golden orange ribbons, resembling those in Eliza Pareńska’s portrait by Wyspiański. Marek Walczewski’s moustache looks like the one sported by the figure in Jacek Malczewski’s Self-Portrait in Armour. Ewa Ziętek and Daniel Olbrychski are transformed into the figures from Wyspiański’s Self-Portrait with Wife, thanks to their costume and makeup.
Polish History as Seen by Andrzej Wajda
In all these works by classic painters, Wajda saw a depiction of the most prevalent Polish vices, which he either ridiculed or longed for. The borrowings from Polish masters was a form of tribute.
'The Birch Wood' by Andrzej Wajda & 'Self-Portrait with Thanatos' by Jacek Malczewski
A still from ‘The Birch Wood’, directed by Andrzej Wajda; 1970; pictured: Emilia Krakowska & Daniel Olbrychski; photo: Renata Pajchel / Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa and ‘Self-Portrait with Thanatos’ by Jacek Malczewski, 1919, photo: private collection
Wajda also alluded to symbolists in The Birch Wood, one of a handful of Polish films to be thoroughly analysed by critics and students in terms of its allusions to painting.
It’s not surprising as you watch it, as in his adaptation of a short story by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, many are quick to notice how Wajda included many paintings by Malczewski, such as Poisoned Well, Death II and Narcissus. In his film, Wajda used them to portray the meeting of Eros and Thanatos, passion, death, greed and zest for life. Unsurprisingly, he ended up with one of the most painterly films in Polish cinema.
'The Hourglass Sanatorium' by Wojciech Jerzy Has & 'Beasts' by Bruno Schulz
A still featuring Halina Kowalska in ‘The Hourglass Sanatorium’, directed by Wojciech Jerzy Has; 1973; photo: Janusz Kaliciński / Studio Filmowe Kadr / Filmoteka Narodowa and ‘Beasts’ by Bruno Schulz , 1921 from the ‘Book of Idolatry’ series, cliché-verre on paper, 22.7 x 17.1 cm, photo: National Museum in Kraków
Wojciech Jerzy Has’s works are both promising and a challenge for those seeking art inspirations in cinema. An outstanding cinema visionary and savant, Has often chose to allude to the works of great writers and painters, but the traces of these allusions are blurred. Although Salvador Dali’s spirit is felt in The Saragossa Manuscript by Has, it is difficult to point to one frame that would be an exact borrowing from the Spanish painter.
The same goes with his The Hourglass Sanatorium, an unsurpassed adaptation of short stories by Bruno Schulz. There, one can easily feel the spirit of surrealists, but it is much harder to find a fragment directly linking Has to surrealist paintings. And although the frame showing Jan Nowicki and an elephant was probably inspired by Dali’s The Elephants, visually they don’t even resemble each other. The allusions to Bruno Schulz’s works is more apparent, both in literary and artistic terms, as in the film we can see a couple of literal references to the graphics of the Polish-Jewish writer.
Polish & Turkish Shadow Puppeteers Perform Schulz's Cinnamon Shops
'Deep End' by Jerzy Skolimowski & 'Best of April' by Dora Maar
A frame from ‘Deep End’, directed by Jerzy Skolimowski; 1970; photo: Culture.pl and ‘Best of April’, photo: from ‘Dora Maar: Paris in the Time of Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and Picasso’ by Louise Baring, published by Rizzoli, © Dora Maar 1936
Jerzy Skolimowski is an artist of many talents. Apart from directing, screenwriting and acting, he is also a painter. His fascination with visual arts is also visible in his films. Similarly to Has, however, it is difficult to find explicit visual quotations and frames staged to resemble the works of classics. His films feed on bold and energetic pictures, using their form to create a new visual quality on screen.
At first, these overstylised visual effects fall nicely within the plot. In the end, they definitely take on a whole new meaning. The roots of such methods can be found in surrealist photographs, such as those by Man Ray [or Dora Maar – ed.], which were not only formal play in search of a new medium, but also the search for a new, unprecedented way of showing the world and humans.
'In Hiding' by Jan Kidawa-Błoński & 'Figures by the Window' by Vilhelm Hammershøi
Borrowings from art do not always assume the form of a literal quotation. Sometimes, they manifest in the way the director and cinematographer use light. A good example is Jan Kidawa-Błoński’s In Hiding, a story of a romantic relationship between two women, one of them Jewish, which took place in occupied Radom during the Second World War.
Jan Kidawa-Błoński Awarded for "Little Rose"
When creating the form of the movie, Kidawa-Błoński and cinematographer Łukasz Gutt were inspired by the works of the great Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi, an expert in nostalgic portraits of loneliness. Frames showing interiors illuminated by bright light coming from outside the window and human silhouettes standing against the background of empty windows were used in Kidawa-Błoński’s movie to portray a forbidden relationship, the Holocaust and loneliness. When compared to the artist’s works, it’s clear it was a form of tribute to a master of European painting.
Sources: Stowarzyszenie Filmowców Polskich; Gazeta Wyborcza; Jerzy Skolimowski by Iwona Grodź, Warsaw, 2010; Dumała by Piotr Dumała, Gdańsk 2011
Jan Kidawa Błoński
wojciech jerzy has
vincent van gogh
Originally written in Polish Jul 2018; translated by AJ, Feb 2019