The Painting of Polish Symbolism
#photography & visual arts
small, 'Thanatos' by Jacek Malczewski, 1898-99, oil on canvas, photo: Ewa Gawryszewska / National Museum in Warsaw, malczewski thanatos mnw.jpg
Symbolic art aimed at capturing the essence of human existence has existed since the dawn of time. It served a magical, ritualistic, and sacral purpose and tried to harness the forces of nature.
Symbolic art, referring to transcendence and aimed at capturing the experience of being human, has existed since the beginning of history, even serving magical, ritualistic, and sacral functions. It tried to harness the forces of nature and come closer to the Absolute, and was a means of learning about human nature and a tool for understanding the mysteries of the universe. One of its most complete and rich manifestations was symbolism – a movement which was born in France in the mid-1880s and quickly spread to other European countries, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria-Hungary, took over Russia, and penetrated the youth culture of the United States.
Symbolism arose from the opposition of philosophers, theoreticians, literates, and artists to the positivist world view and to a rationalistic and materialistic understanding of the world. Over the last two decades of the 19th century, faith in the unquestionable power of the intellect weakened, and the axioms of the sciences and observations of natural science proved insufficient for a full understanding of reality. The scientific model, arranging the phenomena of nature and determining the progress of civilisation, turned out to be partial and flawed. Intensive industrialisation and technical achievements could not satisfy the emotional needs of man at the end of the century, who felt increasingly alienated and lost. Philosophers, poets and artists understood that the sense of existence is not limited to understanding the material surface of phenomena, because the essence of being is itself spiritual. For the Pantheists, this spiritual dimension, harmoniously connected with the order of earthly existence, determined the unity of the universe. The belief in the dual physical and psychological nature of the universe awakened the desire to overcome the material barrier and to penetrate the sphere of spirituality. It gave an impulse to search for what is completely incomprehensible and unattainable but intuitively perceptible.
Poland the Woman: How the Polonia Allegory Weaved Her Way into Art History
Without metaphysical references and stripped of faith in God, the positivist world was rejected and replaced by the heritage of the romanticists, which then gained particular importance as an inexhaustible source of inspiration. The neo-romanticists of the late nineteenth century took up the theme of human solitude in the face of the immensity and power of nature. In the natural phenomena, they saw a reflection of their own emotions, and they subjected themselves to psychological introspection. The crisis of world views led on the one hand to religious renewal and on the other to a search for new ways of the spiritualisation of man through unorthodox theories, esotericism, occultism, theosophy, and anthroposophy. The renaissance of Catholicism was associated with an enchantment with the culture of the Middle Ages, revealing its richness and complexity, exploring the phenomenon of holiness, as well as learning about its antithesis – black and white magic. Satanism became more and more tempting and the philosophical diversity of the Hindu-Buddhist East became more and more intriguing.
Decadents discovered the principles of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, who, at the beginning of the century, assimilated the norms of Buddhism by affirming the attitude of fatigue and impotence. Schopenhauer’s influence was complemented by Nietzsche’s vision of a world torn between two elements – Dionysian and Apollonian. It also carried a tragic image of a man torn between instinct and reason, irrational drive and a sense of order and harmony. However, Nietzsche’s dissertation titled Will to Power announced in 1901 gave rise to new intellectual tendencies. The concept of vitality, a force overcoming all barriers, the power of control and creation that the ‘superhuman’ of the future was supposed to possess, resonated greatly in intellectual and artistic circles. Thus, the melancholy of the decadence turned into joy of birth, and the symptoms of a new era began to prevail over the symptoms of the agony of the passing era.
The intricate combination of philosophical reflection, poetic inspiration and literary references shaped the sensitivity of painters, graphic artists and sculptors who believed in the salutary power of art as it revealed the spiritual dimension of the universe. ‘Let’s become the mystics of art,’ proposed Symbolist theoretician Albert Aurier. Mimeticism and verismo, faithful imitation of natural forms in realist art and detailed descriptions in naturalist novels, gave way to a search for metaphysical experiences, exploring the mysteries of the human psyche and discovering the inexhaustible possibilities of the imagination. Intuition, extreme subjectivism and individualism, and unlimited creative freedom elevated to the rank of the main tool of cognition are the most important features of the heralds of the new artistic formation and, at the same time, the distinguishing features of symbolic aesthetics.
The concept of symbolism
The concept of ‘symbolism’ coexists in art literature of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries alongside several other terms, such as ‘modernism’, ‘new art’, ‘expressionism’, ‘fin-de-siècle’, and ‘Young Europe’, partially overlapping and identifying with them. In Germany and France, the literary critics of the 1880s and 1890s associated ‘modernism’ with movements opposing realism and tendencies to terminate the existing stylistic conventions and innovative poetics. In Poland, this term was popularised in a dissertation published in 1902 by Ignacy Matuszewski entitled Słowacki and New Art (Modernism). In Słowacki’s mystical works, Matuszewski found almost all the distinguishing features of modernity in literature, thus emphasising the romantic genealogy of Polish modernism. The term ‘new art’ became synonymous with ‘modernism’ and was introduced into Polish literature by Stanisław Przybyszewski in a famous manifesto from 1899 titled For the ‘New’ Art.
The interpretational category of ‘new art’ was adopted in the statements of those theoreticians and publicists who stressed the revolutionary character of the changes taking place in art, emphasised the features of modernity and the traits of contemporary spirituality. In order to demonstrate the distinctiveness of the last decades of the 19th century from the previous cultural formation, as well as their developmental potential, critics also introduced the concept of youth. The terms Young Belgium, Young Germany, Young Scandinavia, Young France, Young Spain, and Young Vienna referred to the generational community of artists active in various European countries in the 1880s and 1890s, capturing the artistic achievements of that era in all its diversity. The term, the most capacious in terms of meaning, accentuating the distinctiveness of national varieties of modernism, also gained a Polish counterpart. It was ‘Young Poland’ – the term was first used by Artur Górski in a series of articles published in 1898 in the Kraków-based magazine Życie (Life). Górski’s statement gained the status of a literary manifesto:
We demand that our art should be Polish, thoroughly Polish – because if it loses its native origin, it will lose its strength and value, and its raison d’être. But besides that, it should be young and possess the fire of youth, the wings of an eagle and the royal spirit, the fiery spirit of Mickiewicz.
By giving the name Young Poland to literary phenomena that had already occurred a few years earlier, Górski conveyed the philosophical essence of this movement, which linked the heritage of Romanticism with the present day, and the messianism of the bards with the ambitions of the young generation of artists sensitive to the innovative aura of Paris, Munich, Vienna, and Berlin. In this way, what was Polish was united with what was universal. It gave rise to a coherent synthesis of the Polish tradition with the newly-born European art tendencies.
8 Awe-Inspiring Paintings from the Young Poland Period
Young Poland Symbolism
Today, we understand Young Poland not only as a literary trend but as a cultural formation, which between 1890 and 1914 covered various fields of thought and creativity, as well as various artistic attitudes without a singular goal and programme. This period was considered to be one of the peak stages in the development of national culture, a phase summarising the intellectual achievements of the 19th century and, at the same time, opening new creative perspectives.
What distinguished Young Poland from the invigorating movements of Young Europe was the political situation of the subjugated nation, which had been deprived of its own statehood for over a hundred years. Hence the cultivation of the tradition of Polish Romanticism in the Polish environment – a trend which elevated literature to the rank of the most important manifestation of national identity; hence the understanding of culture as an enclave of Polish identity and its endless entanglement in national history and martyrdom, the endless memory of the uprisings, and the ever-returning hope to reclaim freedom. Hence the uniqueness of symbolism connected with the formation of Young Poland.
The weight of the romantic tradition weakened and delayed the search for new forms of artistic expression in Polish symbolism. However, when the understanding of the autonomous values of art appeared in the aesthetic consciousness of Poles thanks to such outstanding critics as Stanisław Witkiewicz, Zenon Przesmycki, Feliks Jasieński, Stanisław Przybyszewski, and Cezary Jellenta, it took on its own original form which was specific to Polish culture.
Art ceased to be an illustration of national history and to serve as an allegorical message of patriotic content. Its national mission was transferred into the sphere of aesthetic and stylistic quality of the solutions that reflected the historical consciousness of the Polish artist. The burden of history was faced by the two greatest Polish symbolists, students of Matejko – Jacek Malczewski and Stanisław Wyspiański. Each of them, in their own way, searched for a new artistic language to express national content. Each of them used means of expression different from the style of Grottger’s patriotic series and Matejko’s historiosophical paintings, although these two coryphaei of Polish painting left an indelible mark on the imagination of the young generation. Malczewski found his own poetics in half-allegorical, half-symbolic painting which spoke of the artist’s patriotic duty and vocation. Wyspiański’s dramas and cardboard boxes for stained-glass windows at Lviv and Wawel Cathedrals created a tragic vision of the history of the homeland and its destinies.
Jan Stanisławski, Leon Wyczółkowski, Olga Boznańska, Ferdynand Ruszczyc, and Konrad Krzyżanowski shaped their creative attitudes in yet another way – by assimilating the influence of the artistic circles of Paris and St. Petersburg. Polish symbolism, however, was not a movement internally torn between the old and the new, the Polish and the foreign. On the contrary, it gave testimony to the perfect symbiosis of the Polish tradition with the invigorating impulses of European modernism.
Stanisława Przybyszewska: The Maddest of All Female Robespierrists
Polish-European artistic connections
Polish artists got to know the art of Europe in many ways. In the absence of a national education system in the partitioned part of the country, they were educated in academies and private studios in Munich, Paris, Vienna, and St. Petersburg. Only the representatives of the youngest generation of modernists, such as Wojciech Weiss and Witold Wojtkiewicz, were able to complete regular artistic studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków – previously known as the School of Fine Arts, reformed in 1895 by Julian Fałat, it gained the status of an academy in 1900.
In the post-partition era of the country’s existence, the most favourable climate for reforms existed in the relatively liberal Austrian partition, in the ‘royal’ city of Kraków. Therefore, Fałat changed the traditional teaching system of the academy – he organised the Faculty of Landscapes and introduced a nude study to the curriculum. He appointed as lecturers artists whose personalities had shaped the face of Polish modernism – Leon Wyczółkowski, Teodor Axentowicz, Jacek Malczewski, Jan Stanisławski, Konstanty Laszczka, and later Stanisław Wyspiański, Józef Mehoffer, Józef Pankiewicz, and Wojciech Weiss.
From 1897, the Sztuka (Art) Association of Polish Artists became a window on the outside world for Poles, bringing together in its ranks the coryphaei of painting from the three partitions and consistently presenting Polish art on international forums, for example, in St. Louis, Düsseldorf, Dresden, Leipzig, Munich, London, Vienna, Venice, and Berlin. Peregrinations in European countries, searching for painting motifs in Italy, France and Scandinavia, and obligatory (from the 1890s) pilgrimages to study in Paris – all these factors made Polish artists well-acquainted with the European artistic tradition and contemporary trends in art. In addition, richly illustrated magazines were used to deepen the knowledge of artistic trends in France, Germany, England, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among the Polish periodicals, the one which was key to promoting modernism was the Kraków-based Życie (Life). Stanisław Przybyszewski, who came straight from Berlin in 1898, became its editor-in-chief. He was an admirer of Goya, Rops, Munch, Vigeland, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and a follower of the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. From 1901, in the Warsaw-based Chimera magazine, Zenon Przesmycki-Miriam, an expert onPparnasism and Maeterlinck’s dramas, was preaching the cult of pure art, presenting a pleiad of Romanticists and neo-Romanticists, brilliant artists, sometimes completely forgotten (like Cyprian Norwid). By reproducing the engravings of Beardsley, Rops, Khnopff, Przesmycki-Miriam he strived to assimilate the aesthetics of European symbolism into Polish society. He followed Przybyszewski and Wyspiański, who gave Kraków’s Życie an innovative artistic form. Both magazines matched the sophisticated typographical layout of the Paris-originated La Revue Blanche, Munich’s Jugend, Berlin’s Pan, Vienna’s Ver Sacrum, Petersburg’s Mir Iskusstwa, London’s The Studio, and Prague’s Moderni Revue. The art of Europe, painting and graphics and drawing, was presented to the Warsaw audience by the famous art dealer Aleksander Krywult’s salon, way ahead of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts and the Lviv and Kraków Society of Friends of Fine Arts.
The prints of European graphic artists exhibited in Warsaw, Lviv, and Kraków were of fundamental importance to the development of the aesthetic assumptions of Polish modernism. In these prints, innovative forms of representation manifested themselves, often earlier than in painting. Feliks Manggha-Jasieński was an outstanding connoisseur and collector of graphics. While travelling around Europe, he bought them at auctions, antique bookshops, and engraving galleries of old and contemporary masters of burin and pencil. He showed his collection to his friends, artists, and the general public, trying to assimilate the achievements of Western European culture to Polish artists and viewers. However, Jasieński’s greatest contribution to the development of modernist aesthetics was the popularisation of Japanese woodcuts, of which he was an enthusiast, collector, and advocate. Miriam was his ally in this mission – he reproduced Hokusai’s and Hiroshige’s engravings in Chimera. Both claimed that the assimilation of the means of expression of woodcuts had revolutionised European art, and both wanted to pass this knowledge on to the general public by organising a series of free exhibitions of graphics in Chimera’s editorial office in 1901. In their opinion, Japanese art was to become an impulse for the creation of separate, modern national Polish art.
The precursors of end-of-century symbolists
Polish symbolists at the end of the century, like their French peers, discovered their forefathers in the recent past of the 1870s and 1880s. In the countries of Western Europe, the creative imagination was liberated from the dictates of realism by Böcklin, Moreau, and Puvis de Chavannes. Adam Chmielowski and Witold Pruszkowski, both educated in Munich and rejecting the limitations of the materialistic worldview and both deserving of the title of neo-Romanticists, played a precursor role for Poles.
When Poland Was Nowhere: Foreigners Reflect on the Partitions & a Stateless Nation
standardowy [760 px]
'Italian Cemetery at Dusk' by Adam Chmielowski, 1880, photo: National Museum in Kraków
In his treatise On the Essence of Art, published in 1876, Chmielowski presented the principles of aesthetics of neo-Platonic origin, identifying beauty with the mystical. He prioritised a pantheist approach over direct observation of nature and objective recreation of historical realities. His imagination was dominated by themes of romantic genealogy – those of death, loneliness, and tragic love. The formation of new poetics was fostered by the nocturne formula, which was popular in Munich. Chmielowski’s neo-romantic attitude was fully reflected in his 1880 nocturnes, which were over a decade ahead of the achievements of the symbolists – In Italy (Italian Cemetery I) and The Grey Hour (Cemetery II).
Chmielowski enjoyed – first in the circle of the Polish artistic colony in Munich, then in the artistic circles of Warsaw – his reputation as an outstanding theorist and a seasoned art expert. Although in 1879 he left his studio in the European Hotel, which he shared with Stanisław Witkiewicz and Józef Chełmoński, his legend survived among the artists gathered around Wędrowiec (The Wanderer), in which Witkiewicz fought a battle for realism in art. This group included Aleksander Gierymski, Władysław Podkowiński and Józef Pankiewicz. It was Gierymski who, referring to the tradition of Stimmung painting originated in Munich, in 1890 delivered a meaningful sentence: ‘Stimmung is to be understood as creating a picture out of emotion and memory.’ Thus, he formulated a principle that became the formula for a symbolic landscape – a landscape that evokes moods, memories and emotions.
This precise concept of mood is based on a deeper psychological basis. It is connected with the states of the soul in which we become more aware. [...] This is the source of Stimmung, as Gierymski would say, or atmospheric, as we say today, paintings that characterised Polish art for Germans thirty years ago. [...] In the concept of Gierymski, the mood is a dark motif, based on an evening or a night dimness, contaminated with natural or artificial light which is impossible to study.
This statement by Witkiewicz from 1901 is an acute diagnosis of the tendency, characteristic of Polish decadents, to perpetuate on canvas the dawn and dusks of the evoking sadness of the end of the era. At the same time, it is spiritual suffering caused by the threat to national identity. A series of nightly vedas by Gierymski, depicting Munich and Paris, was a harbinger of a painting that met all the requirements of symbolic aesthetics, a work unique in terms of this inquisitive research of light effects – Lake at Sunset painted in 1900. The nostalgic tone of this landscape, the immobility it is embraced by, the silence it immerses itself in, reflects the metaphysical dimension of nature.
8 Polish Paintings about Death
Manifestos of symbolism
It was Malczewski, inspired by the paintings of Pruszkowski, Grottger, and Böcklin, who was to become the author of the manifesto of Polish symbolism by painting Melancholy. Prologue. Vision. The Last Century in Poland in the years 1890-1894. In this composition, the artist broke down the existing conventions of representation, showing a combination of several themes – national martyrdom, artistic creation, the cycle of human life and the mystery of destiny. In Melancholy, the creative imagination succumbed to the power of a historiosophical vision that sums up the century of national captivity, talks about the heroism, and suffering of the Poles, but also about the lethargic sleep and apathy into which the nation finally plunged. Malczewski combined the patriotic message with existential content, at the same time emphasising the self-thematic dimension of the work, which reveals the sense of art and the essence of the Polish artist’s vocation. A procession of realistically depicted figures of insurgents, widows, priests and artists emerges from the canvas and fills the studio space – space internally dynamised and arbitrarily divided with a windowpane that opens onto the sunny landscape. Inconsistent, bipartite painting space will become a distinguishing feature of this symbolist painting formula, which Malczewski will create, expressing the inner duality of the world, its material and spiritual nature.
Wyspiański initiated a morphologically different movement in Polish symbolism by painting cardboards for the stained-glass window of Jan Kazimierz’s Vows in the years 1892-1894, which were to decorate the Lviv Cathedral. It is also a manifestation of symbolism based on a historiosophical vision, a trend that synthesises and reinterprets the Polish past. Stylistically, the stained-glass project referred to medieval art, from which both romanticists and neo-Romanticists of the late century eagerly drew inspiration. Wyspiański derived the concept of a complex, vertically piled-up composition comprised of temporal dimension, a concrete historical event, and a visionary dimension – a symbolic image of the collapsing Polish community – from Gothic polychromes and stained glass windows. He learned this artistic form while working with Matejko on renovating St. Mary’s Church in Kraków.
Thus, 1894 – the date of completion of both Wyspiański’s stained-glass cardboards and Malczewski’s Melancholy – was the time when two different artistic visions crystallised. These were two creationist formulas for symbolism and the fate of Poland was the central issue for both. The year 1894 brought another variant of the symbolist approach – the expressive symbolism in the form of Podkowiński’s Frenzy of Exultations. This is a version of symbolism emphasising the individual experience of the artist, reaching deep into the human self, into the sphere of subconscious and semi-conscious experiences. Thus, at the beginning of the 1890s, three fundamental tendencies of symbolism were formed at the same time, which determined the main directions of development of Polish painting in the coming decade. Aesthetic concepts of Malczewski, Wyspiański, and Podkowiński foreshadowed the semantic and morphological multidimensionality of the art of Young Poland. The ideal unity of the epoch was confirmed by the younger generation of modernists. Vlastimil Hofman, following in the footsteps of Malczewski, Jan Rembowski, artistically connected with Wyspiański, and Witold Wojtkiewicz, referring to Podkowiński in his art. Despite the different style and technique, they expressed shared aspirations. In 1905, together with Mieczysław Jakimowicz and Leopold Gottlieb, they founded the Group of Five, appointing Cyprian Norwid of the late romantic movement as their patron.
However, the work that the artistic avant-garde of those times hailed as a manifesto of the new art was not Malczewski’s composition, but Podkowiński’s Frenzy of Exultations. This picture was enthusiastically received by an overwhelming majority of critics and audiences, striking with its intensity, fierce expression and dramatic vision. Everyone agreed that the woman depicted in the composition, subdued by erotic passion and paired with a demonic steed, embodies the destructive power of instincts. The abstract space of dark abyss, the dynamics of movement of a horse falling into the abyss, the Titian-like hair of the naked heroine, and the ecstatic expression of her face – these are the elements of pictorial dramaturgy, which, despite the traditional form, formed a suggestive and shocking whole.
Kazimierz Tetmajer proclaimed:
We, young artists of the brush or pen, welcome Podkowiński’s fantastic, outside-of-the-box work with the utmost joy.
Today, we view Frenzy as a work which announced a proto-expressionist trend that became an integral part of Polish symbolism.
Stanisław Przybyszewski became the main animator of expressionist tendencies. He came to Kraków from Berlin in the autumn of 1898 and was famously known as the 'brilliant Pole', a friend of Munch and Strindberg, a member of Berlin’s artistic and intellectual bohemia, a satanist and occultist. The philosophical and literary treatises Chopin und Nietzsche, Ola Hansson, Totenmesse, Psychischer Naturalismus, Auf den Wegen der Seele, and his monograph Das Werk des Edvard Munch published together with Franz Servaes, Willy Pastor, and Julius Meier-Graef, paved Przybyszewski’s way to fame. He sparked moral unrest in Kraków, demolished the existing hierarchy of values, surrounded himself with an aura of scandal and a circle of followers mocking the mentality of ‘philistines’. At the beginning of 1899, he published a manifesto of new aesthetics in Życie – Confiteor. It identified art with religion and proclaimed the apotheosis of a priest-artist who was a 'cosmic, metaphysical force through which the absolute and eternity manifest'. By rejecting the patriotic, ethical and social functions of art, Przybyszewski claimed that true art had no 'purpose, it is an end in itself, it is an absolute, because it is a reflection of the absolute of the soul'.
Penetrating into the subconscious, the writer created the theory of the 'naked soul'. As an ardent follower of Schopenhauer’s views, he saw the driving force behind human existence in the sexual instinct that inevitably leads to destruction. Based on the fatalistic theory, Geschlechtstrieb formulated the 'metaphysics of the sexes', the philosophy of the eternal struggle between woman and man from which woman emerges victoriously as the figure of an 'apocalyptic harlot'.
The words of the Evangelion were blasphemously paraphrased by the Kraków Satanist: 'In the beginning was Lust, and nothing was beside it and everything was in it.'
Cezary Jellenta, a seasoned expert on the Berlin art scene, remained under the influence of Przybyszewski's philosophical and literary output. Jellenta, inspired by Przybyszewski’s suggestive descriptions of Munch's paintings, noticed signs of intensified expression in Podkowiński's last symbolist composition – Chopin’s Funeral March (1894). He interpreted the motifs in the painting according to Przybyszewski's philosophy, emphasising the drama of love ending in death and the tragedy of existence. In 1897, Jellenta codified the distinguishing features of early Expressionism and called it 'intensifism'.
'The spontaneity or concentration of the depicted nature is actually only the spontaneity or concentration of the painter', the critic explained, emphasising the dominating role of the artist’s psychological experience.
Projecting the artist’s feelings and ideas in order to deform and transform them and thus more fully reflect the world of emotions and dreams is a characteristic feature of the proto-expressionist movement developed in the art of Young Poland by Wojciech Weiss, Witold Wojtkiewicz, Ferdynand Ruszczyc, Konrad Krzyżanowski, and Olga Boznańska. Each of them did it differently, through their choice of different motifs and their own means of artistic expression. Proto-expressionism heralded a mature form of expressionism, which, in 1918, was proclaimed by Przybyszewski in an article titled Expressionism – Słowacki and the 'Genesis of the Spirit' published in the Poznań-based magazine Zdrój. It would be realised by the artists of the first wave of the interwar avant-garde, members of the groups Bunt (Rebellion) and Jung Idysz.
Frenzy of Exultations was preceded by a series of fantastic compositions painted by Podkowiński in the years 1892-1893: Dance of Skeletons, Mirages: a Symbolic Composition, Irony. Fantasy. Give Me Back My Heart, and Nocturne: a Fairy Tale About the Enchanted Princess. In these works, the emotional states of the creator were reflected in a literary anecdote. The surreal aura was created by a blue and green glow which had its roots in impressionist works, which Podkowiński assimilated during his stay in Paris in 1889. In the art of this painter, bravely taking up new creative challenges, a specific dualism, a tension between impressionistic attitude and neo-romantic imagination, was manifested. Podkowiński made two major breakthroughs in Polish art: adaptation of the principles of impressionism and initiation of the proto-expressionist movement. Both these artistic events occurred within four years of each other. The first turning point in the development of Polish painting was marked by an exhibition of paintings Podkowiński and Pankiewicz brought from France in 1890. When these two students of the Gerson Drawing School found themselves in Paris in 1889, they were astonished by the work of Claude Monet, presented during a big retrospective. They made their first attempts at using the impressionistic technique. However, their innovative achievements were not appreciated by the jury of the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts which wanted to uphold traditional values. Their paintings were finally presented at Aleksander Krywult's salon and were met with harsh criticism. The critics condemned not so much the concept of French luminism as the artistic incompetence and secondary nature of Podkowiński’s and Pankiewicz’s ‘wibryzm’ art. What estranged them was not only the intense colours and colourful shadows but also, most of all, the inability to convey the shimmering, vibrating atmosphere. The unfavourable reception was probably one of the reasons why both Podkowiński and Pankiewicz gradually departed from the orthodox understanding of impressionism. Between 1892 and 1894, Pankiewicz completely abandoned the extravaganza of pure colours in favour of monochromatic nocturnes. The unreal forms of nature submerged in darkness were an artistic equivalent of the emotional states of the artist, who drew inspiration from Mallarmé’s poetry and Whistler’s painting. Thus, the impressionistic episode in Pankiewicz’s art, which came more than two decades after the origin of Monet’s painting method, appeared at the same time as the first manifestations of Polish symbolism and soon gave way to symbolic tendencies. Their full manifestation was Pankiewicz’s painting titled Nocturne: Swans in the Saxon Garden – an almost abstract composition, fulfilling the postulate of synaesthesia, similar to the metaphors of Mallarmé’s sonnet entitled Le Vierge, La Vivace et Le Bel Aujourd’hui.
Podkowiński turned out to be more consistent in developing the knowledge he gained in Paris. Fragments of the Mazovian landscape became a space for him to search for his own version of impressionist painting, a formula rooted both in the tradition of Polish realism and Monet’s luminism. The synthesis of both of these tendencies took place in Podkowiński’s works in 1891 and 1892 during holidays spent in the landed estates of Mokra Wieś and Chrzęsne. It was here that the paintings recognised as masterpieces of Polish art were created: Children in the Garden, Mokra Wieś: Boy in a Pond, and Morning: Orchard in Chrzęsno. They were paintings in which light is transformed into colour and colour is identified with light. The prelude to these works was Łubin in Sunlight – a picture surprising with an aggregative take of a golden strand of lupin. Podkowiński further synthesised forms of landscapes created in 1893 in Wilczyce, Bidziny, Opatów and Sobótka near Sandomierz, piling up horizontally stretched fields and hills. The rhythm of the gentle hills of the Sandomierz landscape were transformed into a harmonious arrangement of planes. The landscape painting titled Wilczyce: the Clover Field is an excellent example of intuitively felt ambivalence characteristic of painting, an expression of tension between the desire to recreate natural phenomena and the imperative of creating a picture emphasising its individuality and its internal structure. In the view from Wilczyce, the artist achieved a state of a perfect balance between these two tendencies. Today we perceive the synthetic strefizm style of the landscapes of Sobótka and Wilczyce as an anticipation of the compositional solutions of outstanding Polish symbolists, even if they are as different from each other as Wojciech Weiss and Jacek Malczewski.
The sense of creative freedom emanates from the open-air studies painted by Podkowiński in 1893-1894. The artist introduced impasto texture and intensified colours, narrowing the field of view and setting the frame of the painting in a randomised manner. The ever stronger synthesis of nature’s forms and the growing expressiveness of the brushstrokes make Podkowiński the progenitor of several outstanding modernists, to mention only Jan Stanisławski, Ferdynand Ruszczyc, and Konrad Krzyżanowski. Podkowiński could not keep up with the transformations in Monet’s matured painting, he could not see the famous series Poplars (1891), Haystacks (1891) or Cathedral in Rouen (1893). He did not live to see Monet’s views of London Parliament (1899-1901) and Venice (1908). Therefore, he could not have been aware of the process of colour empowerment in the art of the great impressionist, which gave a patch of colour self-contained expression, and the slow evolution towards abstraction, which was going to be realised in the artist’s paintings at the end of his life – in Water Lillies and Gardens at Giverny’s. It seems, however, that Podkowiński intuitively sensed the opportunities for development inherent in impressionism, which led to more modern solutions, breaking the direct link with the observed nature and concentrating on purely artistic issues. He also preserved the predilection for colour reductionism, as seen in some of Monet’s landscapes. The radical narrowing of the scale of colours in Podkowiński’s paintings had two consequences. On the one hand, it made the landscape motifs presented unreal to some extent, emphasising the element of artistic transformation, and on the other, it gave an impulse to create artistic fiction, to concretise visions, phantasms, and the artist’s dreams.
We can also observe evolution in the way landscape is perceived in the works of Leon Wyczółkowski. The artist’s long stays in Ukraine, Volhynia, and Podlasie in the years 1883-1895 shaped him into a realist enchanted by the endlessness of the steppe, sensitive to the nostalgic tones of sunrises and sunsets. Direct observation of light effects triggered Wyczółkowski’s extraordinary sensitivity to light-saturated colours. It was reinforced by a lesson from Monet’s retrospective exhibition which the artist saw in Paris in 1889. However, unlike Podkowiński and Pankiewicz, Wyczółkowski did not fully adopt the impressionistic method and did not comply with the requirements of the pointillist technique.
In the scenes from everyday life of Ukrainian peasants painted in the years 1892-1893, he analysed the interaction of pure colours, juxtaposed warm and cold tones, and collided yellows in the illuminated parts with blue in the shadow parts. He condensed expression in the studies of peasant figures, monumentalised, expressing the power of a people reconciled to nature.
Jan Stanisławski, who in 1897 became the head of landscape painting at the School of Fine Arts in Kraków (newly reformed by Fałat), became the creator of the most widely influential form of symbolist landscape. Stanisławski taught a large number of his students how to commune with nature in order to grasp its transcendent dimension, how to find the metaphysical essence of being in the ever-changing sphere of the phenomena of light. By contemplating on a small fragment of nature in close focus – a clump of bodiacs, lupines, or sunflowers – the artist discovered its symbolic meaning. In the floral microcosm, he saw a reflection of the structure of the universe. In his notes on landscape painting, a single plant, even the most modest and the least beautiful, summarises the ‘mental’ expression of the surrounding landscape as long as it is compositionally exposed. By synthesising his visual impressions, Stanisławski had shown his students how to appreciate the value of a colour spot without releasing it from its mimetic function. Apart from technical skills, young artists such as Stanisław Kamocki, Stefan Filipkiewicz, Stanisław Czajkowski, Henryk Szczygliński, Iwan Trusz, and Henryk Uziembło learned from their master how to love the native landscape, admire the Planty Park in Kraków as well as the nearby countryside, the vastness of the Tatra Mountains and the Ukrainian steppes. They identified the painted landscape fragments with Polishness.
10 Polish Philosophers Who Changed the Way We Think
A variety of painting attitudes and explorations within symbolism coexisted with the poetry of the romanticists and neo-romanticists: Słowacki, Norwid, Wyspiański, Asnyk, Tetmajer, Staff, Leśmian, and Kasprowicz. A number of artistic phenomena were a consequence of the manifestos of Young Poland literature and were a manifestation of the aspirations to maintain national identity. This applies above all to the fascination with the people understood as the source of vital forces of the nation and the fascination with its customs and religions, with he beliefs and legends it cultivates.
Folklorism and chłopomania (‘peasant-mania’), understood as an expression of patriotic attitudes, most fully expressed in Wyspiański’s drama The Wedding (1901), became a contemporary myth in modernist painting. The colourfulness of peasant costumes and picturesque rituals co-created an idealised the image of the Polish countryside in the native landscape and rhythms of nature. This village was the enclave of Polishness.
Painters discovered Kraków’s countryside, the Tatra Mountains, and later the Podhale and Hutsul regions. The idea of social solidarity was spreading, which eventually led to the wedding of Lucjan Rydel and a country girl in Bronowice – an event which became the dramatic sketch for The Wedding. The landscape of Bronowice, with its cottages and manor houses, haystacks and weddings, country prayers, and love affairs are the most common motifs in Włodzimierz Tetmajer’s paintings. The artist combined the realism of observation with decorative stylisation, skilfully composing multi-figure scenes. The folklore movement was co-created by Teodor Axentowicz, who was fascinated by the customs of the Hutsul people. The elevated mood of religious rituals was the theme of his paintings in the many variants of Święcone and Na Gromniczną. In Axentowicz’s canvases, Hutsul funerals and processions, solemn, with flags and crosses, run through the snow-covered Carpathian landscape.
The works of Władysław Jarocki, Kazimierz Sichulski, and Fryderyk Pautsch were the most strongly connected with the Hutsul region. By presenting religious rituals and painting images of festively decorated peasants, the artists subordinated their faithfulness to observation to the decorative convention of imagining. The way in which the scenes were composed was a sign of a desire to give a timeless, archetypical dimension to ordinary events. Kazimierz Sichulski most often returned to religious motifs in his paintings, mainly in cardboards for stained-glass windows and polychromes. His style was formed under influence of the Viennese Art Nouveau style; hence the flexible contour circling the forms emphasised by a flat colour patch, the saturated, sometimes contrasting and expressive, sometimes subdued and harmonious, colour palette, and the profusion of plant ornaments in which human silhouettes fit. Fryderyk Pautsch saturated his folklore scenes with intensified expression. He deformed the figures of peasants, built shapes with thickly applied paint paste, introduced dissonant combinations of colours or flattened the pictorial space. The emotional charge contained in Pautsch’s compositions situated his art on the borderline of realism and expressionism.
The Greatest Poet You’ll Never Read
Myths and legends
Folk tales and legends were also revived in the art of modernism. Their painting transpositions, together with biblical and mythological motifs, co-created the movement of ‘literary’ symbolism. Folklore tradition combined with classical mythology and religious iconography in Jacek Malczewski’s work. The series of paintings by Malczewski, Fairy Tale and The Poisoned Well, present a metaphorically human journey through life, attempts to overcome obstacles and the ultimate failure to fulfil hope. They are based on the motif of the inaccessible source of ‘living’ water – a frozen or poisoned well, which symbolises the goal of human aspirations, both in the existential dimension and the dimension of national liberation and gains universal, archetypical and personal value. The symbolism of aspiration is also revealed in a series of paintings referring to the biblical story of Tobias the Father and Tobias the Son. It develops the motif of a shepherdess who meets her guardian angel, a guide in her future journey. At the same time, in this series, Tobias’ theme is superimposed on Thanatos’ theme. The end of human existence is depicted as the old man’s return to his family home to find solace at his doorstep from the hands of the goddess of death.
Malczewski’s paintings, inspired by folk beliefs, feature seductive chimaeras, predatory harpies, and saddened fauns alongside Madonnas and angels. The figures borrowed from the repertoire of classical mythology symbolise the forces of nature and erotic vitality, at the same time emphasising the conventionality of artistic fiction. They emphasise the syncretism of Malczewski’s imagination, which freely combines and transforms various elements of cultural tradition. Chimaeras also show their cruel nature as they enslave the artist just as Art enslaves him, subjecting his life to its requirements. They also tempt little boys, whispering the mysteries of love and awakening erotic desires in them. Another role in Malczewski’s work is given to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Paraphrasing the theme of Eurydice returning from the depths of Hades, the artist created national symbols; he transformed the ancient heroine into a personification of the Polish community and gave Orpheus the features of a soldier-pilgrim.
The legend of the knights singing under Giewont also gained patriotic meaning at the turn of the century. The petrified army of Bolesław the Brave was to be freed from the curse by St. Stanislaus so that it could rise and reclaim the nation’s independence. A series of paintings connected with this tale was commenced by Leon Wyczółkowski’s The Petrified Druid (1892-94). A huge rock took the form of a Celtic bard, the protagonist of Słowacki’s poem titled Lilla Weneda; the broken lute strings symbolised the freedom lost by Poles. An allusive silhouette of knights encased in rocks, which the artist presented in a series of pastels called Legends of the Tatra Mountains (1904), developed the motif of the druid further. Polish symbolists noticed the refuge of the native culture in the Tatra Mountains. It was the cradle of national identity and the source of its rebirth. The symbolic dimension of Wyczółkowski’s Tatra pastels testified to his constant historical awareness, which was sharpened by the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1907. Wyczółkowski gave the patriotic content a more literary character in his paintings depicting a horsed knight sounding a horn against a background of mountain peaks. Here, allusions to the pessimistic message of The Wedding were combined with a suggestion of upcoming changes brought about by the meadow blooming with the colours of spring.
The Meaningful Landscape
The starting point for Wyczółkowski as he drew the Tatra massifs was an attempt to record visual impressions, to capture and enclose fleeting atmospheric conditions in an artistic form. However, the impressionistic premises were transformed under the influence of historical reflection; the saturation of Tatra motifs with the artist’s personal experience was expressed in a synthesised stylistic formula – in the narrowing of the range of colours and the choice of a dark colour palette. Inspired by the aesthetics of Japanese woodcuts, Tatra landscapes are inscribed in an astonishingly tight picture frame. Reflections of rocky slopes in the surface of the pond create a suggestion of a multiplied space, giving the impression of sinking the observer into the vastness of mountains.
The means of expression borrowed from Japanese art served to symbolise the spiritual dimension of nature. In his landscapes, Ferdynand Ruszczyc introduced an elevated point of observation and narrowed the spatial sphere of the image, using ‘immersed perspective’, fragmentation of shots, and asymmetrical composition. In the paintings Windmill, From the Banks of Vileyka and Sobótka, we look at nature from a bird’s eye view. Suspended high above the ground, we discover previously unknown mystical meanings. Therefore, the sphere of heaven played a special role in the landscapes of the end of the century, suffice to mention the dramatic skies painted by Ruszczyc, Stanisławski, Krzyżanowski and Czajkowski. The painterly theatre of heaven owed much to Romantic poetry (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński) and Young Poland poetry (Tadeusz Miciński, Adam Asnyk). It is among the stars that the historiosophical and religious visions of the artists become concrete, such as the procession of kings, knights and peasants emerging from the astral blue in Witold Pruszkowski’s painting Vision. In the composition Nec Mergitur by Ferdynand Ruszczyc, the destroyed wreck of the ship symbolising Poland is heading to its home port surrounded by stormy waves. The painful red of torn sails cuts itself off from the dark blue that spills over the stars of the sky, evoking visions of the Apocalypse.
A symbolic vision of nature underlies most of the landscape paintings of Polish modernism, from the ones created by Józef Chełmoński, realistic in form and mystical in expression, through sensual landscape notes by Jan Stanisławski, to silent Breton landscapes by Władysław Ślewiński. The latter’s creative attitude was shaped by Gauguin. In accordance with the idea of synthetism and Cloisonism, he surrounded forms with soft contours and simplified shapes, giving them a decorative value. Still lifes, the 'protagonists' of which were clay jugs, bouquets of field flowers and fruit bowls, evoked an atmosphere of concentration and stimulated reflection on the quiet permanence of objects. The poetics of 'ordinary uniqueness' was intensified by curtains and serviettes decorated with Japanese patterns. From Gauguin, Ślewiński borrowed the concept of 'primitive' art as he reached out to archaic cultural sources and exotic civilisations in search of authentic expression and symbolic meanings. In his work, he referred to the landscapes of Brittany, Podhale and Kazimierz Dolny, where he painted portraits of simple people and views of mountains and villages. In his painterly and formally ascetic paintings, highlander children are frozen in stillness, resembling still lifes.
Works influenced by Przybyszewski were an antithesis of Ślewiński’s subdued landscapes. Compositionally dynamic, moved by ‘psychological’ tension and created rather than recreated from nature. These are pictures deformed under pressure – as Przybyszewski used to say – of the artist’s 'personal power'. In the composition titled Possession, Weiss presented a pan-erotic vision of nature overwhelmed by lust. A procession of bacchantes maddened in a Dionysian frenzy rushes to be lost in amorphous space. It is both an expression of spiritual suffering and an evocation of sensual desire. The influence of philosophical views of the author of Confiteor on the young Weiss, as well as his artistic preferences, was enormous. Because of Przybyszewski, Weiss’ art was inspired by the art of Munch, Vigeland, Goya, and Rops. But even more important was the catastrophic vision of the world contained in Przybyszewski’s works, under the influence of which a series of compositions related to specific texts by the writer was created: Chopin, which shows the musician being consumed by elements of music and death; the ecstatic Dance; the Munch-like Kiss on the Grass.
The metaphysics of Przybyszewski also influenced the formation of the myth of anti-nature in Polish symbolism – the image of a megacity. In his apocalyptic vision, Przybyszewski made the metropolis a habitat for evil, an area possessed by demonic powers and ruled by Satan. In the act of destruction, Satan allied himself with the woman. The modernist city became the domain of fallen women, cafes and cabarets transformed into symbols of temptation and omens of destruction. This kind of city can be seen in the nocturnes of Wojciech Weiss, Ludwik de Laveaux, Witold Wojtkiewicz, and Leon Kaufman.
Images of the soul, phantasms
Kraków: the city of Jan Matejko, the painter who as Stanisław Witkiewicz wrote created ‘a race of powerful, great, extraordinary people living in a cloud of misery’ on his canvases. It seems that only in Kraków was it possible to create so many images of people listening to themselves, tired, painfully resigned to their fate. This gallery could begin with symbolic self-portraits by Jacek Malczewski, in which the artist’s face, concentrated and frozen in the image of a mask, remains in inseparable relation with the fantasy costume and fantastic staffage in the background, where chimeras, fauna, Pegasus and angels play minor episodes in a conventional landscape. The gallery is continued by a series of various ‘sad’ or ‘embarrassed’ rural girls and boys in Wyczółkowski’s, Axentowicz’s, Tetmajer’s, Kędzierski’s, and Sichulski’s paintings. Melancholic by Wojciech Weiss, created under the influence of Przybyszewski’s prose, could be the culmination. From here it is only a single step to the grim works of Witold Wojtkiewicz – limestone-like in tone and decoratively over-stylised portraits of the Kraków intellectual elite.
Above all, however, Wojtkiewicz’s imagination reached deep into the human self and entered the sphere of abnormality. The maniacs, presented in the series of paintings entitled Monomanias, represent existential fears and obsessions, sadness and pain of existence not adulterated by moral conventions. Over time, Wojtkiewicz transformed the ‘madmen’ locked in a hermetic world into representatives of the world of artistic fiction. They were masked comedians, clowns, and pierrots, frozen in stillness, bound by impotence, overwhelmed with their own thoughts. In paintings Melancholy, Circus and Puppets, actors are accompanied by marionettes, dolls more vital, tragic and grotesque than them, embodying human feelings. The episodes which unfold – dramas, melodramas and farces – suspended between the reality of everyday experience and the space of imagination, transform into symbols of moods. The face-mask, sometimes multiplied, appears – like in paintings by Esnor or Munch – in a dense crowd of people. In fairy-tale performances, Wojtkiewicz looked at the world through the eyes of a child and revived children’s toys to reveal the truth about the psyche of adults, their dreams, shameful fears and perversions.
Chopin's Gravest Fear
Wyspiański also drew dreamy and sleeping children or ones lost in thought. Using a few lines, he captured the basic character of their disposition and temporary mood, reflecting the outline of their silhouette, the characteristic gesture, facial expression and gaze. He gave the images a colourful dominance, abandoning the details of the surroundings and the outfit. He tuned a few chromatic tones so that the expression of colours corresponded to the psyche of the characters. In order to create such a portrait, a sort of empathy and a strong emotional bond with the model is needed. This is why the best portraits of Wyspiański are images of his own children, wife and friends, hence its contours, which are expressive, nervous, subordinated to the emotions of the artist and seemingly clumsy in the eyes of an expert on academic techniques.
Such images of the soul rather than facial portraits were also painted by Konrad Krzyżanowski. In his works, the psychological characteristics of the model harmonise with the artist’s gift to synthetically capture physiognomic features with a few dynamic brush strokes. A loose, sometimes even daring way of painting was mastered by Krzyżanowski in the circle of St. Petersburg painters influenced by Scandinavian art. His portraits bear the stigma of decadent pessimism; the figures brought out with blasted streaks of paint are dematerialised and blend into an abstract background. The power of expression is concentrated in the faces of the models, as if they were absent, listening and examining their inner world.
Stanisław Wyspiański's Theatre of Interiors
Olga Boznańska developed a different form of expressionism. The images she painted showed the influence of intimate portraits by Whistler. Her relaxed painting matter, which summarily describes the elements of costume and interior, is a 'record' of the spirituality of the depicted person, dematerialised and almost ethereal. The dynamism of the brushstrokes and the vibration of colours create an effect of tightening and flattening the imaginary space into which the figure of the model blends. The interior of the living room was also a frequent theme of symbolic paintings, most often intimate, subdued and fragmented. It suffices to mention the atmospheric interiors of the studios from the paintings by Olga Boznańska, Stanisław Dębicki and Alfons Karpiński, or the stuffy rooms full of trinkets seen in Mehoffer’s works, engulfed in shades and shining with gilded frames and the matte glow of porcelain objects. It is in such a shallow, narrow space that the model in Wojciech Weiss’ Melancholic experiences extreme apathy. Following Przybyszewski, Weiss’s ideological guide, he seems to repeat the words:
I am completely calm and very, very tired. Only in the depth, somewhere in the far depth, something hurts me, something searches for balance or writhes in the contraction of a final agony.
This classic illustration of the end-of-the-century mood seems to be ahistorical and timeless in its psychology.
Slavic Daemons: Fearsome & Formidable Females
The myth of Kraków
Kraków, a provincial city in the area of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, administratively less important than Lviv, grew to the rank of the cultural capital of a non-existent Polish state in the Young Poland era. Here, the heritage of the past, condensed within the walls of Wawel Hill, was combined with newly emerging literary and artistic movements and the ambitions of artists who assimilated the influence of Paris, Munich and Berlin. It was here that Stanisław Wyspiański developed his innovative artistic visions, Józef Mehoffer laid the foundations for modern decoration, Leon Wyczółkowski presented Wawel Castle, recalling the ethos of the national necropolis, Jan Stanisławski taught a new perspective on the landscape, and Stanisław Przybyszewski preached revolutionary aesthetic theories. It was here that the symbolic works of Jacek Malczewski were born, entangled in national martyrdom and invariably questioning the fate of the artist-Pole. Countless melancholic images of the city painted by Wyczółkowski, Weiss, Szczygliński, and Mehoffer were created in Kraków, as well as Wyspiański’s expressive series of views of the Kościuszko Mound. Wyspiański wanted to ennoble Wawel Castle by granting it the status of the national Acropolis in his reconstruction projects. Wyczółkowski made an artistic ‘inventory’ of Wawel Cathedral by painting a series of paintings depicting the crypt’s dark interior, royal tombs and the royal and church insignia.
How Kraków Made It Unscathed Through WWII
In Kraków, the historical consciousness of the artists coexisted with a critical assessment of contemporary times. Paraphrasing Matejko’s painting, Wyczółkowski painted Stańczyk, a painting depicting a royal jester thinking about the fall of a nation with a powerful past. It was started by conservatives loyal to the invaders; the artist gave the false leaders the form of puppets. In Kraków, a caricatural-satirical movement of modernist art developed. It revalued the national past and present and mocked the authorities and cultural elites. This movement was created by frequent visitors of artistic and literary cafes such as Ferdynand Turliński’s Paon and Jan Apolinary Michalik’s Lviv Confectionery (which in 1905 became the headquarters of the Green Balloon cabaret).
Wyspiański’s innovative formula of monumental art was also created in Kraków. It was rooted in the Middle Ages and was influenced by Paris’ Puvis de Chavannes. Wyspiański remembers both the vastness of space and the details of the great Gothic cathedrals of Paris, Chartres, Amiens, Cologne, and Prague, buildings which he carefully examined in 1890 with the intention to write his doctoral dissertation on Gothic architecture. However, when he was designing the stained-glass windows for the Franciscan church in Kraków in 1895-1897, he did not follow the standards of medieval tradition. By breaking the rigorous rule of dividing the stained-glass field into a number of small quarters, he initiated the unconventional practice of treating the glass pane similar to a picture composition. He filled the polychrome walls of the Franciscan temple with motifs of flowers and herbs, monumentalised and dreamlike because of the use of flat patches of colour and flexible contours, transforming it into a multi-coloured ‘vestibule of paradise’. The new understanding of monumental form was also manifested in stained glass projects for the Wawel Cathedral and in Apollo – the Copernicus Model, which decorates the Kraków headquarters of the doctors’ association. The stained-glass windows of Wawel Castle, showing the spectres of Polish kings and saints, shocked with the strength of the historiosophical vision arising from the symbolism of Słowacki’s King the Spirit and from the philosophical concepts of a romanticist who believes in the reincarnation of chief spirits returning to earth to fulfil duties.
The complex symbolism of Apollo, conditioned by religious syncretism and identifying the ancient sun god with Christ, harmonised with the decorative form – planes of blue and yellow surrounded by liquid contours.
12 Little-Known Gems of Kraków
standardowy [760 px]
'The Strange Garden' by Józef Mehoffer, 1902-1903, oil on canvas, fragment, property of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: National Museum in Warsaw
Józef Mehoffer developed means of expression different from Wyspiański’s, creating a formula of stained-glass art based on Gothic patterns and Art Nouveau style. He gained international fame as the creator of stained glass projects for the collegiate church of St. Nicholas in Freiburg, Switzerland. The richness of saturated colours, sophisticated palette scheme, flexible contours, the decorative flatness of the composition and profusion of ornaments make them masterpieces of monumental art.
The disappearance of the poetics of symbolism
The evolution of Polish symbolism had its own internal dynamics. Around 1908, pro-expressionist tendencies weakened. Weiss focused on the intimacy of the family circle, Wojtkiewicz focused on the idea of refined aestheticism, Krzyżanowski calmed his brush dynamics and Ruszczyc abandoned painting entirely. Wyspiański and Stanisławski died in 1907; Wojtkiewicz died in 1909; Przybyszewski left Kraków. Malczewski’s art developed consistently, however, and he did not abandon his symbolic poetics until the late 1920s. Hofman, Okuń, and Stabrowski stubbornly stood by their chosen formula of depiction. Wyczółkowski moved to the side of realism and became a graphic designer. Stanisławski’s students began to enlarge the formats of their canvases, replacing the expressive qualities of composition with decorative stylisation. The landscapes slowly lost their symbolic meaning and the aura of decadence disappeared in the portraits. In the paintings painted after 1910, there were elements of post-impressionism, a kind of pointillist technique, and around 1913, slightly geometrised forms – an echo of Cézanne’s influence. Art began to turn from nature to its own history by updating classical themes. The source of the classicising tendencies was the aesthetics of Maurice Denis, who, in Paris, proclaimed an apologia of the Italian quattrocento, praise of harmony and balance in art. Between 1911 and 1913, the artistic and literary monthly magazine Museion published in Kraków and Paris became a forum for the statements of the proponents of New Classicism. At the same time, young artists became increasingly interested in the revolutionary changes that took place in the circles of the Parisian avant-garde. Cézanne’s lesson, handed down by Józef Pankiewicz at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków in 1908, also gave an impulse to search for a new formula for painting. The clear caesura in the history of Polish art was marked by the year 1917, which initiated the golden age of the avant-garde trends of the interwar period and opened a period of an intense search for form and aspirations to create new styles.
Originally written in Polish by Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Dec 2016, translated to English by Patryk Grabowski, Sep 2019
10 Unmissable Paintings in the Collection of the National Museum in Kraków