Was Matejko A Painter?
#photography & visual arts
default, Was Matejko A Painter?, Jan Matejko in his studio, photo: NAC, 1.jpg
Who was Matejko? The Pope of Polish art? An illustrator and chronicler of historic events? Or was he rather a great ideologist, the creator of national myths and Poles’ ideas about their own history and identity? And, in the end, was he a painter?
This last question was once posed by the prominent Polish art historian Mieczysław Porębski. The 180th anniversary of Jan Matejko’s birth provides us with the opportunity to remember his paintings as well as the various figures he portrayed: from the master of ceremony at patriotic seances, through the joker-Stańczyk portrayed in his own paintings, through to the resourceful provider of internet memes
Nowosielski - Mieczysław Porębski
Half Czech, half German – wholly Polish
One might think that Matejko hardly makes up the dough for an icon of national painting. His father was Czech, his mother a Protestant German. Yet Matejko himself was a devout Polish patriot. It was under the influence of the Polish state’s catastrophic fall that he gave up religious painting - the primary preoccupation which Matejko considered his calling - to pursue almost solely historic painting. Matejko supported the January Uprising, donating all of his savings to the fighters. The Uprising took place in the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth - present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Latvia, parts of Ukraine, and western Russia - against the Russian Empire. It began on 22 January 1863 and lasted until the last insurgents were captured in 1865. Outnumbered and lacking serious outside support, the insurrectionists were forced to resort to guerrilla warfare tactics.
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Matejko, who also supported the reconstruction and conservation of Kraków’s monuments, made Polishness into an obsession and the meandering paths of history the main themes of his art.
In 1878 the City Council of Kraków presented Matejko with a symbolic sceptre, which was to represent his dominion in Polish art. Upon this occasion, he gave his famous speech wherein he described the entire period of Poland’s partitions as an interregnum, claiming himself to be both the interrex and a spiritual successor of the nation’s entire past of struggling for independence. In the talk that accompanied the ceremony, Matejko evoked the Król Duch of Juliusz Słowacki and said he sensed a “prompt, historic transformation. A resurrection”. He was gradually becoming somewhat of an institution, though when he died on the 1st of November, 1893, he was only 55 years old.
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He painted his great historical canvases at a time when the West - Paris, in particular - saw this kind of approach as utterly dated. The canvases of Matejko, who worked at the same time as artists like Cezanne, show no trace of the contemporary surfacing trends of impressionism or post-impressionism. Piotr Sarzyński noted that when Matejko was painting The Battle at Grunwald, fifteen years had already passed since Manet’s Breakfast on Grass and Olimpia, six since Monet’s Sunrise and two since Renoir’s Ball at Moulin de la Galette. Matejko seemed to be impervious to western modernism, and upon his death in 1893, he was already considered to be a relic on the map of European art - nobody painted in this way anymore.
The Battle of Grunwald Explained
A Le Figaro art critic is said to have joked that paint traders in Kraków had no more cinnabar in stock after Matejko finished his Prussian. The list of accusations against the piece included complaints of excessive pathos, describing the painting as pretentious and melodramatic, drawing too much attention to detail while neglecting the effect the whole, an exorbitant cumulation of figures in the foreground, and the inability of creating both spatial and temporal illusion.
Matejko’s paintings stirred wonder and surprise in Parisian salons, while also winning a couple of medals there. The phrases with which critics mocked the effect of Matejko’s paintings were 'This isn't a painting, it's a museum' (The Battle at Grunwald), 'The viewer is threatened with eye disease' and '[it looks like] an old carpet gnawed at by moths' (The Prussian Homage) and 'Japanese salad' (The Virgin of Orleans).
What happened on 15th July 1410?
It’s possible that our ideas about Poland’s history owe their character to Matejko’s paintings. Maria Poprzęcka once noted that the only historic date known by all Poles is the year 1410. And it cannot be a coincidence that the only universally known painting is The Battle at Grunwald, which refers to it. Neither is it a coincidence that the only universally known painter for Poles is Jan Matejko, its creator. In an article for the Polityka weekly, Sarzyński added:
Who knows, perhaps if instead of conveying the battle againts Teutonic Knights, Matejko decided to grandly depict the fight at Kircholm, the date we would utter when woken at night would be the year 1605.
Whether or not Matejko had such great power, numerous historic events function in the minds of Poles through the intermediary of his art: be it the Rejtan’s protest against the first partition or the scene of the Prussian. The historical accuracy of these scenes is an entirely different matter…
Battle of Grunwald – Jan Matejko
Indeed, it is possible to question whether Matejko was really a historical painter. At a first glance, it would seem he was. But if one looks into his works with more attention to detail, it becomes clear that they lack what is a key quality of such representations, namely, the attention to historical accuracy. Maria Poprzęcka commented on the issue:
In the large format paintings of Matejko there is no unity of space, nor time, nor action. Rejtan is a sum of events, which were in reality separated by some twenty years, Batory spatially connects the Psków and Wielkie Łuki (…) and non-simultaneous events of the fight are portrayed in 'Grunwald'.
There are more such inaccuracies: Anna Jagiellonka who is depicted listening to priest Skarga’s sermon was long dead at the time; Stanisław August, Hugo Kołłątaj and Michał Czartoryski were not in fact present at the gathering in 1773, during which Rejtan made his objection; numerous witnesses depicted in the Prussian Homage (Benthman, Bonner, Anna Mazowiecka) were dead in 1525; and a half-naked warrior who attacks the Great Master with St. Maurice’s spear - a national relic - is highly unlikely.
Thus comes the conclusion that Matejko was hardly a candidate to be a history teacher. And yet, he became such a teacher, and even someone much more significant.
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Was Matejko a painter?
In a way, the answer is obvious: 'Did he paint? He painted. With paints? With paints', as Mieczysław Porębski put it. Yet, Porębski also goes on to devote much space and time in order to produce a sensible answer. And, in short, the answer is that Matejko was much more of a national mythologist than a painter of national history:
Matejko was not the 19th century historic painter who stuck to the facts, he was the creator of myths, working in a timeless 'metahistoric' and eternal now, albeit one filled with historic monuments of the past.
On his own canvases, Matejko was the joker, the priest, the prophet, the interrex and even the king - all these figures bore his own face. In the words of Porębski, 'Even if he was not a king, in his own, possibly insane but nonetheless consequent conviction, he was level with the kings.'
Skarga and Stańczyk, or the priest and the joker
Jan Matejko, Stańczyk, oil on canvas, 1862, 120x88cm, photo courtesy of National Museum, Warsaw
This pair of Matejkian heroes perhaps best symbolises the painter’s approach towards Polish history. Matejko presented them with his own features - he identified with them. The pair is described by Porębski in the following words:
On the one hand a royal clown, bitterly worried about the fate of his motherland, not only at moments of failure (such as the loss of Smoleńsk), but also at times of happy triumphs, whether true or ostensible. On the other hand, a priest casting threats and thunders from the altar – the classic opposition of Leszek Kołakowski.
The Russian Homage?
This is one of the most mysterious and sensational paintings of Matejko’s career. The theme of the so-called Russian Homage returned in strange circumstances in 2011, upon the 400th anniversary of the historic event. The Tsar Vasyl Shuysky and his family paid their homage to the Polish King Zygmunt. There were voices that claimed the painting by Matejko, one that depicts a moment of national triumph, is not exposed enough and remains stowed away in the magazines of the National Museum in Warsaw. It was quickly revealed, though, that the painting which is frequently called The Russian Homage is being kept in the House of Jan Matejko in Kraków and according to this museum, it is not exposed due to its poor artistic quality - not because of political reasons.
Interestingly, Matejko based the painting on a lost piece by Tomasz Dolabella, The Reception of Szujskis in the Hall of the Senate in 1611. The latter decorated the Royal Castle for many years, but by the 17th century, new Tsars requested that the image be removed from the Castle’s walls, seeing it as insulting to Russia. Two large-format paintings were looted by the Russian army in 1707 and to this day the original work by Dolabella is considered lost.
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The Battle at Grunwald, or The Masterpiece
The Battle at Grunwald was an unprecedented work in the history of Polish culture not only because of its format. It was also the first piece of painting commonly and eagerly awaited by Polish society. The premiere showing of the canvas was of an exceptionally ceremonious character, and its official unveiling - an act previously reserved for sculpted monuments - was accompanied by presenting Matejko with a sceptre. As part of his preparations for painting, Matejko visited the Grunwald fields, and on his way, he was greeted by cheering crowds, special events were held in the surrounding villages, with children reciting poems especially for the occasion of Matejko’s visit. This was completely extraordinary - no Polish painter was ever treated in this way before or afterwards.
After gaining independence, the battle at Grunwald gained a significant place in history textbooks, and with it, the painting did as well. After the second World War, Grunwald was often compared to a triumph over Nazi ideology. The Battle at Grunwald also played a significant part in the propaganda of the communist regime in Poland.
Simultaneously, however, the work was frequently criticised as an art piece, with comparisons ranging from a bee-hive that got cut open to a slice of head cheese.
Matejko and the descendants
The Battle is also the painting that was most frequently reinterpreted and mocked, and recently, one that inspires numerous memes. One of the first mocking interpretations is probably Stanisław Wyspiański’s parodic sketch. The Battle is also an element of Edward Krasiński’s famous 1997 piece, as part of which the artist appropriated a life-size copy of the painting, and circumscribed it with his signature blue tape. He also added a half-open door to the piece with a photographic self-portrait inside.
Edward Dwurnik created a new and contemporary version of The Battle, depicting the fight of everyone against everyone. The theme of Grunwald was also taken up by Bogna Burska, who juxtaposed all of the available contemporary visualisations of the battle - from digital graphics, through computer games, to historic re-enactments of the battle which are organised annually.
Stanisław Wyspiański's Theatre of Interiors – Image Gallery
The Battle was also reproduced in wood, with a sculpture replica of the figure of Jan Papin, as well as cloth. In 2011, an embroidered copy of the piece was presented as part of the Obok (Side by Side) exhibition in Berlin.
Matejko’s Prussian Homage, on the other hand, is a work that fascinated Tadeusz Kantor. In 1975, he created an emballage based on it. Sarzyński described Kantor’s work in the following words:
Tadeusz Kantor's Works – Image Gallery
'Wrapping up' the piece and its figures, in a sense he had them stowed away in history’s archive. But he made an exception for Stańczyk the clown, the only protagonist that was still pertinent and alive as a contemporary hero.
Remakes and memes
Matejko seems to make great material for all kinds of remakes. During the Martial Law period, he served as a clear symbol, and some still remember a paraphrase of Rejtan with the Solidarność slogan. It was that same image that served as a base for the iconic book cover of Maria Janion’s Wobec Zła (Facing of Evil), in which Rejtan is stylised to look like a vampire. This communicative potential of Matejko’s paintings is now best explored on the internet, where the painter functions mostly as a co-creator or provider of raw material for an infinite number of memes. The internet popularity of Matejko’s works has also inspired a good few texts about the phenomenon.
To Europe : Yes, but Together with our Dead - Maria Janion
19th century polish painters
battle of grunwald
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 31.10.2013, translated with edits by Paulina Schlosser