Calm, arrogant, frivolous? How the Wisła river captivated artists and how they chose to present it in their work.
Who could be better at describing the river’s topography and reveal boatbuilding and navigational secrets better than a rafter himself? This was the story of Sebastian Fabian Klonowic’s journey to Gdańsk on the Wisła in 1594. His The Raftsman, or the Launching of Boats on the Vistula can be read both as a guide to sightseeing or as a sailing and trade manual, written with a reporter’s wit. The poem is full of humorous digressions, but does not restrain from technical vocabulary. When read allegorically, it lets rafting be interpreted as a parable of human life.
Aleksander Gierymski’s paintings showcase his skill of thoughtful observation. The realism of works from his time in Warsaw (Feast of Trumpets, Solec Harbour) allowed him to flawlessly recreate the life of the city and its inhabitants of the time.
Sandblasters show an interesting juxtaposition of the workers’ hard work with the subtle, delicate landscape.
On the other hand, artists were often more fond of a symbolic approach to the Wisła. The Red Chamber of the Gdańsk town hall is decorated by the famous Apotheosis of Gdańsk by Isaak van den Blocke from 1608. This idealistic vision of the city shows the Wisła flowing from the mountains to the sea underneath the arch of a rainbow – an allegory of the Polish land’s link to its harbour.
Polish literature is full of descriptions of the Wisła as a symbol of the Polish nation. In the mid 19th century, Oskar Flatt asked in his Brzegi Wisły (editor’s translation: Banks of the Vistula): ‘Whose heart hasn’t been struck by the Wisła’s shores? Aren’t these shores an open book of history?’ The Vistula’s patriotic features – understood both as national pride and a symbol of freedom – also appear in the works of Teofil Lenartowicz, Stanisław Wyspiański, Julian Tuwim and Zbigniew Herbert.
While the thoughts of some artists were tied to Polishness, others gave into the rhythm of the Wisła’s waves and were inspired by music and dance. The colourful rafters folklore was described by the aforementioned Klonowic, the Midsummer’s Night celebration by the Vistula appears in the works of Kasper Twardowski, and the countless possibilities of developing the river for agricultural uses appear in practically all of the pieces by Sarmatian songsters of Poland’s past.
The rafters idyllic life was one of the favourite subjects of the Gdańsk-based artist, Wilhelm August Stryowski. He painted the so-called ‘rafters series’ – an atmospheric, warm-coloured series of paintings painted in the years 1859-1860. Raftsmen's Camp by the Vistula River, the most commonly reproduced painting of the artist’s, depicts an evening of repose with music and singing.
Gently and menacingly
Teodor Baltazar Stachowicz was also taken aback by the beauty of the Wisła’s landscape – his panorama of Kraków with rafts on the river can be seen in the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. The queen of Polish Rivers also inspired the Old-Polish writers Jan Rybiński and Wacław Potocki.
However, it was the severe and undaunted elements of the Wisła which captivated Franciszek Morawski and Antoni Czajkowski (he was the recipient of Cyprian Kamil Norwid’s dedication in Chopin’s Piano). Jan Kochanowski ‘mastered’ the waters in his epigrams created for the construction of the bridge in Warsaw, while Stefan Żeromski in his lyrical poem The Vistula, gave the river a divine and mythical nature.
The Wisła sometimes reveals its romantic disposition. Such was the case in Stanisław Moniuszko’s single-act opera The Rafter (Flis) from 1858. The countryside by the river became the backdrop for the love story of the young rafter Franek. The composer, fascinated with folk culture, used the libretto by Stanisław Bogusławski, who was critiqued for his poor rhymes. This however didn’t hinder Moniuszko from getting high praise from critics.
The romantic motif later appears in Władysław Łebiński’s comedy Oryl, which was often performed in amateur theatres in the Pomerania region. In the last scene, a choir of rafters sings (editor’s translation):
Hey, long live our native tongue,
Our beautiful language,
Which, just like the eternal Wisła,
Flows from Kraków.
Originally written in Polish, Feb 2017, translated by WF, Mar 2017