Ferdynand Ruszczyc was one of the most prominent artists of the Young Poland period, representing the symbolist trend in modernist art. He was born in 1870 in Bohdanów near Vilnius, and died in 1936.
Apart from painting, he also created original and applied graphics, dealt with book art and set design, and animated and co-organised the cultural life of Vilnius. Beginning with 1890, he studied law at the University of St. Petersburg; in the years 1892 to 1897, he received his artistic education at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg under the direction of Ivan Shishkin and Arkhip Kuindzhi. The themes of his paintings were inspired by holiday trips to Crimea (1894, 1895), Rügen, Bornholm and the southern coast of Sweden (1896, 1897). In 1898 he travelled across Europe, visiting Berlin, Cologne, Paris, Dunkirk, Ostend, Brussels, Basel, Lucerne, Lugano, Milan, Venice and Vienna. After returning to Poland, he settled in his hometown of Bohdanów.
In 1899, 1901 and 1902 he took part in the exhibitions of the Mir Isskustwa group; in 1900 he joined the Sztuka (Art) Society of Polish Artists, with which he regularly exhibited. He also presented his works at annual exhibitions of adepts of the St. Petersburg Academy (until 1900) and at the Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (from 1899). He spent the years 1904-1907 in Warsaw, together with Kazimierz Stabrowski, Xawery Dunikowski, Konrad Krzyżanowski and Karol Tichy, and co-created the organisational foundations of the School of Fine Arts in which he took up the post of professor. In the 1907/1908 academic year, he was the head of the Landscape Faculty at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków.
In 1908, together with Józef Mehoffer, he organised a grand presentation of Polish art in Vienna. After settling in Vilnius in the same year, he completely abandoned painting for the sake of intensive pedagogical and organisational activity; he initiated several events important for the artistic culture of Vilnius. He created applied graphics, designed posters, graphic design for magazines and books, as well as theatre costumes. He made a significant contribution to the revival of local theatre, staging Słowacki’s Lilla Weneda (1909), Rostand’s Orlątko (1912), Wyspiański’s Warszawianka (1913), Corneille’s Cyda (1924) and Wyspiański’s November Night (1930). He took part in the work of conservation commissions and the sessions of the Committee for the Construction of the Adam Mickiewicz Monument in Vilnius. He published articles on the monuments of the Vilnius region. Between 1918 and 1919, he contributed to the establishment of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Stefan Batory University, where he was appointed First Dean.
A pure landscape dominated Ruszczyc’s paintings indivisibly. In his early, realistic works, the artist’s fascination with the sea revealed itself, the changeability of which he carefully observed during his stays in Crimea, Rügen and Bornholm. At that time, he focused his attention on a small fragment of the landscape to collide the mobility of the foamed waves with the hard matter of the rocky coast in a narrow frame (Crimea – Offshore, 1895; Sea and Rocks, 1895). Light reflections on the wrinkled surface of the water became more distinct in several variants of The Mill in Winter – compositions enclosed in a narrow scale of whites, greys and browns. The fragmentary framed silhouette of the mill contrasts here with the subtly modulated slope of snow (The Mill in Winter at Evening, 1897).
The Painting of Polish Symbolism
Ruszczyc’s mature paintings, characterised by a concentrated expression, saturated colours and rich texture, are among the most original achievements of Polish modernism (Old Apple Trees, 1900). In the views of the native landscape – reflected through the prism of emotions and mood – the artist pictured the power of the forces of nature subjected to cyclical transformations, extracted the power of the elements that determined human existence. In 1898, Ruszczyc painted Earth in which he expressed his creative creed based on a pantheistic understanding of the world: the dramatic theatre of heaven was confronted with a strip of raw, naked earth; clouds swollen with rain overwhelmed the small figure of a ploughman driving oxen. In Ruszczyc’s artistic vision, the human being, its temporal existence and heroic attempts at taming the elements are subordinated to the cosmic forces and incorporated in the plan of the Divine Creation. The chunk of ploughed soil dominates the painting’s monotonous landscape.
Into the World (1901), in whose infinity the miniature figures of wanderers perish, depicts the nausea of human existence. The 1898 painting Sobótka seems to be inspired by the worship for chthonian gods. It symbolises the vitality of a people cultivating Pre-Slavic customs. The sharp contrast between fiery red and matte black intensifies the expression of characters lost in the whirlwind of the dance, with torches glowing in the dark night. The power of the water element is depicted in the 1900 painting titled From the Banks of Vileyka, in which a foaming river splashes against a dam.
The bird’s-eye perspective, borrowed from Japanese woodcuts, broadens the horizon of view and makes it possible to flatten and accumulate planes of composition (The Mill, 1898; Spring Landscape, 1900). This method of depicting space in the painting from an elevated point of observation is characteristic of Ruszczyc’s style. The influence of Japanese-inspired aesthetics is also visible in the composition titled Clouds Reflected in Water (1900), in which the sketchy and laconic forms of nature border on abstraction. The confrontation between heaven and earth takes on a different form in the 1902 painting Cloud. A jagged ball of puff, whose white is modulated by various shades of grey, is contrasted with the dark spot of a dense clump of trees. Their static structure is disturbed by fluid brushstrokes using which the artist extracted grassy hills. Heavy, bent masses of clouds hang both over an abandoned house standing alone among meadows and over an ancestral nest huddled in the flora of a garden, creating an atmosphere of horror and a dramatic expression of romantic provenance (House in Bohdanów, 1901; Old House, 1903; Emptiness, 1901).
Like many Polish symbolists, Ruszczyc focused his attention on moments of breakthrough, on early spring and late autumn, saturating fragmentary views of forest streams with strong tones of colour and with the gleam of light reflections (Forest Brook, 1898-1900; Last Snow, 1898-1899; Spring, 1907). In his matured painting, we can see the full reflection of the artist’s love for his native Vilnius region, its landscapes, villages, monuments and ruins. The Past (1902-1903) shows the stone walls of Vilnius covered with snow – they hide the secrets of the past, evoke memories of the tragic history of the homeland and linger like symbols of national identity. The monumental painting Nec Mergitur (1904-1905), which combines the power of the forces of nature, cosmos and history, has a particular symbolic capacity. The dangerous element of the sea represents the turbulence of history, to which the drifting wreck of the corvette symbolising Poland is subjected. Above the ship we can see the sky covered with stars, which invites the viewer into the sphere of mysticism. In some of Ruszczyc’s compositions, decorativeness comes to the forefront. For example, in Winter Fairy-tale (1904), the laces of snow-covered branches create a complex, flat ornament. The intimacy of the home interior, on the other hand, is suggestively depicted in scenes showing the bourgeois salon in the paintings White Masuria (1905), Interior from Bohdanów – Cantor (1906) and Interior from Włochy near Warsaw (1906).
Ruszczyc experimented with colourful aquatints and double-coloured linocuts. He was also a pioneer in the field of fluoroforta, creating synthetic landscapes using a narrow range of colours.
Author: Irena Kossowska, 2004.
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