Painter, graphic artist, printmaker, designer of stained glass, textiles, theatre sets, posters, interior decoration and furniture, leading representative of Young Poland. Born on March 19, 1869 in Ropczyce near Lvov, died on July 8, 1946 in Wadowice.
Painter, graphic artist, printmaker, designer of stained glass, textiles, theatre sets, posters, interior decoration and furniture; leading representative of Young Poland.
Comprehensive Education in the Arts
Mehoffer, a leading painter of the "Young Poland" movement, was extraordinarily sensitive to decorative value of paintings. In addition to painting, he practiced a number of arts, from carbon drawings, etchings and book illustrations to easel painting to monumental stained glass and polychrome designs. Born to a family of Polonised Austrians, he studied Law at the Jagiellonian University and, simultaneously, in 1887-94, was a student of Izydor Jabłoński, Józef Unierzyski, Władysław Luszczkiewicz and Jan Matejko at the Kraków School of Fine Arts. He went to Paris in 1891-96 to further develop his artistic skills at Académie Julian and École Nationale des Arts Décoratifs, then with Joseph Blanc and Jacques Courtois at Académie Colarossi, and finally, from 1892, in the atelier of Leon Bonnat at École Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
Studies were followed by artistic trips to Germany and a sightseeing tour of Switzerland and France, where Mehoffer admired the beauty of the Gothic cathedrals of Rouen, Amiens, Beauvais and Strasburg. While in Italy in 1900, he learned the mosaic technique used in the workshops of Murano. In Paris he initially shared a studio with Stanisław Wyspiański, who shared similar artistic tastes. As students of Matejko in their early days as artists, both had worked on the design of their master's polychrome at the presbytery of St Mary's Church in Kraków (1889), had jointly made the cartoon for the stained glass for St Mary's choir (1891) and competed against one another in contests, such as the one for the curtain at Kraków's Juliusz Słowacki Theatre (1891) or for stained glass windows for the Latin cathedral in Lvov (1894). Eventually each developed a different style and mastered different means of expression. While Wyspianski paved the way for Polish expressionism, Mehoffer created an original formula of decoration that grew out of the Art Nouveau style.
Artistry of Stained Glass Windows
International acclaim came with designs of stained glass windows for the Gothic St Nicholas collegiate church in Freiburg, Switzerland; Mehoffer worked on them in 1895-1936. His other stained glass designs were made for the Radziwill Chapel in Balice (1892), Grauer Chapel in Opava (1901), church in Jutrosini (1902), Holy Cross Chapel at Wawel (1904), sepulchral chapel in Gołuchoów (1906), Orgelmeister Chapel in Vienna (1910), cathedral in Włoclawek (1935-40), cathedral in Przemyśl (1940) and church in Dębniki near Kraków (1943). His monumental art projects included the polychrome designs of the Szafraniec treasury and chapel inside the Wawel cathedral (1900-02 and 1906-o7, respectively), cathedral in Płock (1903), meeting room of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Kraków, Armenian cathedral in Lvov (1906-10), the Sejm Room in Warsaw (1929), Church of St John the Baptist in Turek (1933-9) and church in Lubien near Piotrków Trybunalski (1942). His series of stations of the Passion, intended for the chapel of the Franciscan church in Kraków (1934-1935), was noted for its stylistic diversity.
In 1901 Mehoffer was appointed associate professor at the chair of decorative and religious painting of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, of which he was a graduate. He was made professor in 1905 and was twice the Academy's chancellor, in 1914/15-1917/18 and 1932/33). He was a founding member of the "Sztuka [Art]" Society of Polish Artists, established in 1897, a member of the Hagenbund group in Vienna, Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Royal Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Brussels. After World War II broke out, he left with his family for Lvov, from where he was taken to a Nazi camp. Released through the diplomatic intervention of the Vatican and the Italian government, he returned to Kraków in 1940.
Between Symbolism and Post-Impressionism
Both Mehoffer's easel and monumental painting was an excellent manifestation of the rich symbolism and decorative trends in Polish modernism and of the artist's masterly technique. His art was strongly influenced by the monumental painting of Puvis de Chavannes, which he saw in Paris, and the Nabist art, which he came to know through Władysław Ślewiński. His art of 1891-5 was influenced by Symbolism and Post-Impressionism. Intense expression, typical of the moods of Young Poland, can be found in the landscapes Wisła pod Niepołomicami (The Vistula near Niepołomice) (1894) and Zachód słońca. Park Jordana - Zapisy Zmierzchu (Sunset. The Jordan Park – the Impression of the Dusk), showing the sunset glow. The thick impasto and the brisk, free brush strokes reveal a kinship with the art of Jan Stanisławski.
Mehoffer's mature art (from 1895-1914) made an original contribution to the development of Symbolist iconography. His paintings, some evoking a lyrical, decadent mood (Wąwóz. La Gorge de L'Areuse, 1897), others brimming with admiration for the sensuous beauty of nature, proved a perfect embodiment of modernist poetics.
The rich, resounding, saturated colours used in exquisite combinations, the confident, lithe edges, the perfect outline of forms, the masterly harmony of decorative flatness and of profusion of ornaments, combined with modelling which emphasizes the forms are characteristic of Mehoffer's allegoric and symbolic works - Muza (The Muse), 1897; Europa Jubilans, 1905) and portraits - Portret Izy z Gielgudow Axentowiczowej (Portrait of Iza Axentowicz nee Gielgud, 1907). The artist was just as proficient in evoking the intimate mood of bourgeois interiors Rozmowa (Conversation, 1896) with their nooks and crannies filled with ornamental objects and reflected in the panes of mirrors - Drobiazgi na kominku (Some Objects and the Fireplace, 1895).
After 1914 Mehoffer lightened up his palette, added a post-Impressionistic glimmer to colour and gave supremacy to colour spots over the outline. The elaborate metaphor of his early works gave way to a direct approach to nature and a spontaneous affirmation of its beauty, with landscapes taking a privileged position in his art - Białodrzewie - Aleja w Wójczy (Białodrzewie: An Alley in Wójcza, 1919); Zwarzony ogród (First Frost in the Garden, 1929). Mehoffer's paintings from the late 1920s reveal brisk brushstrokes and soft modelling of form - Tenisistka (The Tennis player, 1927). In his late work his Impressionistic, open-air sensitivity to shifting light and colour is reinforced into decorative combinations of colour spots, sunny reflections change into golden spots gliding across the grass and tree trunks, faces of models glow with tones of pink muted, where shadowed, with hues of green and blue. The motionless, pensive figures, juxtaposed with an isolated section of nature or an ornamental background, are reminiscent of his earlier, Symbolist paintings - Roza Saronu (The Rose of Saron, 1923). His 1925 landscapes Ogród willi nad morzem – Beaulieu (The Villa Garden on the Sea – Beaulieu), Epopea rzymska (Roman Epic), Wiśniowa - Podwieczorek w Parku (Tea in the Park) and Platany w ogrodzie rzymskim (Plane-trees in a Roman Garden) express Mehoffer's fascination with the short-lived natural phenomena. His portraits, in turn, reveal mastery in veristic rendering of physiognomic features of the models, lending them both an intimate feel Czarna Marysia (Little Black Mary), ca. 1910; Self-Portrait, 1898) and a formal touch Portret Stanisława Łomińskiego (Portrait of Stanisław Łomiński, 1922); Portret doktora Krausego (Portrait of Doctor Krause, 1936).
Portraits of his Wife
Mehoffer's fascination with the decorativeness of elegant dress, the shape of stylish hats, the noble, patterned fabrics and the intricate design of stained glass is at its best when he paints his wife, Jadwiga née Janakowska. He depicts her against an ornamental backdrop or inside interiors filled with precious things Portret żony. Na letnim mieszkaniu (Portrait of Wife in the Summer House, 1904; Portret żony artysty na żółtym tle (Portrait of the Artist's Wife against a Yellow Backdrop, 1907; Portret żony na tle Pegaza (Portrait of Wife With Pegasus, 1913).
designer of stained glass
Wearing a sapphire dress, she is also present in Dziwny Ogród (The Strange Garden (1902-1903) - the monumental painting of most mysterious symbolism, impressing with its powerful colours and finesse of line, loaded with positive emotions, harmoniously uniting human with natural order, and revealing a fragment of Eden which is presented as tantamount to familial bliss. The artist's young son, bright and luminous in the foreground, attracts one's attention as strongly as does the exaggerated dragonfly with golden wings, flying against the dense crowns of fruit-bearing apple trees. The surreal and at the same time solemn atmosphere of a sunlit orchard is intensified by the garlands of flowers wrapped around the tree trunks and symbolic of nature's abundance. The Mehoffers' house in Jankowka near Kraków, furnished and decorated by the artist himself, became indeed such an enclave of family happiness. A part of its sun-drenched porch and the flowering garden can be glimpsed in the painting Słońce Majowe (May Sun (1911), in which Mehoffer expressed his attitude to "life, bliss, joy, light, sun and warmth".
New Means of Expression
In his modernist phase Mehoffer was among those artists fascinated with the possibilities of black and white, exploring for new means of expression in the range of monochromatic tones, drawing with carbon and crayon, experimenting with several engraving techniques. He worked on themes borrowed from the iconography of European Symbolism, imbued urban nocturnes with concentrated expression, and developed the motifs of femme fatale and of the inseparable connection between love and death. His drawing Nokturn. Rynek krakowski od strony ulicy św. Jana (A Nocturne. The Kraków Market Square seen from St John's Street) shows the silhouette of the Sukiennice disappear in the vibrant atmosphere of the night, conveyed through a dynamic use of carbon, and the strong contrasts of light and shadow introduce a dramatic touch. His aqua-fortis etching Zuchwały Ogrodnik (The Insolent Gardener, 1912) announces the approach of death through an overturned watering can and the long shadows cast by the performing actors, the young woman and the skeleton that personifies death. This allegoric morality play, in which the daily ritual gets unexpectedly broken, takes place against the backdrop of the sky, darkened before the storm, and of the vast landscape representing the Universe and borrowed from late-Gothic paintings of elaborate detail.
Some of Mehoffer's other drawings - Głowa Jasnowłosa (Fair-Haired Head, 1905; Głowa kobiety II (Head of a Woman II, 1906) emphasize the sensual features of women and, closely related to Toulouse-Lautrec's sketches done in Parisian brothels, bring to light the seductive power of the woman. In contrast, the curls of Mehoffer's wife make a decorative halo in Portret żony przy świetle lampy (Portrait of Wife in the Lamplight, 1905). The dynamic lines creating this ornamental halo and the shadows moving across the model's face are remindful of James McNeill Whistler's bold hachuring used in his portraits.
Whistler's convention-breaking multiplied-edge drawing used in the images of Leyland's daughters comes to mind also when one looks at the way in which Mehoffer rendered the dynamic movements of Guerrero dancers in his 1905-07 series of nine Tancerka (The Dancer) etchings. The illusion of dance swirls is achieved here through spontaneous hatching detached from the descriptive function. The artist experimented with diverse techniques – the aqua-fortis etching, the dry-point and the soft varnish – looking for means of expression to best convey the rapid changing of poses. Similarly akin to Whistler's dry-point engravings is Urwany koń (A Horse that Broke Loose, 1904), Mehoffer's lithographic image of Helcia Tatarowna sketched freely on a neutral background. His lithography Zemsta (The Revenge) shows an angel who has taken the shape of an angry woman, a misericord in her hand.
From 1900 Mehoffer contributed to the Warsaw-based magazine Chimera, designing covers, mastheads and initials. He designed covers for the Poznań Expressionist magazine Zdrój (1917) and the monthly Wczoraj i dziś (1924), book covers, notably for Tadeusz Kruszynski's Dzieje sztuki chrzescijańskiej (A History of Christian Art, Kraków 1913), as well as posters, post stamps, banknotes and auction tickets. He also illustrated books, including K. H. Rostworowski's Judasz z Kariothu (Judas Iscariot, Kraków 1913).
Mehoffer exhibited his works at numerous international exhibitions, including those in Vienna (1893, 1897, 1898, 1901, 1902, 1908, 1915, 1928), Berlin (1895, 1896, 1899), Paris (1900, 1921, 1925), St. Louis (1904), Düsseldorf and Munich (1905, 1909), Dresden (1909, 1912, 1913), Venice (1910, 1914, 1920, 1926), Rome (1911, 1934), London (1921), Brussels (1925), Helsinki and Florence (1927), Los Angeles (1928), Padua (1931), Philadelphia (1934) and Madrid (1935). From 1894 he regularly took part in the exhibitions of Kraków's Society of Friends of Fine Arts and 1895 marked the first of a number of his exhibitions at the Warsaw "Zachęta" Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts. In Kraków he also participated in the exhibitions of the Polish Applied Art Society (1903), the General Union of Polish Artists (1917) and the Independent (1927). In Warsaw his works were shown at Krywult's Salon (1898), Abe Gutnajer's Salon (1927), Garlinski's Salon (1925) and the Art Propaganda Institute (1930, 1932). Other Polish towns where his art was exhibited included Lvov (from 1897), Poznań (from 1909), Częstochowa (1913), Lublin and Zakopane (1916), Torun (1921, 1922), Łódź (1924), Bydgoszcz (1931) and Płock (1933). His solo exhibitions were held at the Warsaw Zachęta Society in 1913, 1935 and 1937, and at the Kraków Society of Friends of Fine Arts in 1938 and 1945. Mehoffer received gold medals at the international exhibition in Paris (1900), the universal exhibitions in St. Louis and Chicago (1904), and in Munich (1905). His life can be traced in his Diaries of 1891-97 and his reflections on art can be gleaned from his book Uwagi o sztuce i jej stosunku do natury (Notes on Art and its Relation to Nature), published in 1897, and from a few articles, in particular Sztuka w Polsce wczoraj i dziś (Art in Poland: Yesterday and Today) in Sztuki Piekne, VIII, 1932).
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Science, 2002