Władysław Podkowiński was a painter and illustrator who was one of the first Impressionists and Symbolists in Polish art at the turn of the 19th century. He was born in 1866 in Warsaw, where he died in 1895.
Painter and illustrator who was one of the first Impressionists and Symbolists in Polish art at the turn of the 19th century.
He began his artistic education in 1882 as a student of the Warsaw drawing school run by Wojciech Gerson and Aleksander Kamiński. Simultaneously, he began his work as an illustrator with popular periodicals Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly) and Wędrowiec (Wanderer). The artistic circle associated with Wędrowiec included renowned art critics such as Stanisław Witkiewicz and Antoni Sygietyński, who were passionately engaged in praising and propagating Realism. Their influence on Podkowiński's artistic stance is discernible in his early drawings depicting scenes of daily life in Warsaw, which were executed with the passionate curiosity characteristic of reporters and the attentiveness to detail that is typical of naturalist painters.
From Realism to Impressionism
Podkowiński continued his artistic training at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 1885-1886 under the supervision of the military art painter Bogdan Willewalde. He perfected his skills as a painter in Paris, where he lived in 1889 along with his schoolmate Józef Pankiewicz. This date marks also a turning point in his artistic stance. He abandoned the conventions of realistic painting in favour of impressionist techniques that enabled him to capture fleeting visual impressions on canvas.
After his return to Poland in 1890, he settled down in Warsaw. At the salon of Aleksander Krywult, Podkowinski, together with Pankiewicz, exhibited a series of landscapes executed using impressionist techniques. These, however, met with intense criticism from both critics and members of the public - Zeschnięty słonecznik (Withered Sunflower); Latarnik paryski (Parisian Lamplighter); W okolicy Fontainebleau (Near Fontainebleau). Contrary to Pankiewicz, Podkowiński consistently developed his Impressionist technique of painting. Moreover, from the popular French Impressionists' repertoire of themes, he took the motif of a narrow street seen from above. The view from the window of his studio allowed him to capture its changing appearances throughout the seasons – Ulica w Warszawie w dzień letni, 1891 (Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw on a Summer's Day); Ulica Nowy Świat w Warszawie w dzień zimowy, 1892 (Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw on a Winter's Day).
In 1892, Podkowiński created a series of light–saturated landscapes in Mokra Wieś and Chrzęstne (villages located 60km east of Warsaw) which accurately depict the shimmering effects of sunlight - Chłopiec w stawie - Mokra Wieś ( A Boy in a Pond - Mokra Wieś); W ogrodzie (In the Garden); Dzieci w ogrodzie (The Children in the Garden).
By applying tiny brushstrokes and founding the composition of the painting on the contrast between warm and cold tones, he managed to bring out glimmering patches of light and shade laying on leaves, flowers, and grass : Poranek – sad w Chrzęstnem, 1892 (A Morning in Chrzęstne).
In 1891 Podkowiński painted a Portrait of Wincentyna Karska which is considered to be the first portrait in the history of Polish art created in outdoors. The following landscapes painted in Wilczyce, Bidziny and Sobótka near Sandomierz, feature a more synthetic approach to form. Podkowiński piled up the horizontally spread planes of fields and hills by means of extensive and dynamic brushstrokes: Wilczyce – pole koniczyny, 1893 (Wilczyce – the Field of Clover); Krajobraz z Sobótki, 1893 (Landscape of Sobótka).
In his landscapes from 1894 he applied spontaneous impasto technique and intensified the colours, as well as started to randomly place the main themes of the painting within its frame.
In 1892 Podkowiński introduced themes to his paintings that were typical of European Symbolism. They referred to literature and focused on the motifs of love and death. From then, Podkowiński's artistic interests developed two ways - the bright and luminous landscapes served as a counterpoint to murky, dense and expressive paintings that anticipated the emergence of early Expressionism.
This sudden turning point was marked by public display of Taniec szkieletow (The Dance of Skeletons) in 1892. It shows a procession of naked women whirling with skeletons in an abstract space. Podkowiński drew on one of the topos of symbolic iconography – the inevitability of the passing of time and life. Similarly literary in its symbolic aspect and fragile narration are Miraże –kompozycja symboliczna,1893, (Mirages – Symbolic Composition), Ironia. Fantazja. Oddaj mi serce,1893, ( Irony. Fantasy. Give Me That Heart Back); and Nocturn – bajka o zaklętej królewnie,1893, (Nocturne – a Fairytale About a Charmed Princess).
His best known painting, Szał uniesień (Frenzy of Exultations), first exhibited in Zacheta Gallery in 1894, with its daring depiction of the well known iconographic motif of a naked woman on a horse, was surrounded by an atmosphere of scandal and public outcry, which escalated further after Podkowiński's attempt to destroy his own canvas. However, in some circles of critics and artist the painting has been considered as a manifesto of new art and a sign of rebellion challenging established aesthetical canons. Driven by instinctive erotic forces, the woman on a demonic steed embodied destructive power.
One of the examples of an antithesis to monumental, representative portraits of women painted against the background of decorative curtains - Portret, 1891, (Portrait of Stanisława Maszyńska); Portret, 1891, ( Portrait of Ewa Kotarbińska); Portret,1893, (Portrait of Teresa Jasieńska) - was the painting Rozmowa (Conversation), completed in 1894. It depicts two women confiding a secret in a suspended timeless moment which creates a specific emotional tension. The dynamic of the paintbrush and the predominant tone of red saturating the fabric of models' dresses as well as the abstract background, give the painting a predatory expression, and deepen its peculiar and painful aura.
The painting that entirely belongs to the thematic area of Symbolism is Podkowiński's last, unfinished composition Marsz żałobny Chopina,1894, (Chopin's Funeral March). The painting, inspired by the poem of Kornel Ujejski Marsz Pogrzebowy (Funeral March), (from the series Tłumaczenia Chopina i Beethovena, 1857 – 1860), responds to the major demand of Symbolism – the call for synesthesia, that is, simultaneous perception of visual, musical and poetic sensations. The amorphic patch of white, in which dissolves, just like in fog, the funeral procession carrying the body of a loved one, was contrasted with the darkness, into which a man plunges in despair, surrounded by an ominous landscape. The expression of suffering has been condensed into the dramatic gesture and the grimacing face of the abandoned man.
Podkowiński exhibited his works in Zachęta Gallery (1890-1894), in the Salon of Aleksander Krywult (1891,1893), and in the Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Kraków (1891, 1893). He also participated in international exhibitions in Munich (1892), Chicago (1893), San Francisco and Los Angeles (1894).
Author: Irena Kossowska, Polish Academy of Sciences, September 2002, trans. GS. May 2014