On of the most prominent Polish post-impressionists, strongly connected to the Pont Aven school, a friend of Paul Gaugin. Born to a landed gentry family, in 1875, he started agricultural studies with the intention of running his father’s estate. He also briefly attended W. Gerson’s Drawing School in Warsaw. While managing the Pilaszkowice estate which he inherited from his mother, he completely failed and in order to avoid a sequester of the Finance Council, he left for Paris in 1888; there, he moved in with Zygmunt Andrychiewicz, who became his first art mentor. He started studying painting at Académie Julian, and afterwards attended Académie Colarossi for almost two years.
He probably met Gauguin already in 1888: together, they visited the restaurant Chez Madame Charlotte, which gathered the art and intelligentsia elites of Paris; it was frequented by, for instance, August Strindberg and Alfons Mucha, as well as Poles: Zenon Przesmycki, Stanisław Wyspiański, Józef Mehoffer, and Karol Maszkowski. At Café Volpini, Ślewiński became acquainted with the ideas behind Gaugin’s theory of Postimpressionism, referred to as Synthetism. In 1889-1896, he painted in Pont Aven in Brittany, as a member of an art colony bound together by the founder of the aesthetic of Cloisonnism. In 1896, Ślewiński settled in the nearby Bas Pouldu. In 1897 he joined the newly founded Society of Polish Artists ‘Sztuka’ in Kraków, which gathered the most eminent Polish artists. In 1898, he went on a journey to Spain together with his future wife, Russian painter Yevgeniya Shevtsova. In 1905, he arrived in Warsaw, where his first solo exhibition was held. He later lived in Kraków and since 1906 in Poronin. In Zakopane, he met the local intelligentsia, including Stanisław Witkiewicz, Leopold Staff, and Jan Kasprowicz. During that period, his art was especially influential for the artistic position of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy) and Tymon Niesiołowski.
In 1907/1908, he visited Munich, where he joined the Kunstverein. In 1908, Ślewiński took the position of a professor at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, which he soon abandoned and opened his own school at his studio in Polna Street. He found inspiration for his paintings in the landscapes of Poronin and Kazimierz Dolny, where he went together with his students. In 1910, he left the country and settled in Doëlan in Brittany, where he was visited by, among others, Witkacy and Tadeusz Makowski. He was an active participant of the Polish exhibiting movement: he showed his works at the Society of Friends of Fine Art in Kraków and Lviv, and, as a member of the ‘Sztuka’ Society, he took part in many expositions of the group. In Paris, he exhibited since 1895, making his début at Salon des Indépendants; In 1909, he presented his works in Vienna. In his homeland, he showed his works in Warsaw (1897, 1910-1912), Lviv (1897, 1911-1913), and Kraków (1913, 1914, 1916). Ślewiński’s solo exhibitions were organised in Paris (1897, 1898, 1914), Warsaw (1905, 1909), Kraków (1906), and Lviv (1907).
Ślewiński’s artistic stance was formed under the influence of Gaugin’s Post-impressionist art, however the artist adopted the ideas of Synthetism and Cliosonnism of the Pont Aven school only to a certain degree, as he pursued his own, original formula of depicting. He enhanced the painted forms through flat areas of colour with a soft, definite outline, while retaining a subtle hue composition and a free-flowing movement of the paintbrush; he synthesised the shapes, capturing the essential features of objects and landscapes. He artfully combined the simplicity of composition with decorative qualities. He masterfully harmonised the range of subdued colours, creating sophisticated colour combinations (Maska i książki [Mask and Books], ca. 1897); he livened up foggy browns, greys, and greens with accents of vibrant, saturated reds, yellows, and purples (Dzban z cyniami na czerwonej serwecie [Jug with Zinnias on a Red Cloth], ca. 1900; Kwiaty czerwone, żółte i jabłka [Red and Yellow Flowers with Apples], ca. 1903).
He merged the blue hues of the sea with earthen tones of the shoreside rocks (Morze w Doëlan (Sea in Doëlan), ca. 1910); he passionately modulated the shades of snow (Pejzaż górski w śniegu (Snowy Mountain Landscape), ca. 1908; Śnieg w górach (Snow in the Mountains), ca. 1907). In still lives, which featured common clay jugs with a bunch of field flowers or bowls with fruit, he conjured a thoughtful mood, an atmosphere of reflection over the quiet existence of objects, an aura of contemplation on their secret presence (Martwa natura z zieloną filiżanką (Still Life with a Green Cup), ca. 1899; Martwa natura z kwiatami i owocami (Still Life with Flowers and Fruit), ca. 1889; Czerwony hiacynt i jabłka (Red Hyacinthus and Apples), ca. 1905). The poetics of ‘ordinary wonder’ are intensified in Ślewiński’s paintings by curtains and napkins adorned with Japanese patterns, which are a testmony to his fascination with oriental arts, a fascination which was widespread among the avant-garde art circles of Paris at the break of the century (Piwonie (Peonies), 1906). From Gaugin, who remained Ślewiński’s lifetime artistic authority, the artist inherited the concept of ‘primitivism.’ He related the idea of art that reaches back to the Medieval cultural sources, penetrating exotic and marginal civilisational territories in search of an authentic expression and symbolic meanings to the regions of Brittany, Podhale, and Kazimierz Dolny; that is where he painted portraits of simple people, peasants (Dwie Bretonki z koszem jabłek (Two Breton Women with an Apple Basket), ca. 1897; Głowa Bretonki z Quimperlé (Head of a Breton Woman from Quimperlé), ca. 1903) and Gorals (Góralczyk (Little Goral), ca. 1909; Stary góral (Old Goral), ca. 1907), where he stylised the observed landscapes, views of the sea (Samotna skała w morzu (Lonely Rock in the Sea), 1907; Wzburzona woda morza (Stormy Sea Waters), 1909), mountains (Pejzaż tatrzański z Poronina (Tatra Landscape in Poronin), ca. 1908; Tatry (Tatra Mountains), ca. 1907), ponds (Jezioro w górach. Czarny Staw (Lake in the Mountains: Black Lake), ca. 1909; Morskie Oko, 1910), and rural houses (Chałupy w śniegu (Cottages in Snow), ca. 1907; Domy w Kazimierzu (Houses in Kazimierz), ca. 1908).
Expressively ascetic portraits of Goral children frozen in a still pose like objects in still lives, hypnotically staring at the spectator – evoke a lyrical, poetic mood (Sierota z Poronina (Orphan from Poronin), 1906; Wiejska dziewczynka w żółtej chustce (Country Girl in a Yellow Cloth), ca. 1907). Ślewiński’s early portraits also called to mind the art of E. Degas and H. Toulouse-Lautrec (Kobieta z rudymi włosami (Woman with Ginger Hair), ca. 1896; Czesząca się kobieta (Woman Combing her Hair), 1897) and of the Parisian group of Symbolists Les Nabis (Śpiąca kobieta z kotem (Sleeping Woman with a Cat), ca. 1896).
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, April 2004, transl. AM, November 2017