#photography & visual arts
Although The Demon (In the Café) lacks class in comparison to Weiss’ best works from his early career, it nonetheless turns out to be exceptionally interesting.
To call one of Lesser Poland’s most prominent painters extraordinary is a platitude. However, even when compared to other such figures, Wojciech Weiss’ biography is exceptional. Only a handful of Polish artists managed to achieve such artistic quality so early (around 1898, one year after his debut) and at such a young age (Weiss was only 23 years old). There were not many whose art evolved so quickly.
Following the first youthful, ecstatic period of his artistic career, as he left Paris in 1899, we can observe the next phase which was more mature and tested the capabilities of the fresh modernist language in a critical manner. The third period, which began in 1902, was lyrical, full of acceptance towards the world and the richest in terms of painting technique. Two years later, Weiss’ language changes yet again – it becomes more synthetic, returns to linearism and undertakes a calmer, more distanced approach to painting’s technical aspects. Finally, after 1906, Weiss makes a splash as he turns his back on the avant-garde movement (assuming that the term is appropriate for modernism’s post-impressionist phase) and develops a timid, impressionist style which reconciles his need for "pure painting" with an impeccable, elegant, grandiose approach. He would stick to this formula for a long time – basically throughout the whole interwar period.
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Thus, we have ourselves a biography which is bizarre, cut in half. A young prodigy who evolves faster than most of the artists and a mature man who – presumably, after studying all the roads that interested him – consciously went off the beaten artistic track in order to enjoy his painting in a calm manner, away from challenges (and good pay). Perhaps only Ferdynand Ruszczyc made an equally spectacular artistic decision when he – also consciously – cut his artistic career in half as he quit painting in 1908. However, strangely enough, Weiss’ gesture seems to be more radical and perhaps even braver. Ruszczyc made sure his position was secured as he quit painting. Weiss went all in – a lack of acceptance for the "second" Weiss could have dragged down the "first one’s" art. Fortunately, that did not occur, but it was not by chance that the author of the best book on Weiss, Mirosław Juszczak, titled it The Young Weiss. This series of essays is a monograph on the "first" Wojciech Weiss and, essentially, only this period remains in the centre of Polish art history’s interest.
From this point of view, The Demon, a painting which lacks class in comparison to Weiss’ best works from his early career, turns out to be exceptionally interesting. It serves as a staple for the first period of the painter’s career. Created in 1904, it evokes paintings from before 1900 in terms with its theme. It was a time when Weiss was under the direct influence of Stanisław Przybyszewski – "the demon of the Young Poland movement".
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The whole beginning of Weiss’ career appears to be inextricably connected with Przybyszewski. Recent research gives us the certainty that Przybyszewski came to Kraków because of young people: young artists, students or even, as the satirist Adolf Nowaczyński said, middle-schoolers. They all saw genius in the Berlin celebrity who was already covered in literature and was able to give a voice to the nascent Young Poland movement. After their master’s arrival, they formed his entourage and supplemented Kraków’s bohemia with a characteristic, decadent style, full of ill-fated love, drunken excess and emphatic declarations of disbelief in the sense of life and faith in the sense of art. Because of them, this phase became an ecstatic carnival – the legend of the Kraków bohemia was born with the café as its forum and stage. The extravagant-sloppy lifestyle went into fashion.
While most acolytes burnt out in Przybyszewski’s shadow like moths in a flame and some of them achieved maturity only after overcoming his influence (Nowaczyński, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński), Weiss, thanks to Przybyszewski, immediately obtained an original artistic language and intensity of expression.
Firstly – the themes. Przybyszewski’s students lived instead of creating. Weiss was supposed to paint those decadents and it is thanks to his function as the chronicler that we now have records of the bohemia’s condition such as Possession (a Dionysian vision of the master’s arrival in Kraków) and The Melancholic (Totenmesse).
Secondly – the form. Imitating Przybyszewski brought young writers more harm than good. However, thanks to him, Weiss gained another role model – the great progenitor of expressionism, Edvard Munch, Przybyszewski’s friend from Berlin. Thus, being almost a debutant, he found himself among European Art’s avant-garde. Munch’s expressive linearism and intensive, aggressive colour scheme articulating the soul’s most pristine states – but also the liberation of colour in pictorial form – set a direction for European art which would be achieved by German expressionists in just ten years or so. Weiss, by masterfully picking up Munch’s form, beat them by a few years.
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wojciech stanisław weiss
However, The Demon is also a nod to "the second period" in which Weiss, after returning from Paris, transformed his palette, enhanced the form and extended Munch’s influence with a post-impressionist experience. Paris brought about disillusion – Caput Mundi’s colourful life restored the proper proportions for the Kraków province. At that time, Café d’Arcourt (A Café in Paris) was painted. Its central scene – a conversation between a young woman and a bearded, demon-like individual around a table– is later repeated in The Demon.
There are substantial differences between the paintings which help to capture the reason why Weiss retraced the scene. In the Paris painting, the woman – a femme fatale type – is the man’s partner or his equal opponent. We can see not one but two demons. In the second painting, the woman’s clothing (after all, we cannot see her face) brings to mind a daughter-type from a bourgeois home. The demon-victim relationship is very clearly visible. The male figure is also different – the menacing bearded man from the other world becomes a gross caricature in the second painting. His tacky diabolicalness provokes not only fear but also laughter. The illustrated scene looks like a pastiche of the original. All the emotions are almost caricaturally exaggerated and the situation brings to mind a cheesy scene from a moralising romance novel for adolescent ladies.
Finally, there is the background. In the first painting, it is a lively café – true forum of the bohemia. In the second, the café is deserted and the scene plays out in front of empty chairs. It is clearly the modernist café’s death-knell. The painting appears to be a self-deprecating commentary on Weiss’ own work and a recognition of the shoddiness and tomfoolery which constituted Lesser Poland’s ecstasy. It is worth noting that, at the time, Adolf Nowaczyński’s humoresques held a similar message. The writer, originally an enthusiast of the bohemia, became an exceptionally snide critic of it. In just a few years, Nowaczyński would begin to depict Europe’s history in monumental "drama novels" and Weiss would start to paint family idylls in his quiet corner.
Originally written in Polish by Konrad Niciński, Mar 2011, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Sep 2018
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