Adam Hilary Bernard Chmielowski was a painter, critic and art theoretician who was a representative of the realism movement in the 1870s. In the 1880s, his work anticipated symbolistic tendencies in Polish art. He was born in 1845 in Igołomia near Miechów, and died in 1916 in Kraków.
He began his education in 1855 in the Cadet Corps in St. Petersburg. From 1858 he continued his education at Jan Pankiewicz Middle School in Warsaw. In 1861 he studied at the Polytechnic Institute of Agriculture and Forestry in Nowa Aleksandria (Puławy), where he made friends with Maksymilian Gierymski. In 1863 he joined the armed struggle in the January Uprising. After the Battle of Grochowiska, he was interned by the Austrians and deported to Olomouc, before managing to escape and join the squad of Colonel Zygmunt Chmieleński. He lost his left leg in the Battle of Mełchów,. The family’s intervention saved him from being sent deep into Russia – he was sentenced to forced emigration instead and moved to Paris. In 1865 he returned to Warsaw, where he took up drawing lessons, most likely with Rafał Hadziewicz and Ksawery Kaniewski. In 1866 he also began studying at the engineering department of the University of Ghent. The following year he left Belgium to return to Paris. Living in 1868 in the Latin Quarter, he shared a painting studio with the German Karl Goetz. Upon his return to Kraków in 1869, he met Lucjan Siemieński, a writer, poet and art critic. Siemieński’s aesthetic views had a fundamental influence on the formation of Chmielowski’s artistic attitude.
Having received a scholarship from Włodzimierz Dzieduszycki thanks to the patronage of a critic, he left for Munich, where he joined the circles of the Polish artistic colony. He befriended the Gierymski brothers, Maksymilian and Aleksander, Józef Chełmoński and Józef Brandt. In 1870 he was officially accepted as a student of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Alexander Strähuber and Herman Anschütz were his professors for his four years of education there. In the Polish environment centred around Brandt, Chmielowski was perceived as an authority in the field of art theory. His opinion-forming influence encompassed both early and contemporary art. In 1874 he returned to Poland, initially living in Kraków. In 1875 he settled in Warsaw, occupying a painting studio at the European Hotel together with Stanisław Witkiewicz, Antoni Piotrowski and Józef Chełmoński. The artists quickly found themselves as regulars at Helena Modjeska’s artistic and literary salon. Their atelier was visited by Henryk Sienkiewicz and Antoni Sygietyński, an art composer and critic and a leading promoter of the realistic movement.
Chmielowski took part in exhibitions of the Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Kraków (from 1870), Warsaw Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts and Aleksander Krywult’s salon (1880). In 1876, he published a dissertation on aesthetics titled On the Essence of Art in Ateneum magazine.
In 1879 he moved to Lviv, where he lived with Leon Wyczółkowski. In the same year, he took part in a spiritual retreat with the Jesuits in Ternopil; in 1880 he entered the order’s novitiate in Stara Wieś near Lviv. However, after a few months, he showed symptoms of mental illness, which resulted in his expulsion from the order and hospitalisation in Kulparków near Lviv. In 1882, he left the hospital to be taken care of by his brother Stanisław in the Kudryńce nad Zbruczem manor farm he leased. Having overcome depression, he began missionary activity in Podolia, Podlachia and Volhynia as a tertiary of the Third Order of St. Francis. He also carried out conservation works in churches.
In 1884, in fear of the tsarist repressions, he returned to Kraków. Between 1885 and 1887 he was a valued participant in the life of the local artistic and intellectual elite, but in 1887 he gave up his brilliant social career to join the Capuchin Order and took the name of Brother Albert. In 1888, he became a member of the St. Vincent à Paulo Conference and began to take care of Kraków’s homeless and poor, an activity which he continued until the end of his life with the congregations of Albertine Brothers and Albertine Sisters Servants of the Poor (which he founded). In 1888 he also joined the Society of Painters and Sculptors. He died in 1916 in the Congregation’s home in Kazimierz, Kraków. In 1938, a retrospective exhibition of Chmielowski’s works was held at the Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Kraków. In the same year, the President of the Republic of Poland, Ignacy Mościcki, posthumously awarded Brother Albert with the Great Ribbon of the Order of Polonia Restituta ‘for outstanding merits in independence activities and in the field of social work’. Subsequent monographic exhibitions of the artist’s body of work were held at the National Museum in Warsaw (1939), the Museum of the Warsaw Archdiocese (1984) and the Archdiocese Museum in Kraków (1995). On 12th November 1989, the Holy Father John Paul II canonised him Blessed Brother Albert Adam Chmielowski.
Chmielowski’s oeuvre is small, not only because the artist focused on theory, but also because as early as 1888, less than a year after the beginning of his monastic life, he abandoned painting entirely, considering it an activity devoid of any significant meaning. Moreover, due to the turbulence of history, the legacy of twenty-three years of artistic output did not survive in its entirety. Chmielowski’s creative attitude and aesthetic views were initially influenced by the artistic ethos of Munich. In Paris, where he stayed between 1867 and 1868, he had to face various tendencies in art, including the realism of Corot, Millet and Courbet. Munich’s education – environmental influences rather than the academy’s workshop routine – aroused his interest in this trend, just as it happened in the case of the Kossaks, Gierymski, Chełmoński and Brandt.
In the circle of the Polish colony centred around Brandt’s studio, Chmielowski figure quickly became an authority in the fields of ethics and aesthetics and a mentor who inextricably combined these two fields of philosophy. Academic teaching, based on technical perfectionism and rigid artistic norms, triggered a contradictory reaction in the creator, who strived to emphasise individualism and subjective sensitivity. Chmielowski distinguished himself thanks to his talent for palette work, as well as an excellent sense of colour nuances and chromatic outfits. However, he valued the art of the Nazarenes, including Julius von Carolsfeld, who highly exposed the values of the linework, as well as the painting of Anselm Feuerbach, who operated with a narrow chromatic range. His neo-romantic inclinations were influenced by Arnold Böcklin’s art. Chmielowski spent a lot of time in the Old Pinacotheque contemplating the paintings of old masters, primarily Valazquez. Both the admiration for ‘museum art’ and the widespread historism in Munich’s circles manifested itself in his compositions modelled after the paintings of the 16th century Venetians, such as Siesta Italiana (1870) and Francesca and Paolo – costume genre scenes evoking a poetic aura. Chmielowski sought literary inspiration for Idyll (1870) in Theocritus’ Idylls, reaching into an even more distant past, to the times of ancient Greece. He was also attracted to the world of fairy tales, legends and myths in which he found the ethical and existential values of truth (The Fairy Tale about the Good Son, c. 1874). He belonged to the group of Munich artists who contested the formula of historical painting developed by both Jan Matejko and Bavarian master Karl Piloty. He turned to the recent past, still present and determining the Polish nation’s tragic fate, to the epoch of the January Uprising. However, he created a different perspective of this vision than the one taken by Artur Grottger, creator of the pathetic and heroic canon of patriotic iconography. In his canvases, Chmielowski, like Maksymilian Gierymski, showed the coarse everyday life of the armed uprising, painted small episodes of camp life, presented the harsh conditions of camping (Insurgent Camp in the Forest, 1873-1874), the arduous effort of pickets and exhausting marches (Insurgents).
The Painting of Polish Symbolism
After the death of Gierymski, whom he accompanied in the last days of his life in Bad Reichenhall, the artist returned to Poland in 1874. He initially stayed at the estate of a friend of the Chojecki family in Zarzecze near Jarosław, where he made a series of portraits of Lucjan Siemieński’s daughter, Klementyna Chojecka and her two daughters, in which his Munich-originated fascination with the portrait art of Velazquez (Girl with a Hat) manifested itself. The attitude of the realist who carefully and impassionately observes and recreates the common reality (In the Cowshed) was not appreciated by the artist’s patron, Lucjan Siemieński. Because of this, Chmielowski left for Warsaw. Here, in 1874-1877, the artist reached his artistic maturity by painting, discussing and having fun with friends occupying or passing through the studio at the European Hotel, including Chełmoński, Witkiewicz, Piotrowski, Piątkowski and Maszyński. In a treatise on the essence of art published in 1876 in the literary-artistic periodical Ateneum, Chmielowski outlined the main theses of his aesthetics of the neo-platonic provenance, which identified beauty with the mystical element. He wrote about the unity of art and life:
It is difficult to suppose that art, by its very nature, is a separate world, available only to some. […] Thus, if art appears to be something detached from life, the fault lies in the barbarity of people, in false theories, and not in art itself.
He talked about the spiritual, transcendent nature of art:
[…] creativity is not a work of man, except in a figurative way […]. Man’s work is to immortalise himself into words, stones, tones […]. The path to truth is art’s sole direct purpose. As an antithesis of true art, expressed by style or ’individuality of the soul’, one can present false, successful art, expressed by mannerism – the learned art. […] It is precisely style that is the sincerity, the natural voice of the soul, its shape, its language; mannerism is the mocking of style, it is the voice and language of the parrot, the lameness of shape.
In Chmielowski’s art, the objective observation of nature and historical realities was now dominated by pantheistic philosophy, faith in the spiritual dimension of visible and tangible reality. His imagination was dominated by motifs of romantic origin, the themes of death, loneliness and tragic love. Such elegiac and nostalgic aura was evoked by the 1875 painting The Funeral of a Suicide. The formation of symbolic poetics was fostered by the pictorial formula of the nocturne. The figures of lovers in The Garden of Love (1876) are engulfed in the darkness of the night – in this composition, antique reminiscences are combined with the presentation of a mysterious ritual. A procession of couples intertwined in embrace goes to the altar, decorated with garlands. One can see the inscription ‘hedone’, meaning ‘pleasure’. The fire burning on the altar is guarded by children frozen in wait. Synthetic treatment of the landscape flickering in the background and the silhouette approach to the figures in the foreground, as well as the dark harmony of black, grey and green, in which only the accents of white and pink appear stronger, are the visual characteristics of the new painting vision of Chmielowski the neo-romanticist and proto-symbolist. During his Warsaw period, the artist also made portraits of visitors to his studio at the European Hotel, including Antoni Sygietyński, the future promoter of the naturalistic movement in art and literature.
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Chmielowski’s neo-romantic approach would be fully reflected in his compositions painted after he left Warsaw in 1877 and settled in Lviv (after a short stay in Italy). The nocturne became his key painting motif; the Italian cemetery immersed in darkness is the theme of two excellent paintings by Chmielowski from 1880, In Italy (Italian Cemetery I) and Grey Hour (Cemetery II). In the first composition, the vertical rhythm of gravestones nestled between cypresses and piñas balances the horizontally extended glow of the setting sun. Carmine streaks serve as a counterpoint to the greyish white of stone sculptures, obelisks and plinths. The twilight of the grey hour gives the cemetery marble a grey tone; here it is the robe of the mourner sitting at the tomb that adds an invigorating accent of purple-red. The melancholic aura of these paintings and their nostalgic tone reflect the state of mind of an artist who increasingly focuses on the issues of religion. The tradition of sacred iconography imposed certain stylistic patterns on Chmielowski. The painting Vision of St. Margaret (1880), which emphasised the values of line and chiaroscuro modelling, has its roots in the art of the Nazareth. However, at the other end of artistic expression was Ecce Homo (1879-1881) – a painting which is dramatic in expression and schematic in form. The purple of Christ’s dynamically painted robe is reflected with a bloody reflection on his tormented face – frozen in pain but devoid of naturalistically recreated wounds. Here, the intensity of the physical suffering and mystical concentration is reflected in a golden flame which penetrates Christ’s barely noticeable aureole and illuminates Roman arcades.
This composition, created within a few years and never completed, became a record of Chmielowski’s spiritual transformation from an artist to a monk. The course of fate led Chmielowski through the novitiate of the Jesuit Fathers and the institution for the mentally ill in Kulparków to the estate of Kudryńce nad Zbruczem, leased by the artist’s brother Stanisław. Recuperating there, the artist also returned to nature – he painted the surrounding landscapes, synthetically depicting the shapes of cottages, castles and churches blended into the vast landscape of Podolia (Ruins of the Castle in Kudryńce, 1882; Podolia Inn, c. 1882; Czarnokozińce, 1883; Zawale, 1883). During his missionary journeys through Podolia, Podlachia and Volhynia, he captured views of gorges, ravines and endless fields in his sketchbook using watercolour. His palette, brightened and enriched with nuances of nature’s colours, testified to his abandonment of the practice of studio painting based on sketches in favour of outdoor work. At that time, Chmielowski also painted friends and acquaintances. The Amazon, depicting Wanda Dwernicka, daughter of the owner of Zawal, during a horse ride in the company of her father and the equerry, is a typical painting from that era of the artist’s life. Upon his return to Kraków, Chmielowski painted his last landscapes in a realistic style (Abandoned Presbytery, 1888), inspired by the Barbizon School tradition which was assimilated by the Munich circles. By intensifying the mood, he gave these paintings a symbolic dimension. In 1887 he abandoned art to devote himself to religious life and service of the poor.
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, May 2006.
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