Frenzy of Exultations, often called just 'the Frenzy' is probably Władysław Podkowiński's best-known oil painting.
The first public showing of the piece made it famous but also caused controversy. Its popularity was reinforced by the fact that Podkowiński destroyed the canvas, and it was renovated (after the painter's death) by Witold Urbański. The artist's mother lent the new painting to different galleries in Łódź, Kraków, and even Moscow and Petersburg. Finally Frenzy of Exultations was bought by Feliks 'Manggha' Jasieński in 1901 (for a thousand rubles), and three years later given to National Museum in Kraków, to which it belongs until now.
The monumental composition shows a naked, blonde woman on an agitated black horse. The animal bares its teeth, its nostrils are flared, it foams at the mouth. A naked woman is seated on its back, holding its neck. Her eyes are closed, and her hair on the wind mixes with the horse's mane.
There are few colours on the painting, mostly black, brown and grey, contrasted with the white and yellow. The background, painted with impasto, is divided into bright and dark parts. The left corner on the top is ablaze with light, and the painting gets darker and darker, until, in the right, bottom corner, it turns completely black. The viewer is attracted by the contrast between the bright woman and the dark, where you can barely see the horse's back and tail.
If we were to believe Podkowiński's friend, Stefan Laurysiewicz, the idea of a painting showing a naked woman on a horse was already in the artist's mind in 1889 during his stay in Paris. He worked on the sketches for the next few years. In 1893 the composition was generally ready, of which a remaining oil sketch is proof. During the following creative process, the painter gradually reduced the number of colours, and resigned from additional motives, like a stone avalanche falling from a boulder. The canvas was created in Warsaw, in the time of three months between 1893 and 1894, in a studio in Kossakowscy palace's belvedere. According to the artist, in the last weeks he was very ill – even getting out of bed was a great effort.
Frenzy of Exultations was shown for the first time in Zachęta in Warsaw, on 18th March 1894. The display was accompanied by an atmosphere of scandal and sensation, which attributed to the painting's success. During the first day a thousand people saw it, and the number was raised to twelve thousand in the first month of the exposition.
Despite this success, the painting could not find a buyer. In the morning of 24th April 1894, right before the planned ending of the exhibition, Podkowiński cut the canvas with a knife. He didn't explain clearly the reasons for his decision. According to Aleksander Świętochowski's relation, he decided that he should express his frustration instead of taking the painting off and hiding it. According to his confession, written down by Wiktor Gomulicki, destroying the painting was difficult and painful: he associated the sound of canvas being torn with screaming, and the wooden panels in the back – with bones.
Soon people started talking that the cause of the painter's decision was gossip around the woman allegedly portrayed on the painting. Podkowiński was apparently unhappily in love with her. The destruction of the painting and the artist's untimely death reinforced these speculations, adding the sensational motif of suicide to the narrative. A premise of these hypothesis were traces of cuts on the woman's image, which became the object of the artist's attack. This mysterious lady is probably Ewa Kotarbińska, whom the painter met during his summer stay in Wincentyna Karska's palace in Chrzęsno near Warsaw. She was a brunette, but Helena Kiniorska wrote in her memoirs that the girl's family saw similarities between her and the woman depicted on the Frenzy, and didn't hide their anger. Podkowiński reacted violently and destroyed the painting.
The painting's story and the legends around it show the force of art, which could still awaken such emotions in the end of the 19th century. These relations, interlocked with the canvas itself, were probably enriched by the artist's contemporaries. Diverse rhetoric figures where used, to underline the artist's conflict with the conservative bourgeoisie – philistines, unable to understand art's deepest meanings. In reality the angry voices calling The Frenzy of Exultations a scandalous and immoral painting were few, and most of the critics and the audience welcomed it enthusiastically.
In addition, technical mistakes weren't often mentioned. An exception are doubts concerning the colours, which were formulated by Stefan Laurysiewicz in his review for 'Przegląd Tygodniowy'. More often commentaries expressing pretentious admiration were published, like this description by Kazimierz Tetmajer:
On a rollicking, huge horse, on some apocalyptic beast thrown into chaos, into the frenzy of dust clouds and mists, a naked woman lays, hugging the horse's neck with her arms, her face, her breasts and her torso, convulsively squeezing his sides with her legs (Kazimierz Tetmajer, Obraz Podkowińskiego / Podkowiński's Painting, 'Kurier Codzienny', 1894, no 76)
After a long, poetic description, words of appraisal for the painter come and his work is placed among the greatest artistic achievement of the time.
References to the myth of Europa, kidnapped by Zeus disguised as a bull were sometimes seen in the painting, and the woman was compared to an Amazon of Venus. The Frenzy was also read a symbol of destructive forces of instincts and passions. The woman carried by the demonic horse was seen as kidnapped by erotic passion, stronger than will and rational thinking. Reviewers wrote, in a pompous style, typical of the time and the style of the painting itself:
It's a frenzy of sensual intoxication, but different from classical, medieval and philosophically promiscuous frenzies from the time before the French revolution. It's not even a romantic frenzy, leading the Manfreds, Ernanis, Rollos to faint. This frenzy is directly linked with frenzy of destruction, known from psychiatry - either murderous or suicidal. (Urbanus, Szał. Obraz Władysława Podkowińskiego / Frenzy. Władysław Podkowiński's painting 'Kraj', 1894, no 10)
Today the painting is considered an interesting example of decadent trends in turn of the century culture, although the modern viewer doesn't usually notice its brave character, breaking the taboos of its time.
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, December 2010, translated by: N. Mętrak-Ruda, December 2015.
Szał uniesień / Frenzy of Exultations
oil on canvas, 310 x 275 cm
National Museum in Kraków