#photography & visual arts
In Kolomyjka, Teodor Axentowicz’s fascination with rural traditions, which was very fashionable in his time, translates into a vivid, expressive picture in which dynamics and joyful mood are more important than realism or the traditional rules of composition.
The crisis of the monarchy, disappointment with the achievements of Western civilisation, the approaching end of the century and, going hand in hand with it, the growing atmosphere of uncertainty and threat – all these elements had a strong impact on art and culture at the end of the 19th century. Under these influences, the artists whose style was later defined as the ‘Young Poland era’ plunged into depression and decadence. However, there was a space in which they found peace and even joy – the countryside. The peasantry and a fascination with rural life, traditional rituals and simplicity, as well as folk stylistics and closeness to nature captivated gloomy painters and poets. In the countryside, they regained their energy and found inspiration.
Art of Teodor Axentowicz belongs to the Young Poland style, mainly due to the folklore themes which were often a part of it. However, the painter’s biography does not entirely match the typical lifestyle of decadents who spent their time in dark, smoky cafés. Born in 1859, the artist studied at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, and in Paris, London, and Rome. He was a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and a frequent visitor of the most important European salons. When he settled permanently in Kraków in 1895, he immediately took up the post of professor at the School of Fine Arts, later transformed into the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1910, Axentowicz became the academy’s rector.
Axentowicz’s painting, which was more intense in his youth, developed in two directions before he took up serious positions. One of them was portraits – he painted many of them, having developed his characteristic style of decorative and elegant images, most often drawn with pastels, using soft, blurred lines. The second favourite theme of the painter was the above-mentioned rural scenes associated with folk rituals. He willingly focused on intimate genre scenes. As in his portraits, he was able to create an intimate and lyrical atmosphere that reflected the emotions connected with the experience of religious rituals. He painted processions, funerals, church ceremonies, portraits of countrywomen – all of this was connected with Hutsul culture. The artist was familiar with the region inhabited by the Hutsuls. He brought numerous pencil sketches from his visits which later were turned into paintings. Teodor Axentowicz was born into an Armenian family, in what is now Romania, in Brasov. Perhaps, thanks to this, he could feel the emotions and atmosphere of the rituals of the Carpathian highlanders.
Kolomyjka, painted in 1895, also depicts the Hutsuls. The painting stands out from the other works of the painter thanks to its extraordinary expression and energy. While most of Axentowicz’s genre scenes are subdued, calm frames in which one can often find reflection on the theme of passing and melancholy and an elevated mood, Kolomyjka seems to be an emanation of unrestrained joy. This is manifested primarily by the expressive usage of spontaneous brushstrokes and shaky paint surfaces that give the impression of movement. The painting is painted sketchily and hastily and it lacks details, which also perfectly reflects the spontaneity of the dance and the movement of the presented figures.
polish folk dances
19th century painting
The painter also chose the colours of his paintings with great care and consistency. The whole scene was painted using only three colours – white, brown and red. Using them, the artist informs the viewer that we are dealing with a celebration – the participants have festive clothes, the women wear garlands with ribbons and the men wear white shirts. The artist’s method of painting and approach to the subject suggest that the depicted people are having fun as they spin around, which is characteristic of the kolomyjka folk dance. In Kolomyjka, Axentowicz created an unusual composition – the dancing couple on the left side of the canvas is ‘cut off’. Their dance has carried them out of the frame, while the figures on the right side are squeezed into the combined background and foreground. Such an arrangement creates an impression of dynamics – as if the painter did not manage to capture the properly composed frame.
Many versions of Kolomyjka were painted – apart from the final variant painted on canvas, Axentowicz also used this motif in pastels and watercolours.
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated by P.Grabowski, September 2019