#photography & visual arts
Almost every painting by Jacek Malczewski is a puzzle for viewers, who can search for hidden meanings, guess metaphors and interpret content, and his Polish Hamlet portrait is no different.
The painting was made in 1903 and its title suggests certain interpretations right away – it is a portrait of Aleksander Wielopolski, an amateur painter, grandson of margrave Wielopolski, a controversial activist who defended Polish identity under Russian rule. There is no doubt, however, that even in this work, the symbolist Jacek Malczewski treated the image of a man as a pretext for a much more important, though somewhat hidden, statement.
Aleksander Wielopolski, dressed in a green tunic, is depicted in the central part of the canvas. Isolated from his surroundings, he holds a marguerite flower in his hands. It is sometimes interpreted as a symbol of the passing of one era and the coming of a new one. Does the protagonist of the painting tear off the petals from a white flower or does he protect them with his hand? An important element of Wielopolski’s costume is the belt with which his tunic is tied. It is a bandolier, but instead of ammunition, it is filled with tubes of paint. In this way, the artist informs the audience that they are dealing with a painter – and so a colleague of his. Knowing this, should one look for a personal statement by Malczewski himself in the painting?
Wielopolski is depicted in the company of two women. On his right is a young girl in a moving vigorously. She is basically naked, dressed only in shreds of white and red fabric. Her head is decorated with a wreath of poppies and on her wrists we can see the remains of broken shackles. On Wielopolski’s left, the painter placed an old woman with a tired expression on her face and her hands chained together. Her hair is braided with ears of grain and her outfit indicates her peasant origin. All three characters are set against a background of a typical Polish countryside landscape with grain fields and poplars in the wind.
Like any other painting by Jacek Malczewski, this one can be interpreted in many ways, but the main message is clear – we are dealing with two concepts of Poland. One of them is Polonia – enslaved during the partitions, martyred and tormented. The other one is a liberated revolutionist. This is basically Hamlet’s dilemma – which of these visions of Poland should a painter choose, which one is more appropriate for a sensitive artist? It is not difficult to find Malczewski himself in Aleksander Wielopolski’s dilemma. He was shaped by the ‘school’ of Jan Matejko, a patriotic painter who had obligations towards his nation, but at the same time lived in the times of great transformation at the turn of the century. The events which ultimately led to World War I and the break-up of European powers were already in the air at that time.
19th century painting
In his notes, Jan Brzękowski recorded a statement by Jacek Malczewski from 1925:
(…) for me, the national element (...) has always been the strongest incentive to work. Believe me (…) if I wasn’t Polish, I wouldn’t be an artist.
Malczewski had to make many important choices in his life. The first was the decision to depart from Matejko’s style, to free himself from the influence of the master, who the painter valued very highly and before who he felt respect. At the same time, he was afraid of remaining in his shadow forever. Jacek Malczewski shaped his matured style around 1890, when he decided to express ‘the soul of the world and all mankind’ through motifs derived from mythology, the Bible, legends, and folk tales. At the same time, he portrayed his feelings and thoughts. Because of this, patriotic motifs and references to Polish history and the struggle for independence combine with personal reflections on the role of an artist, as well as the position and duties of an artist in society. Malczewski saturated his paintings, filled them with content, hidden messages, symbols and metaphors, both with universal truths about life and with the private ills of a sensitive man who had to create in exceptionally difficult times. Polish Hamlet – Portrait of Aleksander Wielopolski contains all these artistic divagations – it concerns national matters as well as the deepest recesses of the painter’s soul.
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, translated by P. Grabowski, October 2019