#photography & visual arts
The appearance of Henryk Siemiradzki's Sword Dance at the London Sothesby auction house was quite an event. After all, what had resurfaced was not only one of the works which Poland had lost during the war but also a work by an artist considered to be one of the ‘three bards’ of Polish painting, alongside Jan Matejko and Józef Brandt.
Siemiradzki was considered by many as one of the Polish national painters, even though the artist himself, born into an aristocratic Lithuanian family, was never interested in historical painting rooted in local history. On the contrary – he was a model cosmopolitan academic, a representative of a school which adopted a similar character regardless of whether the artist was based in St. Petersburg (where Siemiradzki studied and maintained close relations with the tsar's court) or Paris. Frederic Chopin in Prince Antoni Radziwiłł’s Parlour in 1829 was his only painting with a Polish theme – and it was neither popular nor well-received. Siemiradzki was very much into history but not that of Poland – he was interested in the Mediterranean.
His position of the cosmopolitan academic was reinforced when he offered his most famous painting, Nero's Torches, to the National Museum in Kraków when the institution was considering opening a gallery in the cloth hall. However, before that, he tried to sell the same painting to the tsar of Russia for an astounding sum of 50 thousand rubles. It is one of his paintings dedicated to the grand academic themes, in this case to one of the painter's favourite topics – a scene from the early history of Christianity. He also took a liking to idyllic compositions, depicting the imagined lives of Romans and Greeks, which were free of such strong, didactical accents. From the academic perspective, antique idylls were not just idle amusements – they fit into a vision of antiquity as civilisation's golden age. They were a commendation of the Apollonian idea of beauty which was also the purpose of art according to the academics.
Christian Dirce – Henryk Siemiradzki
The painting which ended up at the London auction (and was withdrawn after the intervention of Poland's Ministry of Culture) was presented during the painter's grand retrospective held by the Warsaw-based Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts (Zachęta) in summer of 1939. The exhibition was supposed to be open until the end of September, but as World War II broke out, the painting was moved to the National Museum and from there, with the permission of the occupying authorities, it was taken away in November by its owner, Anna Szretterowa. Its later history, up to its appearance at the London auction, remains unknown. Although it was entered into the art registry on 24th March, 1953, there is no evidence that permission was granted to transport it out of the country, hence the presumption that it was done illegally. If it is confirmed, the painting will return to Poland.
The many versions of The Sword Dance, each slightly different (as we can conclude from the pencil-made study held in the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw, the artist resolved fundamental composition dilemmas at the drafting stage), are flagship examples of Siemiradzki's idyllic paintings. On the one hand, they wholly fall into the academic canons, but on the other they display his realistic tendencies. It is, after all, symptomatic that this very painting became the star of an auction scandal – idyllic paintings intensively produced by Siemiradzki since the 1870s were the artist's response to the needs of the art market of the time. They were a compilation of all the motifs which his audience – especially the wealthier part which originated from the rising-in-power bourgeoise – appreciated the most. In their time, they made a spectacular commercial success. To meet the viewers' expectations, Siemiradzki often repeated particular motifs, and even complete compositions (his most esteemed ones), which is why there are four versions of the painting.
The scene depicts a nude girl dancing amidst Roman swords stuck upright into the ground, accompanied by three women playing on instruments. A group of patricians sitting in the shade observes the dancers. Thus, the anecdote is a little more complex than in idylls which usually depict merely scenes of repose next to a fountain or wine-drinking in the open air. The architectural background is relatively modest but not devoid of eye-catching decorations typical to Siemiradzki – meticulously reproduced colourful ornaments, fragments of Pompeian-style paintings, and tiger skin spread out on a stone step. There is a lot of open space in the painting and the foreground is dominated by lush, Mediterranean flora through which rays of sun seep in. In the background, a bay stretches out together with sun-bathed hills. Thanks to notes left by the artist's son, Leon, we know that the scene is located somewhere around Taormina in Sicily.
Stanisław Witkiewicz, a theorist and practitioner of realism who vehemently fought off all manifestations of stick-in-the-mud academism, commented:
In terms of the representation of life as movement and expression, Siemiradzki settles for […] the most universal academic template, which is mocked by the model posing for him.
However, for many of his contemporaries, Siemiradzki embodied naturalism. It is true that he used templates and tapped into established conventions, but at the same time, when living in Italy, he painted Italians as ancient Romans, depicted actual ancient architecture instead of imagined all’antica buildings and made studies on location. He demonstrated great knowledge of archaeology when reproducing details. Similar to some of the French academics, Siemiradzki aimed for peak naturalism with the use of studies on location, although he still filtered the output through academic idealisation.
The abovementioned Witkiewicz had an exceptionally approving opinion of The Sword Dance. He considered it to be one of Siemiradzki’s 'most logical compositions'. It does, in fact, stand out when compared to his other idylls. The depicted scene is quite untypical but what is the most evident here is the effect of the painter's on-location studies – the light panning out on the small pillars of the vineyard, walls, and the dancer's body comes out almost as natural as in Aleksander Gierymski's In the Gazebo. A similar attachment to study of light can be noticed in Fishing, displayed in the National Museum in Warsaw, but it is The Sword Dance, with its varied materials and textures, with which Siemiradzki achieved true virtuosity in this aspect.
Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote that the painting:
[…] gathers large crowds. Indeed, it is a delicious piece. […] It almost resembles a classical work: so tranquil, so soothing to the senses and imagination. The girl's nudity is that of a statue – thus, innocent.
The writer emphasised the girl's ‘innocence’ for a reason. At the time, nudity in itself was not a ‘worthy’ theme for painting – it was even perceived ‘indecent’. This is the reason for the outrage that occurred when Manet presented a prostitute – gazing straight into the viewer's eyes – in Olympia. Nudity was justified only when it was a part of a religious, mythological, or historical composition – very conveniently for the academics, because those were basically all the themes that interested them. Hence, all it took to justify nudity was to cast off the 19th-century hoop skirts and throw in some antique touches. Paulina Adamczyk also looked for symbolical meanings in Siemiradzki's female figures, ones that went beyond purely ornamental functions:
[…] the ‘idyllic’ woman could be connected to the motif of the source of life because of her frequent appearance next to waterspouts and other water sources. In Siemiradzki's art, the woman can be considered an archetype of the Mother Nature who harmonically coexists with the world of Arcadian nature and represents an external, visual medium for being intimate with it.
Thus, in The Sword Dance, Siemiradzki managed to reconcile fire and water. Viewers craving naturalism relished the painting's light work and the depictions of the glowing Southern air and the evaporating haze suspended over the sea. Admirers of classical qualities seemed to be equally pleased. Apparently, the four-copy painting still manages to cause a commotion.
Originally written in Polish by Piotr Policht, translated by Patryk Grabowski, Aug 2018