#photography & visual arts
The flat, snow-covered winter landscape with a stream cutting through it is one of the most commonly recurring themes in Julian Fałat’s art. The artist copied the motifs for commercial reasons, to suit the tastes of buyers. However, in numerous winter variations, one can also see the lessons he learned from Japanese art.
Winter Landscape with River and Bird from 1913 belongs to the later period of paintings by Julian Fałat, created after the artist resigned from the position of rector of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and moved permanently to a villa in Bystra, near Bielsko-Biała. At the same time, it is one of the paintings crowning his ‘informal series’. Fałat had been intensively developing the motif of the winter landscape with stream since the beginning of the 20th century. When he moved to Bystra at the foot of the Beskid Mountains, he was an experienced landscape artist sensitive to subtleties in the scenery. Kornel Makuszyński, Fałat’s friend, wrote of his studio:
One could enter it as if it were an enchanted forest: deer flashing through a clearing with a red gleam, a thick bear rolling down a hill, spring blooming in one corner, while in the other clear white snow was billowing – the most beautiful snow in the world. The actual snow became more wonderful as fifty-or-more winters have seen how Fałat whitewashes it and garnishes it with deep blue shadows.
In the series of winter landscapes with a stream, especially those made in watercolour, the memory of his journey to Japan, undoubtedly the most important of in his career, comes to mind. Initially, Fałat followed conventional routes like those of his colleagues. He studied in Munich, went to Italy to study the Mediterranean landscape, and to Paris to see the latest art. The breakthrough came in 1855 when Fałat was invited to travel around the world by Edward Simmler – his friend, painter Józef Simmler’s nephew, and a rich banker at the same time. In his memoirs written years later, the artist recalled that he had to pack his things in a few hours, and only when he was sitting on a train to Paris did he learn about the plan of the expedition. Before they reached Japan, they visited, among others, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Singapore, where they split up for a while. In Singapore, Fałat first fell ill with malaria, then ran out of money. He had to fund himself by selling portraits made on the spot.
Finally, via Hong Kong, he went to Yokohama, and then, with a special permit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in his pocket, he visited Tokyo and Kyoto, among other Japanese cities. He needed a permit because Japan had only just entered the Meiji period and the country’s opening to the world, after many centuries of isolationism, was gradual. Only twelve years before Fałat’s arrival, Japan abolished the last anti-foreigner laws and introduced the Gregorian calendar.
The reason for granting the permit to Fałat was officially ‘study of local art’. Japanism began in Europe shortly after the opening of the borders in the 1860s. At the end of the century Feliks ‘Manggha’ Jasieński, Japanism’s greatest propagator in Poland, began to collect Japanese art. Fałat, however, was the only Polish artist to reach Japan before the First World War. From there, he brought his boundless admiration for Japanese art:
Their old art, which, apart from Chinese art, has no equal in the whole world and forces me to worship and admire it. [...] As an artist, I was immediately enchanted by the Japanese landscape, always slightly foggy, which Japanese artists, through a thousand years of development of art, brought to this synthesis of line and colour.
He was also impressed by the universal respect and love for nature which echoed his own sensitivity:
The whole nation is one with nature here. [...] The Japanese consider it the pinnacle of happiness to enjoy views of mountains, seas, lakes, rocks, and waterfalls.
Japanese experiences quickly became apparent in Fałat’s watercolours. They ceased to resemble oil paintings and instead he started to bring out the specific characteristics of the medium in unhampered, spilt droplets and reveal the whiteness of the paper itself as a compositional element. Thanks to this he was known as the greatest master of watercolour in Polish art during his lifetime. In his oil paintings, especially in the winter studies of streams, such as 1913’s Winter Landscape with River and Bird, one can notice, above all, inspirations in terms of composition – in a horizontal, panoramic arrangement, the winding line of a stream and wide stretches of pure white. Similar scenes are easy to trace in Japanese woodcuts, for example in Utagawa Hiroshige’s Eight Scenes from Kanazawa series. The colossal difference in approach to the landscape can be seen by comparing these compositions with Fałat’s landscapes from the early 1880s – atmospheric, post-Romantic sceneries revealing the influence of the Munich, filled with numerous picturesque ‘props’ such as mills, bridges, and herds of cows.
19th century paintings
Fałat combined his love for Japanese art with his complete experience of impressionism and the search for truly Polish art which, according to him, was rooted in landscapes saturated with romantic imagination:
It is a paradise for the artist’s soul, to whom every grave, every cross and every cemetery whisper secrets in his ears. Ruins, castles, wildernesses and even old willows – the people, bewitched in long winter evenings, fill them with ghosts, fears, werewolves, and every drop of water is populated with the drowned. It is safe to say that there are no people in the whole world – except for Japanese – who would hide such innumerable artistic treasures in their wombs.
Replicating the same motif in subsequent paintings, Fałat followed the demand of the rather wealthy bourgeoisie, although in Japanese art he was fascinated not only by the form and deep experience of nature but also by its democratic spirit. As he recalled in his memoirs:
Japan is the only example in the world of how art can penetrate into the widest layers of the nation, including even the poor.
Fałat noticed the class-neutral availability of Japanese art all the more easily because his own artistic formation was strongly influenced by his origins as one of the first painters of the peasantry; without the financial support of his family and scholarships, he gained an artistic education and enormous popularity. Not only did the artist remember these roots, but he also built his myth on them.
As in the case of the Japanese woodcut masters, working on a single motif series, changing depending on the weather, time of day and season, Fałat created a great panorama of Poland’s native winter landscape. At the same time, he operated with realistic detail and wide splashes of white, sharpening the viewer’s eyesight. Seemingly uniform spots quickly turn out to be full of colourful nuances. After a while we start to notice subtle differences between the individual shots – the freshly fallen snow sparkles with light or ends up on the ground as a heavy, wet cover, then it melts in the first sunlight of spring. From time to time, a bird flies through a deserted landscape or a fox runs in the distance. Another time we can only see the freshly imprinted traces of an animal’s paws in the snow.