In the Names of Polish Art

Do you know any Polish painters, dead or alive? Is it hard to raise their profile because, well, they tend to have unwieldy names? At Madrid’s Prado Museum, it quickly became obvious that Goya couldn’t hold a candle to Velázquez. Yet, it’s the guy with the easier name to read that most of us know better. If Polish painters had more PR-friendly name, perhaps there would be queues at the National Galleries around the country?

Anyway, today is Witkacy‘s birthday. As far as Polish surnames go, this one is quite easy to nail. It was his paintings at the National Gallery in Poznań that caught my eyes and got me to pay closer attention to Polish brush holders. Below is something about him and three other Polish masters.

Master Strokes (Warsaw Insider, January 2012)

A beginner’s guide to the big four of Polish art from 19th to 20th century.

Admittedly, perusing the works of dead Polish painters is not way up there on the priority list of visitors arriving to the land of Chopin, Pope John Paul II and the Solidarity Movement. What’s more, this year there are more pressing matters like how to score tickets for the Euro2012 and where to huddle for a post-match kiełbasa and beer. But until the ice thaws, why not retreat indoors for close-up’s on the handiwork of Polish talents from the 19th to 20th century? You’d be surprised how easy it is to absorb the names of these key artists and recognize their distinctive styles. And you’d impress your hosts (if you’re in to that sort of thing) with a stock of titles of seminal Polish art.

The Original Surrealist You’ve probably made eye contact with the bald and bearded Jacek Malczewski (1854-1929) without being aware of it. Self-portraits constituted a significant portion of this artist’s output. Not being a shy one, his eyes pierce right back at you as you check him out, like those at the Alegloria Restaurant, where a Malczewski in a white attire eyeballs the guests. In his scores of self-portraits, he was flanked by other creatures, mostly female, either human or mythical fauns. Don’t go thinking he was a self-obsessed man in lalaland. Like fellow creative forces from the Partition Years period (1795-1918) when Poland was chopped up and parceled out to neighbouring land hoggers, he did his bit to put on canvas the anguish felt by citizens living on occupied home turf. While his contemporaries, such as van Gogh and Gauguin, were doodling sunflowers and exotic natives from far flung islands, Malczewski and his lot were rallying for the resurrection of Poland by wielding the brush.

In his works, you might detect what art critics romanticised as the symbolism of “Poland’s aspirations for freedom” and “the search for the truth in life”. Melancholia is a compressed narration of his countrymen’s suffering wrought by a string of crushed uprisings. Death was a leitmotiv. All these would make a rather depressing viewing if not for the subtle surrealism which became more prevalent in his works after 1890. An example is the Vicious Circle (Błędne Koło), where a swirl of characters is trapped in an oscillation from brightness to darkness. Had he been born half-a-century later (and possessed a shorter surname), perhaps the world would have known him, not Dali, as the master of surrealism? Possibly not, for Malczewski credited much of his out-of-this-world imagination to being a Pole without a state.

The History Painter Looking at the straitlaced techniques of Jan Matejko’s (1838–1893), you would have dated him back to circa Old Masters. You also wouldn’t have guessed that he tutored Malczewski. Born with Czech, German and Polish parentage, Matejko endured the starving artist gig. Recognition came when he cornered the market for chronicles of historical turning points. The larger than life Battle of Grunwald oil on canvas painting was unveiled in 1878. It served as a record of who’s who and a reminder to the occupied nation that Poles had the muscles to kick the behinds of the pesky Teutonic Knights in 1410. Today, it’s still an altar kids pay homage to during school trips to the National Museum of Warsaw. Another Matejko painting etched into the nation’s consciousness is Stańczyk (1862). Depicting a 16th century court jester solemnly mulling while behind him some merrymaking was in full swing, it alluded to how the powers of the day were recklessly letting the country nose dive in the disastrous series of wars against Moscow. Rejtan (1866), another major piece, resides at the Royal Castle in Warsaw and tells the story of Tadeusz Rejtan trying to block, literally, the ratification of the First Partition of Poland in 1772. But don’t go taking your Polish history exam based on Matejko’s accounts. Matejko was criticised for placing people in places where they hadn’t been. He justified such glitches as “historical-philosophical synthesis”, possibly the then phrase for artistic liberty. For all his heavy-duty topics, Matejko was small in build. The self-portrait of the regal looking patriot is also at the National Museum in Warsaw.

The Brush was Not Enough The multi-talented Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907) was a star student of Matejko. Though prophesized by his tutor to become a Matejko-times-two, Wyspiański went on to resemble nothing like his star teacher. Patriotic themes were not prevalent in his paintings, most likely because he had exhausted them to yield plays and poems that earned him the title as the Fourth Polish Bard (after Mickiewicz, et al). For his visual dialogues, the short-lived Wyspiański created stunning stained glasses, including those at Kraków’s Basilica of St. Francis that could give you a divine moment. Using the pastel techniques, he executed many portraits, including Malczewski’s. Those capturing his family life, such as Sleeping Staś (Śpiący Staś) and Motherhood (Macierzyństwo), are absolutely endearing. Born and bred in Kraków, the prominent and much-loved figure has a museum to his name in the old capital that showcases the full extent of his artistic prowess.

Further south, Zakopane was the home ground of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939). Also known as Witkacy, we foreigners usually get hooked on him after seeing his realism-mixed-with-caricature portraits. Born into an elite family (his father founded the Zakopane Style architecture), he could dabble his hands in all sorts of creative pastime. The upbringing turned him into a painter, photographer, playwright, novelist, and philosopher. But his quirky and provocative antics plus his penchant for hedonism turned him into an outsider in cultural circles. Witkacy wasn’t into the Zen state of mind; shock therapy was his mode of delivery. Despite his flighty nature, he level-headedly set up a portrait-painting firm in the 1920’s as a revenue generator. The clients had a choice of portrait types, from plain vanilla to abstract psychological study. He experimented with stimulants to see how they could twist his perspectives. In some cases, it was simply overdosing on coffee or puffing like a chimney before hitting the canvas. On the corner of some portraits, he recorded down the drug he had used. If you’re escaping Warsaw for a skiing break in the Tatry Mountains, pop by the Museum of Zakopane Style (in Zakopane) for a trip of Witkacy’s whackiness.

Related posts: Polish Lessons (6) – Doing a Rejtan.

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About kitfchung

Experienced food and travel journalist based in Warsaw, Poland.
This entry was posted in Poland, Published articles and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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