Achievements of Highland Zakopane Style
Wojciech Brzega became famous as an outstanding representative of the cultural and social life of Zakopane. He was one of the closest associates of Stanisław Witkiewicz, the main originator of the highland Zakopane style. The style inspired by Podhale and Hutsul art constituted the first attempt to create a national style in Poland, which was to be a foundation for modern Polish architecture and artistic craftsmanship. The activity of Wojciech Brzega largely contributed to refining the position of the Zakopane style in Polish art, and the sculptor himself remains to be one of its most outstanding representatives.
Wojciech Brzega graduated from the ornamental sculpture class of the Zakopane School of Wood Industry. He started auditing a course at the Sculpture Department of the School of Fine Arts in Krakow in 1895. Three years later, the artist began his studies in Munich, which he later continued in Paris. The talent of the sculptor from Zakopane was particularly appreciated in the capital of France. Brzega's successes were celebrated in his hometown, all major achievements and information about the awards he had won were commented in Przegląd Zakopiański magazine, "Mr. Brzega is a young artist, currently receiving education abroad, who, nevertheless, loves the Tatra Mountains with his whole heart. He was born at the feet of those hills and their charm illuminated his soul with a passionate love for native art. Everybody in Zakopane probably knows this quiet, friendly figure of the artist and highlander." ("Przegląd Zakopiański", No. 30, 1900, p. 7). At the beginning of the 20th century, Brzega returned to Zakopane, where he created elements of interior design inspired by the highland Podhale style. He was also involved in activities for the development of the city and took care of the artistic education in Zakopane. He organized exhibitions devoted to folk art, at which the artist presented his furniture and sculptures, as well as paintings by Gałek, Niesiołowski, Brzozowski, and Rembowski. He took an active part in organizations associated with Zakopane, he was a member of the Podhale Art Society and the Kilim Association. Brzega also participated in the activities of the management board of the Tatra Society, being engaged in the Section of Ethnic Studies. In addition, the artist was the director of the School of Wood Industry. The sculptor, proudly emphasizing his highland origin, also became famous as the author of amateur stories, oral tales, memoirs, plays, and articles about Zakopane.
Brzega and Witkiewicz worked on popularizing art inspired by highlanders' folklore throughout the country. As the artist himself recalled, it became the main direction of his artistic activities, “My main idea was to develop the Zakopane style. I believed in Witkiewicz, and it seemed to me that I would fulfill the duty of a Pole, a highlander and citizen by working in this direction. […] I have devoted a large chunk of my life to working on the Zakopane style in furniture. I established a workshop to implement my ideas. The conditions were very difficult, I could not develop my projects in peace. I did not have any education in artistic composition, this skill would be taught later." ("Polskie Style Narodowe 1890-1918", ed. Andrzej Szczerski, Exhibition Catalog, National Museum in Krakow, Krakow 2021, p. 254). The sculptor, while still a graduate of the Zakopane School of Wood Carving, helped Witkiewicz during the construction of the Villa "Koliba", the first building designed in the Zakopane style. He was also the author of furniture for the villas "Pod Jedlami", "Pod Wykrotem", "Santo", and churches in Podhale. Ultimately, it was stylish furniture that became the sculptor's main specialization
One of the most interesting interior design projects by Brzega is the dining room at the health resort of the Dłuscy family in Kościelisko. The health resort of the Dłuscy family was a modern center intended for the treatment of patients in the early stages of a disease. The founders of the health resort were also responsible for the stylish design of the rooms, which were to positively influence the mood of the patients. The dining room of the health resort, designed by Brzega, resembled a highlander's chamber. Its interior, as mentioned in Świat magazine, proved that "wonderful things may be created in the field of interior design with the use of elements inspired by our own folk art. […] The tables and zydel chairs, captivating with their charm while maintaining their massiveness, were created strictly in line with the design of old highlander furniture from the house of Sabała-Krzeptowski, found in the collection of Mrs. Dembowska. […] The Zakopane style regained its vitality in the health resort of Dłuski, MD." ("Ze zdobyczy stylu zakopiańskiego", [in:] "Świat", 1907, No. 42, p. 10).
The chair presented in the catalog, inspired by furniture from a highlander chamber, is a perfect example of the Zakopane style. The armless seat stands on straight legs. Its most characteristic element is the openwork back decorated with detailed ornaments, rosettes, and Martagon Lily pattern. The seat is embellished with the motive of Carlina flower. A similar seat, also made by Wojciech Brzega, is in the collection of the Museum of the Tatra Mountains. Brzega's seats perfectly reproduce the form of folk furniture, being modernized by the artist who gave up carved decorations and openwork decoration. At the same time, the furniture by Brzega was the essence of the Zakopane style, being fully compliant with the artistic vision of Stanisław Witkiewicz. The sculptor's items, inspired by the ornamental art from Podhale, gained great recognition among his contemporaries. They were awarded in competitions in Warsaw, Krakow, and Lviv.
In addition to furniture, Brzega also made kilim carpets and small wooden accessories, such as chess, one of which was purchased by Stefan Żeromski. Brzega was an active sculptor until the end of his life. The artist's main domain was realistic portrait sculpture. His models most often included highlanders from Podhale and intelligentsia from Zakopane, whom he recalled with great sentiment years later, "I was in a lucky position, as - being a highlander - I could meet here, in Zakopane, a lot of outstanding people, I had access everywhere. (…) I remember people and events more or less since 1878, so I remember (...) old highlanders, interesting figures that I would like to present in these notes. I remember old Zakopane, when there was only a dozen or so houses on the main street, Krupówki. I knew Professor Chałubiński, the first guides in the Tatra Mountains, and the first guests. Later, I witnessed the rapid development of Zakopane that began around 1880. During this period, the most eminent Poles visited Zakopane" (Wojciech Brzega, "Żywot górala poczciwego. Spojrzenie po latach", Tatra National Park, Zakopane 2015, p. 32).