March 16, 2021

Malczewski's secret language

Tomasz Dziewicki i Marek Wasilewicz


Jacek Malczewski is one of the most outstanding representatives of Young Poland and symbolism in Polish painting.


His works contain numerous symbolic references that would be difficult to decipher even for a contemporary artist. The artist referred to ancient mythology, Slavic legends, romantic poetry, especially Juliusz Słowacki, and the national martyrdom imaginary. He created his own language in which he dealt with the subject of the artist and his fate. Two paintings by Malczewski, saturated with symbolism, created shortly before the outbreak of the Great War, are presented at the auction of early art. Both paintings deal with the theme of life and death, both of which show the stigma of parting with the painter's muse, Maria Balowa. Below we decipher the most important symbols hidden in "Orpheus and Eurydice" and "Thanatos" by Malczewski.



In the background, Malczewski placed Charon's boat - the carrier of the souls of the dead. The boat floats on the waters of the Styx River, which was a barrier between the world of the living and the dead. Charon collected a coin from each transported soul - an obola. That is why the ancient Greeks would place a coin in the mouths of the dead.



A nymph and a wife of the king of Thrace, Orpheus. Bitten by a viper, she was taken to the kingdom of the underworld. She was irretrievably taken by Hades during his journey to earth. Although she does not have the literal features of Maria Balowana, it is her crypto-portrait. Malczewski showed her as a vital woman, dressed in a Greek chiton. Her mysterious smile is an ambiguous comment on the symbolic separation of Malczewski and Balowa.



The naked figure on the left side of the canvas is Hermes, a figure from Greek mythology, god of roads, travelers, etc. Known as the messenger of the gods and psychopomps, i.e. in religion a figure that carries the soul to the land of the dead. Crowned with a laurel wreath, he takes Eurydice to Hades - the god of the underworld.



A soldier's hat is an unusual attribute in the hands of Orpheus. Just like the coat - a military coat which the artist painted many times in his Siberian paintings. These elements may be a reference to the outbreak of World War I, but also, as the painter's monographer Dorota Kudelska suggests, parting with Maria Balowa. The tangled cloak obscuring Orpheus' private places, perversely, brings them out of the entire artistic form of the painting. Soldier's attributes, pejoratively associated with violence or something low, may symbolize Malczewski's guilt for the breakup.



King of Thrace and a famous singer who plays the lyre. Having lost his wife, Eurydice, he wandered, singing melancholy songs, and finally died tragically by raging menadas. His bent body shows the spasms of pain after losing his beloved. It is a crypto-portrait of Malczewski himself, but also a portrait of the artist in general - an inspired poet whose art leads to perdition - pain and death. The story of Orpheus was a popular myth that many modern artists referred to. Many of them focused on the late, dramatic fate of the poet. Malczewski showed the moment of the separation of his loved ones, referring to his own life dilemmas.



Spectral, luminous and whitened by the painter, it is supposed to create an impression of unreality. His vibrations are similar to painting some parts of the figure's body, which makes them fused with it. Its most interesting moment is the orange, glowing party symbolizing entering the world of the dead. In the background, the artist placed a water reedbed - an element known from the garden of his childhood - the park in Wielg. The reed motif returns in the paintings of the "My Life" series, primarily in the composition "Childhood - Jacek by the Pond in Wielgiem" (1919, private collection, deposit at the National Museum in Warsaw).



Passiflora flower (a Latin name combines the words "suffering" and "flower"). It was brought from South America to Europe in the 18th century. The structure of the flower evoked associations with the symbolism of Passion of Jesus (including a crown of thorns or three nails). The flower's unique beauty is eye-catching but also fleeting as a single flower only blooms for one day.



The horror of this attribute is illustrated by the nineteenth-century diaries: "On one of the stations I was led to the forge; I found old rusty handcuffs, or rather two iron bars joined in a circle in the middle, bending at the ends to embrace the legs. These bends were too tight so they pressed my legs tightly; I couldn't walk either, because the shackles were not made of links, and they could not drop down a bit. Besides, my hands were shackled in such a way that I had to keep both hands close to me "(The Adventures of Rufin Piotrowski in Siberia, Poznań 1877, p. 31).



It is not known whether it is Wielgie or simply a manor sowhere in Poland, close to the artist's heart. The painter spent four important years of his life in such a manor. Here he ran around the yard, got to know Polish history and Polish nature. It is a country of childhood, to which he would like to return when his patriotic and painting mission comes to an end. This dream was soon to come true in the form of the manor house in Lusławice, where the artist spent the late years of his life



Traditionally in the circle of European culture, used by a grim reaper who comes to swing it and end a human life. In Poland, it can also be associated with a heroic struggle for independence, doomed to failure (kosynierzy). Here the tool is idle, as if it was not going to be used any time soon.



One of Jacek Malczewski's favorite attributes. According to the dictionary definition, it is "a male figure-fitting coat worn by Russian military personnel, as well as by some officials and students in Tsarist Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries." However, it is also the outfit of exiles, punished cruelly in Siberia. Malczewski's characters wear it, indicating the plight of the nation in the 19th century. The splint in his paintings does not have to be put on strictly, sometimes lying close to the back like a prop.