June 8, 2021

Malczewski's Wells: Poisoned and Healing

Konrad Niemira



The auction Old masters. 19th Century and Modern Art presents two unique works paineted by Jacek Malczewski based on the artist's favorite theme from the beginning of the 20th century - the (poisoned) well.


in "Poisoned Well" from 1906, a Siberian tunic thrown on the back of a man standing by the well leaves no doubt that the scene is a commentary to the Polish reality of the early 20th century. We can find similar signals in other Malczewski's canvases dealing with the subject of the poisoned well (e.g. in the series in Rogalin from 1906). The artist often used prison shackles as props, and placed the silhouette of the Kościuszko Mound in Krakow in the background of his compositions. But what connects a poisoned well and Poland? Malczewski never presented the exegesis of a series of these paintings, but he limited himself to only one clue: a title that was constructed in the form of a warning: Poisoned Well. However, he did not protest when in 1907 Lucjan Rydel presented his verse commentary on the Rogalin cycle. In it, the poet argued that the paintings are not only existential, i.e. they do not simply depict a pilgrim coming to a well hoping to quench his thirst and find poison there, but have a political dimension. According to Rydel, the key to Malczewski's paintings is martyrdom, and the poisoned water is a metaphor for the historical fatalism and the situation of the post-uprising generation. For this generation was fed for years with skepticism about the chances of Poland regaining independence, or - as the poet puts it - for years they were given the contaminated water, which poisoned their body, quenched their heroism, instilled in them illness, apathy and idleness. The Chimera ("Zła Upiorzyca") was supposed to be responsible for the poisoning of the wells, not symbolizing the partition of Poland, but the demon of history. In this perspective, the Poisoned Well was considered the central figure of Polish history. The independence uprisings were supposed to be an attempt to reverse fate, but an attempt to be fundamentally ineffective. After returning from exile, the former insurgents began to drink poisoned water again and fall into apathy. The power of the poison was enormous, and it even circulated in the veins of the girls guarding the waterworks. Their various incarnations in Malczewski's paintings (from innocent teenagers, through Ellenai, to mature Krakow matrons) are therefore not a symbol of hope or an allegory of the Polish diaspora, but part of the "poisoned system".

Although we do not take a stance on Rydel's interpretation, whether we accept it as an expression of Malczewski's own intentions, or merely as a poetic interpretation, it seems that he brings out the inner tensions of various compositions from the series in an extremely suggestive way. These tensions are perfectly visible in the presented picture. The woman sitting on the edge of the well is wearing a black dress, torn on her shoulders, which may suggest mourning (implicitly: mourning after the defeat of the 1863 Uprising) and desecration. At the same time, however, her dress is slightly raised and her calf is bare, which gives the character a delicate erotic value (remember that the painting was created in 1906 and was addressed to the Krakow audience who considered that indecent behavior). This disturbing ambiguity is complicated by the fact that the woman seems to be similar to Maria Balaowa, the artist's long-time lover and muse (it is also worth asking if the stairs in the background of this scene send us to the Malczewski's backyard garden). Are we dealing here with a palimpsest in which a martyred Poland and a demonic woman, a victim and a poisoner at the same time, overlap?

Jacek Malczewski, Dama w fotelu (A portrait of Maria Balowa), circa 1904, the Museum of Jacek Malczewski in Radom


The mourning dress of the demon guardian sends us to a more philosophical than political, problem of the image. The association of death and the source of water reverses the common, poetic sense of the latter. Malczewski does not make the source of life out of the water drawn from the well. On the contrary: the well is the point where the underworld, imbued with evil and death, joins the world of the living. Drinking well water instead of refreshing us instills death in us.


Among all the wells painted by Malczewski, the one in the painting "At the Well" does not seem to be poisoned. What's more: the picture presented here probably shows a place that in the mythology of the Malczewski family was considered to be healing. It is assumed that the landscape is connected with the garden adjacent to the family house of Maria née Gryglewska, the artist's wife, which was located in Nowy Sącz at Jagiellońska Street. Maria Malczewska visited this place very often with her children, Rafał and Julia. Jacek regularly came here from Krakow, and after Rafał was born, he lived there for a few months. The terraced garden, its characteristic stairs and well became the background of several of his compositions (the most famous of them is probably "Self-portrait with a hyacinth" from 1902, National Museum in Poznań). This place was also well remembered by the artist's son, Rafał, who recalled years later that

"the garden located at the back of both houses (...) ran towards the blue space. At one point it flew down towards the railway line running circularly at the foot of the foothills on which Nowy Sącz stands. At the very bottom there was a fence and clumps of nettles. cherry trees with dark and almost black fruit. (...) A spring gushed up the slope. The water from this spring ran down a gutter, overgrown with greenery, to a barrel stuck in the ground. My great-grandfather appreciated this water very much. It was supposed to be curative. "

Jacek Malczewski with his family, Nowy Sącz, photography, Museum of Jacek Malczewski in Radom


However, the home of Malczewski's parents-in-law in Nowosądecki was not the setting for a happy family life. It is known that the Malczewskis initially came to him for savings. In Nowy Sącz, they also fiercely argued over their son's upbringing. Mother and grandparents insisted on great control and short walks, Jacek - on letting the child go. At the end of the nineteenth century, in Krakow, there was also loud talks about their possible divorce, and in the memoirs of his contemporaries, Jacek was usually blamed for the troubles of the Malczewskis ("He was the embodiment of many virtues, but as a husband he could not be a guardian, adviser, or some kind of support life "- Michalina Janoszanka).

The customarily presented work dates back to 1902. The photograph of the Malczewski Garden in Nowy Sącz, preserved in the Jacek Malczewski Museum in Radom, is not dated. Other preserved images with this landscape fragment differ in detail. The stylistics which suggests that we are dealing here with a work from around 1900 (a boy and his age cannot be a clue for dating - the child does not resemble the artist's son, Rafał), must therefore help in embedding the painting in the artist's œuvre.

How does "By the well" look like in other paintings by Malczewski from this period? The most eloquent context can be seen in the pictures showing the vicinity of the second house of the Malczewski family, located in the Zwierzyniec Peninsula near Kraków. As in the work presented here, Malczewski abandoned them from symbolic props and fairy-tale characters, and focused on strictly realistic effects. The value of this trend in his art was noticed and appreciated by critics. Stanisław Witkiewicz wrote in "Krytyka" that

"Malczewski's painting talent, despite the enormity of the mental content of his paintings, never for a moment ceases to pursue purely painterly goals, the perfection of recreating the shape, and looking for a good solution to the issues of chiaroscuro. This talent is constantly and constantly based on nature and, however, the artist's imagination reaches far into the immeasurable world of feelings and thoughts, his painting does not cease to look, with the strictness of a natural scientist (...), he does not stop studying nature, striving to master all its manifestations of its shape, trying to introduce its living, vibrating with all unexpected phenomena "

(Stanisław Witkiewicz, Jacek Malczewski, "Krytyka" 1903, z. 2).