Nov. 30, 2021

Modernity and Tradition in the 19th-century Polish Painting

How to tell the story of Polish modern art? There is no one fundamental way to understand it, nor a formula that could define painters' work from the end of the 18th century to the last decades of the 19th century.

Art historians and historiographers attempted to find its unique character, looking at it through the prism of Polish history, the independence struggle, language autonomy, and the culture at the time of partitions. It is an often practice to try and link the names of important Polish artists with European artistic trends. The history of European avant-garde approached this way, urges at look at art history only through the prism of names of the most progressive and the history of the masterpieces. This, in turn, makes it impossible to notice the less known artists, who were often well recognised in the era. 

Often the beginnings of Polish modern art are associated with Jan Piotr Norblin – an artist educated in France where he studied the works of Antoine Watteau and Frances Casanova. He came to Poland at the invitation of the Czartoryski family. He introduced a certain quality into Polish art – genre scenes and historical painting that constituted one of the dominant branches of 19th-century art. Art academies, including those most popular among Polish artists – in Petersburg, Vienna, and Munich, promoted art based on classic, harmonious expression that was intellectually rich, anecdotal and had a suitable theme. Thus, 'stories' whose primary subject was historical, mythological, or biblical were promoted in the academic art circles. From the mid-19th century on, any Polish artists turned to the history of arms painting, parsing the breakthrough events in the history of Polish military art. In the Romanticism era, the idealised version of history inextricably linked to past heroes and grand events was abandoned. There was a turn towards the contemporary Napoleonic themes, so vivid in the Polish art circle due to the independence ideas associated with the leader. Piotr Michałowski, the most prominent artist of Polish romanticism, was a progenitor for many painters who created in the same artistic movement. 

After the January Uprising, in which many Polish artists took part and were later repressed, Munich became an essential artistic hub. It was named the 'Athens-upon-Isar.' The Bavarian capital, back then under the rule of the Wittelsbach family, enabled the new coming artists to have access to liberal artistic education at the local Academy, the works of old and contemporary artists at the Old and New Pinakothek, and the promise to participate in the international art world. Thus, they were also in contact with new artistic trends and had the opportunity to sell their works to art dealers and galleries that operated there. Popular among the Poles, landscape and genre painting enabled the 'smuggling' of national content by depicting the Mazovian or Borderland landscapes expressing freedom, recreating 17th-century genre and military scenes as victories back when Poland was Antemurale Christianitatis (i.e. the Bulwark of Christendom). Frequently, the Munich landscapes contained additional anecdotal elements referring the viewer to the history of the January Uprising. Józef Brandt was the leader of the Polish 'artistic colony' in Munich. Having left in 1862 to study, he established there a private atelier eight years later. It became a kind of informal art school and a place of social gatherings for artists. Among the members of the ‘Munich colony' were Alfred Wierusz-Kowalski, Władysław Czachórski, Franciszek Żmurko, Michał Gorstkin-Wywiórski, Bogdan Kleczyński, or Józef Ryszkiewicz. Their deeply romantic image of Polish nature was at the heart of their creative 'symbolophilia'. 

Thanks to the Romantic bards, landscape painting also became a space for free expression that was taken away from the nation at the time of the partitions. Polish Realism and Naturalism painting heralded the work of the turn of the century, which Maria Poprzęcka called 'the happy hour of Polish painting.' The landscapes of Ferdynand Ruszczyca, Julian Fałata, or Leon Wyczółkowski most often depict the Polish nature, in which the 'indigenous spirit' is symbolically expressed. In 1900 the Zachęta building, designed by Stefan Szyller, was opened in Warsaw. In 1901, the Palace of Art (pol. 'Pałac Sztuki') by Franciszek Mączyński was made available to the public too. Thus, the Polish culture gained its 'temples' for the presentation of the classic works of the declining 19th century, as well as contemporary artists paving the way for the future – both the future of the nation and the art.