July 7, 2021

Oriental Fantasies

Maurycy Gottlieb, "Recha wita swojego ojca", 1867–1877, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie


The work by Wacław Pawliszak presented in the catalog portrays the final scene from the poem "Natan the Wise" by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, published in 1779. The painter's work is the reception of a painting by Maurycy Gottlieb, who, commissioned by a Viennese publisher, illustrated the life of Natan the Wise and Uriel Acosta, and the book of Ruth. What moved these two artists in the 18th-century text was both the possibility of adapting the canvas to the convention of orientalism popular in their time, and the value of Lessing's poem, which is described by researchers as a masterpiece of world literature. For the author, "Natan the Wise" was the result of a long period of theological disputes and comprehensive materials collected over the years. The work is also Lessing's literary reaction to the loss of his son and the death of his wife at the turn of 1777 and 1778, the fate of Nathan and the biblical Job described in the poem as a literary illustration. The action of the drama takes place in Jerusalem during the third Crusade. Nathan, a Jew known and widely appreciated for his wisdom, returns from a trade journey and learns that his adopted daughter Recha was saved from a fire by a young Templar, who could only perform a heroic deed because his life and freedom were granted by the Muslim ruler Saladin . Nathan finds his daughter's savior and, despite the reluctance of the Templar, persuades him to pay a visit to his home and accept Recha's thanks. The young develop a love affair. The Templar, seeking Recha's favor, learns that the girl's real parents were Christians, after whose death Nathan adopted an orphaned child. In the drama's finale, it turns out that Recha and the Templar are siblings, offspring of Saladin's brother, Assad. Natan is eventually recognized as the rightful adoptive father. Thus, there is a symbolic union and reconciliation of the three religions within one and the same family.


It was this final fragment of the poem that was at first chosen by Gottlieb, and later by Wacław Pawliszak. Probably the latter's work was created during his studies with Jan Matejko, although it is much more probable that the painting was created in Munich, where he could see Gottlieb's paintings at the Friedrich Bruckmann publishing house, on whose commission they were painted. Pawliszak never personally met Gottlieb, but he did see the artist's work. He was fascinated with it, as in Brandt's studio, with the oriental aspect. Pawliszak composed his work in gray and white colors, which evoke associations with the illustrative graphics that he used to practice during his lifetime. This "graphic" character of the painting consciously alluded to the original by Gottlieb, who created a series of illustrations to Lessing's poem in this uneasy monochrome technique due to the client's requirement - such painted images were better suited for photographic reproduction. Pawliszak paid tribute to Gottlieb not only by the reception of the subject: in the left part of the composition he placed a hidden image of Maurice, referring to his famous "Self-portrait in a Bedouin costume".

Orientalism in Polish painting had many faces - from dreamlike and romantic, to erotic and, somewhat mystical. The strong position of Polish Oriental painting, faithfully practiced by many academic artists, appears to be a somewhat paradoxical situation, as motifs from colonial countries were painted and idealized, while Poland, devoid of colonial ambitions, tried to win state independence on its own. However, the attitude of the Polish mentality and Polish artists towards the East was primarily historically conditioned, when even in modern times the magnate Republic maintained lively contacts with those regions. This close neighborhood has left many traces in Polish culture and art, mainly in the arts, dominated since the Sarmatian times by eastern influences. In the era of Romanticism, the East was largely identified with the former borderlands of the Commonwealth, which were the area of ​​clash between Eastern and European cultures, and their history and modern history provided many libertarian allegories. Poland and Europe were fascinated by orient, among others at the time of the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. The archaeological research made at that time, consisting of the 23-volume publication "Description de l'Égypte" containing thousands of figures documenting knowledge about the monuments of Egypt, became for the first French orientalists, including Jean-Léon Gérôme, the basis for creating a new ethnographic reality on his canvases. Another political event that caught Europeans' attention in the East was the Greek struggle for independence in the 1820s. Interest in the East in Europe was also sparked by the events in north-west Africa related to the colonization of the Maghreb by the French. As a result of intriguing events in the East and the possibilities of various colors offered by these areas, journeys to those parts of the aristocracy, diplomats and, above all, artists, he created a new type of cosmopolitan European - an orientalist.