This week’s Symbolist painter is perhaps the greatest to have come from Poland, and one of my favourite artists: Jacek Malczewski (1854–1929). In case you’re wondering, this is pronounced ˈjat͡sɛk malˈt͡ʂɛfskʲi. Sadly, few of his paintings seem to have left his native country, so unless you have visited galleries in Poland, you’re unlikely to have seen any of his works in the flesh. Let me make amends in this and tomorrow’s articles, in which I look at a small selection through his career.
He was born in Radom, a city to the south of Poland’s capital Warsaw, when it was controlled by the Russian Empire. He moved to Kraków at the age of 17, and trained there in its School of Fine Arts. In 1876 he went to Paris, and studied for a year at the École des Beaux-Arts with Henri Lehmann, also attending the Académie Suisse.
When he returned to Poland in 1879, the country had been partitioned. He based himself in Kraków, visiting Paris, Munich and Vienna fairly regularly until the First World War, as well as making two trips to Italy, and an archaeological expedition to Greece and Turkey. He served as Professor in the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków from 1897 to 1900, and again from 1912 to 1921. His paintings were exhibited and attained high recognition in many international salons, including those of Berlin and Munich in 1892, and in Paris in 1900.
Following the Polish Uprising of 1863, when Malczewski was nine, at least 18,000 were ‘exiled’ to Siberia, many of whom never returned. During the early years of his career, he painted several works which formed a series The Road to Siberia.
The Prisoners, from 1883, shows a group of these political prisoners under guard awaiting shipment to Siberia. It’s winter, and a well-dressed soldier stands at the door guarding seven men and boys. The boy sat on a chair in the foreground still wears a shackle on his ankle. Most are in worn and shabby clothing, and the bearded man at the right has bare feet, even though he carries a large bag and is smoking an ornate pipe.
Another of Malczewski’s interest were the folk tales and legends of central Europe. His Rusałki Cycle tells stories about the rusalki, water nymphs, and in Załaskotany (1888), he shows a whole group of rusalki laughing at the way that they tricked the boy in the centre foreground, who appears to have drowned as a result of their malicious prank.
Melancholia (1890-4) is one of Malczewski’s greatest and most brilliant works, in every sense. Its dense parade of figures streaming across the studio summarises the struggles of the Polish people over the previous century’s succession of partitioning and uprisings. This cornucopia of figures contains the heights of heroism and aspiration, and depths of suffering, but eventually sinks into the lethargy and apathy which developed during the late nineteenth century.
Christmas Eve in Siberia (1892) is a later work from The Road to Siberia, showing Polish exiles imprisoned in the extreme cold and remoteness of Siberia trying to celebrate Christmas as well as they can. Although there’s a steaming samovar at the end of the table, they have only had soup and a wedge of bread for their seasonal feast.
Vicious Circle (1895-97) is another image dominated by figures, this time forming a circle around the young man sat at the top of the stepladder. I suspect this is largely autobiographical, and features flying objects such as leopard skins as well as several naked women.
In the years around the turn of the century, Malczewski worked and reworked the theme of death in a series of paintings, of which Thanatos (1898-9) was the earliest. Here, the Greek myth has been revised completely from its traditional male guise. The figure of death is a young woman, still bearing her symbolic scythe, but closely allied with Eros. Naked under her scant scarlet robes, she sizes up an old man who is cowering at his window.
His next examination of the theme, Thanatos II (1899), takes place under the cold moonlight of the artist’s mansion in Gardzienice. Holding her scythe, Thanatos has regained her traditional wings, which seem more butterfly than bird. Behind her the mansion looks to be burning, figures and several dogs gathered on the lawn in front of it.
Then in Death (1902), her skin assumes the ghastly green of the putrefying corpse, as she closes the eyelids of the figure of the artist himself.
Medusa (1900) shows another recurrent theme, that of the Gorgons from Greek myth. Here the snakes which adorn Medusa’s hair curl and sweep in symmetry, amid more natural locks.
In his Portrait of Tadeusz Błotnicki with Medusa (1902), Malczewski combines the image of his contemporary and friend, the distinguished Polish sculptor Tadeusz Błotnicki (1858-1928), with an attending Medusa.
Portrait of The Actress Helena Sulima as a Gorgon is another unusual portrait from 1903, this time casting its subject in the role of Medusa or one of her sister Gorgons. Helena Sulima (1882-1944) had already become a successful actress in Polish theatre, and in 1912 debuted in her film career, which was to last until the outbreak of the Second World War.
Malczewski painted a series of works showing scenes from the Old Testament story of Tobias, the son of Tobit, taken from the Book of Tobit. The first, Angel, I will follow you (1901) shows Tobias as a young boy meeting his guardian angel. Although largely forgotten now, this story had been painted by Verrocchio, Filippino Lippi, and the Pollaiuolos in the past.
His undated Tobias and the Fates is an unusual composite of Hebrew and Greek traditions. The three women to the left are the Fates, with Clotho in blue spinning, Lachesis measuring out the thread of life and Atropos cutting it, behind. In front of them is the artist, his hands held together in prayer, and Tobias the boy in front of him. The winged angel at the right is Tobias’s guardian angel.