From Rome to Krakow
I HAVE to own up to a distinct shortfall when it comes to general knowledge of Poland, her history, language, and culture. It is shameful, really, when you think that I attended the same secondary school as Norman Davies, one of Poland’s most distinguished contemporary historians (God’s Playground, OUP, 2005).
So it was with a sense of exploration that I set off from Rome on Boxing Day for a mini-break in Krakow. I left three days later, still ashamed, having made little progress linguistically, not even mastering the words for “Hello”, “Goodbye”, or “Thank you”, but reeling from the cultural riches glimpsed.
Although the weather remained grey and overcast, my principal impression of the artistic environment was one of vibrant colour: there was no better exemplar than the paintings of Jan Matejko, viewed in the national gallery of 18th- and 19th-century painting in the Sukiennice, or Clothiers’ Hall, in Krakow.
Powered by a sense of outrage at the dismemberment of their homeland by three neighbouring super-powers — Russia, Austria, and Prussia — 19th-century Polish painters, musicians, and writers were frequently motivated to an exuberant celebration of national glory.
Anyone who has visited the Vatican museums will have seen a canvas by Matejko on the way to the Sistine Chapel. Even if you didn’t linger, the sheer size of his painting of King Jan Sobieski’s relief of Vienna from the Ottomans must have made an impression. A history painter on a CinemaScope scale, and with a Technicolor palette, Matejko cannot be ignored.
Prussian Homage, an equally massive canvas that recalls the passage of the state of the Teutonic Knights from a religious to a secular identity in 1523, and the subservient relation of the Hohenzollern dynasty at that time to the Polish Crown, was clearly filled with a sad irony three centuries later. It prompted Matejko to place the court jester centre-stage, looking directly out of the picture at the viewer.
Does a native irony make blatant nationalism acceptable? It’s a question that Professor Davies might have thought proper for an exam paper.
AND so, inevitably (as any regular reader of these pieces will acknowledge), to the opera. In this case, the opportunity to hear what is often termed Poland’s national work: Straszny Dwór (The Haunted Manor), by Stanislaw Moniuszko. Ideally suited to the period of my visit, since its principal action takes place on New Year’s Eve, it received a performance at Krakow’s state-of-the-art new theatre which communicated the work’s place as part of a hallowed annual tradition for patriotic Poles.
The audience communicated something like the atmosphere of the audience at Messiah in the Christmas period in my northern childhood, including a party of army officers and their wives, in what struck me as quite old-fashioned evening dress.
The music is delightful (Moniuszko being a kind of Slavic Donizetti), and the production, though unashamedly traditional, was slickly delivered and generally well sung. Interested readers might like to use the excellent website www.theoperaplatform.eu/en to sample a much more up-to-date production, from Warsaw, directed by our own David Pountney. This show celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Theatre Weikl’s first two performances of what is substantially a light-hearted comedy, but one that was subsequently banned by Russian censors for its unashamedly patriotic subtext. More Polish irony? I guess so.
Poet with a keen edge
MY POLISH tourism began with a visit to the grave of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska, who died in 2012. There was something slightly twisted about visiting her grave; but because the city’s monumental cemetery was near to where I was staying, and the tram stop to the city centre was right next to it, it made some sense.
All the cemetery’s tombs seemed attended to: they were decked with lamps, flowers, holy wreaths, and ribbons; so the poet’s did not stand out as attracting particular attention. Once its whereabouts were located, though, the tributes of cigarettes and disposable lighters clustered around the grave guaranteed its identification: Szymborska was an unapologetic smoker. I left a single yellow rose, for friendship.
Her relatively slim output is uniformly keen-edged. I recommend her neat aphorism “There should be a monument erected to the anonymous inventor of the drawer”, and her unforgettable poem “Writing a CV” — something that has been on my own mind, recently. It concludes:
. . . Omit dogs, cats, and birds,
Mementos, friends, and dreams.
Enclose a photo with one ear showing,
What counts is its shape, not that it hears.
What does it hear?
The clatter of machinery that threds paper.
(Grazyna Drabik and Austin Flint’s translation)
In the small exhibition dedicated to her in the Museum of Contemporary Art, there is a splendid photo of the poet in profile on the phone, with a beautiful modernist painting of a woman in profile behind her.
Both, of course, have one ear showing.
IN THIS atmosphere of surprisingly gentle irony, given Poland’s sufferings, which stretch from the 1790s to the 1990s, I cannot help thinking that Szymborska, Moniuszko, and Matejko would find Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the far-right ruling party in the national sjem — parliament — ridiculous in his plans to nationalise all TV broadcasting.
More like the oppressor than the oppressed, this politician, despite his patriotic claims, seems shamefully ignorant of his national tradition of dissent delivered with an ironic smile.
The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome.