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Young Poland at the William Morris Gallery

31 December 2021

Jonathan Evens looks at Poland’s equivalent of William Morris

courtesy National Museum in Kraków and the Franciscan Church © NMK Photographic Department

Stanisław Wyspiański, detail of rose and nasturtium floral painted mural decoration in the chancel and transepts of the Franciscan Church: original designs in pastel on paper, and finished wall paintings

Stanisław Wyspiański, detail of rose and nasturtium floral painted mural decoration in the chancel and transepts of the Franciscan Church: original de...

THE French artist Maurice Denis, in an address on “New Directions in Christian Art” published by the Revue des Jeunes in February 1919, referred to “the sumptuous glass windows of the Pole Mehoffer in Fribourg” as one example, among others, giving hope of a post-war revival in Christian art.

Józef Mehoffer was a collaborator with Stanisław Wyspiański in Young Poland (Mloda Polska), an Arts and Crafts movement with strong stylistic and philosophical affinities to the work of William Morris, John Ruskin, and their followers in Britain. These affinities were strong within Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to their exploration through the “Young Poland” exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, these affinities also feature currently at the Hungarian National Museum in “The Beauty of Utopia. Pre-Raphaelite Influences in the Art of Turn-of-the-Century Hungary”, which focuses on the Gödöllo artists’ colony founded by Aladár Körösfoi-Kriesch. Denis noted a further influence in the conversion of the Belgian art critic Bruno Destrée, in part through the influence of the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones.

From the end of the 18th century, Poland underwent successive partitions dividing its territory between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, with the result that the country disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years. Young Poland flourished between 1890 and 1918 in response to national non-existence by becoming a means to preserve an endangered cultural heritage while forging a new outward-looking identity. The movement encompassed the visual arts, literature, music, and drama. The works on show at the William Morris Gallery span embroidered and woven textiles, furniture, stained glass, architectural models and drawings, woodcarvings, ceramics, paper cuttings, as well as paintings and illustrations.

Courtesy Private Collection by Descent from the Artist.Karol Klosowski, At Bobbin Lacemaking (Legend), undated, chalk on paper

As the movement’s foremost figure, Wyspiański was the Polish counterpart to Morris. The two artists shared a firm belief in the equality of fine and decorative arts. For both, history and nature were key subjects, as can be seen in works including Wyspiański’s Pansies, Nasturtiums and Roses (1897): designs for wall paintings featuring repeating floral patterns set against a geometric trellis, evocative of Morris’s wallpaper designs. These designs were for painted mural decorations in the chancel and transepts of the Franciscan Church in Kraków.

Wyspiański also created stained glass for the Franciscan Church, including a magnificent God the Creator, using a style influenced by Burne-Jones. Here, we see an example of this style in the stained-glass window Apollo: Copernicus’s Solar System (1905), originally created for one of Wyspiański’s most prestigious commissions, the interior design of the Medical Society in Kraków, destroyed during the Second World War, but on show through the master craftsman Piotr Ostrowski’s contemporary recreation of the work.

Mehoffer’s work was similarly imbued with symbolism, as can be seen in his theatrical and otherworldly allegorical wall frieze, Nature & Art (1901). Mehoffer’s work undertaken over 40 years for St Michael’s, Fribourg, is one of the largest stained-glass cycles and one of the most interesting examples of European art nouveau in modern art and led on to other similar commissions in Poland itself.

As Andrzei Szczerski and Julia Griffin note in the book by the exhibition’s curators (Lund Humphries, 2020), Mehoffer effectively combined Polish folk imagery with the international visual language of art nouveau and, like Wyspiański, saw the rebirth of Poland as a spiritual journey towards national freedom.

courtesy the National Museum in Kraków © NMK Photographic DepartmentJózef Mehoffer, Nature and Art (1901), design for a wall frieze, watercolour on paper laid on canvas

Wyspiański died prematurely, aged 38, but the movement also gave rise to the Zakopane style of architecture and interior decoration, based on local construction, carving, and embroidery traditions from the Tatra Mountains. Stanislaw Witkiewicz was the founder and main proponent of the Zakopane style. Examples of his work include the architectural model of the most famous building created in the style, House under the Firs (1899), made for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris to promote the Zakopane style abroad. The Zakopane style was developed before Witkiewicz became aware of John Ruskin and William Morris, but he later said that his work had unknowingly fulfilled the theories of these British reformers.

The work of another significant Zakopane-based Young Poland figure, Karol Klosowski is also explored in the exhibition. Klosowski was a prolific sculptor and woodcarver, painter, textile and furniture designer, paper-cutter, and creator of Zakopane’s Silent Villa (Willa Cicha). Every element of this villa was meticulously hand-crafted by Klosowski with ornamental lace designs and paper cuttings on show here.

The bold and intimate watercolours of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska can also be seen, including Jan Pawlikowski in a Cosmic Setting (c.1918) — a portrait of her second husband, forming part of a series depicting him among planets on a cosmic scale.

Stained Glass Workshop and MuseumApollo: Copernicus’s Solar System After Stanislaw Wyspianski’s stained glass (1905) for Medical Society, Kraków, contemporary recreation by artist and master-craftsman Piotr Ostrowski, made at the Young Poland Krakow Stained Glass Company (2017)

The final section of the exhibition then looks at works produced by the Kraków Workshops (1913-26), a commercial cooperative of architects, craftsmen, and artisans, whose work sought to synthesise traditional craft with modern techniques. These include never-before-exhibited Christmas-tree decorations, made of simple and natural materials such as paper, beans, and eggshells, which include Polish Christmas characters such as manger animals, St Nicholas, a fish, and the devil (a nativity character in Poland).

Young Poland was part of an international Arts and Crafts movement that, as identified by Linda Parry and Karen Livingstone, developed initially in Britain before flourishing in Europe and America from the 1880s until the First World War. Like the movement in Britain, Young Poland initiated a flourishing of religious and ecclesiastical art. In addition to a range of church designs by Wyspiański and Mehoffer, the exhibition includes a design by their tutor, Jan Matejko, for St Mary’s Basilica, Wlastimil Hofman’s Confession, images by Klosowski showing crafts and craftspeople as sacred, an Expulsion from Eden by Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, and a binding for the Missale Romanum produced especially for an exhibition of church art in Vienna in 1912.

The movement was “based on an ideology revolving around moral and social values, striving to change the world”; and Wyspiański and Mehoffer were key figures, as also were the artists featured in the Hungarian Art Museum exhibition. The spirituality of the movement is seen not solely in the extent to which churches were built and decorated (5000 Arts and Crafts-style churches in the UK, for example, between 1884 and 1918), contributing to the revival of Christian art for which Denis was looking, but also through themes of sacrifice and redemption. Thus, within Young Poland, the suffering of Poles was viewed as having a deeper, spiritual meaning that would serve to redeem Europe.

“Young Poland” is at the William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road
Walthamstow, London E17, until 30 January 2022. Phone
020 8496 4390. www.wmgallery.org.uk

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