If you grew up in England you probably heard of William Morris (1834-1896) or at least saw one of his designs. He was the man behind the highly influential company Morris & Co, which still produces some of Morris’s original designs on fabrics and wallpapers. Morris designs also continue to inspire artists and designers.
If you grew up in Poland, you most likely saw a reproduction of one of Stanisław Wyspiański’s (1869-1907) portraits in someone’s house. There was a time where almost everyone had them. Maybe you learnt about Wyspiański’s plays at school, or seen reproductions of his artworks (like this one).
What do Morris and Wyspiański have in common? Turns out, quite a lot. Despite the fact they never met, their lives were quite similar. Both were examples of a so-called Renaissance man, they were writers, artists and designers. They were against the hierarchy of arts, believing that there should be no division between ‘high’ art and craft. Morris and Wyspiański were interested in repeated pattern designs, they drew their inspiration from nature and history and both shared antiquarian interests. Promoting a democratic approach to art, they firmly believed that everyone deserves access to beauty in their everyday life. Both Morris and Wyspiański left a long-lasting legacy in their respective countries.
The current exhibition at the William Morris Gallery brings the art of Young Poland to London and explores this rich period of Polish art history (1890-1918).The artists of Young Poland – Wyspiański and his contemporaries transformed Polish arts and crafts during the last decade of 19th century and and the first two decades of 20th century, a culturally vibrant period which came to an end roughly around the time Poland regained independence in 1918.
In the exhibition divided into five parts you can explore a rich selection of works by Young Poland artists. In the first room the curators highlight the connections between Morris and Wyspiański. You can see examples of Wyspiański’s writings, works on paper, textiles, furniture and stage design.
While Wyspiański is predominantly known for his plays and charming pastel portraits of children, my favourite part of his artistic input is stained glass design. I have always wanted to see his ‘Apollo’ stained glass, which I knew from the reproductions of the pastel cartoon. ‘Apollo: Copernicus’s Solar System’ (1905) was part of the decorative scheme for Kraków Medical Society designed by Wyspiański. I knew that the actual stained glass was destroyed during WWII and never once have I imagined that I would see Wyspiański’s Apollo in person. But to see it here in London? Absolutely wonderful experience. The contemporary reconstruction of the stained glass panel was made by Piotr Ostrowski. It is breathtakingly beautiful and the colours are so vibrant. I believe the contemporary artist truly captured the beauty of Wyspiański’s design. The installation is complemented by the prototype of brass and iron ‘Chestnut’ banister for the Kraków Medical Society, produced according to Wyspiański’s design by Józef Górecki Metalworks in 1904. Both the stained glass and the banister sample give the visitors a feel of Wyspiański’s grand decorative scheme.
Aside from Wyspiański, other artists whose works are displayed in this room include Józef Mehoffer, Vlastimil Hofmann, Bronisława Rychter-Janowska and Henryk Uziembło.
The art of Young Poland was heavily influenced by the independence movement. It is still very popular with Polish audiences in Poland and abroad. In contrast to the artists of an earlier generation such as Jan Matejko, famous for his monumental canvases depicting epic events from Polish history, the painters of Young Poland were a bit more subtle with their patriotism. Wyspiański and his contemporaries filled their artworks with love for the homeland evoking the beauty of indigenous nature, especially local flowers prevalent in Stanisław Wyspiański’s art.
It is worth noting that what was considered Polish territories at the end of 19th century and early 20th century was very different to the current borders. For Young Poland’s artists, poets and writers Poland was quite an imaginary concept. Born during the partitions, they were nostalgic for the country they never knew. Many Polish intellectuals of the time longed for a simpler, ‘indigenous’ art, unspoiled by foreign influence of Poland’s colonisers: Prussia, Russia and Austria. Local folk art of the Tatra mountains found in Zakopane was seen as key in order to revitalise the Polish spirit and encourage the Poles to fight for independence.
Following the exhibition route up the staircase decorated with large reproductions of Jan Rembowski’s Highlanders Marching (1909-1910) we arrive at the door of the House Under the Firs (a wooden model of the real house) which was designed by Stanisław Witkiewicz (1851-1915), the founder of the Zakopane style. The model made by Highlander craftsmen was prepared for the Paris Exposition Universelle (1900). The success of the Zakopane style, pioneered by Stanisław Witkiewicz and mastered by Karol Kłosowski elevated the local craftsmanship and popularised folk art among all groups of Polish society. Zakopane folk costumes are probably the most recognisable of all Polish local folk costumes, and many people see them as quintessentially Polish.
Two artists of the younger generation of Young Poland included in the exhibition were given individual rooms and for a good reason.
Karol Kłosowski (1882-1971) is undeservedly less known than other Young Poland artists, so it’s great to see so many works by the artist on display. His home ‘Silent Villa’, decorated in the Zakopane style, is a total work of art, footage of its interior features in the introductory video filmed for this exhibition and can be watched in the gallery.
Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945) was a famous poet and playwright of the Young Poland period, but it is less known that she was also a very talented visual artist. I was glad to see that there is a room dedicated to her pastel works. Her delicate Self-Portrait with Elf (c.1920) is quite beautiful, and portraits of her family members also on display really bring the sitters to life. Interestingly Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska lived with her second husband Jan (also known as Jaś) Pawlikowski at the House Under the Firs, the model of which is shown at the entrance to the upper gallery rooms.
The last room of the exhibit shows the last chapter of Young Poland – the achievement of the Kraków Workshops and the artists associated with the institution, including one of my favourite artists of the early 20th century Zofia Stryjeńska (1891-1976). The Kraków Workshops (1913-1926) combined Young Poland’s fascination with tradition and modernist design. Children and teenagers who studied and worked at the workshops were taught batik, weaving, bookbinding, and toymaking. As is most fitting for a winter exhibition there is also a fantastic modernist Christmas tree decorated with paper ornaments and toys designed at the Kraków Workshops.
Accompanying the exhibition are several works reproduced by contemporary Polish artists, including glass-artist Piotr Ostrowski mentioned above, and Anna Myczkowska-Szczerska who made enlarged versions of Christmas ornaments after the designs of Zdzisław Gedliczka, Wojciech Jastrzębowski and other artists of the Kraków Workshops.
Displayed in front of the William Morris Gallery is a contemporary sculpture ‘Chochoł’ (2021) by Marcin Rusak, which was inspired by the iconic painting ‘Chochoły’ (1897-1899) by Stanisław Wyspiański. Chochoł – a straw covering for a plant during winter (often slightly anthropomorphic in shape) for Wyspiański was a symbol of hope, renewal and fight for Polish independence. Rusak’s mixed-media sculpture is made of steel wire, metallised leaves, shellac, flowers, leaves, straw, hay and clay. The work explores ideas of time passage, winter versus spring, death versus rebirth, and it’s a great contemporary addition to the exhibition.
Young Poland. An Arts And Crafts Movement 1890-1918 is at the William Morris Gallery until 30 January 2022.
See this free exhibition while it lasts. Such a rare treat!
I also recommend the catalogue accompanying the exhibition available to buy at the gallery shop: Young Poland. The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement 1890-1918. Edited by Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski.
This looks quite excellent, what a fascinating opportunity to experience firsthand this sort of nationalistic craft revival of that period throughout Europe. Nationalism , so often tainted with ugliness , expressed itself so admirably I feel in the 90’s and aughts , a fascinating and rewarding focus on preserving singular craft sensibilities . Thank you for sharing this ! Happy new year 🕊
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Thanks for your kind words. It’s quite rare to see an exhibition devoted to a Polish art movement shown outside of Poland, and this one is really well done. The high quality of the artworks speak for themselves really. Thanks for stopping by and all the best in 2022!
Not able to visit this exhibition but it looks really cool. I love stained glass and the colours in “Apollo” are intense
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Glad you liked the post! I hope my photos did a decent job conveying the beauty of the works.
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Your photos certainly did 🙂
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Thank you ☺️
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