Out Looking In

Jan Cavanaugh, Out Looking In: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890 – 1918, University of California Press: Berkeley 2000.

Having read Jan Cavanaugh’s Out Looking In, two different opinions are called to mind. In defense of the impressionists, whose works had been widely attacked, Emile Zola claimed in 1877, “The artists ought to find poetry in the stations as their fathers found it in the forest and fields.”

Promoting modern French art in Poland, painter and art critic Stanislaw Witkiewicz argued in 1884 that it is quite insignificant whether a work depicts Jan Zamoyski’s victory over Prince Maximilian or a country wench (“Kafka”) picking up turnips.

Cavanaugh opens his book with a statement focusing on a discrepancy between French modernism and its Polish counterpart: “Western viewers who try to judge turn-of-the-century Polish art by comparing it with the French ‘mainstream’ will not get far.”(Jan Cavanaugh, Out Looking In: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890-1918 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 1.) Here’s why. Polish art of the period 1890-1918 (known also as the “Young Poland” period) is “an unusual mixture of nationalism and modernism” (9).

Although Out Looking In deals with different aspects of “early modern Polish art,” it is better to read this book as a study of a “fundamental contradiction in Polish modernism, resulting from its cultivation of national as well as international trends” (211).

Stanislaw Witkiewicz expresses this “fundamental contradiction” in his -often-quoted (but usually misunderstood) statement questioning the ideological function of art. The critic rejects historical and academic painting, alluding to Zamoyski at Byczyna, a canvas completed in 1884 by Jan Matejko, who was arguably the greatest Polish historical painter. At the same time, however, he advocates landscape painting, restricted to traditional rural themes (“picking turnips”).

Thus Witkiewicz seems to approve the stylistic innovations of the new art but only as vehicles for the traditional Polish motifs. Put briefly, he, unlike Zola, prefers old-fashioned “forests and fields” to new (modern) railway stations. French Impressionism is often characterized by its technical devices: broken brushwork and divided light and color.

But the very nature of themes preferred by the artists makes an important addition to the impressionistic (“scientific”) method of creation. It is worth mentioning that Monet and his colleagues depicted modern urban life and regarded it as a manifestation of rapid technological and socio-economic progress. Impressionistic landscapes abundantly use the various symbols of modern space (that is, made or arranged by man), including steamboats, locomotives, bridges, viaducts, glass-roofed stations, etc.

Thus western European modernism (French Impressionism and the other “isms”) is characterized as a new hierarchy of themes (urban and industrial scenes) and new modes of presentation (rendering a visual perception tinged with the observer’s own).

Cavanaugh convincingly demonstrates that, in the context of Western turn-of-the-century art, Polish modernist painters could be described through the objects that are either rarely portrayed on their canvases or are totally absent: “There are few trains or train stations. . . . Moreover, there are almost no paintings of Kraków’s tramway. . . . Telegraph poles are also rare. . . . Furthermore, neither the span bridges . . . nor traces of industry in general appeared in landscape painting, although factories did exist, including a few in Kraków” (127).

Cavanaugh recalls that in the 19th century the term “nation” in Poland became gradually associated, not with the nation as a whole, but with its agrarian segment, consisting of the gentry, nobility, and peasantry. The romantics developed a theory of two cultures, stressing that only folk art preserved the remains of the old, genuine culture and that, therefore, it should become a pattern for Polishness in art.

Since “modernism,” as Cavanaugh emphasizes, is synonymous with “universal values” and “international style” (transcending national partitions), the question appears to be: What are the artistic effects of mixing “nationalism” with “modernism”? The answer suggested by Out Looking In may be outlined as follows: The close contact of Polish art with the modern “international” trends (“isms”) resulted in new interpretations of traditional and well-established themes.

Cavanaugh gives many examples of artistic efforts, the aims of which were to revitalize national tradition. In my opinion, the paintings of the so-called Munich Group are the most interesting. This unique, highly original technique, elaborated by the Gierymski brothers, Józef Chezmolski, and Adam Chmielowski, resembles the style that became known as French Impressionism.

Analyzing the canvas Insurgents on Patrol by Maksymilian Gierymski (1873), Cavanaugh observes, “His subject matter, which included equestrian scenes of Polish insurgents, was in line with earlier Polish national art, but his paintings differed in important respects: he rid them of all anecdotal content and stressed technique and formal problems, especially harmony of color and light” (113).

Gierymski’s piece perfectly demonstrates how the “unusual mixture of nationalism and naturalism” works. It is distinguishable stylistically from the context of national art. At the same time, the color scales make a crucial difference between Polish “mood painting” and “classic” impressionism.

On the one hand, the heroes depicted by Gierymski resemble the allegorical figures of Artur Grottger’s patriotic cycle. On the other hand, all the human beings are treated by the Munich Group as if they were inanimate objects or the specific combinations of lines, shapes, and colors. Moreover, the typical Polish modernist landscape may be labeled as a work without a hero. The people are represented only indirectly, by architecture or the traces of their everyday life.

A program of autonomy of art, underlying all modernist trends, had a specifically Polish version. Autonomy contradicted neither nationality nor Poland’s claim to independence. According to Cavanaugh, the essential aim of Polish modernists was to serve their nation by creating works that could gain recognition for Poland with its quite distinct, albeit “modern,” culture.

The “Zakopane style” (invented by Stanislaw Witkiewicz and designed for Polish architecture, furniture, utilitarian objects, etc.) shows the trend parallel to paintings. It had to preserve the uniqueness of Polish craftsmanship and – in line with John Ruskin’s aesthetic views – oppose Western mechanization.

Out Looking In consists of two parts. The first (“From the Partitions to the Moderna”) presents a historical and cultural background of Polish art between 1890 and 1918. Analyzing numerous ideas discussed by outstanding critics (Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Stanislaw Przybyszewski, Zenon Przesmycki), Cavanaugh neglects their core: namely, a conviction that a work should be evaluated with regard to the formal values and not to its subject matter.

Two chapters (four and five) are devoted to the “Sztuka” society. They show in detail the ways “Sztuka” functioned as a crucial institution that helped the Polish artists to participate in the greatest exhibitions, thus propagating Polish art abroad. In the second part (“Stars Are Born Out of Chaos”), Cavanaugh deals with the different aspects of Polish “modernist school.”

Chapters six and seven analyze “mood painting” in its impressionistic and post-impressionistic context, while the remaining chapters (eight and nine) examine the trends that emerged by the turn -of -the century but reached their full maturity some time later (Symbolism and Expressionism).

Reading the passages on symbolism, I was struck by the lack of any comment on Marian Podkowilski’s Mad Ecstasy [Szal uniesien], one of the best known and most widely discussed works of the Young Poland period, which portrays a nude woman clinging to the neck of a black horse.

This provocative painting twice attracted spectators’ attention after it was put on display. The first time because of its shocking content when it was displayed at Warsaw’s Zacheta gallery in March 1894; the second-a month later- when Podkowinski entered the gallery, approached his work, and slashed the canvas. The assumption was that the naked woman on the horse represented-Mrs. Kotarbinska, who did not requite the painter’s blind love.

It might be said that both the work and the act of its destruction share the same meaning, symbolizing the often violent power of human instincts and passions. A history of Mad Ecstasy is interesting, too, because it proves that modernism, indeed, started to blur the boundaries between art and life. This process, as we know, is quite visible in contemporary postmodern art.

Out Looking In is a pioneering text: the first comprehensive examination of Polish modernist art written in English. Cavanaugh shows that modernism does not just belong in the past but is also a cultural phenomenon that influences present-day Polish art. Richly illustrated and documented, as well as vividly written, Cavanaugh’s book will undoubtedly stimulate readers.