Sztuka: The Society of Polish Artists
by Wanda K. Mohr
Modernism in art was a movement that arose in the late 19th and at the turn of the 20th century against rapid and monumental changes in Western society and was shaped by industrialization, urbanization and later to the horrors of World War I. Modernists rejected the hegemony of Enlightenment thinking and many rejected religious thought, as well. They sought to break down conventional formulas of artistic representation. Most of us are familiar with the giants of modernism in European artistic expression, but there are no household names such as Matisse or Picasso among Polish artists. To this day, Polish art has remained mostly unknown to Western art history.
Yet there is a rich tradition of modernism in Polish art history which was shaped in part by an influential school of visual artists that arose around the turn of the century calling themselves the Society of Polish Artists (Towarzystwo Artystów Polskich). This society became known as ”Sztuka” and consisted of prominent Polish artists who came together during a time when Poles were living under partition and the country had ceased to exist as an independent state. Poland's complex political history and passion for independence dominated its nineteenth-century culture and in the absence of a stable independent political structure, patriotism and national sentiment strongly influenced the development of Polish art. For Poles, their culture was the repository of national memory, essentially an enclave for their threatened national identity and a requisite tool in their political struggle. The goal of the Sztuka movement was to re-affirm the importance and unique character of Polish contemporary art at a time, when Poland could not exist as sovereign nation.
Sztuka’s artists realized their goals through propagating naturalism (depicting realistic objects in a natural setting), based on a mixture of plein-air (open air) observation and depiction of commonplace, yet personal domestic scenes, particularly those within domestic interiors. Their works stressed the “Polishness” of the Polish landscape and life as a source of national distinctiveness and pride. Among Sztuka’s members were some of the leading artists of the period, such as the painters Olga Boznańska*, Józef Marian Chełmoński, Józef Pankiewicz, Leon Jan Wyczółkowski, and Stanisław Wyspiański. The group was headquartered in Krakow although it never had its own administrative center nor did its members publish their own journal. During its existence, the association organized numerous exhibitions in major Polish artistic centers including Kraków, Warsaw, Lwów and Wilno. Believing in the importance of art as a means of promoting national unity, the artists also exhibited in less prestigious locations such as Poznań, Łódź, Toruń, Sosnowiec and Katowice. Sztuka promoted Polish art abroad and helped to facilitate artistic contacts with artists in other parts of Europe and the U.S. By 1914 most major modernist Polish artists were affiliated with the movement, although Sztuka was criticized by some younger artists for its exclusivity.
Sztuka artists drew their inspiration from European modernism, which they treated as a means for conveying patriotism and for creating a pictorial style expressive of native tradition. Hence, Polish art of this period exemplifies, a balance between foreign influences and the unique means of expression native to Polish culture.
The Sztuka artists were also influenced by Japanese art as well. Japonisme had a huge influence on the Impressionism, Post-Impressionism & the Nouveau art movements, peaking in the 1890s. Several prominent Sztuka artists were introduced to Japanese art by Władysław Ślewiński*, a leading artist of the young Poland movement and a student of Paul Gaugin who’s work was influenced by Japanese prints. These influences can be seen in some of the magnificent art nouveau projects in architecture, painting and stained glass produced by Stanisław Wyspiański*
Wyspiański was one of the most outstanding and eclectic Polish artists of his time under the partitions. He blended modernism with history and Polish folk tradition. One can see the fusion of history and modernism in his 1904–5 series of pastel drawings of the Kosciuszko Mound. The series is an excellent example of an expressionist landscape charged with historical importance. His representation of the Kosciuszko Mound at different times of the day can be seen as a reminder of the mound’s significance over time as a symbol of uprising and liberation and reflecting the hopes of the nation to regain independence. Reflecting the influence of Japonisme, the Kosciuszko Mound series with its offset mound, echoes Hokusai Katsushika’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, with its offset mount (more here) While Wyspiański’s emphasis is on the patriotic, historical meaning of the site, Hokusai’s is meant to convey Mount Fuji’s spiritual meaning, nevertheless the influence of Japonisme on Wyspiański’s work is striking.
Poland’s past and history was also revealed in the landscape imagery and depersonalization of the human being in the works of Władysław Ślewiński and Witold Wojtkiewicz*, both of whom conveyed an extreme pessimism rooted in the broader context of a captive people under decades of partition. Their landscapes in particular are characterized by unusual light effects, permeated by a drab color palette and certain pictorial motifs predominate. For example, misty depictions of dawn conveyed melancholy and a dissipated light of dusk evoke a feeling of unease.
Polish modernists preferred the transitional phases of the seasons of the year—early spring and late autumn— and had a strong preference for sorrowful autumn evenings, wistful twilight hours, and uneasy cloudy nights to convey the despair of living under partition and the vagaries of Polish history.
The modernist tradition took root in Poland largely because of the Sztuka movement and the association had its major impact on Polish art prior to World War I. Their contribution was to imbue traditional themes and artistic expression with the exigencies of the sociopolitical issues of their time in history, specifically keeping the idea of Poland as an independent country and peoples alive. During the interwar years, a new generation of artists expressed a dissatisfaction with Sztuka’s dominance over the Polish art world and its influence waned. Polish artists moved on to the next stage of their evolution, embracing most of the new internationalist movements including cubism, expressionism, surrealism, and dada. Although no longer active, the association existed until 1950.
* denotes artists whose works are exemplified
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A special thanks to: Jenni Drozdek (Assistant Director for Interpretation, Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk (Professor of Art ret. Oldham Sixth Form College, U.K.) for their feedback on this article.