Of Flowers and Freedom

Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski, eds. – Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 (Lund Humphries, 2021)

Art history tends to group all of the various nature-inspired art styles created in Europe between 1880 and 1920 under the collective term “art nouveau”.

On the one hand, this homogenises our response to the work – attributing it to an “international style” more cosmopolitan than national – and on the other hand it foregrounds the “art for art’s sake” attitudes of the French school.

This has never sat quite right with me. Especially when William Morris – a figure whose life and philosophy is the total antithesis of “art for art’s sake” – is positioned as part of this group.

Young Poland, a new study on the Arts and Crafts movement in Poland, justifies my scepticism. This movement, heavily inspired by Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, saw the French and Viennese decadent schools not only as unrelated to their work, but as positively antagonistic.

The artists range from national treasure Stanisław Wyspiański, to architect Stanisław Witkiewicz, maker Karol Kłosowski and modernist Maria Pawlikowski-Jasnorzewska. The groups include the Krakow Workshops, Podhale folk artists and the Zakopane Style.

All of them embraced the Arts and Crafts message of dignity through labour, the equivalence of craft and high art, and a fusion of natural imagery with national folk styles. Their aim was to evoke the feeling of swojski: one of those homely words like Heimlich or hygge that English can never fully convey; a mix of home comforts, nostalgia, peace and harmony.

But it was also a political movement. Where Morris feared the encroachment of industrialisation on national culture, Poland had the far more imminent imposition of Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary, who had carved the country up between them in the partition of 1795.

The term “Young Poland” (Młoda Polska) refers to a nation that had not yet been born. Poland existed on no map until 1918.

The art style is therefore a vigorous statement of principle. Poland lives in its people; here are their traditional styles, here is their history, see how different it is to the “international” styles produced in St Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna’s factories.

Wyspiański is particularly attuned to these questions. His Church of St Francis in Krakow is a masterpiece of national/natural fusion. A total artwork, it ornaments the original medieval space with Morrisean furniture, painted details taken from Polish wildflowers and the “samartian” colour schemes particular to the nation. All of this crowned by the particularly Polish reinvention of Catholic symbolism to represent the fate of the nation.

Mother Poland – Polonia – is interchangeable with the crowned Marys stationed in shrines along the roadside. Wyspiański’s tutor, the great historical painter Jan Matejko, pioneered this art of double-signification.

It’s a good defence against the charge of resurrectionary nationalism; to dress one’s national heroes in the “international style” of the Catholic church. The same could be said of the “swojski” Zakopane Style; a style nostalgic for the simple pleasures of the rural highlands, that was nevertheless most fervently adopted by the modern, liberal, independence-minded bourgeoisie.

The historical continuities foregrounded by the study are also of tremendous interest to the scholar of Western European art history. Where academic history painting, Arts and Crafts, and modernism tend to be presented to us as separate movements, each supplanting the previous, Young Poland shows us that process as a gradual evolution of the same style.

If Matejko to Wyspiański represents academic art transitioning to Arts and Crafts, the influence of Witkiewicz on Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska shows us Arts and Crafts transforming fluidly, with no great leaps necessary, into modernism.

Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska is best known as a poet (many of these figures were multitalented) and (to add a touch of local interest) moved to Manchester during the Second World War. She is buried in the Southern Cemetery.

Not much of her writing exists in English, and Bogoczek and Howard’s chapter on her work here represents a valuable contribution to raising her international status. The way her work evolves from an early fairytale style (think Christina Rossetti) to a cosmic symbolism (Klimt meets Mucha) before finally emerging as energetic, iconoclastic modernism, provides us with a route through modern art unprecedented in its range and breadth.

The book is, as you would expect, lusciously presented, with thick pages and beautifully presented reproductions of key works. It’s quite comprehensive, as regards the Polish movement, and makes a valuable addition to our understanding of Arts and Crafts, and of turn-of-the-century European art in general.

Joe Darlington

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