Bajki I (tryptyk) Malczewski, Jacek (1854 - 1929)

Bajki I (tryptyk)

Jack Malczewski (1854-1929) had a deep love for art and romantic literature, especially the poetry of Juliusz Słowacki, which he learned from his family home. He came from a noble, albeit not wealthy, family. His father Julian supported him on his path to a career in painting. The events of 1863, the January Uprising and subsequent repressions, had a profound impact on the young artist. His first teacher was Adolf Dygasiński. He spent his youth from 1867 to 1871 at his uncle Karczewski’s estate in Wielgiem. In 1873 he began studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow under the tutelage of Jan Matejko. He was a student of Władysław Łuszczkiewicz. He also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He traveled to Italy, Vienna, Munich, Greece, and Minor Asia. From 1896 to 1900 and 1910 to 1914 he was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. From 1912 to 1914 he was its rector. He started with an idealizing realism, then naturalism, with the special theme of his works being the fate of exiles to Siberia and the inspiration of Juliusz Słowacki’s “Anhellim”. At the same time, fantastic and allegorical views began to appear in Malczewski’s work. After his father’s death in 1884, the recurring motif in Malczewski’s work was Thanatos – the god of death. After 1890 his art became thoroughly symbolic. Works manifesting the turn towards symbolism are: “Introduction” of 1890, “Melancholia” of 1890-1894, “The Vicious Circle” of 1895-1897. The artist tackled existential, historical, and artistic topics, weaving ancient and biblical motifs with native folklore and the Polish landscape, so essential to his works. Form, color, monumentality of representations and their expression became his hallmark.

Description of the painting:
The upper part of the triptych:
A landscape with winter fields covered in snow and an avenue of birches. In this setting, our story begins. At the crossing of the paths which the travellers had followed, a well was set up. Around it, four figures had gathered. Each with their own vessel had come to take the life-giving water. The man had his hands and face wrapped in a white cloth. It surely hides frostbite. His shoulders were covered with a Siberian coat. The traveller is returning from a distant journey. He is from none of the nearby villages. He is a stranger. The women watch helplessly as the old man, with a wooden stick, tries to break the ice. His strike resulted in the ice cracking, releasing the water that appears on the painting in the form of blue patches surrounding the feet of the gathered. As a result of the strike, the jug belonging to the man standing by the well slipped and broke.

The tool that the old man used – wooden and poor – is disproportionate to the effect of his work. How much strength can a tired exiled prisoner from Siberia have in his injured hands to break a lump as hard as a rock with a wooden stick? In the painting by Malczewski, this strength was enough. The only one, seemingly unable to act, achieved his desired goal. He reaches the source, but there is no vessel to draw water from it. The well is a motif often appearing in Jacek Malczewski’s work. However, in this case it is not a source of poisoned water, but a place of pilgrimage for people thirsty for hope and respite. In the harsh winter, even the water freezes. Only after a period of hard work can the needy quench their thirst. They have to break the numb ice.

In this panel of the triptych, we have only two characters:
a middle-aged man and a young woman. The artist has captured them again in a winter landscape. The expanse of white snow is receding. The well is in a different place. It is not frozen over. However, a barefoot rural girl guards access to it.
She filled the samovar of the exile with water. Yet the returning exile cannot quench his thirst with it. He pours the delicate stream over his wounded and bleeding hands. The young woman looks at them with concern and interest. His wrists are adorned with torn shackles. A wooden stick hangs from his left arm. The water that washes his wounds is meant to heal and soothe the pain. The man stands on a stony, barren ground. But it is here that he finds a healing source. So maybe this land is not completely dead and has life-giving power in its depths. You just have to extract it with the permission of the young guardian.
The bottom panel of the triptych:
Spring is coming. We find ourselves in front of a typical Polish manor house. Two satyrs are cleaning the items left to them. The younger faun perched on the steps of the porch and, holding a brush in his left hand, carefully polishes the black, mud-spattered shoes. Beside him, the handcuffs lie on the steps with the chain broken. The older satyr stands. He holds the folds of the cloak-scythe suspended on the branchless branches with his hand. He had literally swept it just now and shook it off. But now he has interrupted his work and with a mischievous smile on his face, he defiantly looks in our direction. Under his arm, he nonchalantly holds an object resembling a caduceus with two intertwined and intertwined snakes. It is called a herald’s staff, symbolizing his inviolability and having magical properties to alleviate all disputes.
According to mythological accounts, satyrs were not friendly creatures to humans. They often seduced their senses, led them astray and robbed them. However, they faithfully served their master – Dionysus. They were usually depicted as cheerful gods indulging in passions, dancing, singing and playing the flute. Always among a dozen jugs of wine. However, on the painting by Jacek Malczewski, we won’t see such scenes. The old carelessness of fauns was only shown in the intriguing look of one of them. In this Fable, which is an embodiment of unchecked force, intoxication and sensual enslavement, the mythological characters were completely subordinated to the prosaic task of cleaning clothes. It seems that they overcame their animal instincts, and in the dual nature that tears them apart, the human-spiritual part begins to speak. Similarly, the divine caduceus held by the faun is, in essence, a symbol of balance between two opposing forces: spiritual and physical, sensual. Satyrs in Malczewski’s painting are often interpreted as a personification of art itself, “its ambiguous, crafty […] position”*.
Extremely important in the context of the works discussed is also the elaborate symbolism of the coat-cape appearing on them. It is worth noting that it appears on three representations of the tryptych Tales I. One of the interpretations identifies this type of clothing with Siberian coats. This refers to a whole range of patriotic and historical references. The second one, however, shies away from them. The cape is read as a sign of enslavement of the artist’s character. A double pressure, just like the nature of the fauns present in the representation. External pressure imposed by the requirements of an often unsympathetic environment and the surrounding community and internal pressure resulting from its own limitations and guilt.
Dropping the shackles, cleansing the clothing and the shoes becomes a symbol of artistic freedom from the “fetters”. Attempting to maintain an inner equilibrium between the physical, the sensory and the spiritual.
Triptych Fairy Tale and Interpretation of the Whole:
Reading the Tales and Jack Malczewski, it is difficult to find a cause-and-effect sequence between their individual parts. The events depicted in them are not narratively connected. However, there are common motifs or symbols, such as the well motif, which I will refer to tomorrow, the already mentioned brown coat, or the sticks – both the ordinary ones and the divine caduceus. This allows us to make a hypothesis about the overarching idea that connects them. It is related to the motif of the road, journey, which a person, artist, soldier must take to reach the place destined for him. Roads full of obstacles. Such as the frost-bound well from which the water was to quench the thirst. Marked by spiritual and physical limitations – such as age and the tool with which the old man breaks the frozen mass, the unawareness of the young gatekeeper of the well, or the nature of the fauna. And most importantly, associated with the inevitable suffering and sacrifice of passing this way. Visible, for example, in the bleeding wounds of the man from the middle of the triptych. However, only after passing it all, without losing hope, does it allow, if not to completely free oneself from them,