Pijaczki (Erynie)

Pijaczki (Erynie)

Jack Malczewski (1854-1929) was deeply devoted to art and romantic literature, particularly the poetry of Juliusz Słowacki, which he inherited from his family. He was of noble descent, though not wealthy. His father, Julian, supported him in his painting career. The events of 1863, the January Uprising and subsequent repression, left a strong mark on the young artist. His first teacher was Adolf Dygasiński. In 1867-1871 he spent his youth at the manor of his relatives, the Karczewskis, in Wielgie. In 1873 he began studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow under Jan Matejko. He was also 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. In 1896-1900 and 1910-1914 he was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. In 1912-1914 he was its rector. He began with idealizing realism, then naturalism; the main theme of his works in this period was the fate of exiles to Siberia and the inspiration of Juliusz Słowacki’s “Anhellim”. At the same time, fantastic and allegorical representations 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 completely symbolic. Works manifesting the shift towards a symbolist style are “Introduction” (1890), “Melancholy” (1890-1894), and “Vicious Circle” (1895-1897). The artist tackled existential, historical, and artistic issues, interweaving classical and biblical motifs with native folklore and the quintessentially Polish landscape. Form, color, monumentality of representations, and their expressiveness became his trademark.

The Furies from Malczewski’s painting do not evoke terror, unlike their mythological counterparts, who guarded the souls of the damned in the land of the dead. Gloomy, with venomous snakes, they embodied guilt and the desire for revenge. In the painting, they are depicted as three women sitting at a table. The artist and his sister, Helena Karczewska, accompany them. The painting is associated with the death of the artist’s brother-in-law, Wacław Karczewski, a victim of the so-called “Rapperswil affair,” which can be read about in more detail below. The painting, featuring personifications of grief and revenge, can be interpreted in this context as an attempt to settle accounts with the guilty parties and Malczewski’s self-criticism, as he often reproached himself for not intervening in the matter.

Description of the painting:

Jacek Malczewski often referred to mythological themes in his paintings. The Erynnies were the mythical guardians of the entrance to the underworld and the souls condemned to it. They were three sisters, described as “the embodiment of stern and unyielding pangs of conscience. […] Drool flows from their pale lips and their breath is so poisoned that wherever they fly, no flowers or herbs grow, and disease is born”. Their attributes were poisonous snakes. They often appeared intertwined in the woman’s hair, or held in her hands. Their names were not even uttered out of fear. They were seen as goddesses of revenge, pangs of conscience and the expected punishment that was to come to the guilty, the perpetrators of unjust death or slander.

However, the Furies depicted in Jacek Malczewski’s painting do not spread an aura of fear and post-mortem punishments around them. They are not dangerous. They are sitting on the porch, at the table, appeased. In the select company of the painter himself, his daughter – Julia, and his sister – Helena Karczewska. They are waiting. On their heads they have blue ribbons. This gesture, in accordance with folk practices, becomes a sign of mourning. The Furies lean over bowls, from which, like from their hair, snakes emerge.

The figure of a woman in black attire, situated in the foreground, is turned away from three women. She serves as a strong, color-wise accent of the painting. She sits on a chair and has just taken off her black cap with a veil from her head which she has placed upon her lap. She holds a handkerchief in her right hand and her head is supported by her left hand. She is absorbed in sadness and pondering. Beside her is portrayed the figure of the painter himself. He has propped his elbow on the table and like his sister remains absent, dwelling in the world of thoughts. Behind the figure of Jacek Malczewski, through the window appears a silhouette of a girl. Against the background of her open hand a butterfly is painted.
The figures and symbols appearing allow to determine the subject of the work as mourning. The depiction of sadness, despair and musings was particularly expressively set against the mythological goddesses of revenge and grief. Elements that could awaken hope in the viewer are: the dominant bright, white-gray color scheme of the work, the peace and silence that prevail in it, the arcadian-like backdrop of the suburban manor that is their stronghold, and the practically invisible, small-sized butterfly. It becomes a visible sign of Resurrection, immortality and the human soul. The insect of special significance reflects through successive stages of its development the stages of life: as a larva, a chrysalis (often identified with the body of Jesus laid in the tomb) and an adult individual (resurrected and revived). It allows us to hope for rebirth into eternal life. On the other hand, the presence of the butterfly on the painting may also refer to the brevity and fragility of human life.
This interpretation allows us to make the assertion that the main character of the work is a figure not directly portrayed – Wacław Karczewski. He is lamented by his wife, remembered by his brother-cousin, to which mythical characters echo. But is the presence of the Erinys conditioned only by the rising emotions after the loss of a loved one?
Wacław Karczewski was a librarian at the Polish National Museum in Rapperswil (Switzerland), one of the most important Polish cultural institutions in exile. In addition to his very dignified role, he also worked as a writer and journalist (under the pseudonym Marian Jasieńczyk). He is the author of the novel “W Wielgiem”, which Reymont was supposed to be based on to create “Chłopów”. Wacław opposed the idea of ​​separating the library from the museum collections and moving it to Lviv. He accused the then museum authorities of improper administrative, financial, incompetent handling of the collections and lack of scientific approach to them. He sent a letter to the Paris Delegation responsible for the Rapperswil Museum. He threatened to resign, which was accepted in 1910. The growing unrest and constant intrigues aimed at discrediting his person so undermined his health (he suffered from cancer) that he decided to return to Krakow. He died on Polish soil a few hours after his arrival, on November 24, 1911. The situation and Karczewski himself began to be referred to in the press as “the victim of the Rapperswil affair”. Ignacy Jan Paderewski responded to the situation in rather harsh words: “That we never manage to build anything. We have no virtue of perseverance. Everything is crumbling in our hands. Let the evil burn itself out.”
Significant in this context is also the question of dating the work. On the painting there appears a year, 1910, handwritten by the painter himself. Wacław Karczewski dies at the end of 1911. There are several probable ways of explaining this inconsistency. The first one supposes a deliberate change of the year, or leaving only the year when the artist started painting the work, expressing his opinion about the Raperswil affair. The next one is related to the image of Helena. Was she an originally envisaged figure, or was she painted or repainted by Malczewski in light of the irreparable loss, one year after the original version of the painting was created?
Each of the above possibilities reinforces the conviction that the death of a loved one, combined with a sad reflection on the way Poles function, the lack of mutual understanding and the spread of injustice of the courts, puts the depicted painter and the viewer himself in a state of stagnation. Reaching the butterfly, reaching the stage of reanimation, unification, rebirth – not only in the spiritual, but also in the state dimension – seems to be increasingly unlikely, and its presence.