Jack Malczewski (1854-1929) inherited his love for art and romantic literature, especially the poetry of Juliusz Slowacki, from his family home. He came from a szlachta family, albeit a poor one. His father Julian supported him on his path to a career in painting. The events of 1863, the January Uprising and subsequent repression, left a deep impression on the young artist. His first tutor was Adolf Dygasiński. Malczewski spent his youth from 1867 to 1871 at the Karczewski family manor in Wielgim. In 1873 he began studying at the School of Fine Arts in Krakow under the tutelage of Jan Matejko. He was a student of Władysław Łuszczkiewicz and also studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He traveled to Italy, Vienna, Munich, Greece, and Asia Minor. From 1896-1900 and 1910-1914 he was a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. From 1912-1914, he was its rector. He began with romanticized realism, then naturalism, with the particular theme of the exile to Siberia and the inspiration of Juliusz Slowacki’s “Anhellim” recurring in his work. At the same time, fantastic and allegorical elements 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 this shift to a symbolist style include “Introduction” (1890), “Melancholia” (1890-1894), and “Vicious Circle” (1895-1897). The artist addressed existential, historical, and artistic topics, intertwining ancient and biblical motifs with his native folklore and the ever-present Polish landscape. Form, color, monumentality, and expression became his hallmarks.
Description of the painting:
Jack Malczewski and Adam Asnyk knew each other and mutually inspired each other. This is evidenced by the works they created. The writer dedicates one of his poems “Sketch for a Contemporary Picture” to the artist. In turn, the painter captures the image of the poet sitting in the company of neither ancient nor typically Polish lyrical poetry with a bow lira as an attribute. In the background, he shows a procession of national heroes, harvesters, soldiers and women, with the personification of Poland at the head. Asnyk reproached Modernism painters for creating art that was too complicated, full of eroticism and incomprehensible symbols, turning away from patriotic themes. The portrait “Adam Asnyk” is Malczewski’s answer to the accusations against the art. It is a representation of the golden mean, maintaining a balance between the world of senses, inspirations and national duty.
The portrait of the poet was started in 1894, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his creative work *. In 1895, Asnyk published “Sketch for a Contemporary Picture”, which he dedicated in the introduction to Jack Malczewski. So are both works related? Critics are not unanimous on this issue. Undoubtedly, the poet showed respect for the artist, although he quite unambiguously described the art close to him:
“A subtle aroma of thoughts flows,
Refined in a hothouse school,
Accessible only to selected groups,
Feeling the mood and symbols.” […]
Adam Asnyk presents a critical assessment of contemporary painting and poetry, modernism aesthetics, which is full of implications, unreadability, imaginary and bacchic figures, is available only to a narrow group of recipients who understand its mood and symbols, which becomes art for art’s sake. The poet himself, Malczewski, gave the answer, portraying the author of the tirade, or more precisely two of his portraits: Rogalinski’s “Portrait of Adam Asnyk with the Muse” and the posthumous portrait “The Story of the Song – Portrait of Adam Asnyk” (surrounded by fauns, 1899, from the National Museum in Warsaw). Jacek Malczewski perfectly understood the artistic stance of Asnyk and the anxieties that surrounded him.
On the portrait depicting the poet with the Muse, we see a man sitting in the foreground in a willow armchair, in a somewhat decadent pose, wearing a fashionable navy suit at the time. His silver hair and wrinkles on his face indicate the age of the model, then 59 years old. His hands rest on his crossed legs. He holds a burning cigarette in his right hand. His gaze is absent. It reaches far beyond the frame of the painting.
Behind the poet, Malczewski painted a table. At it sits a young woman – half of her figure is portrayed as a village girl in a Krakowian headscarf, the other half like an ancient Muse dressed in a transparent veil, with winged sandals and a golden wreath of laurel on her head. It is not difficult to guess, based on the theme of Asnyk’s early verses, that we may be dealing with the Muse of lyrical poetry – Euterpe. However, instead of her characteristic attribute – aulos (a kind of flute) – a bowed lira appears. The same lira is held by the hero of “Wesele” (“The Wedding”) by Stanislaw Wyspianski – Wernyhora, the Ukrainian bard. The author of his most famous portrait is Jan Matejko. He portrayed him during a vision, at his feet placing a mute instrument, and to his right a figure diligently writing down the words of the prophecy uttered by the bard concerning the resurrection of Poland. On the table painted by Malczewski, there are books, scrolls, sheets of paper, an inkwell, a pen and a bowed lira – just as silent as the one in Matejko.
In the background of the painting is a procession of huddled figures reminiscent of that from the, “Melancholia”, which had been created a few years earlier. We can see in it: Polonia adjusting her crown, a body of a man characterized and posed as if taken from the cross of Christ, and next to him the playing fauns and satyrs on flutes, ladies dressed in hats and running Cossacks. In a word, “Poland itself”.
Adam Asnyk noted in “Sketch of a Contemporary Picture” that these “contemporary” painters abandoned the national, patriotic, martyrological themes in favor of erotic scenes filled with imaginary figures and symbols. Malczewski seems to subtly debate this judgment in both of the poet’s portraits, pointing to the balance maintained between the means of expression used by the artists. He emphasizes that the foundation of art in general is precisely this Dionysian element (fauns) and Apollonian (Muses), which complement each other. And only on the basis of them can the artist approach the important, the most essential topics, and why not – suggestively symbolized. These elements are the source of inspiration, the beginning of the act of creation, vision, and further also a symbol that Asnyk himself is subjected to, which was immortalized in his work by the symbolist Jacek Malczewski.