Blitz Magazine, September 2000
The land of…uh…er…hmmm…. Borscht! Guys named Wojciech! An extraordinary facility for the use of consonants!
‘You think Canadians have an identity problem? We’ve got nothin’ on the Poles, whose national identity was almost obliterated through years and years of invasions and occupation by the Russians, Germans and Austrians. These forces all tried to erase Poland’s identity—by banning the Polish language from official use and suppressing the teaching of Polish history and literature. Rebellion was met with property seizures, mass expulsions and executions. And this was still the 19th century.
Of the occupying powers, Austria was the most lenient. Cracow was the main city in the Austrian section and became the magnet for artists and writers, bohemians and intellectuals, who met in the salons and cafes to discuss the latest political issues and trends in art practice.
Artists were also able to travel to Paris, where they participated in the salons and exhibitions highlighting new art movements. The resultant influx of artistic ideas from Western Europe, the emergence of the new pleasure-seeking bourgeoisie and the gradual development of organized political parties that contributed to the fight for independence transformed Cracow. By the early 20th century, it had become the hub of artistic development in Eastern Europe.
In their studios, and at the Cracow School of Fine Arts, the artists of the day merged Impressionism, Art Nouveau and Symbolism to create their own movement called Mloda Polska or ‘Young Poland’. Its members broke with the staid traditions of the art academies to create sensual works that were regarded as exceptionally avant-garde. Perhaps most importantly, the movement became the expression of Poland’s national identity and provided much-needed inspiration to a broad public.
The efforts of the Mloda Polska artists stimulated an incredibly rich period of artistic production between 1890-1914. There was also a resurgence of interest in folk styles which proliferated in paintings, prints, textiles and furniture and which created a tangible link with the peasant class (which the Poles have always respected as the keepers of their identity).
The Mloda Polska works have remained favourites in Poland, matching the popularity of their counterparts in the West. Yet, as very little English literature exists on this subject and it was not until very recently that Western scholars began to study in Poland, viewing Polish art beyond its borders remains a rare opportunity.
Between Two Worlds: The Art of Poland 1890-1914 is a 112-masterwork collection from the National Museum in Cracow. It appears in Canada for the first time and is at the Vancouver Art Gallery to November 12th.