Artist extraordinaire Stanisław Wyspiański finally gets semi-permanent exhibition in hometown Kraków
Poland’s greatest 20th-century artist Stanisław Wyspiański has at long last found semi-permanent lodgings in his home city as a biographical museum in his honour opens its doors to visitors today in Kraków.
Situated a stone’s throw away from the Old Town, the compact 18th-century Old Granary building will host the best of the artist’s work from among the 1,100 pieces that the museum’s mother institution the National Museum in Kraków holds in its collections.
Known as the nation’s Leonardo Da Vinci, the hugely versatile and prolific artist is a towering figure in Poland’s pantheon of artistic greats, as well as much loved son of the cultural capital of Poland.
His range of artistic interests and output were phenomenal with his landscapes and portraits placing him at the centre of the Young Poland modernist art movement.
While his plays, especially The Wedding Party, make him in the opinion of many the most important Polish writer of the 20th-century.
Meanwhile, his monumental stained-glass windows, which can be seen in Kraków’s famous Franciscan church, underline his versatility.
‘He was quite simply a genius,” Museum director Andrzej Szczerski told TFN.
“He didn’t study too much but he had a firm hand and he could produce a final result almost straight away.
“People like him come along only a few times in history,” he added.
Yet, since his tragic death in 1907 at just 38 from the then incurable disease of syphilis, he has been akin to a house guest, with his legacy of pastels, watercolours, repaints, drawings, oil paintings, prints, sculptures, handicrafts and first editions of his many plays finding residence only for short periods in dedicated museums or temporary exhibitions in the city.
Even now, his tenancy in the Old Granary is time limited, as the National Museum’s ultimate plan is to house the artist’s work in the institution’s main building or in the former Cracovia hotel opposite after a much-needed refurbishment. However, this will take several years to complete.
“The permanent display of Wyspiański’s works is absolutely essential for the city,” Szczerski said.
Visitors to the museum on Sikorski square are confronted firstly with a room dedicated to some of Wyspiański’s most personal works – self-portraits, watercolours of views from the window of his studio and portraits of his wife and children, many in their original frames.
The artist was born on 15 January 1869 in Kraków. His father, Franciszek, was a talented and at one time highly regarded sculptor, but struggled with constant financial difficulties and alcoholism. His mother died when he was seven, after which he was taken care of by his aunt.
Wyspiański's love of art, along with Polish history and antiquity was awakened at St. Anne's Classical Middle School, which still operates in the city.
After graduation, Wyspiański studied painting at the School of Fine Arts under Jan Matejko, the creator of great historical canvases. He also enrolled at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University.
As a student, he worked on the renovation of St. Mary's Basilica under Matejko’s supervision. During vacations, he toured the Galicia region, sketching architecture and helping to make inventories of valuable art.
This resulted in the discovery of the famous Madonna from Krużlowa dating back to the 15th century, which is now on display in the medieval art museum in Kraków.
Between 1891 and 1894, Wyspiański travelled around Europe, stopping in Paris where he studied at a private painting school.
He visited the Louvre and was fascinated by the latest trends in art – impressionism, naturalism and symbolism. With breaks, he spent over three years in Paris, finally returning to Krakow in September 1894.
Penniless on his return, he was forced to use pastels on cheap paper. He also calculated that while a portrait in oil could take up to a week, on paper he would need just a day.
His portraits were commissioned by Kraków's bourgeoisie – lawyers, doctors, dentists, and especially their wives and daughters.
Over time, his stock rose in Kraków and he was invited to create the polychrome and a series of stained-glass windows for Krakow's Franciscan church.
Wyspiański’s full-size design for the main window, called God the Father, is the centrepiece exhibit on the first floor of the museum, alongside designs for windows in St. Mary’s Basilica, which never came to fruition.
Each floor of the museum is connected by stairwells painted in dazzling sapphire, Wyspiański’s favourite colour, which he painted his house in on Krowoderska street.
Underscoring Wyspiański’s versatility as an artist, on the same floor is wooden chair that he designed, which sits next to a mock-up of his plan to turn Wawel Hill into an ancient Greece style acropolis, featuring a chariot racing ring, an amphitheatre, as well as senate and parliament buildings.
The lower floor houses Wyspiański’s library, with his dog-eared books full of notes and sketches.
These, as well as other exhibits, particularly the pastels on paper, are highly susceptible to environmental damage. Therefore, the museum will close for a week each year after 11 months and the two hundred items of display will be replaced by other works and personal exhibits.
Curator Łucja Skoczeń-Rąpała explained: “Light sensitive items can normally only be exhibited for about one thousand light hours, which means about 3.5 months.
“But by shortening opening hours and using protective filters on windows we have extended this to nearly a year.”
Also on the lower floor are first editions of some of the many plays that Wyspiański wrote for the theatre. His most famous is undoubtedly The Wedding Party. Staged for the first time in 1901, it is considered to be his greatest work and the most important Polish drama of the 20th century.
The play was inspired by authentic events. In the autumn of 1900, his friend the poet Lucjan Rydel married Jadwiga Mikołajczyk, daughter of a peasant from Bronowice near Krakow.
The wedding party, attended by guests from the countryside and the city, takes a critical look at whether Poles were really prepared to take up the challenge of the fight for independence.
In 1898, Wyspiański was diagnosed with syphilis. Effectively a death sentence, it forced the artist to work at an incredible pace.
He worked on smaller scale works, at one time tying a brush to his arm as he was too weak to hold it properly.
Wyspiański's funeral in Kraków on 2 December 1907 became a huge patriotic demonstration. He is buried in the Crypt of the Deserved in the crypt of the St. Michael the Archangel and St. Stanislaus the Bishop Basilica in Krakow.