At the moment, there’s a wonderful exhibition on show at the William Morris Gallery in London. And normally, I would have jumped on a plane to see it. But with current Covid restrictions and this 4th lock-down we’re in, I am afraid I will not be able to see this exhibition in person before it ends 30 January 2022. I am very sad about that, because I was really looking forward to it!
You should know that my grandmother was born (in 1913) in a small village near Stettin (which is now located in Poland and called Szczecin) and that I spent many summer vacations touring Poland with my family. My mother insisted on us getting to know the territory where my grandmother originally came from. That’s how I became fascinated by Poland, its people and its culture.
During my university years I traveled to Poland on my own, on seemingly endless bus rides or 30-hour train journeys. After I got married I drove to Kraków with my new familiy. And most recently, we flew to Gdańsk to explore the old town and the coastal area nearby. Over the years, I learned a lot about Polish history and I have visited many a museum. So you can imagine how excited I got when I learned about this particular exhibition which connects my passion for Art Nouveau with my own family heritage!
– Me in 1995 at Villa Atma, in Zakopane (arch. Józef Kasprus-Stoch, 1890)
Luckily for all people like me – who will not be able to make it to London in time – there is also a fascinating book about the exhibition. And there is a splendid two hour video, in which the curators tell us passionately about the exhibition and the book. But before all else, you may want to watch this short introduction (9 min.) to whet your appetite:
Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła – Poland is not yet lost (Polish national anthem)
These lyrics were written by Józef Wybicki in 1797, two years after the Third Partition of Poland erased the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth completely from the map. It was also the title of a history paper I wrote for school in 1988, about the disappearance of my beloved Poland. So let me try to explain what happened to Poland, and why this situation caused the Polish Arts & Crafts Movement Młoda Polska (Young Poland) to flourish.
When the Young Poland movement began in 1890, Poland did not exist as a state. In 1772, 1793 and 1795 the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia (now Germany) and the Habsburg Monarchy (now Austria) – three neighbouring powers – divided up the Polish lands among themselves progressively. In 1795 the Polish king was forced to abdicate and in 1863, also the Polish language was banned. In the words of historian Norman Davies the country was “just an idea – a memory from the past or a hope for the future.” Culture remained the only way of preserving the nation’s endangered identity, and it became a vehicle for communicating political aspirations.
Young Poland: An Arts & Crafts Movement (1890 – 1918)
Young Poland, or Młoda Polska, got its inspiration from nature on the one hand and indigenous folk traditions on the other hand. At the same time it expressed its ideals in a distinct modernist language related to English Arts & Crafts, Swedish Hemslöjd, Art Nouveau and Viennese Secession. Through an applied art that was based on vernacular and folk art, designers hoped to find a distinct national style that would undermine foreign rule and express the uniqueness of their Polish culture.
The heart of this Young Poland movement was based in Kraków. Its roots lay in the Museum of Technology & Industry (1868), a private initiative that was inspired by the V&A museum in London. After 1870, when Galicia was granted autonomy, Kraków had a greater degree of political and economic autonomy under its Habsburg rulers, and became a vibrant cultural centre. The Jagiellonian University was again permitted to conduct courses in the Polish language, museums were opened and the Art Academy was born. Being the historic seat of Polish monarchs and the nation’s former capital, Kraków symbolised its former power and cultural heritage. Artists flocked from across the divided country to contribute to its creative pulse.
A little south of Kraków, in Zakopane at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, a settlement of artists developed a more local style based on traditional skills – like building, weaving and carving – of the highlander population. Inspired by the writings of John Rushkin and William Morris these artists were searching for a national art based on local artistic traditions, offering unity across all social classes. They admired Zakopane and the Highlanders, because they considered the region a reservoir of Polish national culture, unspoiled by cosmopolitan influences, and a source for contemporary national revival.
Key Figures and Places of the Young Poland Movement
Key figures of the Young Poland Movement that are being discussed in the book include Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), Stanisław Witkiewicz (1851-1915), Karol Kłosowski (1882-1971) and Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945). There are actually four chapters in the book dedicated to Wyspianski, as he was arguably the greatest design reformer in Poland’s history. And there are two chapters dedicated to Karol Kłosowski who is considered the last Young Poland artist.
The Kraków Workshops were associated with the city’s Museum of Technology and Industry. It was actually the museum’s director who instigated the Workshops’ first meeting. From the beginning, the Workshops shared a fundamental belief that there should be no distinction between the so called fine and decorative arts. A belief that was shared by the Arts & Crafts Movement in England and the Art Nouveau Movement that spread all over the rest of Europe. Young Poland was at the center of a Pan-European design reform phenomenon.
All together the three most important pillars of Young Poland were:
- The Polish Applied Arts Society (founding member Stanisław Wyspianski)
- The Zakopane Style (founding member Stanisław Witkiewicz)
- The Kraków Workshops 1913 – 1926
Young Poland was motivated by aesthetic considerations as well as political and social concerns. It fuelled the struggle for freedom that led to Poland regaining independence in 1918. But when Poland actually declared its independence, artists needed to reflect on a contradicting set of issues, different from their pre-WWI preoccupations. The spirit of Young Poland gradually waned and new generations began to look at it from a historical perspective. Between 1918 and 1939 it became a source for modern culture of a country which had regained its freedom. After WWII, in Soviet-dominated Poland, Young Poland once again performed a role of upholding the spirit of independence. Today, Young Poland remains the most popular period of Polish art history and inspires debates about National identity.
About the Book Young Poland, The Polish Arts & Crafts Movement 1890-1918
Since I haven’t been able to visit the exhibition in London, I can only comment on the contents of the book. First of all, I would like to say that the book looks wonderful. It is beautifully illustrated and really provides a good insight into the Young Poland movement. All major proponents and landmarks are introduced and you immediately want to hop on a plane and travel to Kraków and Zakopane to see everything for yourself. The authors of the book argue that “the culturally and politically motivated proliferation of applied arts and the revival of handicrafts during the Young Poland period constituted the Polish interpretation of the Arts & Crafts movement’s principles.“
The book also adopts a fundamental distinction between Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau. “Art Nouveau“, the authors argue, “is a cosmopolitan, sensuous and pleasure seeking style, following the doctrine of Art for Art’s sake. It favoured symbolic imagery, sumptuous materials, frequently relying on the use of modern technical equipment rather than handicraft skills. While on the other hand, the Arts & Crafts Movement is based on ideology revolving around morals and social values, striving to change the world.” And here, I do not entirely agree with the authors. It would be correct if we were talking about the Aesthetic Movement. Art Nouveau however, was initially based on the same ideologies and morals as the Arts & Crafts Movement.
Only because ‘ordinary people’ could never afford the laboriously handcrafted objects, some Art Nouveau designers moved away from the principle that everything had to be handcrafted. They embraced the possibility to reach a broader clientele by working together with workshops like the Wiener Werkstätte and smaller factories. And even though Morris attacked the modern factory, the use of machinery, the division of labour, capitalism and the loss of traditional craft methods, his attitude to machinery was inconsistent. Morris had no practical objections to the use of machinery per se as long as the machines produced the quality he needed.
Arts & Crafts vs Art Nouveau
The Art Nouveau Movement was first and foremost a reaction against academic art, and the centuries-long copying of historic styles. It also embraced Morris’ plea to raise the status of craft, and break down the traditional distinction between fine arts (especially painting and sculpture) and applied arts. Both movements believed that art should be a way of life; every man and every woman deserved to be surrounded by beautiful things.
As an example, I would like to mention the Art Nouveau Métro entrances Hector Guimard designed for the Paris underground stations. They were supposed to beautify daily life of everyone who walked the streets of Paris. Guimard used relatively cheap materials like cast iron set in concrete to reduce costs and keep the entrances cheap enough to be implemented on a larger scale. Another great example from the Art Nouveau Movement that democratised art would be the rise of the advertising poster.
Artists who originally only produced fine art, now started to engage in the lithographic poster designing business. And thanks to that development, and the employment of new technologies, rich and poor could equally enjoy art by well known artists like Alphonse Mucha, Henri Toulouse Lautrec and Théophile Alexandre Steinlen in the streets. Though there were also artists who worked exclusively for the Nouveau Riche who could afford to buy their expensive handcrafted one-offs.
So where Art Nouveau developed, evolved and adapted, Arts & Crafts mostly stuck to the original ideal that everything had to be hand crafted. And while Young Poland’s fine and decorative arts had ideological parallels with the British Arts & Crafts movement, it also reflected Art Nouveau and Symbolism on a stylistic level. The parallels with the Arts & Craft Movement are the main subject of the exhibition and the book. The stylistic appearance though, and the principle to bring beauty to everyday objects and everyday lives, are reason enough for me to include this Young Poland Movement in my research, and write about it here in my Blog About Art Nouveau. After all, when it looks like Art Nouveau, I think we may as well call it Art Nouveau. I love putting everything into perspective and unraveling how all the different European Movements interconnected.
Inside the exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, visitors can watch a documentary. That documentary has also been made available online for people who can’t make it to the venue in London. You can watch the video (38 min) here:
And here is the video of a two hour event during which the book was launched. The video includes some really interesting talks by the curators of the exhibition:
After 30 January 2022, the exhibition will not be traveling to another venue. But for people who cannot make it to the William Morris Gallery in London, I have great news. They can see a lot of Young Poland’s output in Kraków later, when it is safe to travel again. First of all, everyone should visit the St. Francis’ Basilica and its gorgeous Art Nouveau interiors including stained glass windows and colourful floral wall decorations by Stanisław Wyspiański. There is also a special Wyspiański Pavillion where more stained glass windows are being exhibited. And of course, there is Young Poland art at (the top floor of the Main Building of) the National Museum as well as at the 19th Century Polish Art Gallery in the Cloth Hall. But there is more… the National Museum in Kraków has just opened a new museum dedicated entirely to Stanisław Wyspiański! Click here for more details. In December 2021 the National Museum in Kraków has also opened a new branch, dedicated to Polish Design. This branch will include several sections dedicated to Young Poland.
And of course everyone should also visit Zakopane and go to the different museums there, like the first building erected to Stanisław Witkiewicz’s design in the Zakopane Style Villa Koliba, and his House Under The Firs.
Young Poland, The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement 1890 – 1918 was published by Lund Humphries in December 2020. The book has 240 pages and includes 254 colour and 43 black & white illustrations. You can buy the book from the publisher for £40, but I noticed the book is only £25 at the William Morris Gallery giftshop.
The book is divided in two parts. Part one explores key ideas, makers, societies and sites. While part two is more an object-based overview of particular branches, interiors and furniture, textiles, ceramics, toys and books. It ends with a chapter about Young Poland painting.
The book is the culmination of an international research project co-financed by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage; A collaboration between Lund Humphries, the William Morris Gallery, the National Museum in Kraków and the Polish Cultural Institute, in London. It is edited by Young Poland Project Curators Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski with a preface by Alison Smith and contributions from William Morris Gallery’s Roisin Inglesby and 17 other international scholars.
9 October 2021 – 30 January 2022 – William Morris Gallery,
Lloyd Park, Forest Road Walthamstow, London, UK
Antoni Buszek and the Kraków Workshops
Gazette: Stanisław Wyspiański & l’Eglise St. Fr. d’Assise au Cracovie (page 40, FR)
Gazette: Stanisław Wyspiański & the St. Francis’ Basilica in Kraków (page 40, EN)
In Your Pocket travel guide: Stanisław Wyspiański
In Your Pocket travel guide: Młoda Polska, Art Nouveau in Kraków
Karol Szymanowski Museum at Villa Atma in Zakopane
Kitchen Conversations with Julia Griffin about Young Poland (Podcast)
Kraków Society of Friends of Fine Arts on wikipedia
Lund Humphries – Young Poland, the Polish Arts & Crafts Movement 1890-1918
Out Looking in: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890-1918 by Jan Cavanaugh
Tatra Museum at Zakopane
The House Under The Firs
The New European: Art that proves beauty to be a weapon
Wyspiański masterpiece to go on show at London gallery to promote artist to ‘wider audience’
Wystawa dzieł młodopolskich artystów w William Morris Gallery w Londynie
Young Poland on wikipedia
Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement (1890 – 1918) exhibition website
Young Poland: The Polish Arts & Crafts Movement’ to publish November 2020