Young Poland at the William Morris Gallery
The French artist Maurice Denis, in a speech on “New orientations of Christian art” published by the Youth Review in February 1919, cited “the sumptuous glass roofs of the Pôle Mehoffer in Friborg” as one example among others, giving hope for a post-war revival of Christian art.
Józef Mehoffer collaborated with Stanisław Wyspiański in Young Poland (Mloda Polska), an Arts and Crafts movement with strong stylistic and philosophical affinities with the work of William Morris, John Ruskin and their followers in Britain. These affinities were strong in Europe at the start of the 20th century. In addition to their exploration through the exhibition “Young Poland” at the William Morris Gallery, these affinities are also currently featured in the Hungarian National Museum in “The Beauty of Utopia. Pre-Raphaelite Influences in Hungarian Art at the Turn of the Century ”, which focuses on the artist colony Gödöllo founded by Aladár Körösfoi-Kriesch. Denis noted another influence in the conversion of Belgian art critic Bruno Destrée, in part through the influence of the works of Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones.
From the end of the 18th century, Poland underwent successive partitions dividing its territory between Russia, Austria and Prussia, so that the country disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years. Young Poland flourished between 1890 and 1918 in response to national inexistence by becoming a means of preserving an endangered cultural heritage while forging a new outward-looking identity. The movement encompassed the visual arts, literature, music and theater. The works on display at the William Morris Gallery cover embroidered and woven textiles, furniture, stained glass, architectural models and designs, woodcarvings, ceramics, paper cutouts, as well as paintings and illustrations.
Private courtesy collection by descent of the artist.Karol Klosowski, At Bobbin Lacemaking (Caption), undated, chalk on paper
Main figure of the movement, Wyspiański was Morris’s Polish counterpart. The two artists shared the firm belief in the equality of fine and decorative arts. For both, history and nature were key subjects, as can be seen in works such as Wyspiański‘s Pansies, Nasturtiums and Roses (1897): mural drawings featuring repeated floral motifs on a geometric lattice, reminiscent of Morris’s wallpaper designs. These designs were intended for the painted wall decorations of the choir and transepts of the Franciscan Church in Krakow.
Wyspiański also created stained glass windows for the Franciscan Church, including a magnificent God the creator, using a style influenced by Burne-Jones. Here we see an example of this style in the stained glass Apollo: Copernicus’ solar system (1905), originally created for one of Wyspiańskimost prestigious commissions of, the interior decoration of the Medical Society of Krakow, destroyed during the Second World War, but exposed through the contemporary recreation of the work by the master craftsman Piotr Ostrowski.
Mehoffer’s work was also steeped in symbolism, as can be seen in his theatrical and otherworldly allegorical wall frieze, Nature & Arts (1901). Mehoffer’s work undertaken over 40 years for St Michael’s, Freiburg, is one of the greatest cycles of stained glass and one of the most interesting examples of European Art Nouveau in modern art and has led to other similar orders in Poland itself.
As Andrzei Szczerski and Julia Griffin note in the exhibition curators’ book (Lund Humphries, 2020), Mehoffer effectively combined Polish folk imagery with the international visual language of Art Nouveau and, as Wyspiański, saw the rebirth of Poland as a spiritual journey to national freedom.
courtesy of the National Museum in Krakow © NMK Photographic DepartmentJózef Mehoffer, Nature and Art (1901), drawing of a wall frieze, watercolor on paper mounted on canvas
Wyspiański died prematurely, at the age of 38, but the movement also spawned Zakopane’s style of architecture and interior design, based on local traditions of building, carving and embroidery from the Tatra Mountains. Stanislaw Witkiewicz was the founder and main promoter of the Zakopane style. Examples of his work include the architectural model of the most famous building created in the style, House under the trees (1899), produced for the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris to promote the Zakopane style abroad. Zakopane’s style was developed before Witkiewicz knew John Ruskin and William Morris, but he later said his work subconsciously realized the theories of these British reformers.
The work of another important figure of Young Poland based in Zakopane, Karol Klosowski, is also explored in the exhibition. Klosowski was a prolific sculptor and woodcarver, painter, textile and furniture designer, letter opener, and creator of Zakopane’s Silent Villa (Willa Cicha). Every element of this villa has been meticulously handcrafted by Klosowski with ornamental lace patterns and paper cutouts on display here.
One can also see the bold and intimate watercolors of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, notably Jan Pawlikowski in a cosmic setting (vs. 1918) – a portrait of her second husband, part of a series depicting him among the planets on a cosmic scale.
Workshop and stained glass museumApollo: Copernicus’s Solar System After Stanislaw Wyspianski’s stained glass window (1905) for Medical Society, Krakow, contemporary recreation by artist and master craftsman Piotr Ostrowski, produced at the Young Poland Krakow Stained Glass Company (2017)
The final section of the exhibition then looks at the works produced by Ateliers de Cracow (1913-1926), a trade cooperative of architects, artisans and craftsmen, whose work sought to synthesize traditional craftsmanship. with modern techniques. These include never-before-seen Christmas tree decorations, made of simple, natural materials such as paper, beans and eggshells, which include Polish Christmas figures such as nativity scenes, Saint Nicholas, a fish and the devil (a character from the nativity scene in Poland).
The young Poland was part of an international arts and crafts movement which, as Linda Parry and Karen Livingstone identified, first developed in Britain before thriving in Europe and America. 1880s until WWI. Like the movement in Great Britain, Young Poland initiated a flourishing of religious and ecclesiastical art. In addition to a range of church designs by Wyspiański and Mehoffer, the exhibition includes a design by their tutor, Jan Matejko, for St. Mary’s Basilica, Wlastimil Hofman’s Confession, images by Klosowski showing crafts and artisans as sacred, a Expulsion from Eden by Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, and a binding for the Missale Romanum made especially for an exhibition of religious art in Vienna in 1912.
The movement was “based on an ideology revolving around moral and social values, striving to change the world”; and Wyspiański and Mehoffer were key figures, as were the artists featured in the Hungarian Art Museum exhibition. The spirituality of the movement is not only seen in the extent to which churches were built and decorated (5,000 Arts and Crafts style churches in the UK, for example, between 1884 and 1918), contributing to the revival of art. Christian for whom Denis looked, but also through the themes of sacrifice and redemption. Thus, within Young Poland, the suffering of the Poles was seen as having a deeper spiritual meaning which would serve to redeem Europe.
“Young Poland” is at the William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road
Walthamstow, London E17, until January 30, 2022. Phone 020 8496 4390. www.wmgallery.org.uk