Time when bones reanimate and return to new life

It’s not a pastoral view at all, even though the fields in the background shine like gold, the branches of the trees are dangling in the breeze, and below them there are resting… no, these are not reapers. The painting is indeed entitled: “After the Harvest”. But this is a bloody harvest: these are murdered insurgents. So, once again, we will have to wait for Poland.

The exhibition “Ezekiel’s Vision” at Warsaw Archdiocese Museum comes at the right time: in November. For Jacek Malczewski left no doubt: death is ubiquitous. In his unsettling paintings, death is evoked by beautiful women with somewhat mocking smiles, young boys with golden eyelashes, angels as well as mysterious dziwożonas. And Ezekiel with his shocking vision of a field of bones. But these will be clothed in muscle and flesh. It will be a resurrection, and not just the one promised in the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, the resurrection of man. Poland, too, will rise from the dead.

“Paint in such a way that Poland resurrects” – Malczewski would tell his students after all, when he was the principal of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. And it also shows that November is the most appropriate time for this exhibition. Because it’s November 11, we are celebrating another anniversary of Poland’s rebirth.

Only sparrows have been left

– But Malczewski also used to say that the artists’ duty is to paint in such a way that the viewer converts to God. He wrote this in a survey for “Przegląd Powszechny” before WWI, emphasizes Dr Piotr Kopszak, director of Warsaw Archdiocese Museum, who has been “in touch” with Malczewski for many years. – He wanted to paint religious pictures from the beginning, but Matejko advised him that it was too early and he still had to learn something – says the director. And I will add, following the pre-war book “Historia Sztuki” – “History of Art” from 1934 (Michał Walicki, Juliusz Starzyński, published by M. Arct, volume II), that it was Jacek Malczewski and Stanisław Wyspiański, these two great artists, “who took up Matejko’s concept of art as a national mission”.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE – He was probably a very sensitive child, brought up according to patriotic patterns, and he must have experienced both the outbreak of the January Uprising (he was 9 years at that time) and its failure – notes the director of WAM. – It was his strongest and most important experience. Throughout his life, he returned to the uprising, transportations to Siberia and the figures of exiles, which we show in our exhibition – points out Dr Kopszak.

– He painted the uprising in an often non-obvious way – suggests Dr. Kopszak and shows “Wróble” [“Sparrows”], seemingly just birds on a fence, but it is a Polish manor house, after the massacre. Death had passed through here a moment before. So we have the painting “Po żniwie” – “After the Harvest” mentioned in the first sentence, and then the shocking, although some would say unfinished “Złożenie do trumny” [“Placement in the Coffin”] and “Śmierć wygnanki” [“Death of an Exile”], we have the expressive “Odpoczynek w kopalni” [“Rest in the Mine”] and the shocking “Raport policyjny” [“Police Report”]. And after all, Malczewski was not an exile.
Exhibition of Jacek Malczewski’s works at Warsaw Archdiocese Museum: “Anhelli” from 1918 (left) and “Thanatos” from 1911. Photo: WAM
– I will again refer to the authors of the pre-war “Historia Sztuki”, who write that “it is like a spiritual synthesis of several generations of post-partition Poland with the tragedy of its longings and heroic impulses for liberation”.

Dr. Piotr Kopszak reminds that Jacek Malczewski, probably associated with the poetry of Juliusz Słowacki’s since childhood, drew many inspirations from it, and the poem “Anhelli” was especially important for the painter. The exhibition includes a painting (1918) in which Anhelli returns to his home, but doesn’t enter it – death takes him on the threshold.

Visions of aunt the mystic

– Because Malczewski constantly referred to the suffering of Poles deprived of their homeland and constantly fighting for it – emphasizes Dr Kopszak. – Choosing Ezekiel’s vision is an attempt to find meaning for this suffering. But also “Ezekiel’s Vision” as a series is an expression of Jacek Malczewski’s hope for rebirth and resurrection – of man, but also of the nation.

The Book of Ezekiel with its moving story of a prophet whom God tells to go to his own people, a rebellious one, with “impudent faces”, who only complains, sighs and laments, and tells him to talk about sins and the punishment for them, but also to raise hope for further life, for life after death, i.e. the resurrection… – was this book an unexpected discovery for Malczewski?

Visitation Sisters' cloth

Painters without hands, without arms, without hope, exiled... Paintings of the January 1863 insurgents.

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Experts on his biography will say that his metaphysical searches and religious visions are probably due to his aunt Wandzia, Wanda Malczewska (1822-1896), an outstanding figure of the Malczewski family from the Radom region. Wanda, not hiding her religious motives, carried out extensive patriotic, social and educational activities among the people of the Polish countryside. She supported her nephew with all her strength, but especially spiritually. She was a mystic, and in the records of her revelations Poland – the resurrected one – occupies a lot of space.

Jacek Malczewski was not only a painter in whose work God and faith took the first place, which was what his aunt prayed for. He was also a Franciscan Tertiary, which means belonging to the third order, i.e. to a group of lay people who want to live according to the principles of the Order of Saint Francis. And even if Malczewski did not entirely succeed, his artistic message remained clear: paint in such a way that people will convert by it.

Death first

Maybe “The Book of Ezekiel” had always inspired Malczewski? As Rev. Prof. Waldemar Chrostowski wrote in one of his first books, “for the first time the chosen people read that the end of the fate of the beaten and tortured is not death, dry bones or destruction, that God’s time will come when these bones will come to life and return to new life. This vision was supposed to show that hope is stronger than destruction, that not everything ends in this world” (“Bohaterowie wiary Starego Testamentu” [Heroes of the faith of the Old Testament], Warszawa 1992). Hope is stronger than destruction.

At the exhibition at Warsaw Archdiocese Museum, Dr Piotr Kopszak wanted to collect as many paintings from the “Ezekiel’s Vision” series as possible. The series was created during and immediately after World War I. The first painting was probably achieved in 1914, the next ones in the years 1916-1920. – We know that the series included nine pictures, because such information is included in the catalogue of Jacek Malczewski’s exhibition in Poznań, organised in 1925. At our exhibition four of these works are presented – one painting belongs to the collection of the Museum of Art in Łódź, two are from private collections, the last one comes from the collections of the Archdiocese of Warsaw – says the director. – Today we know about eight, of which one is here and has its own additional story, which I will discuss in a moment. And apart from ours, only one is publicly available.

Let us repeat: at this exhibition we will see as many as four – and for this reason alone it is worth visiting Warsaw Archdiocese Museum.
The opportunity is extraordinary: the fascinating figures of Christ and Ezekiel – here we will see the artist’s self-portrait, but also a portrait of the then young Vlastimil Hofman – in a field of bones and then among these bones already covered with muscles arouse admiration not only because of the vision, but also – for some viewers: in particular – because of the genius of the artist’s drawing. His drawings once supported medical students in learning anatomy. However, I will emphasize his vision once again: Poland will resurrect. Life will arise from the field of bones!

So, resurrection, but first death. We can find it everywhere in Jacek Malczewski’s work, without much effort. And at this exhibition it will tempt us with a mysterious look, a sublime smile, an unusual gesture: even a woman with a dead hen – whose head she has probably just cut off – has something to tell us, let alone “Balladyna”, “Thanatos” or “Wiosna” [“Spring”] from a self-portrait for which the artist poses in his Franciscan habit with a cross on his chest. November is the best time for Malczewski.

Fauns and faunas, mermaids and chimeras

“In formal terms, these masterpieces, in a masterfully extracted rhythm of dizzying spins, hide an immense wealth of artistic gestures and expressions, with an extremely wide range of gradations of feelings and mental states” (“History of Art”, op. cit.). “Gradually, Malczewski’s paintings begin to be filled more and more with fantastic creatures, some half-human, half-animal apparitions wander around in processions, fauns, faunas, mermaids, chimeras, and dziwożonas intertwine among living people”.

And, for those who might be discouraged by the last sentence: “When criticizing Malczewski’s literary symbolism, we too often forget that he was also an excellent colourist, familiar even with the richness and possibilities of the impressionist palette. As a portrait painter, apart from all the intricate symbolism of the staffage, he was able to bring out the excellent characteristics of the model and highlight their inner life, and these small landscape fragments, which appear as if on the margin of Malczewski’s great allegorical compositions, interestingly stylised, brightened and sunlit, are among the deepest, most racy feelings of the Polish landscape”.

Girls from the ghetto

But it is time for the toughest riddle of this exhibition, related to the greatest “Ezekiel”, who, with all the power of Malczewski’s gaze, looks at us from the main wall, neither sternly nor philosophically, or perhaps with some mysterious message. The director of the museum talks about the secret not only in an interview with TVP WEEKLY, but also shows it at the exhibition. Because God knows, who shall discover its primeval source, who shall add the missing threads, who shall unravel the tangled yarn?
Well, after the Poznań exhibition in 1925, this particular painting found its way into a private collection – maybe a Dutch collector – there is little information. – We know that it was removed from the stretcher and rolled, because the condition of the painting shows it – explains the director. And this is where the material for the script for a sensational film begins.

For the time being, however, we are moving to 53 Hoża Street in Warsaw, the home of the Congregation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary, founded by St Zygmunt Szczęsny Feliński, the Bishop of Warsaw from before the January Uprising. In 1942, the sisters also lived in Hoża Street, and their superior, Mother Matylda Getterdeclared that no Jewish child would leave them without rescue and help. The sisters saved nearly seven hundred children in their several homes and have maintained contacts with many of them and their children to this day. In 1985, Sister Matylda Getter was posthumously awarded the Righteous Among the Nations medal, and her diploma hangs in the congregation’s house.

“All the people who asked my sister for help survived. All those who were involved in the rescue mission lived to see the end of the war”, writes Alina Petrowa-Wasilewicz in her biography of M. Getter entitled “Uratować tysiąc światów” [“Saving a Thousand Worlds”]. “Mother Matylda never returned to the story of saving Jews after the war. She thought it was a closed chapter. Help was needed – so she helped, along with her sisters.

And that’s probably why she didn’t tell anyone about the fact that in 1945 two rescued girls, Irenka and Małgosia “Mirskie”, i.e. Frydman, lugged – or rather had it transported, because of the size – this very “Ezekiel” with this dedication written on the back: “To Reverend Matylda Getter, Provincial Mother of the Congregation of the Family of Mary
“With gratitude and in tribute on behalf of the rescued Jewish children in the years 1942-45 - Małgorzata and Irena Frydman – Mirskie, Warsaw 1945”.

In the Sisters’ archive – and in Alina Petrowa-Wasilewicz’s book – there is a touching photo of a mother with her daughters: Łucja Frydman with Małgosia and Irenka. Since 1942, the girls had stayed at the convent house in Płudy near Warsaw, under the care of Sister Aniela Stawowiak. After the war, as Alina Petrowa-Wasilewicz relates, the whole family met there: the mother, who had been imprisoned in KL Ravensbrück after the Warsaw Uprising, the father, attorney Roman Mirski, who as a Polish officer was interned in Hungary, and them. Małgorzata later got married and gave birth to two daughters, one of whom became a doctor. In her waiting room, her mother placed a photo of Sister Aniela Stawowiak: “because I want them to know, thanks to whom they are in the world” she wrote in a letter to the sisters in 1993.

In 1983, Małgorzata Acher née Frydman came to Poland and visited the sisters, leaving a touching entry in the Book of Remembrance of the Sisters’ General House. She also published the book “Niewłaściwa twarz. Wspomnienia ocalonej z warszawskiego getta” [“Wrong Face. Memories of a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto”, Częstochowa, 2001].

At the end of the chapter about the rescued children, Alina Petrowa-Wasilewicz writes: “I am standing in front of a large painting by Jacek Malczewski in Warsaw Archdiocese Museum. “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves”. From what I know about attorney Roman Frydman Mirski, he was not a religious man. But he chose his gift with extraordinary sensitivity – thanksgiving to the nuns who saved his daughters from extermination. They brought them from death to life.”

Christ with Jacek Malczewski’s eyes and Ezekiel with his smile twinkles at us even more mysteriously. – It is not death that wins – Malczewski tells us – after all, that’s what I’m showing you. Not only in pictures.

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

The exhibition of Jacek Malczewski’s works “Ezekiel’s Vision” can be seen Warsaw Archdiocese Museum, 1 Dziekania Street until 7 January 2024
Main photo: Fragment of Jacek Malczewski’s painting “Ezekiel’s Vision” from 1919. Photo: WAM
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