William Allen visits an exhibition of Polish aesthetics at the house of William Morris
Młoda Polska! Such has London’s William Morris Gallery lately proclaimed, in an unexpected new collaboration with Krakow’s National Museum; thus have they championed all that is beloved of the Arts and Crafts movement in the art of a ‘Young Poland’ which lived, moved and had its being at end of the long nineteenth century. The glory of these Polish patriots—famous playwright Stanisław Wyspiański among them—have had the appreciative light of Morris name shone over them in the spirit of a new awakening and the first major exhibition to explore the decorative arts and architecture of this extraordinary cultural movement that flourished through Poland’s invasion and occupation by foreign powers. The results are splendidly artistic and minimally pessimistic, with vestiges of hope in the prayer ‘that all might be one’ for a Europe nauseated by social differences.
Discovering history’s strange bedfellows has, of course, become the zealous pre-occupation of not a few curators and cultural historians in the present-day artistic cursus. That is not to say it has met with uniform success. Shining new light on old masters is a tricky—if not hazardous—enterprise which continues to generate considerable pique. The business of it winds up politicos, disturbs the peace and, at worst, signals a tired, self-serving creative exercise, impinging uninvited on an array of social quarters, whether religious, political or pedagogic.
Thankfully, this recent Anglo-Polish effort solidly side-steps these all too dreary developments, bringing to bear a fresh collection of art and artefacts seldom seen outside of Central Europe—seldom has the steppe folklore of the Tati Mountains seemed nearer to the green and pleasant land. The situation is helped tremendously by a real and organic harmony between the Morrisian style and the creative industry of a Polish nation nervously turning the handle of the fin de siècle. Both possess that political urgency which Morris later bled, not without controversy, into his social activism, and which, too, fuelled the celebrated Wyspiański’s verse and Jan Matejko’s historicism on canvas.
The political idea does not overshadow the offering, however. Instead, curators Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski have cleverly distilled their CAA short-listed book on Young Poland (published, 2020) into a tangible mesh of Polish and English modernism ascendant between 1890 and the Great War, synergising under the bracket of a broadly, freshly conceived Arts and Crafts movement. Morris and his ilk have often had their histories drawn in a closed, very British domain. Perhaps there is some stiff sense of honour in the Anglophile perception of the man’s art which has made us loath to see it otherwise. This latest exhibition arrives with breezy delight all the same. There is a joyful realization, after all, that an iconic movement may have had a longer and more loosely bound reign than first estimated. There is a subtle, artistic thrill in beholding another twenty years, put otherwise, of healthy living to carry forth the best trappings of what Morris typified over into Poland’s troubled, 20th century straights.
Situating these works in the context of Morris’ family home-come-Gallery at Water House, Walthamstow has provided a favourable environment to escape the comfort of the British stiff-upper lip—to indulge, for once, the greater passion of the Polish soul. Wyspiański’s mural paintings for the Franciscan Church in Krakow, for instance, can bank on an effortless merger with the happy glut of upholstery and tracery which comprise the gallery’s permanent, Morris exhibitions. There are countless and intriguing discoveries of this sort to be made; critically, the curators have not suffered to be academic or slow in their presentation, but bubbly and eclectic in the context of Morris’ instant recognisability and enduring popularity.
A tenor of bubble and fizz is a remarkable victory of pathos for an exhibition which delves deep into the tricky territory of struggling artists in a Partitioned Poland. A diversity in shape, size and object allows a kind of ‘iceberg’ eclecticism—beneath the aesthetic pleasure of damask and design lurk the strong emotions and piety of a yearning, Catholic nation. Water House is a small space, but the curators have filled it well with artefacts ranging from Christmas decorations to the metalwork and tapestries of the famed Kraków Workshops. Tipping the iceberg reveals Griffin and Szczerski capable of tugging at a viewer’s pathos for these young, impassioned artists. Józef Mehoffer’s ‘Nature and Art’ (1901) magnifies the Polish appeal to spiritual and prayerful resources during a time of fomenting identity crisis—the aesthetic chord of such works is pegged to the violent script of conflict played out in a Poland divided and without sovereignty for 123 years. Another focus has been on the Tatra Mountains. The indigenous customs and mythic properties of the region, centered on the southern city of Zakopane, became an important anchor for Young Poland’s self-expression at the border of hostile occupation’s dark frontier.
Might there be a message here, after all, to sate the thirst to find relevance? If needs must, perhaps this: that cross-party efforts in the artistic world ought to be a happy analogue and inspiration for spiritual and cultural commitments in our religious and social institutions. It is so easy to vitiate what diplomats call cordial relations, but so terribly hard to repair them without the bedrock of shared values—and this we know, for it is after a fashion our basic Christianity. Młoda Polska with Morris, both sturdy and self-defined, are in artistic splendour together, while their unexpected union is a welcome meditation for us now, amid a nervous shake-up in East-West relations. That is to say nothing of the voices, ringing out today more than ever, decrying the dark glass in our collective, Christian life from the banks of Thames to Tiber. Much—almost too much—remains to be done.
Meanwhile, the close association of style and form between Młoda Polska and Morris deserves broadcast and syndication into a much wider sphere. It especially reminds us that true affinities are gorgeous when the curtains of history which conceal them are carefully, delicately drawn. ‘Have nothing’, Morris averred, ‘that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful’. Finding these words in the brush stroke of a Young Poland becomes the palpable prod to our side, urging us to recall an all-too Catholic commitment to reach out, support and love our neighbours—Pole, or British, mingled together— in peril or woe, who are cut in all the best ways from the same cloth. The prayer is there—and the fact of the matter too—that we may be one after all, in the glory of art’s array.
Young Poland: An Arts and Craft Movement (1890-1918) ran from October 2021 to January 2022 at the William Morris Gallery, Forest Road, Walthamstow.
More information can be found at: youngpolandartsandcrafts.org.uk/exhibition/