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The Tatra Mountains have always fascinated, delighted and bewildered everyone with their power. They have threatened us with their volatility and have punished daredevils severely who have given up their caution. Ultimately, they have been a real artistic challenge for all those who wished to tame them and include all that has always fallen outside any frames on a flat piece of cloth or paper.


Between realism and fairy tale

The Tatra Mountains have always fascinated, delighted and bewildered everyone with their power. They have threatened us with their volatility and have punished daredevils severely who have given up their caution. Ultimately, they have been a real artistic challenge for all those who wished to tame them and include all that has always fallen outside any frames on a flat piece of cloth or paper. Ideas were numerous. Some decided to pursue illustrative accuracy, humbly bowing their heads before the magnitude of the subject (paintings by Walery Eljasz Radzikowski can be cited as an example here), others focused on constantly changing colours and light (here Stanisław Witkiewicz was in the lead) or selected small fragments of landscapes (for example, graphic works from the Tatra Mountains portfolio of Leon Wyczółkowski). For some, Tatra views served as a pretext to express their inner feelings (small size works of Wojciech Weiss can be interpreted this way). Each new generation of painters coming to the Tatra Mountains have tried to confront themselves with the surrounding nature, thereby contributing to the development of Tatra paintings.

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz believed that only one artist taking up Tatra themes, who was actually contemporary to him, had not bent under the weight of the mountains. This artist was Rafał Malczewski, the son of the famous Polish painter Jacek Malczewski. He graduated from the St. Hyacinth Secondary School in Kraków. He continued his studies in Vienna (where he studied architecture, philosophy and agronomy, among other things), as well as at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and in the studio of his father. He was also an excellent mountaineer and skier. From 1917 to 1939, he lived (with minor intervals) in Zakopane. He participated actively in the cultural life of the place, by becoming involved, for example, in the Theatre of Pure Form of Witkiewicz, as well as by writing columns and essays commenting on contemporary events in the "Z.  village". He was friends with many famous personalities of Polish art, for example with Karol Szymanowski, Karol and Zofia Stryjeński, Michał Choromański, as well as Jarosław and Anna Iwaszkiewicz. His works on the Tatra theme are realistic watercolours on which mountain peaks and valleys can be identified, as well as the vast, almost fairy-tale-like, panoramic oil representations. The latter include the painting Wiosna w górach (Spring in the Mountains) of 1937, which won a gold medal at the International Exposition dedicated to Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. Malczewski's work presents a landscape that is both the central figure and the background. In the foreground, patches of melting snow can be seen which make brown fields look bare. Further in the background, on a small hill, there are two cottages to which a ribbon-like road leads. Behind them stretch blue and grey peaks, still whitewashed with snow. Anyone who has visited the mountains in spring knows such scenes when winter slowly gives way to the first spring rays, when the colour palette has not yet exploded with a feast of colours. However, this painting lacks finished details and illustrative accuracy. As a result, there is space for nostalgia. Among these muddy stretches of land meanders a narrow path, leading to modest buildings – to a safe harbour which is a frequent subject of dreams. Sharp and cold rocks form its background. Visitors to the Tatra Museum often spend a lot of time in front of paintings by Rafał Malczewski. Both his "journalistic" watercolours and grand metaphorical oil paintings enjoy popularity. Everything in them seems familiar: the mountains, a stream of heavy rain and "balding" patches of snow. However, there is always a dash of fairy tale, a great deal of understatement and freedom, not only for the artist, but especially for the recipient.

Elaborated by Julita Dembowska (The Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane), © all rights reserved


About Rafał Malczewski and his Tatra-themed painting

Rafał Malczewski (1892–1965) is a legendary figure, mentioned in the same breath as famous representatives of the artistic bohemia of Zakopane of the 1920s and 1930s. The unique artistic atmosphere of the Tatra resort was created, among others, by Witkacy, Zofia Stryjeńska, Karol Szymanowski, Kornel Makuszyński, Władysław Broniewski and Zofia Nałkowska. Zakopane, back then, became a mythical place. 


[…] In winter there is snow, wind-drifted snow, heaps of wind-drifted snow
Slick fluff plucked into millions of weighty tones
The mountains have bogged down in mud, like a hay wain,
The frost shoots straight into the stomach with a rhyme-like breath that almost causes pain.
In the winter the sky is glassy, the weather is full of ice,
A ski is sinking with a crunch in the scattered grainy sand,
In a blowhole, young, cerulean water shows its charm,
Ginger thaw puts its smoking tongue on a roof and sticks it out.
Then, both the spring and the autumn in concert start to prance
The world appears anew for the hundredth, thousandth time [...].

Kazimierz Wierzyński

To Rafał Malczewski(excerpt)[1]

Rafał Malczewski (1892–1965) is a legendary figure, mentioned in the same breath as famous representatives of the artistic bohemia of Zakopane of the 1920s and 1930s. The unique artistic atmosphere of the Tatra resort was created, among others, by Witkacy, Zofia Stryjeńska, Karol Szymanowski, Kornel Makuszyński, Władysław Broniewski and Zofia Nałkowska. Zakopane, back then, became a mythical place. It remains so to this day, despite the fact that over the course of the post-war years — as Leon Chwistek wrote prophetically in the thirties — “each year it was gradually turning into more of a tasteless mixture of primal scruffiness and pretentious luxury”.[2] The myth of pre-war Zakopane[3] would not be complete had it not been for the art and activity of Rafał Malczewski, one of the most important characters of Zakopane, author of the memoire entitled Pępek świata [4] [The hub of the universe] and screenwriter of Biały ślad [The white trace] (directed by Adam Krzeptowski, 1932).Malczewski  was a social butterfly, painter, writer, poet, set designer, climber, competitive skier, and the son of the most famous Polish painter of the turn of the century, Jacek Malczewski. The latter fact finds an analogy in the biography of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, undoubtedly a unique figure in Zakopane during the inter-war years. Malczewski and Witkacy were sons of extremely strong artistic personalities. Both had to face the fame and the vision of the art of their monumental fathers. In terms of their artistic activities, they were both technically self-taught. This, among other factors, led to their becoming outsiders looking for their own unconventional paths, both in art and in life.
The first artistic fascinations and role models of Malczewski were related to his studies, which he started in Vienna in 1910, where he became acquainted with the work of Egon Schiele. The art of this Austrian, based on the legacy of Art Nouveau, impressed Malczewski primarily with the power with which it conveyed the artist’s feelings and state of mind. The other painter who left a mark on the young Pole was a Swiss representative of Art Nouveau, Ferdinand Hodler. Both these artists also significantly influenced Rafał Malczewski’s approach to landscape painting. The third artist whose paintings clearly influenced the painter’s landscape art was his father. Small landscape paintings done by Jacek Malczewski in the period 1900–1910, depicting fragments of the landscape of Kraków’s Zwierzyniec, are different from the other works of the great symbolist. Landscape is also present as the background of many figural-symbolic works of the master. In such works, Malczewski, the father, strives to synthesize. The reduced colour scheme and purification from unnecessary details of the reality are in consonance with the approach to landscape presented by both of Rafał's role models from Vienna, as well as with his own later reflections.
The knowledge of contemporary Western art — including expressionism, cubism and futurism — and contact with members of the Kraków’s Formist group (the first Polish avant-garde group) gave Malczewski a solid foundation in the field of painting theory and practice. Along with his extraordinary imagination and the skill of attributing symbolic meanings to the elements of reality, he created unique and surprising works.
Undoubtedly, when it comes to Rafał Malczewski’s approach to composition, form predominated over colour. This is probably the influence of, among others, the Formists in question, especially visible in the skilful synthesis of elements which contribute to the coherence of a work of art. Writing about his painting Malczewski stated: “To me, composition on the surface of the canvas is a series of selections and eliminations of unnecessary, in my opinion, objects [...]”.[5]
Initially, Malczewski filled his landscapes with characters, making them anecdotal. This sometimes makes his works from this period closer to naïve painting. Witkacy described it in a manner characteristic of himself in the review of the exhibition in 1927: “In the present period one could say that Malczewski is characterized by a brilliant exploitation of his own infirmity”.[6]
In contrast to these compositions, in the second half of the twentieth century, Malczewski painted a series of paintings, the main theme of which are the Tatra Mountains, usually depicted as remote, with the foothills in the foreground. In these paintings, the artist experiments with perspective. In some of the paintings, the background is excessively enlarged in comparison to the foreground, which introduces a strange mood of anxiety. This resembles some of the best contemporary paintings by Zofia Stryjeńska, who also experimented with the perspective and the order of composition plans in her works. The human figure is always present in these works of Malczewski, but it constitutes only a part of the landscape and is placed in a carefully selected spot of the composition. In several paintings, Malczewski becomes a radical synthesizer, reducing them to stains and shapes bordering on abstraction.
The extraordinary nature of these paintings, as isolated worlds created by the artist, is described by Witkacy in his next review one year later. He pointed out that Malczewski’s works represent the real world (the realistic factor is the “reconstruction”, as Witkiewicz wrote, of the depicted objects), but shown in deformation. Their range of colours diverges from the traditional harmony, and space is distorted in such a way that — as Witkacy put it — “in itself, it seems to have a crooked structure”. He also noted that:

All of this [...] results in the fact that while looking at the paintings of Rafał Malczewski, even though everything appears to remains the same, we are in a completely different world, reminiscent of narcotic visions induced by certain alkaloids or of overly-realistic dreams – both these worlds are, in their strangeness, irreducible to any simpler factors.”[7]

In the second half of the 1920s, and especially in the 1930s, Tatra landscapes were also the theme of watercolour paintings, Rafał Malczewski’s favourite technique, which he practiced throughout his entire life. Treated as personal notes, they resulted from completely different artistic assumptions than in case of refined oil paintings. Painted outdoors, often in winter, they depicted mountains seen from up close: lakes, valleys, individual peaks and slopes, often tightly framed. Malczewski also painted wider panoramas of mountains seen from a distance, which he later used as studies for his oil compositions. Watercolours, unlike oil paintings, are usually devoid of human presence: sometimes traces of a skier are the only sign of human presence on the painted mountainsides. Malczewski’s watercolour landscapes are testimony to his exceptional sensitivity to the beauty of his beloved mountains.

Jan Nepomucen Głowacki, Karpathian landscape seen from PoroninDistrict Museum in Toruń, public domain.

After 1930, Malczewski’s major interests take a new turn: he travels around Poland painting compositions that tell stories about the industrial landscape in a poetic way. The climax of this quest is the series of paintings — a painting reportage called Czarny Śląsk [Black Silesia] — which was the result of a journey that took place in 1934. The second series devoted to the industrial theme in the thirties is Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy – reportaż malarski [The Central Industrial District — a painting reportage] which consisted of over forty oil paintings and watercolours. This was created as a result of an expedition made along the construction sites of the largest investment of the Second Republic of Poland in 1938, together with Melchior Wankowicz. At that time, he rarely painted pictures with the theme of the Tatra Mountains. These few pictures differ from the ones painted before. They seem to be deprived of the expression possessed by the works from the 1920s. Unconventional perspective and experiments with settings are replaced with aestheticization, concentration on rendering the poetic beauty of the mountains, and a classic perspective.
These works include Spring in the mountains, which is dated to 1937. The painting received the Gold Medal at the World Exhibition in Paris the same year: Art and technology in everyday life.
This extraordinary work is one of the last monumental oil paintings of the Tatra mountains by Rafał Malczewski. The panorama of snowy mountains seen from a distance and a sea of ​​mists, as well as hills in the foreground, represents a sheer landscape devoid of staff age. The path and the huts located at the centre of the composition, which draw the viewer’s eyes towards the mountains, are the only traces of human presence. The landscape seen against the light is veiled by a fine haze that makes the colours seem surreal. We contemplate Malczewski’s favourite season: early spring. In the high parts of the mountains, there is still a lot of snow contrasting with the colours in the valleys. The time of high-mountain ski trips has come. The snow on the hills in the foreground has almost completely melted, revealing fields that make almost abstract forms in the painting. Like no other painting by Rafał Malczewski, this composition brings to mind yet another issue. It is highly probable that it is a conscious reference to the history of Tatra painting, being a reference to the oldest paintings depicting a large part of the mountain range, the most famous of which is the work by Jan Nepomucen Głowacki (1802–1847), Widok Karpat z Poronina [View of the Carpathians from Poronin]. By creatively drawing inspiration from classical compositions of the Romantic era, Malczewski, in a way characteristic of himself, deprived the landscape of reality, limiting the elements of the foreground to the symbolic minimum. No details interfere with the contemplation of the main theme. It is a tribute and a song of the painter in honour of the peaks, which, although far away, are the most important here.

Elaborated by Światosław Lenartowicz
(National Museum in Kraków),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License..

[1] Plastyka, I, vol. 1, 1930, p. 2.
[2] L.B. Grzeniewski, Leona Chwistka Pałace Boga. Próba rekonstrukcji, Warsaw 1968, p. 112.
[3] In the years 2006–2007, in the museums: Narodowe w Warszawie [The National Museum in Warsaw], Tatrzańskie w Zakopanem [The Tatra Museum in Zakopane], Narodowe w Krakowie [The National Museum in Kraków], Śląskie w Katowicach [The Silesian Muzeum in Katowice], and Narodowe w Szczecinie [The National Museum in Szczecin], the exhibition Rafał Malczewski i mit Zakopanego [Rafał Malczewski and the myth of Zakopane”] by Dorota Folgi-Januszewska was hosted. The exhibition was accompanied by an extensive two-volume publication, devoted to Rafał Malczewski and Zakopane of the artists time. This publication contains information about the life and the overall activity and work of the artist: D. Folga-Januszewska, Zakopane w czasach Rafała Malczewskiego [Zakopane in the times of Rafał Malczewski], vol. 1; Rafał Malczewski i mit Zakopanego [Rafał Malczewski and the myth of Zakopane], vol. 2, Olszanica 2006.
[4] R. Malczewski, Pępek świata: wspomnienia z Zakopanego [The hub of the universe: memories from Zakopane], Łomianki 2003.
[5] R. Malczewski, Moje malarstwo [My painting], Plastyka, I, No. 1, 1930, p. 3.
[6] S.I. Witkiewicz, Wystawa Rafała Malczewskiego w Zakopanem [Rafał Malczewskis exhibition in Zakopane], Epoka”, 1927, No. 237.
[7] S.I. Witkiewicz, Malarstwo (nie sztuka) Rafała Malczewskiego i tło jego powstania [Rafał Malczewskis painting (not art) and the background of its origin], Wiadomości Literackie”, vol. V, 1928, No. 21 (229), May 20, p. 1.


Painting “Spring in the mountains” by Rafał Malczewski





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