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A painted wooden chest in a Skawina style. It is made of coniferous wood and placed on wheels cut of a wooden plank. A cuboid box is supported on a frame of wood in which there are wheels and a small rectangular drawer. The lid is attached to the rear wall with hinges. The chest has a lock and a signboard with an opening for a key in the front wall made of iron. On the signboard is a date: 12.09.1893.

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A painted wooden chest in a Skawina style. It is made of coniferous wood and placed on wheels cut of a wooden plank. A cuboid box is supported on a frame of wood in which there are wheels and a small rectangular drawer. The lid is attached to the rear wall with hinges. The chest has a lock and a signboard with an opening for a key in the front wall made of iron. On the signboard is a date: 12.09.1893. Non-wrought chests were brought to the market in Skawina. The purchaser handed the device over to the locksmith, who equipped it with hinges, fitted a lock and a signboard. Inside the chest, on the left side, along its width there was a half-chest used as a hiding place. The hostess used it to store the most valuable items, including, among others, ribbons, beads, a prayer book, rings, beads, money, a tax book, a candle, sometimes blessed herbs.
Painting techniques and ornamentation types were passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes, carpenters were not the creators of the painting decorations but their wives or daughters. The lid, the front wall, side walls and the metal frame were covered with green primer. On the front wall and the lid there are four rectangular painting fields surrounded by bordure. The outer fields are filled with a green background and the inner ones with a vermilion background. Each has a decorative bouquet of flowers in a vase with two holders painted. The side walls in the central part are covered with a motif of a circular wreath with tiny leaves, with stylized twigs and two flowers in the corners. The decorations are complemented with floral motifs on a drawer, frame and between the fields in the frontal wall. The dowry chest was an element of traditional equipment of a bride which she brought to a new household. They were usually placed opposite the entrance, in a visible place. A large painted chest was something to be proud of. After some time, they were moved to a less visible place.

Elaborated by Piotr Bujakiewicz (Museum — Vistula Ethnographic Park in Wygiełzów and Lipowiec Castle), © all rights reserved

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Ornamental subtexts

One of the ideas guiding us in the creation of the portal Małopolska’s Virtual Museums is to draw attention to the details of the exhibits, often overlooked intricate decorations, which sometimes surprise when looking closer at the texture and shapes of the presented objects. We strive to use advanced technology to bring out these details and draw people closer to them. With the help of such “magnification”, we would like you to stop you for a moment, or maybe even sometimes make you feel delighted?
What do the ornaments want? What are they to a work of art? Could an ornament be a signature? These, and many other interesting questions, came up during the LXIII National Science Session of the Association of Art Historians entitled Ornament and decoration of a work of art (November 20-22, 2014, Kraków), in which we had the pleasure of participating, presenting exhibits selected for the conference subject matter from the collection of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.

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One of the ideas guiding us in the creation of the portal Małopolska’s Virtual Museums is to draw attention to the details of the exhibits, often overlooked intricate decorations, which sometimes surprise when looking closer at the texture and shapes of the presented objects. We strive to use advanced technology to bring out these details and draw people closer to them. With the help of such “magnification”, we would like you to stop you for a moment, or maybe even sometimes make you feel delighted?
What do the ornaments want? What are they to a work of art? Could an ornament be a signature? These, and many other interesting questions, came up during the LXIII National Science Session of the Association of Art Historians entitled Ornament and decoration of a work of art (November 20-22, 2014, Kraków), in which we had the pleasure of participating, presenting exhibits selected for the conference subject matter from the collection of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.

All presented objects, seemingly diverse, with a different purpose, being results of the work of manufacturers from different cultures, different types of crafts and artistic periods, are united by one thing: their own ornamentation.
The tendency to decorate, results from the inner need of a human being to aestheticize the surrounding space and the elements organizing it. The motifs and their sets, characteristic for particular periods of history — which created the ornament and thus a certain decorative form — covered and organized the surface of the works. We encounter ornaments in all fields of arts and crafts. It is an inseparable component of a work, even if it does not appear physically, it reflects conscious non-use: an absence. The relationship of an ornament to an object used to vary; it was an accompanying form, its decoration; it could determine the divisions of planes, but, over time, it distinguished itself and assumed the primary role. Treated autonomously, it created forms which constituted artworks in themselves. However, its relation to the surface vacillated from horror vacui to amor vacui, down to complete cleansing. Ornamental forms had their origins in nature, or they were treated as the main source of inspiration, hence the distinction between geometric, vegetal, and animal ornamentation. Its gradual transformation was aimed at achieving an abstract shape, which was, however, still intuitively rooted in reality, or was rather transformed reality:  a set of familiar elements combined in fanciful forms with a surprising relationship to each other.
Distinguishing its character, its accompanying motives and inspirations — including its essence — allows one to get a lot of information about the work itself. This can be done on many levels. A non-accidental juxtaposition of seemingly different objects in a single presentation — in each case adorned with ornamentation — opens up a new field for their interpretation and finding correlations between them.
The desirability of decoration is visible in each of the objects presented — whether in the works of “highbrow”, professional, or folk art — there is an evident need of the conscious or often intuitive use of sometimes very naive ornamental forms, which marked divisions contouring the shape of the object and filling its surface (see: Powder cone, Painted wooden chest with a drawer, Sculpture “Mother of God of Skępe”).
The variety of forms of decoration and ornamentation that has appeared on works from particular cultural circles has been conditioned by many factors. Undoubtedly, the most important was the fashion prevailing at that time, which specified the formal repertoire used, or access to sources of inspiration. However, in most cultures — especially eastern ones — there was a dominant tendency to draw inspiration from nature, which formed the basis for shaping ornamentation in multiple versions (cf. Enamelled vase, Besamin tower box from Vienna, Jewel box, A dyeing template). The ban on figurative art—particularly in Islamic and Jewish culture—led to developing ornamentation as the only acceptable form of art which fully utilized the repertoire of plant and geometrical forms.
The intended purpose of these objects, differing from one another to an extreme extent, allows one to notice that the ornamentation decorating them is not dependent on their function. An ornament is non-political and non-ideological; hence, it was possible to use the same motif on everyday objects and objects of worship (see: Armchair with handrails, Mug with a cover, Chalice). The situation was similar in the case of particular fields of craft, characterized by different techniques, where, regardless of their variety and degree of difficulty, the same ornamental forms appeared. Thus, the quintessence of the ornament is the manipulation of its form. And yet this form itself was specific to the era in which it crystallized. An example of this can be rocaille, containing in its shape, elements and behaviour, epithets corresponding to the Rococo period (see: A woman’s fan). A somewhat different usage and problem, however, was posed by the fact the decoration could take the form of representation, and thus carry specific information, often referring to the purpose of the work or its founder (see: Horn of Salt Diggers Brotherhood of Wieliczka, Baroque chasuble).
Many kinds of contextual trails—which combine different objects on different levels—can be created. Despite their otherness, we can find many correlational factors among them. We encourage you to look for your own links between the objects presented and the function of the ornaments and decorations, which allow you to see the work from a different perspective: both formal and interpretive.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

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

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“Horror vacui” or “amor vacui” – reflections on the attitude to emptiness

The problem of emptiness has been an important issue in the history of thought. The first attempts to define it and, above all, to prove its existence or non-existence date back to the 5th century BC. Among the many philosophical assumptions, there was the view maintained for a very long time, right up until the 16th century, which was in line with the Aristotelian concept formulated as: nature abhors a vacuum, or horror vacui. Aristotle understood emptiness as a space devoid of a body (matter); however, he rejected its existence, not seeing any reason for it.

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The problem of emptiness has been an important issue in the history of thought. The first attempts to define it and, above all, to prove its existence or non-existence date back to the 5th century BC. Among the many philosophical assumptions, there was the view maintained for a very long time, right up until the 16th century, which was in line with the Aristotelian concept formulated as: nature abhors a vacuum, or horror vacui. Aristotle understood emptiness as a space devoid of a body (matter); however, he rejected its existence, not seeing any reason for it.
In Aristotelian terminology, specifying the relationship between matter and space has been transposed into an aesthetic principle concerning the relationship between decorations and the surface. Horror vacui meant the fear of an empty space, so its antonym was amor vacui – worship of emptiness. The former defined a trend towards a comprehensive coverage of the surface area with a multitude of motifs, ornamentation or architectural decoration; the latter was just the opposite – oriented towards an almost complete lack of it.
The concept of horror vacui in the context of fine arts was used for the first time in the 19th century by an art and literary critic of Italian origin, Mario Praz. He used it in his critical opinion on Victorian households which – as he wrote – were characterised by untidiness and a stifling atmosphere. The typical features of the Victorian style included a multiplicity of pieces of furniture covered by a multitude of diverse motifs and designs, which, when situated in one space, evoked feelings of heaviness and excess, according to the views of that time. Although the term is used in the history of art, it is not burdened with any aesthetic judgement, and it only defines some indicated qualities of a design.
Depending on the aesthetic principles of a particular artistic period, the amount of decoration used with regard to the plane changed. We can notice a continuous oscillation between these two poles over the centuries. An explosion in decoration can be seen in the artistic periods which departed from the principles associated with classical Vitruvian decorum (appropriateness/suitability of the form in relation to the destination of the work) towards exuberance and a multitude of forms, as well as exaggeration.
Undoubtedly, the relation of the ornamentation to the surface depended on the form of ornamentation. The situation was different in the case of classical ornamentation such as cymatium, meanders, and garlands, which emphasised some elements of a structure in a linear way, and in the case of auricular or rocaille ornamentation, which could outline the contour or fill in entire fields.
Aesthetics and an attitude towards emptiness also differentiate various cultures. Minimalism and purism suggesting amor vacui (see the sculpture Miroir Rouge D by Aliska Lahusen), typical of the art of Japan, may not be found in Arabic art, which sees beauty in a multitude of designs that cover the surface (see the brass vessel – the treasure box from Afghanistan).
At present, the principle less is more, espoused by the modernists, seems to be the predominant aesthetic characteristic, a still-popular term coined by Adolf Loos in the text Ornament and Crime. However, the aesthetic pleasure lies in diversity as variatio delectat (from Latin there's nothing like change), hence both purism and an excess of ornamental forms have evoked a continuous experience and a feast for the eyes through subsequent periods.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

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

See also:
Horror vacui: Throne for a church monstrance, Stipo (studiolo, scrigno) a bambocci writing cabinet with a table, Cup from Michael Wissmar workshop.
Amor vacui: Porcelain vase with a wooden base

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Painted wooden chest with a drawer

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