Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 16, 2000
Jan Cavanaugh Out Looking In: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890–1918 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Cloth (0520211902)

“I have to say that an encounter between progress and reaction, between being uncompromising and opportunistic, fascinates me equally strongly today.” The artist and theater director Tadeusz Kantor wrote these words in 1964 touching upon one of the most important issues faced by artists in our modern times that transcends national divisions, the choice between conformism and rebellion. From the Polish perspective, such a choice has a strong grounding in Poland’s turbulent history as it is a country that constantly reshaped its borders, and appeared and disappeared on the map of Europe. As a consequence history has put Polish identity, as a question of real or imaginary life and death, right in the center of Poles’ thinking about their place in the world. Such a specific perspective—a national neurosis of a sort—has conditioned Polish art in a direct way, at least since the country was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the late eighteenth century. How Polish art influenced the birth of modern national consciousness before the country reemerged as an independent state is a crucial issue underlying Polish identity. This issue was firmly on my mind as I was reading Jan Cavanaugh’s Out Looking In: Early Modern Polish Art, 1890-1918.

Out Looking In surveys Polish art during the time in which Poland defined its modern identity. The richly illustrated book focuses on canonical figures in Polish art, such as the artists Jan Matejko, Jacek Malczewski, Jan Stanislawski, and Stanislaw Wyspianski, and critics and writers such as Stanislaw Witkiewicz and Stanislaw Przybyszewski. Although a substantial number of Polish-language books, articles, and exhibition catalogues have already discussed Polish art from the period between 1890 and 1918, Cavanaugh’s study is the first major attempt by an American scholar to treat the subject at length. The British scholar David Crowley’s National Style and National-State: Design in Poland from the Vernacular Revival to the International Style (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992) is the most notable among previously published English-language books on Polish art.

While emphasizing how little is known about Polish art outside of Poland, Cavanaugh states in the Introduction, “The Polish modernist movement centered in Kraków during the years 1890-1918 represents one of the strongest national ‘schools’ in these uncharted territories” (3). Polish modern art is also highly original, according to Cavanaugh. In order to separate it from the French “mainstream,” with which national schools of the turn-of-the-century are usually compared, she convincingly argues of Polish artists that “the basis of their art was not the latest Parisian fashion in style but content—content that can be remarkably expressive, poignant, ironic, and original” (1). Using very broad definitions of modernism and the avant-garde, Cavanaugh places Polish artists among those who were “neither avant-garde nor academic” and “expressed various ‘modern’ values in their works and saw themselves as contributing to the progressive currents of the time” (2).

Out Looking In presents an overview of major currents in modern Polish art between 1890 and 1918, analyzing a large number of important works from the period. The rich material is organized in a kaleidoscopic fashion, switching between topical and chronological narratives. Cavanaugh arranged her material according to artists and/or subjects, such as Polish Impressionism, Polish Symbolism, peasant imagery, and depictions of Polish landscape. At the same time, she warns that stylistic labels have to be applied to Polish art with caution, because artistic movements never took an organized form in Poland. Showing that Polish artists often supplemented their local education with studies in Munich and Paris, Cavanaugh emphasizes their difficulties with finding “Polish” voices while exploring international tendencies. Once they returned to Kraków or Warsaw from abroad, Polish artists usually encountered dilemmas on how exactly to adapt new experience for local needs. Cavanaugh only occasionally connects creative output to the socio-political and cultural issues of partitioned Poland, choosing to follow artists’ lives and to stay close to the art object.

By beginning in 1890 Cavanaugh agrees with the majority of Polish art and literary historians, who take the publication dates of major works created by artists and writers associated with Mloda Polska (Young Poland) as a point of departure for Polish modernism. The 1890s term “Mloda Polska” was originally applied to literature, but gradually became synonymous with art from around 1900, particularly Polish Symbolism, secesja and Neo-Romanticism. In the visual arts, the beginning of Mloda Polska is usually associated with the return from Paris of two artists, Józef Pankiewicz and Wladyslaw Podkowinski, who introduced elements of Impressionism and Postimpressionism to Polish art. Cavanaugh connects the opening date of the modern era in Polish art to the publication of the early books by Jan Kasprowicz, Kazimierz Tetmajer and Stefan Zeromski, pointing out the greater historic importance of literature and poetry than the visual arts for Poles. Polish language, in fact, was a unifying force and a cipher of Polish identity in the partitioned country. The period examined by Cavanaugh ends with the proclamation of sovereignty by Poles after 123 years of foreign occupation in 1918. Cavanaugh also connects the closing date of her book to the emergence of a group of artists called Polish Expressionists in 1917, who then changed their name to Formists in 1918. Expressionists/Formists were among the first Polish artists who introduced cubism and futurism to Polish art. As the art historian Wieslaw Juszczak has already observed in Teksty o malarzach Antologia polskiej krytyki artystycznej 1890-1918 (Wroclaw: Ossolineum, 1976), Formism “marks the beginning of the interwar period” [in Poland] (9). For Juszczak, modern Polish art “contains and sums up all principal motifs of the nineteenth-century tradition” and as such culminated between 1900 and 1905. Cavanaugh, who seems to share these views with Juszczak, treats the period after 1910 with less attention than the previous years.

The best part of Out Looking In deals with Sztuka [Art], the Society of Polish Artists, presenting Sztuka as “the principal representative of Polish modernism” (63). Cavanaugh convincingly argues that this large organization of Polish artists established in 1897 played a major role in the artistic life of Poland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Sztuka was also instrumental in propagating Polish art abroad by organizing eighteen exhibitions of Polish art between 1897 and 1918. “Gaining recognition for modern Polish art outside as well as inside the country,” Cavanaugh writes, “was an essential aim of ‘Sztuka,’ one with far-reaching implications” (68). Cavanaugh treats the reception of Polish art abroad as a complex phenomenon, arguing that when Polish art was exhibited outside of partitioned Poland it was evaluated outside of the local context and often criticized for lacking originality. Nevertheless, the Society shaped the image of Polish art in the eyes of Europeans, as well as, to a certain degree, Americans (Sztuka exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis).

But formal originality should not be treated as a neutral qualifying and quantifying device that allows for a decisive differentiation between good and bad art, especially when that art comes from marginalized places such as partitioned Poland. Art from the peripheries is usually politicized by the center to enhance or subvert its visual significance. Cavanaugh’s book could benefit from discussing in greater length the mechanisms that relegated Polish art to such a peripheral status. Furthermore, the nationalistic character of the Society (crucial for the group’s existence in the country occupied by its neighbors) conditioned its development. Sztuka represented local artists at the time when Poland had not existed as a state for very long. Such a historic factor directly links the question of the Polishness of Polish art to problems concerning national identity. For instance, it is significant that Sztuka was established in Kraków, where Polish citizens enjoyed a notable degree of autonomy from occupying Austria. As the historian Jaroslaw Krawczyk noted in his important study of Matejko, Matejko i Historia (Warsaw: Instytut Sztuki PAN, 1990), Kraków’s limited independence allowed, on one hand, Polish art and culture to flourish; on the other, it was in Kraków above all where the blame for Poland’s lost independence was linked to both the foreign invasion and the Polish character. Such psycho-social dilemmas of Polish artists often reverberate in their art. In her discussion of Sztuka, Cavanaugh explores, instead, the reception of Sztuka’s exhibitions outside of Poland (especially in Austria, where the society had numerous exhibitions), stressing that “Stylistic differences between Polish and Austrian art count in part for the lack of interest” [in Vienna] (91). While presenting artists as highly individualistic and staying close to the art object are viable alternatives to the various strategies of discursive historicizing of modern art, such approaches to Polish art downplay the significance of the complex cultural and socio-political Polish contexts. They also somewhat contradict Cavanaugh’s statement from the Introduction that the key to understanding Polish art lies in the “content that can be remarkably expressive, poignant, ironic, and original.”

Marek Bartelik
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art