Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie — Ośrodek Kultury Europejskiej “Europeum”

Another day in Kraków and another closed museum. National Museum of Kraków, do you have any museums that are actually entirely open and in fact full of art? I’m a wee bit skeptical. I thought I’d discovered the trove of mediæval art in Kraków, then discovered it was a holdover from when I was thinking of going to Warszawa. But! I discovered one other faint glimmer of possibility on the MNK’s peculiarly peculiar website, the Ośrodek Kultury Europejskiej “Europeum” on the west side of the old town, near the main museum building. Another small museum. Maybe 250 square metres over two floors in a 17th century granary, holding a hundred works or so from the 12th to 19th centuries.

The first room was unimpressive. The second room had Tilda Swinton.

I thought this painting deserved its own post even, proof she is immortal (or at least long-lived), and has always (or at least since before Queen Victoria) been nobility. The other possibility is Tilda stole the eyes and face of Izabeli Czartoryskiey sometime in the late-18th century. Which would mean still she is improbably long-lived. Or they’re related somewhere. Considering the evidence Tilda herself has tabled, in Orlando, Only Lovers Left Alive, and clearly also she was mischief-making with Edward the Second, not to mention extremely broad and unsubtle hints in Constantine, this painting only serves to substantiate her wyrd.

Wandering upstairs (and beneath millions of Polish złoty of bad halogen downlighting), I found a pair of small late-14th century pieces not of christian iconography, but Europa and Hermes. It’s one of the first I’ve seen from that period of Greek mythology, which I associate more with Renaissance and Classical art. Worth mentioning then, also for the sweet brushwork on their faces.

A trio of wood work Virgin and Child statues, the first two being more frontal and squarer than usual, but the third being I think the oldest I’ve yet seen, from the middle 1100s, very symmetrical, front-on, square-shouldered, almost abstract in its lack of expression, especially next to the first one which it makes look positively flowing with life, expression, subjectivity.

The last painting I thought also almost deserved its own post (voice of restraint there, I’m trying to rein in my museum blogging frenzy). Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s magnificent The Sermon of St. John the Baptist from the opening years of the 17th century. The museum also had touchscreens in all the rooms where you could read in more depth about the works, so while Brueghel the Elder painted this originally in 1566, there were at least six (of a currently known thirty-one) signed and dated—and in this case entirely painted—by the Younger between 1601 and 1637.

This is also a political work of his time, as protestant preachers had to gather in secret in forests and elsewhere beyond the urban gaze of the Catholic Hapsburgs. There’s so much movement in this painting, especially considering most people are standing still. It’s the dress and clothing, and the colours that help guide this movement. The series of blues: blue seated cloak in centre foreground to long blue standing tunic, up past the woman squatting (whose clothes go from blue to white as they ascend to her headscarf) to the blue outside the forests of the sky and town in the distance also going from blue to almost white of the distance above the mountains before turning left, along to St. John where behind him stands the third figure all in deep blue on his right (another light blue on his left). On the far left, just in the shallow curve of the trunk of the left tree that stands solidly in the foreground is a man with a large white turban. It’s the turban that swings my attention, but his blue sleeve sets him up as another series: and from him all the way across to the standing blue tunic then up to St. John. A series of overlapping triangles, quadrilaterals, polygons move my eye around and between fore- and background, all through the colour and type of clothing, headdress, and the variety of people from different countries found in mass.

And that variety. The man in the white turban with his moustache, the seated person beneath him with spear and kerchief covering face, the people up trees getting a better view, the many heads, faces, hair of ordinary people, the fortune teller in the front, possibly a knight with his fine sword, rings, green cap and splendid colourful clothing. People look happy or content also, like the group on the far right, sitting on the hillock, or nodding off. It’s both playful and free and yet highly stylised and almost abstract, split horizontally into four layers, as well as vertically into four. There’s also something in it which prevents or resists my eye resting on St. John, like pushing something uphill, it keeps rolling back down, then circling around through the open areas before trying and failing again.

All over in barely an hour, so then some hours of wandering in the snow and grey, across the river on one bridge, back on another. That might be one of the last museums for this adventure, depending on what I decide for next week, which is currently looking like the Carpathians.