Sternly told not to photograph the art, but not before I’d collected most of the portraits. Museums in Kraków seem to dislike having their collections photographed. I can almost sympathise with a large retrospective like Olga Boznańska’s, but not really. It’s irritating, when everyone is clicking away with their smartphones. Never mind, I saw interesting stuff.
This is a lesson or reminder for me of that useful tool of consciously prioritising and paying attention to what women are doing. I’d turned up to see whatever, maybe find some interesting mediæval stuff, generally just commit to another museum. I almost didn’t go to the Olga one but then put-money-where-mouth-is, big retrospective of female artist from turn of the last century … and very glad I did.
Olga Boznańska. I’d never heard of her. Not surprising seeing how little I know. But I do know Hénri Bergson, and Marie Skłodowska-Curie, and two of the women who sat for Olga’s portraits were pupils of them. Then there were the other women, doctors, artists, opera singers, writers, philosophers, feminists, resistance fighters, highly accomplished women at a time when education for women—especially at that level—was not a straightforward proposition. The main notes on Olga hint at this, “She received her initial artistic education there [Kraków] in the only form available to women at the time.” Her Polish colleagues did the same and also were part of the Flying Universities.
By showing all and only portraits of women without comment, I would be misrepresenting the exhibition. There were many portraits of men also, however the emphasis in her portrait work seems unambiguously concentrating on women. She also painted landscapes, still life, children, and self-portraits in her atelier, each of which receives its own section. The portraits of significant women make up only a fraction of all this. And yet, they are the first ones to be seen, taking up the centre, right, and much of the left upon entering, and the prominent portraits are almost exclusively women. The works’ captions continue this. The subject’s name and a brief description—a couple of sentences to a paragraph—explain not merely who they are, but what they did as individuals. It makes a very strong point both as an exhibition and as an artist working one hundred years ago. To see women painted not as muses or object put in symbolically charged (and frequently naked) situations, eyes averted, but instead confident, educated, intelligent, political women sitting and facing the painter and viewer head on, to put them all side by side now or to paint like this for decades then, this is remarkable.
(A small note on the images: When I search for images of Olga’s paintings, they look a lot more saturated and contrasty than what I saw in the exhibition. It may be some of them are browner and less vivid than originally, and it may be also the lighting was a little dim and skewed to the yellow as far as my camera was concerned. Besides a small amount of contrast and sometimes colour and/or tone balancing, I’ve left them as they were (ignoring all the lens correction stuff), rather than the pretence of trying to make them ‘look good’. And forgive WordPress for lopping off all their heads in the thumbnails.)
First to Królewska Katedra na Wawelu, the Wawel Royal Cathedral of St. Stanislaus and St. Wenceslaus, then to the Cathedral Museum, past many, many bits and pieces of creepy Pope John Paul II, out and around the corner to the Muzeum Archeologiczne w Krakowie, through that quickly and perfunctorily, last one to leave early-afternoon (Monday museums!), east and south through Kazimierz, across the river, into Podgórze, through the park again, around the church again, across the bridge over road and rail, into calf-deep snow, up the hill to Kopiec Krakusa, around and around that and up to the exposed top where a slight wind picked up, like being on a mountain. Photos. On the opposite side to the city, in an unremarkable patch of land, nothing spectacular, no skyline of churches, no chimneys of Ciepłownicza power plant, no quarry with rusting lime kilns, that on the fourth side, that empty snow before the line of poplars reaching up, after the black line at the edge of cemetery, that’s the concentration camp Płaszów. That quarry also. It’s more photogenic with scarps, flat, white cones of kiln roofs and the vertical thrusting fingers of the kilns themselves. The lines of electric fences and other scraps are rather Schindler’s List’s than Nazi. I look to that rather than the bland field of scrub to the left.
Minus 5º walk in the snow and evening. And some photos. My room, yes, very orange and warm, yes ceramic Kohleofen in the corner. Yes, books! Out the window snow all day, all evening, and that beautiful dome. I walked along Krakowska and across the bridge as usual, then into the park. It was already dark, and with the blanket of snow and bare scarps of the former quarry empty of people, I could pretend I was in the Carpathians, one foot in front of the other. Back into the city, past a church. All churches in Poland are visual signifiers of the sublime. Across the bridge again, turning right for the first time, another church (there are many churches), down a street that came to the gate of Skałka. As much as I adored Prague, fell in love with Budapest, I think Małopolska has taken my heart.
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.
I actually went to the museum of Pope John Paul II. I feel kinda slimy and dirty. That’s what happens when the mediæval museum collections in Kraków and Budapest are closed. No heroin? Here’s some nasty homebake cooked from codeine pills. Apparently there’s some of the pure stuff in the Wawel Cathedral Museum, but with the National Museum’s Pałac Biskupa Erazma Ciołka and Muzeum XX. Czartoryskich w Krakowie closed for renovations until indefinite future I’m getting desperate.
The Muzeum Archidiecezjalne w Krakowie is small, only 6 average-sized rooms, and not often visited either. When the Pałac Biskupa Erazma Ciołka is open it probably gets a lot of lost walk-ins, as it’s a couple of houses down. The ticket man (in a shiny silver-blue dinner jacket) turned the lights on for me.
The quality of most of the works isn’t that remarkable. Curiously that’s what kept me looking. I’ve seen so many paintings and sculptures, altarpieces big as small houses, stone and wood work, of such sublime artistry and sensitivity, that to see common works, works that were in small parishes and churches far from the grandeur and money of the cities, works that look like third-hand mass-produced copies of a memory, is something worth commenting on. The two Virgin Mary and Child polychrome wood sculptures in International Gothic Style are far from that style’s exemplars. The S-curve of the body is a mere suggestion rather than vertiginous, the bodies are thin but not exaggerated, the folds of fabric in wood understand the parallel fallings but don’t understand at all the wild movement that the eye derives. I like them because left to their own devices they are going off on a stylistic journey of their own, not one tied to a Europe-wide moment in the early-15th century.
What I smiled about a lot though in such a small museum was not one but three instances of representations of people of African descent in mediæval art. As an absolute amateur who mostly scuffs around museums for no clear reason other than pleasure, I think I can say that in mediæval art, this representation was unexceptional. It’s so common I expect to see it if I’m looking at an Adoration of the Magi. Which is what the first one was, all heads with eyes in interesting locations and foreheads either missing the bit where the brain goes (covered by a hat) or with room for two. The guy in the Family of the Virgin Mary triptych just looks happy beyond words to be there. The others are all doing the serious face—even Mary is looking at the small chest full of gold coins with a, “Did you clip them? I’ll know if you did!” but smiley guy is completely, “OMG! Baby Jesus! Mary’s head! Gold plate!” There was also a wood carving Adoration of the Magi, the Magi on the left is literally black, with long black wavy hair, and stands out strikingly beside the golden browns of the others. His profile is dead regal.
And a surprise to see Matka Boska Częstochowa, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, having just read about her. This isn’t the famous painting in Częstochowa, but she does have the scars on her right cheek, like two long whiskers. She also has the forehead, eyes and line of nose that reminds me of Greco-Buddhist art.
A few of the works were heavily damaged, like St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret the Virgin and St. Catherine of Alexandria, which somehow just made them more beautiful to me. Some so deteriorated they were barely legible.
The last room was mostly taken up with a large glass vault containing chasubles dating back to the 14th century. It was time to get kicked out, so I didn’t have long to stare at the weaving and embroidery, but splendid it was. A nice finish to a day of aimless wandering and three museums (followed by Sabbath soup in a Jewish restaurant).
Holiday deviation. Instead of Zagreb, Krakow. With an ‘´’ above the ‘o’ and pronounced Crackuff, ah I feel so ignorant. So, deviated to the bus station because all trains were overnight and the primary reason why I like slow ground travel is to look at things; looking at night not included. Bus then. A little narrow in the knee space, but no one next to me. And getting ahead of myself here: getting up at 0445 and using the sublime Budapest public transport at 0530 to get arse on seat and into gear an hour later.
So, Poland? Not Zagreb? Well, I’ve lived in Berlin a while, and Poland’s only 100km eastwards and the busses/trains are cheaper than a meal (seriously, bus from Budapest to Kraków was under 19€, for about 400km). But even before I decided to go north-ish instead of south-west-ish I’d been looking at maps and excuses not to go south, as much as I want to see the ocean and south. Krakow was the closest city I’d never been to that I also thought might be interesting. I also seem to be in high museum mode (as recent blog posts show), and Krakow has mediæval coming out all over the place. Monstrous black wooden mediæval churches in the countryside, frocked up nuns and monks strolling the pavement, frothy explosions of churchy spires.
Anyway, 630am on a bus. I just stuck the camera at the slightly dirty, slightly reflective window and went click click click. Mist, fog, haze, low cloud, greyness, everything leeched of colour and out of focus, eventually, once we got into the Carpathians (the best name for a mountain range ever) some snow (but honestly this winter’s been a wash out for the white stuff), below zero and the liquid, dry, glarey light that brings. I liked the effect of all these layers of reflection, light bouncing around, diffuse brightness, somehow managed to capture a bit of it in between over-excitement at the glorious beauty of the journey. I was so thrilled I only nodded off for about half an hour in Poland, that after less than four hours sleep last night.
Oh, and the piglets. Skoda. White. Ahead of the bus. Driver and co-driver laughing and talking animatedly with couple in the front seats about it. Bus tries to pass for a long while, so sitting on the Skoda’s bumper. Little pink pig ears and head pops up over the back seat. As we overtake, we see the entire rear is packed with piglets.