Young Poland

WILLIAM MORRIS (1834-1896) was amongst other things a textile designer, printer, writer, and a Socialist. He was closely associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement which lasted from the late 19th century into the early 20th. This movement can be considered part of the wider Art Nouveau/Jugendstil movements on the mainland of Europe. Morris’s Socialist leanings were embodied in his desire to make beautiful objects available to people of all social classes. His creations were not purely aesthetic but also politically motivated.

As a child, Morris lived in a grand Georgian house in northeast London’s Walthamstow district between 1848 and 1856. This became the home of the publisher Edward Lloyd (1815-1890) between 1857 and 1885. Today, this building is the home of the William Morris Gallery, which has several rooms dedicated to exhibits illustrating the achievements of Morris and his movement. It also hosts temporary exhibitions. One of these, which we visited today on its final day, the 30th of January 2022, was aptly housed in a building dedicated to such an important person in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Between 1795 and soon after WW1, Poland did not exist as an independent country; its territories were divided amongst the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian empires. Polish language and nationalistic aspirations were suppressed. Between about 1890 and 1918, the Young Poland movement flourished. It was a wide-ranging artistic development with many similarities to what was happening in the Arts and Crafts Movement that was initiated by John Ruskin and William Morris. Just as Morris was concerned that industrialisation and mass-production might lead to the loss of beauty associated with the works of traditional craftsmen; this was also the worry expressed by members of the Young Poland movement. Like Morris and his collaborators, Young Poland was also hoping to expose all social groups to objects of beauty. As a placard in the exhibition explains:

“Like William Morris, Young Poland makers believed in cultural democracy: that everyone had a right to beauty in daily life; the spiritual benefits of handiwork; and the equal value of all the arts irrespective of materials or techniques used.”

The Young Poland movement had another motive in addition to making beauty available for all. Many of their creations illustrated and celebrated aspects of Polish tradition and national pride. It was not only an artistic movement but a fairly subtle way of expressing the desire for independence of the Polish people and Roman Catholicism during a time when more overt nationalistic expressiveness would have attracted adverse reactions from the invaders, who were then dominating the Poles.

The exhibition was large enough to be spread over several rooms. The exhibits, most of which came from collections in Poland,  are stylistically similar to what was produced in the British Arts and Crafts Movement are beautiful as well as being typically Polish in subject matter. The artists and the various subdivisions of the Young Poland movement are summarised in the gallery’s website (https://youngpolandartsandcrafts.org.uk/exhibition/).  One of the many works, which I liked and that illustrates the nationalist sentiments of Young Poland, was a painting, “Dawn at the Foot of Wawel Hill”, by Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907). He was, like Morris, a polymath. The picture depicts Wawel Hill in Krakow during the time when this area of the city was being used as a barracks by the Austrian occupiers. The picture is in muted drab colours except for one bright light on a lamppost. The glowing lamp represents the Poles’ eternal hope for independence, which was only achieved in 1918, 24 years after the painting was completed.

One room in the exhibition is dedicated to drawings and paintings by the playwright Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945), who died in Manchester (UK) having come to England from Poland in 1939. Although she would have been too young to have been a member of Young Poland, her rarely seen artworks were included, according to the gallery’s website, because:

“These bold and intimate watercolours feature fantastical and macabre elements inspired by Polish folk traditions.”

It was these traditions that also are reflected in the works by the Young Poland creators.

The exhibition was both fascinating and uplifting. I am glad we managed to see it and hope that it will be held again somewhere so that all of you reading this will not have to miss out on what was a wonderful experience.

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