Młoda Polska: Polish Art Nouveau

25 Mar 2018

In the late 19th century Poland was suffering a little bit of a crisis: it didn’t exist. At least not on the map, anyway. The backwards-glancing oeuvre of the nation’s art establishment, in its effort to build and bolster the Polish national identity during the time of partitions had succeeded merely in lodging a national complaint, and its influence in European art circles was approximate to a bouquet of dead roses. However, when Polish artists caught ahold of the Art Nouveau wave that was sweeping across the continent in the last years of the century, a much-needed dose of modernity and style were injected into Polish culture resulting in perhaps the country’s most brilliant modern artistic epoch. Wider in scope than its European counterparts, Poland’s Młoda Polska (‘Young Poland,’ 1895-1914) movement set about revitalising all of the arts - painting, poetry and music as well as architecture and design - in a rejection of the mainstream bourgeois tastes of the day.

Despite being considered the Austrian province of Galicia’s second city at the time, to more cosmopolitan Lwów (today Ukraine’s Lviv), it should come as little surprise that Kraków was to emerge as the heart of Młoda Polska. Though perhaps most associated today with rather far afield Paris, Art Nouveau owed a lot to the vision of Alfons Mucha whose influence was strong in nearby Prague; meanwhile, in the spring of 1897, Gustav Klimt was co-founding the famous Secession Group in Vienna – a city which Kraków had close political and cultural ties to. As a Habsburg city during the period of Poland’s division, the flow of information and ideas from the Austrian capital was strong and Kraków also enjoyed a more lenient political climate than Polish cities in the Prussian and Russian zones where Polish culture was suppressed more aggressively. Though Austrian occupation was hardly a picnic, the city’s lot improved significantly after 1870 when Galicia was granted autonomy, the Jagiellonian University was again permitted to conduct courses in the Polish language, museums were opened and the Art Academy was born. With a proud patriotic tradition as the former royal capital, Kraków perhaps embodied the Polish spirit more than any other city at the end of the 19th century and artists flocked from across the divided country to contribute to its creative pulse.

As the previous generation of Jan Matejko and his contemporaries had viewed artistic expression as a necessary means of preserving Polish culture and consciousness, so too the new school believed in creative activity as a patriotic and personal responsibility. However, they had imbibed enough sobering landscapes and epic historical paintings, and in the increasingly liberal and rebellious spirit of the times they were pursuant of something a bit more intoxicating. Rejecting romanticism as inert nostalgia, the new movement was more interested in exploring the darker dream world of the unconscious, the symbolic, and both the comic and melancholic spheres of the spirit. Embracing a more bohemian brand of decadence borrowed from Parisian café culture, soon several unofficial headquarters for the movement had been established where members could be found scribbling their new imaginings and manifestos outside the pale of the established academia.

The most important of these became the Lviv Confectionary Shop (Cukiernia Lwowska) at ul. Florianska 45. Opened by Jan Michalik in 1895, the unassuming shop suffered from its close proximity to the art school on Plac Matejki whose close-knit circle of students took over its backroom, much to the irritation of the owner. The story goes that Michalik was so frustrated by their creative vandalism of his shop, he bought them paper, paints, inks and pens in order to save the surfaces of the tables and walls. The gesture only served to encourage them of course and soon Michalik’s shop was filled with paintings and drawings by the city’s most talented young artists, giving it the unshakable reputation of being Kraków’s best bohemian hangout and making Michalik an unwitting patron of the arts.

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