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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Władysław Podkowiński

A Frenzy of Exultations, 1893-94, Władysław Podkowiński
Wladyslaw Podkowinski.
Self-portrait,1887, age 21.
There's an interesting correlation between the length of artists' lives and the likelihood they will be long remembered and become collectible. Leonardo and Michelangelo, during the Renaissance, both lived well past the average lifespan for men of their time. The same could be said of Rembrandt, Monet, Norman Rockwell, and Georgia O'Keeffe, to name just a few. Becoming a legend in ones own time takes...well, time. Of course, Raphael and a few others attained greatness even though they died relatively young (he was but thirty-seven). Over the years, I've covered several artists (mostly painters), some of whom died in their twenties, who might have gone on to great fame had they lived an average lifespan. Of course, that's conjecture on my part, but given their output and competence during their brief lives, it's not without some basis in reality. One of those might well have been the Polish Impressionist painter, Władysław Podkowiński. He died of tuberculosis in 1895 at the age of twenty-nine.

Nowy Swiat Street, Warsaw, 1892, Wladysaw Podkowinski, probably
painted from his studio window, summer and winter--Polish Impressionism.
Wladyslaw Podkowinski Painting
Frenzy, 1895,  Antoni Kamierski
Art historians tend to treat Podkowinski as something of a "one-hit wonder" as those in the recording business might say. His Frenzy of Exultations (top), dating from 1893-94, finished just months before the artist died, has so overwhelmed the rest of his work as to cause it to seem quite forgettable. Yet Podkowinski is credited with having brought Impressionism to Poland--no minor act for a painter barely three years out of St. Petersburg's Imperial Academy of Art (graduating in 1886). His two scenes featuring Nowy Swiat Street, Warsaw (above), are typical of his Impressionist paintings. Frenzy, on the other hand, was not. Frenzy of Exultations was controversial from the moment it was first exhibited in Warsaw in 1894. There it was violently criticized. First of all it's massive, some ten feet tall and around nine feet wide (left), a much larger canvas than was needed. Second, it is strangely composed (top), with the figure of the frenzied wild horse and nude female rider occupying only the upper left portion of the composition, the rest of which is rendered in darkness. However, given the symbolic theme of the painting, this placement has a sort of "soaring" effect. (Podkowinski had moved on from Impressionism to Symbolism by 1893-94.) However its likely the severe criticism Podkowinski encountered had little to do with the composition or the literal image depicted. Podkowinski made no secret of the fact that he was portraying the female orgasm (not exactly a common theme for turn-of-the-century artists). Today we'd consider it quite presumptuous for a man to even attempt such symbolism. And, having no personal experience with the subject, I shall make no further comment.

St. Michael's Square, 1887, Wladyslaw Podkowinski--magazine illustration.
Girl with a Hoop,
Wladyslaw Podkowinski
It's not uncommon today for artists, in an attempt to stand apart from the crowd, to mount some large-scale, attention-getting, public art "stunt" on the theory that for an artist, there's no such thing as "bad" publicity. As a brash young illustrator for St. Petersburg's Tygodnik Ilustrowany magazine, there was little in the way of exceptional work in Podkowinski's portfolio. In fact most of his work was in the form of watercolor images (above). Then, in 1889, the artist decided to made a trip to Paris. He spent more than a year there, falling in love with Impressionism and particularly the work of Claude Monet. By the time Podkowinski returned to Warsaw, he had not only chosen to make painting his new profession, but had absorbed at least the rudiments of Impressionism. His Girl with a Hoop (left), and his Mokra Village (below) both date from the early 1890s. Together, they are striking different as compared to his A Trip to the Hunt (bottom) from just a year or two before.

Mokra Village, (early 1890s), Wladyslaw Podkowinski--after Paris.
Conversation, Władysław Podkowiński. Could this
be the female reaction to Frenzy of Exultation?
In something of an epilogue to his brief life, apparently Podkowinski was highly disappointed by the reaction to his first "great" work, Frenzy of Exultations. Moreover, he seems not to have been one who took criticism easily. Some twelve-thousand paying visitors lined up to see his painting at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. Only the museum liked the painting. They earned over 350 Rubles during the exhibition. It wouldn't be exaggerating to say that important critics lambasted the work. Everyone else simply gaped in awe, laughed in embarrassment, or left hating it. Podkowinski wanted 10,000 rubles for his masterpiece. His best offer was 3,000, which he turned down. Then, on the 36th day of the exhibition, shortly before it was to close, Podkowinski slipped into the museum and attacked the female figure astride his frenzied horse with a knife, feverishly slashing the canvas numerous times. He died less than a year later. The painting has since been restored and was purchased by a collector in 1901 for 1000 rubles. Four years later he donated it to the Sukiennice Museum in Kraków where it hangs today.

A trip to the Hunt, 1888, Władysław Podkowiński


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