Poland's Golden Age of Art

A Warsaw exhibition highlights a vibrant interwar art scene in which Jewish artists played a big role.

WARSAW - The National Museum in Warsaw is housed in a large and irritating building constructed in the early 1930s in the Italian fascist style. The fountain in the front courtyard is in ruins so there is something surprising about the state-of-the-art x-ray machine where visitors' bags are checked. On a weekday morning the museum is bustling with schoolchildren and students copying drawings or taking part in moderated discussions.

The museum has a large collection of medieval art, almost all of it religious, as well as Polish drawings and international drawings from the 15th through 19th centuries. The museum's prized possession is a work by Polish national artist Jan Matejko, "The Battle of Grunwald," from 1878, which depicts the Poles' victory over the Teutonic Knights. This giant mural, almost 10 meters wide and about four meters high, is considered the embodiment of the Polish national spirit.

Interestly enough, directly across from it hangs a painting by Maurycy Gottlieb, known in Israel mainly for his drawing in the Tel Aviv Museum of synagogue worshippers on Yom Kippur. Gottlieb was Matejko's student in Krakow, but left his studies after a year due to anti-Semitic attacks. The museum's permanent display also has a few paintings by Maurycy's younger brother, Leopold.

Independent Poland

The exhibition "Trip to between the World Wars," showing at the museum through March 30, is generating a lot of interest. It discusses the period between the world wars when Poland was independent. This era is perceived today by many as the golden age of Polish art, when Poland was part of the international dialogue.

This large exhibition has more than 300 displays on various subjects and in different media; for example, cities, cars, theater and design. The exhibition reflects an art scene influenced by large European art centers such as France, Germany and Russia, and a little bit of Italy.

The exhibition does not contain any dramatic surprises such as a dominant artist or group. But there is a sense of a vibrant and contemporary scene. In the exhibition's text, the National Museum of Warsaw's curator, Katarzyna Nowakowska-Sito, writes that the approach to uncensored documents and memories in Poland makes it possible to reevaluate the period.

The exhibition highlights the influence of the new objectivity movement on artists such as Helena Dubrowska, who drew portraits bursting with symbols of Poland's social elite. A 1934 portrait shows a man sitting in a stylish setting, a telephone behind him, a book clutched close and a pipe in hand.

Another interesting artist whose works are featured in the exhibition is Katarzyna Kobro (1898-1951), who is still considered the most important Polish sculptress. During her lifetime, she exhibited only in Poland, and only after her death in the 1980s did she receive widespread international recognition. Since then her works are often exhibited alongside works of Russian constructivism.

Jewish twist

The number of known Jewish artists in the exhibition is relatively high, and even the names of many other artists sound Jewish, so it seems many Jews were part of the Polish art scene's avant garde.

There is a similarity between the Polish art in the exhibition and early Israeli art, among other reasons because of the almost total absence of surrealism in the 1930s, both in works here and in Poland.

Even Moise Kisling, an artist who left Poland in 1910 and moved to Paris, did a typical still life which perhaps in Israel is considered avant-garde but is catalogued as part of the Paris Jewish school.

Leopold Gottlieb, whose works are also on display, as mentioned, in the National Museum's permanent collection, is represented in the exhibition by several beautiful and interesting oil paintings. Gottlieb, who taught for a short time at the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and later returned to Paris, gained recognition in the 1920s in Poland and is presented alongside both Jewish and non-Jewish artists.

The exhibition also has five drawings of his depicting soldiers from World War I that are reminiscent of the drawings made by Herman Struck in those years and now on display at the Open Museum in the Tefen Industrial Park.

Another Jewish artist to gain recognition in Poland is Yankel Adler, who left Poland for Belgrade at 17, later lived in Germany and moved to England after the Nazis came to power in 1933. His work, a drawing of a Jew playing the fiddle, is the only direct image of Jews in this exhibition.

Abstract art between the wars was influenced by early Russian constructivism in Poland. Kazimierz Malewicz's exhibition in Warsaw in 1927, the first by the artist in Poland, had a profound influence.

The current exhibition also has lovely abstract drawings by Polish artists Wladyslaw Strzeminski and Andrzej Pronazsko, which contain obvious Russian influences. There are also clear Russian influences in the fine selection of posters on display.

In contrast, the furniture and accessories in the design section appear to be close to both the Viennese style of the early 20th century and the Bauhaus style. The overall impression in the exhibition is a world of art not central, but vibrant, aware of the changes over time, but always choosing the most conservative expressions of them.