Young Poland: The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 is an absolute delight. Unique in its content, it explores the genesis of the Polish arts and crafts movement in detail.

Authors, Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski allow us to discover more about their unique milestone in the history of art books dedicated to the XIX century.

What can you tell us about the research and challenges you faced while writing this volume and creating the exhibition?

Julia Griffin. Young Poland. The Polish Arts and Crafts Movement, 1890-1918 is a three-year international research and exhibition project, done in partnership between the William Morris Gallery in London, the National Museum in Kraków and the Polish Cultural Institute in London, and in association with the leading art publisher Lund Humphries. The project began in July 2019 and comprises three elements – a book (published on 1 December 2020), an exhibition (due to open on 10 October 2021 at the William Morris Gallery) and a dedicated website.

The project is the world’s first study of the Young Poland applied arts and architecture systematically shown from the Arts and Crafts perspective. Young Poland arguably continues to be the most popular period in Polish art history, but over the past century, it has been viewed predominantly in reference to painting, and almost exclusively in the context of European Art Nouveau. However, the Art Nouveau perspective is contrary to how many Young Poland makers viewed their own practice, openly breaking away from the Art Nouveau stylistic traits whilst embracing the applied arts (Stanisław Wyspiański and Karol Kłosowski are just two examples).

We therefore very much hope that our project can contribute to offering a more nuanced understanding of the complexity and underlying values of the Young Poland artistic movement. Given that it was characterised by an unprecedented flourishing and integration of all the arts and a revival of crafts, we argue that it can, in fact, be considered as an Arts and Crafts movement in terms of its cultural and iconographic pursuits as well as its overall ethos. This approach not only makes a significant scholarly contribution to the understanding of the international Arts and Crafts Movement, whilst revealing a new facet to Young Poland, but it has already proven tremendously successful in terms of making this epoch of Polish art relatable to British and international audiences by presenting it in familiar light.

We have faced several challenges including the relatively short timescale to produce the book (a year from concept to delivery – from January to December 2020) and having to operate under the pandemic for most of this time. Luckily, we have managed to complete the bulk of the research and new photography prior to the first lockdown last March. Another challenge has been to overcome some entrenched misconceptions about the primacy of the fine arts and the allegedly inferior status of utilitarian objects, which we hope that our book has successfully accomplished.

How was your research carried out and how did you choose the masterpieces?

Julia Griffin. The project is led by three Young Poland Project Curators –myself, Prof. Szczerski, and Roisin Inglesby, and we uniquely combine expertise in Polish and British design and the international Arts and Crafts Movement. Andrzej Szczerski, Professor of Art History from Jagiellonian University and Director of the National Museum in Kraków, is an expert on the cultural exchange between Poland and Great Britain around 1900, and the history of 19th and 20th-century Polish design and architecture. My own doctoral and curatorial specialism is Victorian art and design with particular reference to the British Arts and Crafts movement, Pre-Raphaelitism, D.G. Rossetti and William Morris. Roisin Inglesby, is Senior Curator of the William Morris Gallery, and her experimental work focuses on Morris’s international connections, including the recent exhibition ‘Pioneers: William Morris and the Bauhaus’ (2019).

This research has been a combination of an extensive literature review, multiple research visits to (the art stores of) numerous museums and private collections, as well as consultations with subject specialists and artists’ descendants.

As a starting point the research has drawn on a number of pioneering publications, mainly Andrzej Szczerski’s brilliant monograph on the reception of British ideas in Polish lands during the Young Poland period with particular reference to Pre-Raphaelitism and the Arts and Crafts movement, Views of Albion (2015) (originally published in Polish as ‘Models of Identity’, 2002), together with Linda Parry’s and Karen Livingstone’s seminal monograph International Arts and Crafts (2005), which argues that the British Arts and Crafts Movement, which begun in the 1880s, spread across Europe, America and Japan over the next few decades becoming a global phenomenon.

We have also adopted Linda Parry’s fundamental distinction between the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Art Nouveau style, which explains the former as an ethos, an ideology aimed at improving the human condition of life and work, and the latter as a style concerned with the appearance of things. The two were characterised by competing stances on craft, the process of production and access to beauty. Crucially, Arts and Crafts advocated everyone’s basic human right to beauty (‘Art for All’ and ‘Beauty for All’) combined with the belief in the ennobling value of handiwork and the creative process, as opposed to the elitist motto of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ associated with Art Nouveau, with its frequent recourse to mechanical processes of production.

Essentially, the research was object-based and focussed on highlighting the visual, cultural and ideological parallels between Young Poland and the British Arts and Crafts Movement. The selection of makers and objects showcased in the book and the exhibition highlights the paramount equality of all the arts and crafts, cultural democracy, as well as the role of craft pedagogy and the process of making. It presents iconic as well as newly-discovered objects by well-known artists alongside the outputs of some of the movement’s unsung heroes.

Research has involved several weeks’ worth of study visits to over thirty collections across Poland, including the National Museum in Krakow, which has the best and the largest collection of Young Poland art in the world, the Ethnographic Museum, the Museum of Kraków, the Tatra Museum in Zakopane, the National Museums in Poznań and Warsaw, Literature Museum in Warsaw, the Żeleński Stained Glass Workshop, as well as meetings with the descendants of the remarkable Arts and Crafts polymath and genius for ornament - Karol Kłosowski, the painter-poet Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, or the Kraków Workshops designer Wojciech Jastrzebowski, to mention a few.

We have invited 17 leading Polish and British scholars, curators and designers from the field to collaborate on the book – including Curators from the National Museum in Kraków, William Morris Gallery, the Tatra Museum, National Museum in Warsaw, National Portrait Gallery in London as well as academics from the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and the University of Warwick. Our joint forces and interdisciplinary approach to research has considerably expanded the Young Poland canon and has resulted in several major discoveries of objects – for example, a set of original Arts and Crafts Christmas-tree decorations designed by Zdzisław Gedliczka; a remarkable body of watercolours by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, which illuminate her links to the Pawlikowski family – great patrons of the arts, her occupancy of the House under the Firs in Zakopane and her Podhale inspirations. Similarly, our book presents the first overview of Karol Kłosowski’s diverse and innovative design output, ranging from furniture through paper cuttings to kilims and lacework. The research has also revealed the extent of Stanislaw Wyspiański’s fascination with Podhale, and the very household utensils of the Highlanders, which directly inspired his applied arts including wall friezes and furniture.

The breath and quality of the Polish Arts and Crafts are truly mind-blowing and the commonality of pursuits with British artmakers astounding.

We are used to thinking about the relationship between the Arts and Crafts Movement and Britain. What was its reception in Poland?

Andrzej Szczerski. The reception was happening in the spirit of critical evaluation of the idea of “progress” promoted by the Arts & Crafts Movement. Its protagonists were the first to reflect so broadly on the connections between various effects of industrialization, society, and the arts, including those that were detrimental to the dignity of human beings. The lands of non-existent Poland, largely provincial from the perspective of Russia, Austria and Prussia, which occupied them, lacked significant industrialization and remained backward. What seemed a drawback, from the perspective of the Arts & Crafts could be re-evaluated as advantageous – avoidance of the wrongs of the Industrial Revolution and the call for a new model of society, which could benefit from the vivid pre-industrial traditions preserved in Poland. It had much in common with the Morrisean society, based on traditional social bonds, creative individuals, handicrafts, where the modes of production were not dependent on dehumanizing industrial plants.

Therefore, Polish artists and designers found in the Arts & Crafts Movement inspiration and confirmation of their own interest in the Polish vernacular and folk art, which they were pursuing in search for new artistic forms and the patterns of art production. They could also see themselves, on a par with the Arts&Crafts protagonist as promoters of innovative experiments in the arts, benefiting from the rich folk culture, which was on their doorstep.

On the other hand, the Arts & Crafts Movement, together with the Pre-Raphaelites, was seen as an example of national art, which had developed outside of the cosmopolitan continental art world and the hegemony of Paris. It proved that it was possible to create art which drew on its own tradition whilst at the same time being modern and innovative. Around 1900 the idea of a national style had particular currency in Poland when the hopes for regained independence were again on the rise. The national uniqueness, expressed in the arts, proved that Poles are culturally different from the partitioning powers and at the same time possess a highly developed cultural identity, which places them among the free nations in Europe. Significantly the idea of the national style corresponded with the notion of national unity, which meant the solidarity of different social classes, especially those which stood apart such as landowners and peasants. This notion of nation as a democratic community of equals corresponded well with the Arts & Crafts communal spirit and hence strengthened the appeal of its message.

The following examples show the intense character of the Polish-British inspirations. Due to well-developed distribution networks of art magazines Polish readers regularly received information about British art life from The Studio, highly appreciated among art circles. Around 1900 ten translations of John Ruskin books were published in Polish, while William Morris became a vital source of inspiration, to whom founders of first designers associations often referred.

Stanisław Witkiewicz, founder of the Zakopane style, wrote in his book about the style beginnings in Zakopane: “Here, Ruskin and Morris’s theories and one of their dreams are realized in real life. The heads of both the mighty and the poorest are protected by roofs of a common style: churches, salons and chambers, and the poorest cottages gleam brilliantly with the same beauty. The civilizing foundations for all ranks of society lie in this instance in the ‘lowest classes’, a source that Morris and Ruskin, who did not encounter the peasantry, sought in the art of the Middle Ages.”

Last but not least, the first Polish industrial museum, opened in 1868 in Kraków, was founded by doctor and philanthropist Adrian Baraniecki, who visited Britain and based his initiative on the South Kensington Museum in London.

The two countries have different historical and cultural backgrounds. How do you think this had an impact on the respective artists in the late XIX-early XX centuries?

Andrzej Szczerski. First of all, art and artists were given very different tasks. In Britain - the glorification of the Empire, the investigation of the virtues and vices of Victorian society, the pursuit of Aestheticism and the Modern Style, as well as cultivation of the spirit of Britishness. In Poland – the preservation of endangered national identity, support of struggles for independence, analysis of the Polish society vis à vis anti-Polish politics of the partitioning powers. What they shared was the appraisal of freedom as the right of every human being, including political liberties. In this respect there is a fascinating Polish link with Pre-Raphaelitism as the Young members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood included Poland’s freedom fighter Tadeusz Kościuszko in their List of Immortals (inspirational heroes).

In their artistic endeavours Poles and Britons referred to a similar artistic language of late 19-century Europe, shaped by decadent Symbolism, early Expressionism and Art Nouveau. Artists who supported the Arts & Crafts Movement rebelled against those influences, looking both in Poland and Britain for sources of revival in the vernacular – which in Poland meant especially vivid and diverse folk art.

Hence, regardless of the obvious cultural differences Poles found among British artists some kindred spirits. British art, thanks to its uniqueness, was perceived as a model of national art, free from cosmopolitan trends emanating from Paris. Secondly, since Polish culture around 1900 was dominated by neo-romanticism and its emancipatory message, the romantic character of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts & Crafts had particular appeal. It is no coincidence that Polish critic Ignacy Matuszewski wrote in 1902 that only the Pre-Raphaelites could illustrate the Polish romantic poem The Spirit King by Juliusz Słowacki.

In Poland, British art and design had such a strong appeal also because they brought much-needed novelty, appreciated by artists who wanted to break free from the late 19 century historicism and academism. From the Polish perspective, the interest in British artists was part of the larger phenomenon of the discovery of new cultural centres thus far situated in the margin of European art history – such as Scandinavian expressionism or Czech symbolism. Until the 1890s, Polish artists and art critics had perceived Britain’s contribution to contemporary European art history as negligible. This opinion largely resulted from the lack of major presence of British art in Paris and in German centres, particularly Munich, where many Polish artists studied. Also, there was no exhibition of British art and design in the Polish lands, and the artistic canon was shaped by French art.

Among the British audience, Polish art remained largely unknown, even if it was presented in Earl’s Court in London in 1906, as part of the Austrian Exhibition. The thoughtful account of the Polish scene, published by Amelia Sarah Levetus, the Viennese correspondent of London art journal The Studio, showed however that she also enjoyed and appreciated the national character of Polish art. In her report on the fifteenth exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1902, Levetus pointed out the specific appearance of the room dedicated to “Art” Society of Polish Artists from Kraków, then part of Austria and members of the Secession: “On entering the room one is at once struck with the marked difference between Polish art and that of other nations. These artists have learned from other nations, but they breathe an entirely different atmosphere. One notices the true characteristic of the Polish nation, sorrow in their hopes and hopes in their sorrow: the constant struggle for that freedom that they once enjoyed, and which they longingly strive to regain.” Her opinions, therefore, echoed the Polish appreciation of the national character of British art, seen as a token of originality and novelty. Paradoxically, in spite of vast historical and cultural differences, Polish and British protagonists of the Arts and Crafts Movement pursued the same path of national romanticism. In both cases, it coincided with the idea of revival – in Britain of the society shattered by rapid industrialization, in Poland of the national freedom and independence.

Could you tell us whether there will be further studies on the subject and if you are working on different projects?

Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski. In terms of future projects concerning the Anglo-Polish cultural exchange, there are just so many fascinating avenues that the Young Poland has opened up. There has never been an exhibition of Morris, the Pre-Raphaelites or the Arts and Crafts Movement in Poland, so that would be another dream come true.

Another related idea would be to try and retrace the steps of some of the Polish Arts and Crafts designers, who visited Britain, including Henryk Uziembło, Karol Frycz, and Bonewantura Lenart, and trying to track down the correspondence between Witkiewicz, the founder of the Zakopane Style, with John Ruskin. It would also be fascinating to trace British artists’ ongoing fascination with the Polish Romantic freedom fighter Tadeusz Kościuszko as another project.

In terms of current individual pursuits, Julia Griffin is working on several aspects of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, including a book on Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Julia is also contributing a chapter to the new edition of Linda Parry’s seminal book William Morris to be republished in October, under Anna Mason’s editorship, in which I explore the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism on the Arts and Crafts Movement, and specifically the vital role of Rossetti in the professionalisation of Morris’s decorative arts practice.

Andrzej Szczerski is currently managing the National Museum in Kraków, and working with his curatorial team on a major exhibition about the various concepts of national style in Poland c. 1900, which includes references to the Arts & Crafts Movement and is due to open in the summer this year. The importance of the Arts & Crafts legacy will also be emphasized in the new branch of the Kraków museum dedicated to Polish design and architecture in 20th and 21st centuries, which will open in the Szołayski House in the city centre in autumn this year as well.