An unforgettable exhibition is hosted by the Kunsthalle München, offering a breathtaking and comprehensive exploration of Symbolism in Polish painting at the turn of the century.

Silent Rebels: Symbolism in Poland around 1900 depicts the vibrant atmosphere of what is considered to be the golden age of Polish art.

The pieces displayed have their roots in Polish culture, history, and geography and ought to be considered as a true voyage of discovery into a world of myths and legends and dreamlike atmosphere that will beautifully haunt the viewers, long after their visit.

In this in-depth interview, Albert Godetzky (guest curator of the exhibition) allows us to have a privileged look “behind the scenes”, uncovering the details of its genesis.

The exhibition title is an apparent oxymoron. Why was it chosen and how did you go about searching for paintings to display? What discoveries did you come across, along the way?

The title reflects two situations: the quiet act of creation - in this case, the visual arts - and the political circumstances in Poland during the partitions, a time when Poland did not exist as a sovereign state. Many Polish artists expressed this particular condition through their work, imbuing it with a national imagery and iconography, and silently rebelling against the occupying forces. Yet, many others still rebelled against, or at least questioned, the dictate that art must serve a political end, instead pursuing notions such as ‘art for art’s sake’, psychological drives and the unification of various art forms that were then emerging in wider European culture.

In the process of studying works created in Poland around 1900, it soon became clear to us that painting held a dominant role in Polish visual culture, largely as a result of the strength of the painting departments in schools and academies of fine art in cities such as Kraków and Warsaw. Amongst these paintings, we began to recognise certain recurring themes: historical narratives, landscape, folkloric imagery, portraiture and so on. We then decided to organise the exhibition around these major themes, selecting the most representative examples of painting for each. Fortunately, our collaboration with the National Museums in Kraków, Poznań and Warsaw, enabled us to borrow an unprecedented number of masterpieces. Of course, there were some inevitable omissions in the thematic approach, as well as some extraordinary outliers (e.g. Konrad Krzyżanowski and Witold Wojtkiewicz), but the result, we believe, is a holistic ‘picture’ of Polish culture through painting around 1900.

When visiting Polish art collections, you find yourself observing something unique, magnificently haunting and intoxicating. A magic you cannot entirely grasp, as the expressive power of each individual work, is evident (especially at the turn of the 19th century). Where does the evocative power of Polish artists reside, in your opinion?

Much of the uniqueness that can be seen in these paintings is a result of the particular condition of Polish society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many Polish artists were, on the one hand, eager to explore the current trends in European art, trends such as Impressionism (in its later flowering), Art Nouveau and Secession, and, above all, Symbolism. This coupled, on the other hand, with the perception of Poland as both a “periphery” and somehow still “exotic” place, together with the devastating weight of recent history which saw the disappearance of Polish sovereignty. Polish artists drew energy and creative impulse from a combination of such factors.

The multiplicity of artistic voices displayed is varied, what do you think could be the reading key of the entire exhibition?

A consistent belief in painting, in the ability for painting to seduce its viewers.

Fierceness, desperation and resurrection coexist in these paintings and their power resides in their symbolic meaning. What are the main symbols to be identified, whilst visiting the exhibition?

There are many. And many are quite esoteric - especially in the works of Jacek Malczewski who developed his own mythologies and symbolisms. Certainly, there are narratives of national history - a history largely seen as one of cyclical oppression and liberation - which appear over and over again in the paintings throughout the exhibition. There is also an overarching sense that artists strove to represent that which was tangibly or materially Polish: the land (quite literally the earth, the rivers and trees, etc.) as well as historical monuments and personages. Yet, beyond this political framework lied an interest in “art for art’s sake” and psychological states inspired by figures such as Stanisław Przybyszewski, a self-proclaimed decadent and associate of Edvard Munch, ostensibly outside of the realm of political activism. The exhibition includes several artists whose work is represented at various stages in their careers. It is particularly interesting to trace how their work evolved over time to adapt to and embrace the changing cultural climate.

1900 is a key date in art history; how did the Polish artistic movements of the period differ from the rest of Europe and what was the international impact of Young Poland?

Many Polish artists and their work did indeed travel, although many remained fixed in Polish lands. An early section in the exhibition examines the network of international influences that came to shape the lives and works of certain artists in Poland. This is a field of study that has only recently begun to be explored in greater depth.

What do you think are the key paintings of the exhibition? It is particularly striking to admire the artists’ methods to include literature, music and religion (just to cite a few) in their oeuvres…

The unification of the arts was an aim of certain artists, most notably Wojciech Weiss, who actively pursued a synthesis of painting and music in his practice around 1900. Weiss advocated a system of colour that evoked certain tones and harmonies, and, therefore, certain emotions. In broader terms, Jacek Malczewski turned to music, Classical mythology, as well as Polish poetry and prose of the nineteenth century to construct unique rhetoric for Polish painting.

There are so many works in the exhibition that can be singled out for their crucial role in the narrative of Polish art. We were lucky to be able to borrow so many extraordinary examples; each one plays a crucial role in the exhibition.

What parallel events will be organised, to accompany the exhibition?

The exhibition is accompanied by a rich program focusing on Polish culture, co-organized with the Polish Adam Mickiewicz Institute. It comprises lectures, guided tours, literary events, as well as a screening of silent films that have only recently been rediscovered. The highlight of this accompanying program is a gala concert featuring Karol Szymanowski's Stabat Mater and works by Frédéric Chopin and Mieczysław Weinberg, performed in the Munich Residence.