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Is Malczewski the most conceited artist ever?

Report by Rachel  Le Goff in Paris

Do not be ashamed if you have never heard of Jacek MALCZEWSKI (1854-1929) or if you cannot pronounce his name. Although prolific and extremely gifted this Polish artist remains largely unknown outside Poland. There were two low key retrospectives, one in Stuttgart (1980) and one at the Barbican, London (1990) but the current show at Paris' Musée d'Orsay seeks to catapult this artist into the stratosphere of  art legends. No historian is certain where to slot him although 'Symbolist' is the label most often quoted and he is often linked to the Viennese Seccessionists. Malczewski was simply one of those artists completely comfortable with his own unique, slightly bizarre style and never waivered from it despite exposure to radical external influences. This is a man who lived through Impressionism, Fauvism and the Nabis but whose style and subject matter hardly altered between the years 1890 and his death. Most striking as  you walk through this startling exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay is the artist's apparent obssession with the representation of his own image. 

Oil on Canvas
145 x 108
Varsovie Musee National

His imperious, dome-headed personage looks down at us from numerous self-portraits and takes on various guises as Christ, Saint John the Baptist and a renaissance knight in shining armour. This self-exploitation reaches its apogee in the triple portrait religious triptyque "The Tribute Money" showing Malczewski as Christ, Tobias and Ezechiel. 

Self portrait as Jesus Christ and the Samaritan, 1909, Malczewski Christ and the Samaritan, 1909
Oil on canvas, 72 x 92.5 cm, Archbishop's Museum, Varsovia 

The artist as Jesus Christ. Some of Malczewski's paintings border on the kitsch.

Allegorical portraits place him centre stage whilst various robust Polish female figures float around him as in the enigmatic "On a Single Chord" 1908 and in "The Hour of Creation" 1907. The female is always relegated to the thoroughly 19th century role of 'muse' and pushed to the side or the background. This gives his paintings a predominant mysoginistic tone although I am sure others have perversely interpreted the women as being near goddesses idolized by the male artist. This formula is translated to his portraits of fellow Poles Edward Raczynski (1903), Stanislaw Bryniarski (1902), Erazm Baracz (1907) and Feliks Jasienski (1905) all presented as high-minded imposing men in starched collars and immaculate moustachios coolly detached from the hand maidens, dark spirits and naked bacchantes that decorate the background. His portrait of the collector and president of the Cracow Society of Fine Arts, Edward Raczynski is almost like a St. Anthony Abbott being tempted by the devil with sins of the flesh. 
His most sympathetic portrait of  a woman, the only one that gives females some dignity in his oeuvre, is his stunning portrait of lover Maria Bal as a woman reading the newspaper in 'Model' (1907). It is not until you discover that this singular portrait is in fact part of a cycle where Maria is death personified that you understand his dark view of the female anima. Again and again she appears as 'Thanatos' the Greek figure of death. 

Even a seemingly innocent series of bucolic Polish peasant scenes with rosy women at the well belie a much more sinister meaning. Entitled "The Poisoned Well" these five paintings have smiling blonde women playing sentinel at a well where manacled men are enticed to drink to their death. Like harpies they sit, waiting and laughing.

"The Poisoned Well, IV", oil on canvas 109 x 84cm, National Museum, Poznan

The Poisoned Well IV, 1905, J. Malczewski

Obviously Malczewski had a dark view of the charms of women as his contemporary in Vienna, Gustav Klimt also revealed.

This perhaps led him to push his own pigeon-chested masculine personna and that of his male friends  to the forefront of all his work. This Polish Boldini imbued his own image with the swaggering confidence of Titian's "Aretino" and an aura usually reserved for portraits of nobility. There is a profound resemblance to King Philip IV of Spain as painted by Velasquez. Self-examination is nothing new with artists, but Malczewski retains none of the humility of Rembrandt nor the psychological objectivity of Van Gogh. Neither is his image particularly endearing, no cuddly wrinkled old Dutchman or sad tortured poet. His image is one of puffed up vanity, a dandy, an aesthete, a roué. Salvador Dali may have learned a trick or two from Malczewski. One has the impression he reeks of eau de Cologne and moustache wax.  Worse, he hopes that with repetition of his penetrating stare and confrontational stance that he can convince us he is no ordinary mortal but a mystic or otherworldly being, the artist as supreme creator given the gift of divine genius directly from the hand of God.  He is challenging us to read all this into his paintings but whilst we can admire his technical skill, his invention, his originality - it is hard to accept Malczewski as a ghuru or prophet of his age.

The Hour of Creation, 1907, J. Malczewski

Jacek Malczewski
Musee d'Orsay
15 February - 14th May 2000

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