Is Malczewski the most conceited artist ever?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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