23 August 1902, the Polish Academic painter Henryk Siemiradzki died at the age of 55 in Strzałków
“I was most drawn to Tacitus as a historian. Dwelling on his Annals I was frequently tempted by the idea of presenting, in a literary form, these two worlds in which one was the all powerful governing machine of the ruling power and the other represented only a moral force. The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole. Also, as an artist I was drawn to it by the wonderful forms with which the ancient world was able to cloak itself.” (Henryk Siemiradzki)
|Henryk Siemiradzki: "Nero's Torches" (1877)|
|Henryk Siemiradzki: "A Christian Dirce" (1897)|
Speaking the language of slaves is a linguistic skill many artists are forced to acquire under oppressive political regimes lest they end up in Siberia, on the wrong side of a firing squad or worse. Slave language will not call a spade a spade but _Piques_ or pikes and may, if the author is so inclined, transport a world of hidden meaning. 19th century’s academic art with her limited arrangement of available sujets, usually historical, mythological or biblical scenes, often was quite adept in playing with more than the superficial meaning of images and contexts. And if only to paint naked people in oil on mammoth canvasses. A scandal if the scene showed a still from the red light district. Comme il fault if the image was labeled “Zeus and Ganymede” or “Susanna and the Elders”. Naturally, the somewhat algolagniac tales of the early Christian martyrs did provide artists with a lot more subtext for the baser instincts of the audience, especially in regards to sado-masochistic fantasies. But in Poland, edifying stories about persecution for one’s faith had a far more immediate political context. Famously arch-Catholic since Prince Mieszko was baptized back in 966, Poles had every right to feel like a suppressed minority even if their Russian Orthodox and Prussian Protestant rulers did not exactly fed devout Catholics to the lions. Bismarck might have been tempted during the “Kulturkampf”, though. Nevertheless, images of martyrdom exerted a special fascination for Poles, far more than for the Irish who were basically in the same boat. No wonder that Siemiradzki got along famously with Henryk Sienkiewicz of “Quo Vadis”-fame when the two met in Rome. The Polish painter’s arguably best known work, “Nero’s Torches” from 1877, looks indeed like a 6’ wide preliminary illustration for Sienkiewicz’ novel, who relates the tale handed down by Suetonius and Tacitus in epic breadth. Admittedly, Siemiradzki’s painting and its macabre narrative is quite epic all on its own.
|Henryk Siemiradzki: "Burial of a Ruthenian Chieftain" (1883) - in 19th century terms, the Ruthenians were, by and large, the ancestors of the modern Russians|
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