"The idea of the victory of the spirit over secular power attracted me as a Pole" - The subversibly sensuous paintings of Henryk Siemiradzki

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)

was never quite forgotten in Poland. His artificial silk Duchy of Warsaw was seen by many as the reincarnation of the lost Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth of old. It was cut up, served and swallowed by the Russians, Prussians and the Austrians at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The next round of enthusiastic and quixotic insurgents tried their luck against their Russian overlords in 1831, to the Romantic strains of Chopin and the epic poems of Mickiewicz and Słowacki and failed gloriously. 1848 brought a short summer of anarchy and hope until the Austrian and Russian armies returned with a vengeance. Poland bred the next generation of dreamers and freedom fighters, on the barricades during the January Uprising of 1863, gunned and sabred down by the Tsar a year later. And this time, the Russian Empire really had it with the Poles and their freedom-loving stubbornness. The szlachta, the Polish nobility of old who had played an active part in all uprisings, was finally dispossessed and banished to Siberia in droves, civil servants and officers of Polish or Lithuanian descent were either dismissed or put under close surveillance of the Third Section of the Imperial Chancellery, the later Okhrana, and so were the intellectuals and everyone else who smelled even remotely of tendencies to support Polish independence. A thorough Russification followed as well as a Germanification in other parts of Poland occupied by the Austrians and especially the Prussians. But the last post-revolutionary clean sweep after the January Uprising did something to the Poles and their attitude of resistance as well. Not that they gave it up. Far from it. They still loved Chopin and read Mickiewicz, but in a quiet chamber and for themselves and instead of flying colours, sabres and desperate last stands on the barricades of Warsaw or Kraków, they backed praca organiczna, organic work, and positivism. That meant, in general terms, economic success and education, more often than not in league with the Russian and German Empires, to give a new Poland a solid fundament, whether it might come about some fine day or not. Many Polish artists followed suit and promising Polish painters were often trained in the Royal and Imperial academies of St Petersburg, Munich, Vienna and Berlin. One of them was the scion of Sloboda Ukraine’s szlachta, Henryk Siemiradzki.

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 

the 1880s Modern Art and more openly rebellious, if not always specifically Polish imagery took root and flourished as Młoda Polska, Young Poland, and like everywhere else, traditional Academic Art like Siemiradzki’s, national importance or not, was superseded by the Symbolism, Impressionism, Art Nouveau and what not of Ślewiński, Podkowiński and Wyspiański. Like the other great and best-selling European salon painters, with Alma-Tadema leading the way, so to speak, became a thing of the past. With his excellent research, a good eye for a gripping narrative, sensuous scenes in strong colours and a wonderfully accentuated use of sunlight, Siemiradzki’s usually large canvasses deserve to be mentioned in one breath with Alma-Tadema’s. Even so, he is by and large forgotten, even if his paintings show up every now and then when somewhat racy illustrations of days gone by are called for to get the attention of readers, viewers and buyers. Not in his native Poland, though. “Nero’s Torches” went straight to the newly founded National Museum in Kraków, an establishment tolerated by the more lenient Habsburg rulers of Poland’s south. And his contribution as an artist to preserve Polish identity in difficult times with subversive, non-violent stubbornness during the days of the praca organiczna gives his work, as outdated as it may seem these days with representationalism and narrative being anathema to visual arts, a bittersweet, revolutionary note few of his Europe’s established Academic painters cared to add.

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