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Michał HaakeAdam Mickiewicz University in Poznań


The study attempts to address the widespread idea about syncretism of Jacek Malczewski’s art, combining the ancient cult of Dionysus and the Christian teachings on salvation. The analysis of Saint Francis, one of his numerous paintings with faun figures, tries to prove that the relationship between the titular character and the mythological figures is not a juxtaposition of similar attitudes towards the world of nature. The depicted situation is rather the case of the mythological creatures becoming subject to the “intransgressible” which for every picture is its surface and its boundaries. This subjection is shown through the formal shaping of the figures. This relation, which can be understood only through direct contact with the work, is an expression through the means of painting of the artist’s profound Christian faith, shared also by his other contemporaries who struggled with the modernist “disenchantment” (in Max Weber’s sense of the word) and proving through their work their trust in Christian transcendence (e.g. Jan Kasprowicz).

keywords: Jacek Malczewski, St Francis, faun


The key question of this study is inspired by the figures of fauns and satyrs appearing on the numerous canvases by Malczewski[1] and it is as follows: can it be that the work of the artist is the example of combining the 19th-century fascination with the figure of Dionysos and Christianity? A telling example of this contamination and also, as Kazimierz Wyka wrote, a kind of summary of Malczewski’s previous creative work, would be the picture St Francis from 1908 [fig. 1].[2] According to Katarzyna Nowakowska-Sito, this work confirms the correlation between the rebirth of the Greek god in the art of the turn of the 20th century, represented in the picture by fauns, and the growing interest in the person of St Francis,[3] who attracted many “both because of the sensual contact with the Divine (through the received stigmata) as well as the feeling of the spiritual unity of the world, so close to the age’s pantheistic tendencies and the worship of the creation through the spontaneous expression of feelings by means of song and dance”.[4]

Taking into account the often emphasized correlation between Malczewski’s “faunism” and Adam Asnyk’s poetry,[5] it is worthwhile to mention the poem Orpheus and Maenads, which tells the story of the murder of the mythical poet by Maenads and a Satyr. If we remember that the painter undoubtedly identified himself with Orpheus,[6] the obvious question would be whether the figure of St Francis, with whom the artist also identified himself, should be really an example of exuberant uniting with nature together with fauns. Such a hypothesis can be confirmed by the reception of Poverello in the 19th-century Polish culture. It has been noted that there are differences between the Franciscan and ancient spirituality, as the former was rooted in the unconditional love of one’s neighbour, to which was attributed a particularly reviving influence on fine arts.[7] While the influence of the Dionysian idea, born in Romanticism and explained most fully in Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy of 1871 is undeniable, one should also pose a question about how the artist whose attachment to Catholicism was so strong and lasting (as he himself made clear on numerous occasions) could hold such views. Malczewski came from a very religious family.[8] The artist, in his view, making his art “a plea, confession and adoration” towards God, “becomes a true ‘son of God’ and in his own image he receives the grace of creating”, he produces art “out of love for approaching and uniting with the Highest Spirit”, through art “he perceives the Highest Love” and he “feels it in the infinite universe”, he is “a discoverer of the highest truths, the chosen one who reveals eternal harmonies, springing from God, which for the humankind, while it is riveted to this globe, are sometimes hidden”, and which become for the humankind “signposts”.[9] According to Jagna Dankowska, such views allow us to connect Malczewski with European theocentrism, “putting God in the centre of the discourse as the Creator of the world”.[10] Summing up Malczewski’s views on art, Dorota Kudelska points out that “the Christian, biblical value system was for the artist ‘the baseline’ for his work”.[11]


The following questions are methodological. Does the fact that Malczewski admired the ancient culture[12] imply he admired all its aspects unreservedly? Does the fact that he introduced faun-like figures into his paintings allow us to make any statements regarding their semantic status and does it confirm the integration of the cult of Dionysus and Diana represented by them with Malczewski’s Christian worldview? The author of the present article does not know of any statements made by the artist which could support such view. The fact that Malczewski painted on the wall of his studio at Zwierzyniec a faun and Madonna cannot be considered a proof, either, since could not such a juxtaposition be the illustration of the alternative Malczewski’s contemporaries faced?[13] Is the view that Malczewski’s art is syncretic not the result of an a priori judgement attempting to reconcile the meaning of the discussed artefacts with the cultural climate of the age they were created in, while disregarding such features of these works which show their opposition to the main tendencies of their age? And was this cultural climate regarding fauns and satyrs unambiguous? Apart from the famous Afternoon of a Faun by Mallarmé, whose influence on modernism was described on many occasions[14], one could quote here the poem by Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer The Satyr ending with the words: “While he is mocking – we fall silent, ashamed and the moment/ of soul’s ecstasy or heart’s passion is gone/ how many treasures are stolen from us and all men/ by this ever-watchful jeerer!”.[15] Would it be possible to think that the purpose of fauns in Malczewski’s pictures is to show his critical attitude both toward syncretism and toward their role as symbols of art, as widespread as they were banal; that the way they are depicted is an answer to that age, called by Antoni Lange “the age of the faun”, in which this figure was one of the most popular and the most overused ones?[16] And the last question is an artistic one: can we consider depicting a saint surrounded by mythological figures as a sufficient means to discuss the problem of religious integration, and – if the message of the work should be limited to such a narrative scene – would it not be rather banal and not really worth our attention?

Regarding the scene and objects depicted in the picture St Francis the question is whether it shows the saint with the face modelled on the painter’s own, surrounded by the three Fates and three fauns, a Chimera and a young girl with her hands clasped in prayer, or is it – because of the stairs, depicted in several pictures painted between 1906–1908 which allow us to identify the place as the garden of the villa “Under the Virgin” at Zwierzyniec in Kraków[17] – Malczewski in a tertiary habit, surrounded by the motifs of his work, to quote Wyka once again?[18] Undoubtedly the picture portrays Malczewski identifying himself with St Francis and for that reason we can assume that the gestures of this figure mean the same thing, regardless of whether he is the saint or the artist. However, the possibility that the speaker (because of his pointing gesture) is Malczewski means that the picture does not speak about the attitude of the age towards St Francis but about the artist’s personal relationship with this figure. One of elements contributing to this relationship was Malczewski’s membership in the Men’s Society of St Vincent de Paul since 1875, about which he wrote to his parents: “I have my poor people, whom I visit and whom I recommend to the Society’s care, our meetings take place every Wednesday from 7 till 8 and that’s everything, it doesn’t take much time, but at the same time it edifies and ennobles, since it makes one forget one’s own ego”.[19] The message of the discussed picture, even though it was painted much later than the quote above, corresponds closely with the emphasized key idea of helping the needy.

Among Malczewski’s works, one should point out the similarity between St Francis and The Vicious Circle, a narrative picture painted at the time when Malczewski was changing his subject matter, which is an important argument for considering the former work as the summary of Malczewski’s creative development [fig. 2]. Apart from the similarity of the scene construction, depicting a group gathered around the central figure, these works are also connected formally through the ladder in The Vicious Circle and the triangle framed by the shape of the stone and the folds of St Francis’ robes. This triangle directs the viewer’s gaze towards the figures’ hands, defining the gesture of the one on the right and the saint’s head as the top of the pyramid, while the saint’s figure is structurally analogous to the figure of the apprentice decorator at the top of the ladder in The Vicious Circle. (The figure of St Francis is not an example of the conventional composition based on the triangle, since it is not inscribed within this shape, but contains it and at the same time is a more complicated shape). To the similarities in terms of composition and structure one could add also the subject matter, since the both central figures are modelled on the artist himself – they portray him as a young[20] and a mature man.

Malczewski’s self-identification with St Francis could be also perceived as reminiscent of life choices made by Brother Albert [Adam Chmielowski], “Poland’s foremost tertiary”, who saw art as dangerous for one’s faith. Chmielowski wrote: “Can one serve God while serving art? […] Christ says that no man can serve two masters, although art is not Mammon, it is not God either, an idol sooner. I think that serving art will always turn out to be idol-worshipping”. Finally he gave up painting for working for the poor – “If I had two souls, I would paint with one of them, but since I have only one, I had to choose the most important thing”.[21] (In 1894 and 1896 Adam Krechowiecki published two novels, introducing Chmielowski to literature in the guise of a painter Wysz, who gives up his artistic career and founds a shelter for the poor.[22]) In other words, one perhaps could draw a conclusion that the world views of both painters differed in some important respects, and the difference was caused by the fact that Malczewski recognized St Francis as an artist; possibly Malczewski’s point of view was closer to the attitude represented e.g. by Alfred Lauterbach: “If there ever was a saint who was at the same time a poet, St Francis certainly was one, but it was not Francesco Bernardone, a knight singing Provencal sonnets and troubadour rondeaux, but this holy pauper inspired by his faith, who poured his heart out in all the nature’s works, reaching the state of the highest blessing, love and freedom”.[23]

The affinity between St Francis and The Vicious Circle makes us realize that the placement of fauns corresponds to the placement of the group of the tormented in the earlier picture, which in turn was inspired, as it has been pointed out, by the figures of the condemned in the Last Judgement depictions.[24] Shifting the saint closer to this group suggests that his attitude could be called “seeking out sinners” resulting from the imitation of Christ (“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”[25]). This interpretation, however, does not explain placing only one of the Fates on the right. This difference in their placement and dividing the figures surrounding St Francis into two groups should be explained in another way than through the similarity of this picture to the depictions of the Last Judgement. Nevertheless, this realization does not make the analogy between The Vicious Circle and St Francis superfluous, and that is for two reasons. Apparently it has not been pointed out yet that the maenad next to the faun is reaching out for the fetters, touching them and seemingly playing with them. Through that she enters into the relation with the figures on the right personifying bondage and torment, revealing a kind of participation in it. She is also the mirror reflection of the old man wrapped in the army overcoat and suspended in front of the ladder in The Vicious Circle – the similarity is both in the arrangement of the limbs of both figures (one arm stretched to the side, the other behind the back, one leg tucked up), the analogy between the tiger skin and the overcoat as well as in the shape of these figures approximating a trapezoid. The Maenad and the Siberian prisoner are in a way two sides of the same coin, which marks the Bacchic group pejoratively. The other reason is the special relation between the apprentice painter sitting on the ladder with the frame of the picture, realized differently with regard to the central figure in the painting St Francis. When it comes to the child figure in The Vicious Circle, there are numerous interpretation discrepancies in the literature on the subject, both regarding his job (he is said to be a daydreaming painter boy[26] or the artist[27]), and also regarding the meaning of this figure in the overall message of the work (on one hand, his daydreaming should be the message of the work,[28] on the other hand some claim that the young decorator is pushed by this vision to the margin[29]). These discrepancies could be overcome by pointing out the special position of this figure, shown in the clear shift of the child’s head towards the edge of the picture. This shift “could be seen as contradictory to our natural, that is borrowed from reality, perception and expectations connected with it, which torments us when looking at the picture; therefore, it could be considered to be nothing more than Malczewski’s error of composition, were it not for the fact that in the spiritual experience of this picture as a picture we agree to such a relation and consider it naturally true”.[30] It is natural for us since when perceiving the picture we unconsciously accept the existence of the image within the picture frame. Therefore, we also reconcile ourselves to the limitation of the image, that is, its reference to its frame which includes the image and constitutes it as a whole to which painters (Malczewski included) often refer in the process of painting, from time to time stepping back from the picture in order to be able to perceive it as a whole. The frame of the picture, even though it is perceived together with the image, does not belong there and in this sense is, regarding the image, something unachievable and intransgressible, something absolute. Through shaping of the relation between the image (the subject matter of the work) and the frame, the idea of transgressing the object and the material, so close to Malczewski’s heart (which he derived, as Kudelska points out, from his theosophical reading) manifests itself: “this sudden shift of the head to the frame is a completely justified and sensible pointing out to the permanence of the child with regard to the absolute. This relation inevitably creates and justifies the child’s introversion, his brooding inward gaze, his isolation from the world”.[31] A comparable relation between the figure of the painter and the frame can be noticed also in another visual manifesto of Malczewski – Melancholy from 1894 [fig. 3]. The gaze of the viewer standing in front of this picture is “constantly drawn over the restless crowd in the background and the foreground to the painting on the easel in front of which the artist is seated. This movement is enforced by the formal proximity between the painting on the easel and the left edge of the frame. (Thus, treating the picture frame as a ‘window frame’ of sorts – through which we look at the objects placed inside it, and separated from it through the spatial distance – is within this painting clearly invalidated.)”.[32] In both programmatic paintings by Malczewski the relation between the painter figure and the painting frame, defining his behaviour as recalling the absolute, has important consequences in shaping of the other parts of the picture. In order to recognize them we would have to quote the whole interpretation of Michael Brötje, here cited only in fragments, since “the radically ostensible (i.e. concentrated only on the image of things, which out of definition can be realized only through the eye) character of the texts of this German researcher makes them immune to any attempts of summarizing. They should be simply read in extenso, as only in this way one can become a participant in the ‘story’, developing according to the image logic of the work, which literally applies to everybody to the same degree”.[33]

In this connection, without referring to the visual quality of the paintings, one could add that granting an important role in the interpretation of Malczewski’s pictures to their visible aspects, and associating closely the perceptible aspect with the subject matter is not contradictory to the artist’s own views on painting. He wrote: “Great art is as deep as an ocean. In its depth lies greatness and majesty. If the ocean were not great, it would not be so magnificent, despite its area. The view of surface only is tiresome, and if the gaze can stay for so long on the sea surface [emphasis mine – M. H.], it is only because under the visible waves one can sense the invisible ones. This depth and this far-reaching infinity is the feature of real art”.[34] In other words, the visible waves send us to the invisible ones, but this process takes place while the gaze remains on the surface!

In the painting St Francis the figures are approximately full-scale and crowd not only in the foreground, but also through most the picture, spilling out on all sides of its frame. The viewer’s gaze is clearly directed diagonally from the heads of the Fates on the left to the heads of the fauns. The only element fitting within the picture frame is the spindle, around which the wool spun by the Fates is twined, reaching almost to the top edge of the painting and thus pointing to it. (It is also pointed at by the oblique line created by the left edge of the stone and the habit’s fold on the left leg). The spindle emphasized in this way is also the element which, being placed in close proximity to the fauns, recalls the frame also in their context and allows the gaze to enter the relationship with the picture in a different way than just through these figures.

The spindle is connected with the frame and at the same time is a part of the vertical axis drawn through the whole height of the image: it is set in a case whose width equals that of the saint’s arm, and its vertical axis is optically continued by the hanging cord of the habit following the robe’s fold falling down on the right side of the stone on which the figure is seated. Just like the spindle at the top, the fold and the cord at the bottom point to the painting’s edge. The vertical axis formed by them matches with the axis of the golden section made along the painting’s width and brings the image forward to the painting’s surface (a similar axis is emphasized in Matejko’s Skarga’s Sermon [Kazanie Skargi]: a fold of the cloth covering the table standing next to the Papal Nuncio, the vertical line drawn by Zebrzydowski’s staff and the left edge of the column[35] [fig. 4]). The visual quality drawn by this vertical line, through which the image corresponds with the shape of the picture and becomes subject to the absolute, creates at the same time the frame, over which St Francis meets the figures on his left. Therefore the latter relate both to the saint and to this correspondence. One could then ask legitimately how this meeting happened.

Just like The Vicious Circle, this picture also should be read from left to right, as indicated by the gestures of St Francis: his right hand is drawn up to his chest and directed towards the viewer, while the position of the saint’s hand echoes the hands of the Fates (standing to the left), whose right hands are lifted up and left hands are lying on their knees. St Francis’ right hand is the last part of the series which starts with the right hands of both Fates. Including the saint’s hand in the diagonal line on the surface connects its gesture also with the right side of the picture and helps to project his energy both on the group standing there and onto the viewer. The duality of St Francis’ stance is also apparent in his gaze, which, although directed outside the picture, does not fall directly on the viewers, but somewhere to their right.

Placing the Fates’ gestures in one chain with the gesture of St Francis makes clear that these are not individual movements which could be explained solely through mythology, but that they belong in a sequence, in which this movement is replaced with the saint’s gesture. This relationship is also emphasized by the visual correlation between the left slanting edge of the rock from bottom to the top, and the slanting edge of the stairs and the banister situated directly above it; moving both these shapes towards the central part of the painting separates the group on the left, while leaving between them space for the saint’s elbow. In this way only the saint’s gesture “penetrates”, so to say, from the left to the right, expressing what is going on on the left. Another member of the group located there is the girl placed on the same level as the stone, leaning onto it in her praying posture and visually united with it.

The gesture of the saint’s right hand directed both towards the viewer and towards the figures on the right means that they – as a part of the picture – teach the viewer how to received and understand this gesture.

St Francis directs his gesture to the figures on the right, relating at the same time to the vertical line drawn by the spindle – firstly, since together with the stairs it frames his head, and secondly, since on the left side of the saint’s face, at the right angle down from the brow bone to the beard runs a rather long vertical fold, incomprehensible in its unsettling stiffness, deforming his face like a splinter, like a stigma. Its presence shapes the visual correspondence between the right angle formed by the brow bone and this fold, and the right angle created by the spindle and the picture edge. The pale-green background, unvaried and almost flat in comparison with the plants on the right, and almost shining like an aureole around the saint’s head, emphasizes this correspondence. The vertical line of the spindle is also connected with the figure of the Fate on the right. The viewer notices her first among the figures portrayed in this part of the composition, because she is the closest to St Francis and she was placed by the artist on the same level as the Fates on the left, while her dress makes her a visual continuation of the row formed by them. Also the position of her hands alludes to the other Fates, but it is modified. Her right hand is directed upwards, thus relating to St Francis’ gesture, but at the same time it is parallel to the spindle above, guiding the viewer’s gaze directly towards the picture’s edge. Through this relation the viewer is assured that the saint’s gesture is capable of directing the figure’s activity towards what is superior and at the same time inaccessible, to include it in what fills her face with joy, missing still from the faces of the Fates on the left.

The figure of the Fate is visibly leaning to the left, which is the result of her being closely surrounded with other figures in the group, by the Chimera at the front and by the three mighty fauns at the back, whose heads are much bigger not only than the Fate’s head, but also than the saint’s. The faun in the middle seems particularly to be pushing onto the female figure, making her tilt her head by putting his huge hand on her arm.

To the right of the trapped Fate is placed the Chimera, in a perverse way connected with the group of the mythological spinners. Her head is placed at the end of the chain formed by the heads of these figures and helps to create the symmetry of their composition relative to St Francis. Their hairstyles are also similar. However, the Chimera turns away from the Fates, drawing her arms and hands toward herself, disconnecting herself from the interplay of gestures uniting the spinners and the saint, breaking the bond with them.[36] Moreover, her figure is pyramid-shaped, within which its cat half creates through its triangular shape a visual analogy to the stone. Thus, she portrays an opposite stance to the one represented by the praying girl, since she does not “unite” herself with the stone, but builds a visual equivalent alternative; she becomes a rock and base unto herself, independent of the saint’s teaching. Her behaviour is perverse as by joining this chain of figures she distorts its meaning, presenting a position clearly marked by egotism and contrasting with the portrayed community. (Even though the identification of Malczewski with St Francis seems to confirm Hans H. Hofstätter’s observation about how “all the attempts of religious orientation in the 19th century were based on individualism”, whose aim was not „the communal belief but the personal experience of the divine”,[37] the relationship between the artist and the saint, as many other features of Malczewski’s work, moves beyond the limitations of its time). The figure of the Chimera is further defined formally by surrounding its head with the coat wrapped over the arm of the big faun standing above, uniting her with the group of the mythological creatures, which seem to be ignoring the saint since all of them are staring at the cowering Fate.

However, at the same time the fauns and the Chimera surrounding the Fate are subject to the overriding reference caused by being closed between the vertical line described above and the left edge of the picture. All the figures on the right are not only tightly packed in the space, but they also overlap one another and in a way create together a homogeneous formal plane, spread across the whole height of the image. This relation makes the Chimera the axis of this part of the composition – two symmetrical faun heads “grow” out of her, like the twin peaks of a huge mountain touching the upper edge of the picture. In this way the vitality of mythological half-animals, half-humans, so apparent in the pictures of Böcklin, Stuck or Gabriel von Max, is connected in Malczewski’s work through Franciscan teaching with the absolute. Thus Malczewski’s picture manages to portray St Francis as a person for whom, in Michał Walicki’s words “the omnipresence of God becomes a certainty, speaking with irrefutable arguments through every living being” in the only way available for painting.[38]

The views on St Francis and the interpretation are confirmed by the subject matter of the picture painted in the same year Music – Self-portrait (or A Self-portrait with a Muse[39]), as well as in the composition painted in 1912 Tobias and the Fates [fig. 5, 8].

The former picture is usually described as a testimony of the passion for art which brought Malczewski and Maria Balowa together. She is portrayed in the picture as a Muse, next to the artist, listening together with him to a tune played by fauns walking in the background and a manacled man wearing an army overcoat.[40] According to Teresa Grzybkowska, the instruments carried by these figures express “love harmony”. Although the man’s presence disrupts “the Arcadian concert”, he also “holds a musical instrument in his hand”, which could mean that the manacled figure overcomes the burden of imprisonment through music. In a letter to Marceli Czartoryski Malczewski admitted that under the influence of his love for Balowa he disposed of manacles in his art, considering them to be “a mistake of the eyes”.[41] To this remark one could add that together with joining procession of the playing fauns, the artist, whose head reaches the upper edge of the picture, submits himself to the superior and absolute.

Such an interpretation is based on the premise that the fauns’ music expresses “love harmony”. That seems to be confirmed by the picture Temptation. A Self-portrait as a Faun with a Girl, depicting the painter under the guise of a faun, playing a tune for the smiling woman (approx. 1918, currently in the Regional Museum in Radom), but one could not completely rule out the idea that the picture is an ironic self-portrait. However, with regard to the painting Music – Self-portrait one can ask the question: why is the artist dropping the lute? Grzybkowska says that “a moment ago he played the lute for the beautiful Maria Balowa”.[42] Does it mean he stopped playing because his human music pales in comparison with the sound of the fauns’ flutes? Which tune, then, enchants Maria Balowa? Or does the appearance of the fauns make it impossible to play music and create? It has been noticed, after all, that the hands of the artist are not positioned properly for playing.[43] The artist’s fingers, crooked grotesquely as if bent with arthritis, seem to be unable to make a sound. As the case is with many other works of Malczewski, this picture turns out to have a different meaning from the one suggested by the literally read title and the invoked mood (e.g. “gentle melancholy”[44]). Even the very poses, slightly affected and the faces of the figures in the foreground should warn us against treating their stance as emanating deep spirituality.

The picture bears affinity both with The Vicious Circle as well as with St Francis. The reference to the first one is visible in the stone stairs in place of the ladder, leading up to the hill seen in the background, which serve the same structural role, connecting two figures situated above and below. In The Vicious Circle they are the painter boy at the top of the ladder and the old man “suspended in front of it, as if above the abyss”.[45] Both these figures, directed at an angle to the right and to the front, are set apart among others: the painter’s apprentice by being raised above the figures surrounding the ladder, the old man by what he does an attempt to set a new direction, opposed to the circle’s dynamic.[46] In the picture Music – A Self-portrait their counterparts are the figures of the artists with the instruments: the musician with the flute, walking downstairs and Malczewski with the lute, standing at the foot of the slope next to these stairs. The element connecting this picture with the painting St Francis, apart from the motif of the stairs and Malczewski’s figure, is the figure modelled on Maria Balowa, situated to the right and just like the Chimera pressing her folded hands to her chest.

Both pictures The Vicious Circle and Music – A Self-portrait are also similar with respect to the musician’s figure: just like the painter’s apprentice in Malczewski’s famous picture he enters a direct visual relation with the edge of the image. Despite his participation in the procession of the fauns appearing from behind the hill and moving downstairs, despite the manacles chaining his hands and feet, as well as the heavy overcoat, his relation to the edge of the image elevates the musician above the group of the mythological figures. In contrast to him, Malczewski portrayed in the lower part of the picture, seems to be falling down from the painting, together with the lute falling out of his hands (which makes him similar to the old man in front of the ladder in The Vicious Circle). However, at the same time the artist is leaning to the left, transgressing his connection with the stairs. Corresponding with this movement, the artist’s trunk is almost rectangular, and the vertical line of his left side is the continuation of the stairs in such a way that their sloping line, constitutive for the represented space, is put in question by this new orientation, tallying with the image axis and related to the side edges of the painting.

This process is also visible in the relation between the heads of the foreground figures and the background. On the one hand, the woman’s head, tilting to the left, is through her hairstyle visually integrated with the Bacchic procession, connecting its participants; the line of her eyes overlaps with the line of the slope. On the other hand, this figure receives through the playing artist her share in the relation to the absolute. Malczewski, in turn, manages to obtain this share through surrounding his head with the oval-shaped wide-brimmed black hat. The hat hides the bright landscape in the background and at the same time subordinates the directional tensions which define it, since the slopes of these parts of the hill, the one which lies closer and the one slightly darker in the back part, are directed towards the hat. The hat is a strong plane shape, in a way “hooking” the artist’s head to the picture’s surface and – through the relation to the absolute keeping the figure leaning to the left. The black head covering introduces into the greenish-blue tones of the painting a strange element, out of harmony with its mood. These features move the figure from the subject and spatial relations and include it into the absolute, by its very nature different from the representation. (This device – touching the hat brim with the upper edge of the picture – is used by Malczewski also in his Self-portrait with the Skulls from 1908 [fig. 6], and also in the picture painted one year earlier A Moment of Creating – The Sleeping Harpy [fig. 7].)

The work Tobias and the Fates from 1912 [fig. 8] presents the figures positioned in the way alluding to the side groups from the picture St Francis. In the left lower half of the picture is depicted the bust of Tobias the elder, modelled on Malczewski, corresponding to the figure of the girl in the former picture both in terms of composition as well as because of the gesture of praying hands. The position of the Fates, depicted both above the bust and the girl is also similar. In the lower right half we see Tobias the younger, splitting the fish open with his knife in order to extract the healing gall, and over him stands a tall angel, whose face resembles the one of Maria Balowa. These figures are compositional counterparts of the Chimera and the fauns. Thus the painting structure could be read on one hand as moving two side groups from St Francis together and removing the central figure. On the other hand, since Tobias the elder is modelled on the artist, the composition shows a “degradation” of the figure which occupied earlier the central position (by moving it to the left and downwards), and also – as it experiences a loss of grace – its subordination to the Fates towering over it.[47] The domination of the latter can be seen by surrounding the head of Tobias the elder with the arm of the Fate holding a spindle.

At the junction of both groups is created a structural relation between the image elements similar to the one constituting the vertical line between St Francis and the fauns. The oval of the mighty, greenish-yellow wing of the angel joins the Fate’s left hand holding the spindle and the angel’s right hand, whose fingers are intertwined with the fishing line.[48] This sequence is completed visually by the silhouette of the fish at the bottom, building an arch structure connecting the upper and the lower edge of the picture. Even though the blind Tobias remains subject to the Fates, in the crowding hands in the middle of the picture arises a visual rivalry between the hand of the Fate holding the spindle and the angel’s hand, tightening the fishing line and directed towards Tobias’ face. As the hand holding the spindle as well as the hand of the Fate standing at the back are included in the field of the angel’s wing, angel’s hand wins this argument. Angel’s activity establishes a bond with the edge of the image, which is touched by angel’s head, surrounded with his wing like an aureole, through which he appears as the representative of the absolute.

The analysis of the above pictures, and also a few dozens of other works with fauns by Malczewski, can lead us to defining the painter’s work as opposite to the then strong cult of the Dionysian element and Nietzsche’s thought. The latter, directed against Christianity (as Nietzsche himself emphatically stated on the first pages of The Birth of Tragedy[49] and in his other works, such as Ecce Homo), could not be accepted by Malczewski. It seems to be close to the attitude towards Nietzsche adopted by his translator, Leopold Staff,[50] rejecting everything inconsistent with the Christian ethic,[51] while emphasizing at the same time the inspiring role of Franciscanism for the modernist Young Poland (Staff, presenting his translation of The Flowers of St Francis to Jan Parandowski, asked him: “Please accept, dear Jan, this little book on which we all were brought up”[52]). The Dionysian art of the second half of the 19th century was, according to Malczewski, “pagan through and through” and demanded “the mob to kneel to it and worship”.[53] His programmatic painting, The Vicious Circle, is a story about the search of modern man, not for art but for God.[54] The painting of St Francis coincided also with the intellectual breakthrough of Jan Kasprowicz, who abandoned the Nietzschean rebellion against God, accusing him of the evil in the world and meaninglessness of human life (as expressed in the cycle Ginącemu światu [To a Dying World], which is a part of his Hymny [The Hymns] from 1898–1901), for the Christian interpretation of God (which can be also observed in Hymns, in Salve Regina in particular) and living at peace with the world (Hymn św. Franciszka z Asyżu [The Hymn of St Francis of Assisi][55], Chwile [Moments] from 1911 and Księga ubogich [Book of the Poor] from 1916).[56]

In the 19th century it was generally believed that culture does not give an answer to the questions about the meaning of life, its relationship with truth and eternity, which, in accordance with the views of the time, meant one should turn back to the beginnings of human history. These beginnings were sought in the ancient myths and in the subconscious, which were believed to hold the memory of the sources of world’s unity – spirit and matter, man and nature. The 19th century, according to Hans-Georg Gadamer, defined these beginnings as the state of the close bond between human beings and sacrum, perceiving in them the roots of art.[57] While we refrain from making over-generalizations about Malczewski’s attitude towards the myth, one could say that his paintings defend the myth through the act of storytelling in pictures and the story being told speaks to us so clearly one cannot doubt it. That is what, in Gadamer’s opinion, is the myth, something which “can be told in such a way that nobody would even pose a question about its truthfulness”,[58] just like nobody asks whether the story depicted by Malczewski is true. Myth “is the truth connecting everybody, the truth, in which everybody understands one another” and “equally valid for everyone”.[59] In this sense the pictures of Malczewski are the personification of myth. Speaking through themselves, that is through the relation between the image and the picture surface, they are not destined only for viewers expert in symbols but to everyone who will look at them and follow the gesture of St Francis, directed towards everybody. Malczewski’s picture defend the universal language of painting, then already receding into the past, while art entered the age in which it would be forced to justify its existence more and more staunchly and in which it would lose its former ability to be understood as it is.


Translated by Monika Mazurek

[1] Adam Heydel wrote on Malczewski’s „faunism”: A. Heydel, Jacek Malczewski. Człowiek i artysta, Kraków 1931, p. 133. The horned figures depicted by Malczewski are referred to as either fauns or satyrs by the authors writing on the subject from the very beginning: W. Prokesch, Obrazy Jacka Malczewskiego, in: “Kurier Warszawski” 1903, no. 191, p. 2. Although in the titles of the works, given to them mostly by critics and art historians (cf.: T. Grzybkowska, Mitologia Malczewskiego, The Czartoryski Museum in Kraków [exhibition catalogue], Kraków 1995, p. XXII), “faun” appears more frequently, the researchers use it interchangeably with “satyr” (among others A. Jakimowicz, Jacek Malczewski, Warszawa 1974, p. 6), and also with the name of the Greek god Pan (e.g. Agnieszka Ławniczakowa regarding the faun in the picture “Law”, cf.: Jacek Malczewski. Powrót, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie [exhibition catalogue], ed. E. Micke-Broniarek, Warszawa 2000, p. 80).

[2] According to Wyka, in Malczewski’s work the affinity between St Francis and Dionysus corresponds with unexpected sensuality which permeates the figures of Christ and John the Baptist, making the picture “the most original example of this erotic-Dionysian shift” (K. Wyka, Thanatos i Polska czyli o Jacku Malczewskim, Kraków 1971, pp. 46–47).

[3] The growth of interest in St Francis was brought about by the work by Paul Sabatier Vie de Saint Francis (Paris 1894; Polish transl.: Życie św. Franciszka, Cieszyn 1927), see also: M. Głowiński, Maska Dionizosa, in: idem, Mity przebrane. Dionizos. Narcyz. Prometeusz. Marchołt. Labirynt, Kraków 1990. More on this topic in: K. Nowakowska-Sito, Między Wawelem a Akropolem. Antyk i mit w sztuce polskiej przełomu XIX i XX w., Warszawa 1996, pp. 55–56.

[4] Nowakowska-Sito 1996 (ft. 3), p. 55. On the correspondence between Franciscanism with all the other “-isms” of this age, its philosophical and religious tastes, see: R. Padoł, Filozofia religii polskiego modernizmu, Kraków 1982.

[5] The idea that Malczewski’s “faunism” was derived from Adam Asnyk’s poetry was advocated by the artist’s friend Konstanty Maria Górski: The Jagiellonian Library (further referred to as BJ), MS 7717 II, K.M. Górski, Szkic do monografii Jacka Malczewskiego; BJ, MS 7717 II, idem, Notatki i wykłady, c. 52. Heydel also writes about it, singling out a group of poems Freska starożytne, including the following texts: Fresk pompejański, Dzieje piosenki and Orfeusz i bachantki, cf. Heydel 1931 (ft. 1), p. 133.

[6] D. Kudelska, Dukt pisma i pędzla. Biografia intelektualna Jacka Malczewskiego, Lublin 2008, pp. 317–357.

[7] In Polish culture a broader interest in St Francis is generated by the translation of the work by Frédérica Ozanam Les pöetes franciscains (Paris 1853; Polish transl.: Św. Franciszek Seraficki i poeci włoscy z jego szkoły, Kraków 1864) and the translation of Fioretti made by an anonymous Poor Clare from the monastery in Lviv in 1892, quoted after: A. Bednarek, Franciszek z Asyżu wśród humanistów. Z dziejów recepcji postaci w XIX i XX wieku, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska 1986, pp. 64–65 containing the following quotes: E. Orzeszkowa (Ernest Renan, in: “Ateneum” 2, 1886, no. 42, pp. 304–305), B. Prus (Kwiatki świętego Franciszka z Asyżu, in: “Tygodnik Ilustrowany”, 1910, no. 7, pp. 130–131), T. Grabowski (Św. Franciszek z Asyżu w świetle filozofii przyrodniczej, Kraków 1910) and others. Earlier the Saint caught the interest of, among others, the author of “Pan Tadeusz”: „Adam (Mickiewicz) has said recently that he read somewhere in ‘Glob’ a claim based on facts that St Francis of Assisi […], this ideal of humility and poverty is this mysterious source out of which in the course of ages the following things flew through the spiritual channel: Italian poetry, painting, sculpture and architecture, which in turn influenced the whole world through Dante, Raphael and Michaelangelo” (A.E. Odyniec, A Letter to Julian Korsak of 11 Sep 1832, in: Listy z podróży, Lwów 1937, p. 122; cf.: J. Birkenmajer, Motywy franciszkańskie u Mickiewicza i Słowackiego, in: “Ruch literacki” 2, 1927, no. 10, pp. 289–294). Among the views on the influence of Franciscanism on the fine arts closer in time to Malczewski the one worth noting is: “The religion of feeling, proclaimed from Umbria’s hills, filled many souls with elation. Its warm breeze revived art and from the gloomy Byzantine torpor arose the Christian deity, humanized through joy and pain, coming to life, accessible to human senses” (E. Porębowicz, Św. Franciszek z Asyżu, Warszawa 1899, p. 120); “Wherever the stigmatized Saint may roam, wherever he treads, art, poetry and beauty bloom under his feet. How come? […] Because St Francis punished and mortified creation in himself, but apart from himself he loved the creation passionately and ardently. He loved it all, from the sun which he worshipped in his wonderful hymn to a leaf of hyssop in a wall crack, to the humblest crawling worm” (J. Klaczko, Święty Franciszek z Asyżu a gotycyzm włoski, in: idem, Szkice i rozprawy, Warszawa 1904, p. 5). “I am truly thankful for the wonderful book Little Flowers of St Francis. I want to write a sketch on St Francis for ‘Idea’ and I think it would be good to include it. […] Francis of Assisi will allow me to present a great deal of opinions (not mine) on philosophy and psychology of religion, touch upon the relation between art and religious life, and many, many other things” (S. Brzozowski, A Letter to O. Ortwin of 16 Dec 1909, in: O. Ortwin, Żywe fikcje, Warszawa 1970, pp. 357–358).

[8] “Malczewski’s family was religious not only in the traditional but also a truly deep sense, with a mystical and Franciscan orientation, combined with a keen feeling of the resulting moral and social obligations” (H. Barycz, Na przełomie dwóch stuleci. Z dziejów polskiej humanistyki w dobie Młodej Polski, Wrocław–Warszawa–Kraków–Gdańsk, 1977, pp. 74–77).

[9] J. Malczewski, O powołaniu artystów i zadaniach sztuki. The chancellor’s speech delivered on 15 October 1912 at the inauguration of the academic year, published in: “Krytyka” 14, 1912, vol. 36, issue11, pp. 233–236; M. Janoszanka, Wielki Tercjarz. Moje wspomnienia o Jacku Malczewskim, Poznań 1930, pp. 47–51; A. Ławniczakowa, Jacek Malczewski, Warszawa 1976, pp. 84–87.

[10] J. Dankowska, Filozofia epoki Jacka Malczewskiego, w: Muzyka w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego. Materiały z konferencji zorganizowanej przez Akademię Muzyczną im. Fryderyka Chopina w Warszawie w 150. rocznicę urodzin malarza, ed. T. Grzybkowska, Warszawa 2005, p. 131.

[11] Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 429. This conclusion is accompanied by a wide and penetrating analysis of the chancellor’s speech inaugurating the academic year 1912/1913 at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts.

[12] Literature on this subject is wide-ranging, cf. among others: Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), pp. XII–XVII.

[13] BJ, MS 10095 III, A letter of Helena Mycielska to Tadeusz Szydłowski, c. 11–12, quoted after: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 240.

[14] L.J. Austin, Mallarmé and the Visual Arts, in: French 19th -century Painting and Literature, Manchester 1972, pp. 232–257; J. Kearns, Symbolist Landscapes. The Place of Painting in the Poetry and Criticism of Mallarmé and His Circle, London 1989.

[15] K. Przerwa-Tetmajer, Poezje. Seria V, [Warszawa] 1900.

[16] Nowakowska-Sito 1996 (ft. 3), s. 59.

[17] Most recently: S. Krzysztofowicz-Kozakowska, Jacek Malczewski. Życie i twórczość, Kraków 2010, p. 55. Malczewski moved to Zwierzyniec in October 1899 and lived there till 1910.

[18] Wyka 1971 (ft. 2), p. 47.

[19] Institute of Fine Arts in the Polish Academy of Sciences, MS 7, a letter of J. Malczewski to his parents, c. 186–187, quoted after: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 662. Malczewski was a tertiary at least since 1875 and remained in the order until the end of his life. He was buried in the Franciscan habit – cf. Janoszanka 1930 (ft. 9), p. 11. More about this subject: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), pp. 661–662. The Third Franciscan Order was promoted by the encyclical of Leo XIII Auspicato from 1882.

[20] “A metaphorical personification of the Arts in many pictures of Malczewski is a young apprentice decorator. (Trzy malarstwa, Introdukcja, Błędne koło, Malarczyk i jego muza)” – Jakimowicz 1974 (ft. 1), p. 16. Leszek Libera writes that Yanko the Musician [Janko Muzykant] in the picture from 1892 (currently in the Regional Museum in Toruń) “is reminiscent of the author’s face as a child” and considers this painting the first masked self-portrait of Malczewski, cf.: L. Libera, Romantyczność i folklor. O twórczości Jacka Malczewskiego i Bolesława Leśmiana, Poznań 1994, p. 7. The role of the artist’s alter-egos played by child artists in the pictures painted in the 1890s is confirmed also by the picture Yanko the Musician, portraying the literary character [the title character of a short story by Henryk Sienkiewicz – transl. note] accompanied by an older woman, perhaps his mother. Yanko the Musician is sitting on the trough in exactly the same pose as the boy in the boat depicted on the canvasses painted many years earlier Childhood. Jacek on the Pond at Wielgie and The Painter’s Childhood, both from 1919 (the authenticity of the latter picture is, in the present author’s opinion, doubtful). However, it is known to him only by the reproduction on the Web page: http://artyzm.com). The boat and the trough are placed in both paintings in the same position in relation to the picture frame.

[21] Pisma Adama Chmielowskiego (Brata Alberta), in: “Nasza przeszłość”, 1965, vol. 21; A. Okońska, Poglądy Brata Alberta na sztukę, in: Brat Albert. Życie i dzieło, ed. A. Okońska, Warszawa 1978, pp. 21–31; S. Smoleński, Duchowość bł. Brata Alberta na tle odrodzenia franciszkańskiego w Polsce, in: “Nasza przeszłość”, 1987, vol. 67, pp. 119–136.

[22] A. Krechowski Jestem, Warszawa 1894; idem, Kres, Warszawa 1896.

[23] A. Lauterbach, Św. Franciszek z Asyżu i jego wpływ na sztukę, in: Pierścień sztuki. Historia i teoria, Warszawa 1929, p. 209.

[24] A. Ławniczakowa (the note accompanying the picture Vicious Circle), in: Malczewski, Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart [exhibition catalogue], Stuttgart 1980, p. 34; M. Brötje, Der menschliche Blick – Lebensmitte und Abgrund. Zur Bildwelt Jacek Malczewski, in: Jacek Malczewski und seine Zeitgenossen. Polnische Malerei um 1900 aus der Sammlung des Nationalmuseums in Poznań, Städtische Galerie in der Reithalle Schloß Neuhaus in Paderborn [exhibition catalogue], Bielefeld 1999, pp. 39–40.

[25] Mt 9: 13.

[26] A. Ławniczakowa, Jacek Malczewski, wystawa dzieł z lat 1890–1926, Poznań 1990, p. 55; Jacek Malczewski. Powrót 2000 (ft. 1), s. 44. Jakimowicz calls him simply “a youthful decorator’s apprentice” – Jakimowicz 1974 (ft. 1), p. 16.

[27] T. Grzybkowska, Świat obrazów Jacka Malczewskiego, Warszawa 1996, pp. 21–22.

[28] I. Bett, Wystawa dzieł Jacka Malczewskiego, Kraków 1903, p. 5; Nowakowska-Sito 1996 (ft. 3), pp. 31–32.

[29] Jakimowicz 1974 (ft. 1), p. 26.

[30] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), pp. 37–38.

[31] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 38.

[32] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 42.

[33] M. Bryl, Michael Brötje o Jacku Malczewskim, czyli jak wyjść z „błędnego koła” interpretacji, in: “Polonistyka”, 2010, no. 1, p. 27.

[34] J. Malczewski, [a questionnaire answer], in: “Przegląd Powszechny” 23, 1906, vol. 90, p. 80.

[35] This aspect of the painting by Malczewski’s teacher was brought to my attention by Wojciech Suchocki.

[36] This figure’s face is modelled on the face of the artist’s love Maria Balowa. As Kudelska notices, there are no passages in Malczewski’s poems and notes in which Balowa would be compared to the Chimera, cf.: Kudelska 2008 (ft. 6), p. 313. However, these records should not be treated as a commentary upon the artist’s relationship with Maria Balowa. Her features appear at the same time both in the faces of Chimeras and Fates, as one can observe by comparing such works of the artist as: The Poisoned Well, 1905, The Regional Museum in Radom; The Myth of Life – The Fate (a portrait of Maria Balowa), The National Museum in Warsaw, inv. no. Rys. Pol. 11742 (sign. JMalczewski 28 [?] 12 1907).

[37] H.H. Hofstätter, Symbolizm, transl. into Polish by S. Bałut, Warszawa 1987, pp. 23–24.

[38] M. Walicki, Święty Franciszek z Asyżu a sztuca duecenta i trecenta, in: Ojcu Serafickiemu w hołdzie, Warszawa 1927, p. 132.

[39] Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), p. 66; Grzybkowska 1996 (ft. 27), p. 23; eadem, Rola muzyki w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego, in: Muzyka w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego. Materiały z konferencji zorganizowanej przez Akademię Muzyczną im. Fryderyka Chopina w Warszawie w 150. rocznicę urodzin malarza, ed. T. Grzybkowska, Warszawa 2005, p. 17;

[40] Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), p. 66.

[41] Quoted after: ibidem, p. 68.

[42] Grzybkowska 2005 (ft. 39), p. 17.

[43] K. Lipka, Instrumenty muzyczne na obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego, w: Muzyka w obrazach Jacka Malczewskiego. Materiały z konferencji zorganizowanej przez Akademię Muzyczną im. Fryderyka Chopina w Warszawie w 150. rocznicę urodzin malarza, ed. T. Grzybkowska, Warszawa 2005, p. 89.

[44] Grzybkowska 1995 (ft. 1), p. 66.

[45] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 39.

[46] The emphasis on these two figures and their complicated formal and semantic relation is pointed out by Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), p. 40.

[47] “And now, O Lord, think of me,/ and take not revenge of my sins”. Tb 3: 3.

[48] It is not the thread spun by the Fates, as Nowakowska-Sito claims 1996 (ft. 3), p. 86.

[49] F. Nietzsche, Narodziny tragedii, czyli hellenizm i pesymizm, transl. into Polish by L. Staff, Kraków 2003, p. 10.

[50] In the period 1905–1912 a 17-volume Polish edition of Nietzsche’s works, translated by Berent, Staff, Drzewiecki and Wyrzykowski, was published.

[51] A. Hutnikiewicz, Młoda Polska, Warszawa 1994, p. 126.

[52] Kwiatki świętego Franciszka z Asyżu, transl. into Polish by L. Staff, Lwów 1910 (translation of the Latin version Artus beati Francisco et sociorum eius, ed. P. Sabatier, Paris 1902); J. Parandowski, Luźne kartki, Wrocław 1967, p. 62.

[53] Malczewski 1906 (ft. 34), p. 80.

[54] Brötje 1999 (ft. 24), pp. 40–41.

[55] First edition in: “Chimera”, 1901, issue 7–8, pp. 103–122.

[56] A. Hutnikiewicz, Hymny Jana Kasprowicza, Warszawa 1973, pp. 66–67; Hutnikiewicz 1994 (ft. 51), pp. 112–124; J.J. Lipski, Twórczość J. Kasprowicza w latach 1891–1906, Warszawa 1975.

[57] G. Picht, Kunst und Mythos, Stuttgart 1987, pp. 2–17.

[58] H.-G. Gadamer, Koniec sztuki? in: idem, Dziedzictwo Europy, transl. into Polish by A. Przyłębski, Warszawa 1992, pp. 43–44 [original title: Ende der Kunst? in: Das Erbe Europas: Beiträge. Frankfurt am Main 1989 – transl. note].

[59] Ibidem, p. 44

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