Matejko – Then and Now

21 June 2023

Three anniversaries falling in a single year are an excellent reason to take a fresh look at Jan Matejko’s life and work.

Dorota Dziunikowska
Kraków Culture

185 years since the artist’s birth, 130 years since his death and 125 years since the foundation of Jan Matejko House, the first biographical museum dedicated to any artist in Poland. They have all inspired the National Museum in Krakow to declare 2023 the Year of Jan Matejko. The Act of the Senate of the Republic of Poland from 16 November 2022 states, “His aim was to show the reasons of the fall of the First Polish Republic and to recall its noble past and power through his art. Matejko showed Polish people living under partitions the great value of their cultural heritage and encouraged them to strive to regain independence.”

The greatest artist of Polish historicism shaped the vision of our past in the minds and imaginations of generations of Poles, but he stirs very different emotions. Some see him as a genius of his era, while others as an artificer, trapped in his studio and his own conventions. However, according to Prof. Andrzej Szczerski, director of the National Museum in Krakow, “no other Polish artist has ever reached Matejko’s levels of international acclaim”. Today, not many people realise the scale of the popularity enjoyed by the author of the Battle of Grunwald in 19th-century Europe: he won accolades at the most important exhibitions in Paris, Vienna and Berlin, and was a member of prestigious artistic academies and institutes. Events planned by the museum, culminating with a review exhibition at the Main Building, recall Matejko’s life and his place in the pantheon of art, and take a look at his art from a contemporary perspective.

Painter of history

“Jan Matejko’s paintings are some of the greatest achievements of Polish art, and they are on proud display in numerous museums throughout Poland. And yet exhibitions presenting a comprehensive review of his works have been few and far between; in fact the largest date back to before the Second World War, and the most extensive was held in 1894 in Lviv! That’s the last time it was possible to assemble so many of his finest works under one roof. Fortunately, the 2023 monographic exhibition will be held in Kraków, with galleries such as the Cloth Hall and Jan Matejko House presenting works including Prussian Homage, Battle of Racławice and Wernyhora,” says Michał Haake from the Institute of History at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, curator of the exhibition Matejko. The Painter and History (23 June 2023 to 7 January 2024, Main Building of the National Museum in Krakow).

Jan Matejko, The Sermon of Piotr Skarga, oil on canvas, property of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, 1864, photo by A. Ring, L. Sandzewicz

The jewels in the crown of the exhibition will be works loaned from the Royal Castle in Warsaw: Sermon of Piotr Skarga and Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland. They are paintings through which Matejko “revealed his talent – as though tearing through a curtain separating us from the world of Old Poland… by bringing back to life dust and ashes (S. Witkiewicz), as well as stunning the public by giving a painful answer to the main question of the era: ‘Why has Poland disappeared from the map of Europe?’.” These canvases earned Matejko Gold Medals at the World’s Fairs in Paris in 1865 and 1867, as well as acclaim from Europe’s artistic circles which he enjoyed for the remainder of his life. However, the curator stresses that “the value of the exhibitions isn’t measured just through the number of artworks. In fact, the forthcoming presentation will also feature many accessories used by the artist and diplomas and medals published in his honour. Our exhibition also stands out from those held in the past in that it largely strays away from presenting paintings in a chronological order. That’s because its aim is to present several narrative paths to launch a discussion on the specificity of Central and Eastern Europe, on the governance model dominating Poland’s history, on the kind of civilisation Poland has represented through the centuries, and on the artistic means used by Matejko to describe this history.”

Genius loci

Before the exhibition at the Main Building, make sure you stop by at the Gallery of 19th-century Polish Art in the Cloth Hall and at 41 Floriańska Street. Jan Alojzy Matejko was born at the tenement house there (now home to a branch of the National Museum in Krakow) on 24 June 1893, and it was there that he passed away on 1 November 1838 aged just fifty-five.

His funeral, held on 7 November 1893, was a huge patriotic manifestation, as shown through surviving photos, funereal wreaths and sashes, and period letters, telegrams and press cuttings. A civic committee comprising acclaimed Cracovians was founded just two months later, with the aim to create a biographical museum dedicated to Matejko. The mission was taken over by the Jan Matejko Association in 1895. Developing the museum became a common goal for many circles, with artists donating their works to lotteries and auctions. The first exhibition at the tenement house, bought from the Matejko family, was launched on 6 March 1898, opening to the public fully furnished rooms on the first floor and displaying paintings, drawings, artefacts and everyday items. Jan Matejko House was taken over by the National Museum in Krakow in 1904. Today its collection numbers 26,000 items, and the permanent exhibition partially mirrors the one held 125 years ago.

Genius loci... exhibition at Jan Matejko House, photo by Gregory Michenaud, National Museum in Krakow

In March, the artist’s former home launched the anniversary exhibition Genius Loci. Place – People – Collections. Integrated in the permanent exhibition and planned to run throughout the year, the four instalments will recall the most important events and figures involved with the creation and history of this space, including the first items in its collection. We will also explore the museum’s fate during the wars of the 20th century and learn about the different people who resided at the tenement house over the centuries.

Master and pupil

As well as being an artist, Matejko was the founder of the independent School of Fine Arts in Kraków, where he served as its first director from its opening and for the following two decades. His pupils, carefully selected from the finest students at the school, included Jacek Malczewski, Józef Mehoffer and Stanisław Wyspiański. The legendary director was also the initiator of the construction of the building of the current Academy of Fine Arts at Jana Matejki Square (given the name during his lifetime). The school launched the celebrations of the year of its patron in January with the exhibition Gypsum Flesh Story (until 21 March), recalling the 19th-century collection of casts of antique sculptures lining the building’s corridors. The next instalment, planned for the summer months, will present Matejko through archive materials and artefacts found in the museum’s storerooms, previously unseen or shown very rarely. Another fascinating element will be unique, handmade volumes of diplomas of graduates from the school, both those familiar through Polish and European galleries and those now somewhat forgotten. The Academy of Fine Arts is also planning educational activities, including guided tours “in Matejko’s footsteps” and children’s workshops inspired by his art.

The text was published in the 1/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.


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