The Polish Orientalists

By Victoria Khroundina | December 19, 2014


The 600th anniversary of Turkish-Polish relations has stimulated a year of outstanding exhibitions, film programmes, concerts and other events. The Sakıp Sabancı Museum staged an excellent historic show in the spring, SALT Galata is currently showing an exhibition focusing on contemporary Polish artists and a number of galleries (DEPO, Milli Reasürans, Kuad, The Empire Project) have hosted shows focusing on various aspects of Polish art throughout the year. For its turn, The Pera Museum – which is known for its collection of important Orientalist paintings – is fittingly showcasing paintings, engravings and drawings highlighting Poland’s obsession with the Orient from the 17th to the 19th century.

Curated by Professor Tadeusz Majda and organized in collaboration with the National Museum in Warsaw (which loaned many of the works), the show underlines how Poland’s geographical location rendered it particularly susceptible to influences from the East. Although going back to medieval times, it was Poland’s interactions with the East in the 19th century that was the root for such a voracious display of Orientalism in Polish art – and this is most likely the reason why the majority of the works on show date from this century.

Stanislaw Chlebowski, ‘Sultan Ahmed III hunting with falcons’, 1873, oil on canvas, 111 x 189.5 cm, National Museum in Poznan

Start on the top (fifth) floor and work your way down. The first exhibition hall is reserved for the works of Abdülaziz’s (1861–1876) principal court painter, Stanislaw Chlebowski. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg and spending significant time in the studio of the famous French Orientalist painter, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Chlebowski began producing paintings that sparked Abdülaziz’s interest in the early 1860s. It is speculated that the sultan’s aide de camps, Władysław Kościelski, also known as Safer Pasha, introduced the sultan to Chlebowski, but whatever the reason, Abdülaziz invited the painter to Istanbul in 1864, where he remained until the sultan was overthrown in 1876. During Chlebowski’s Turkish period, he painted Ottoman military triumphs, portraits of Abdülaziz and scenes depicting Istanbul life. The battle scenes are particularly majestic, mainly due to their large size and painstaking detail. In fact, because he was a court painter, Chlebowski was known for the accuracy of his battle paintings – he strove for a realistic representation of costumes, weapons and all other elements.

Józef Brandt, ‘March with the Trophies – Return from Vienna’, c. 1880, oil on canvas, 72 x 112 cm, private collection

The rest of the floor is devoted to military and battle scenes painted by other artists. Paintings showing the Battle of Vienna, a favourite theme, as well as numerous scenes depicting combat with Cossacks, Tatars and Turks were produced by artists such as Józef Brandt, Waclaw Pawliszak and Henry Rodakowski throughout the 19th century. ‘Polish historical painters would often refer to clashes with the Turks in their work, which – if they had been victorious – lifted up the Polish morale in times of our country’s political servitude towards the three partitioning powers,’ says Agnieszka Morawińska, the director of National Museum in Warsaw. A number of the paintings on show were also displayed at SSM’s Distant Neighbour, Close Memories exhibition, especially those by Brandt. One of his Vienna paintings is shown above.

January Suchodolski, ‘Bonaparte in Egypt’, 1840, oil on canvas, 98.5 x 135 cm, National Museum in Poznan

Among the other tempting military subjects for the European imagination at that time was the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1789, the Greek struggle for independence and the colonisation of the Maghreb by the French. January Suchodolski’s painting above shows a realistic depiction of Napoleon’s victory bathed in the pink and purple glow of an Egyptian sunset.

January Suchodolski, ‘Farys’, 1836, oil on canvas, 55 x 68 cm, National Museum in Poznan

On the forth floor, we are greeted with paintings of horses, the most popular motif in Orientalist paintings. As Poland is situated between the West and East, it has a history of constant war with Tartars, Turks and Cossacks, so similarly to battle scenes, depictions of horses were very popular in Polish painting. Another reason was that horse paintings underlined the favourite pastime of the Polish gentry: hunting. Again, I was drawn to the beautiful colours in Suchodolski’s canvas during my visit.

Francize Marko, ‘At the Order of the Padishah’, 1888, oil on canvas, 135.5 x 240 cm

The rest of the floor is dedicated to paintings depicting daily life and vistas of Turkey and neighbouring countries. Genre scenes held a special place in Western European Orientalist painting in the 19th century largely due to the bourgeois society’s taste for the ‘exotic’. These genre scenes particularly favoured the harem, which allowed artists to paint erotic themes without resorting to mythology. The demand for this subject matter led to it being taken up by painters who had never travelled to the East themselves such as Pantaleon Szyndler and Franciszek Żmurko. One of the most magnificent works is Żmurko’s depiction of an odalisque murdered ‘at the order of the padishah’ (above).

Jan Ciaglinski, ‘View of the city at evening’, from the voyage to Constantinople, 1893, oil on cardboard, 19.2 x 33.2 cm

Polish artists first travelled to the Middle East as members of political missions, scientific expedition or as part of aristocratic travelling parties – and their role was to document the events of the journey (much like a photographer would do today). In the second half of the 19th century, Polish artists began travelling to the East on their own. The greatest landscape painter among the Polish Orientalists was Jan Ciaglinski. Painted in a free hand, with broad, bold brushstrokes, Ciaglinski’s works include sketches from his travels to Crimea (1887–1899), Istanbul (1893), as well as other countries in the Mediterranean. His signature style can be seen in the Istanbul vista above.

Stanislaw Chlebowski, ‘Sweet Water of Europe’, 1864–1876, oil on canvas, 64 x 107 cm, Military Museum Collection, Istanbul

The above by Chlebowski depicts an everyday scene at Kağıthane.

Johann Samuel Mock, ‘Game of Mangala’, first half of the 18th century, oil on canvas, 172 x 195.5 cm, The Royal Castle in Warsaw

On the third and final floor, portraits, which underline the Ottoman influence on Polish costume, dominate. Traditional garments seen in portraits of Polish nobles included motifs of Eastern influence, that were, first and foremost, of Ottoman origin. The fashion for turquerie prevailing at European courts in the 18th century yielded musical and theatrical works drawing on Turkish motifs. In the above painting, three figures – identified as the royal eunuch Matthias and two odalisques – are depicted in Eastern dress, and shown smoking pipes and playing the mangala against an striking landscape.

Zygmunt Papieski, ‘Turkish Woman’, end of 19th century, oil on canvas, 60 x 46.5 cm, National Museum, Warsaw

Ordinary folk were also of interest, as highlighted in the above painting of a Turkish woman in more modest dress.

Juliusz Kossak, ‘Wawrzyniec Fredro – emissary to Istanbul in 1500’, 1883, watercolour on paper, 48 x 69.8 cm

The exhibition rounds off with examples of another popular subject of Orientalist paintings: depictions of ceremonies held at the Topkapı Palace that the sultan and grand vizier receiving official European envoys. Several paintings and drawings by Polish artists showed Polish envoys entering to Istanbul, such as the above watercolour by Juliusz Kossak.

Joseph Warnia-Zarzecki, ‘Sultan Selim III’, late 19th to early 20th century, oil on canvas, 167.5 x 96 cm, The Pera Mueum collection

Portraits of sultans remained important across all periods. Besides painting sultans from life, commissions of sultans’ portraits based on engravings, miniatures and paintings from court collections were very common. The above portrait of Sultan Selim III, from The Pera Museum’s own collection, is one such example.

The exhibition is accompanied by a rich film programme exploring Polish cinema from a number of perspectives: master directors, a new wave of young Polish directors and Orientalism. The latter two have screenings until the end of the month so check the museum’s website.

The exhibition runs until January 18, 2014.

Main image shows Wacław Pawliszak’s ‘Eastern Scene with Marabou’, watercolour on paper, 47.5 x 70 cm, National Museum, Warsaw.

Posted in Exhibitions, Fine Art, History, Museums
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