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Józef Brandt 1841–1915

Picturesque Vision of Poland

June 22, 2018 – September 22, 2018

National Museum, Warsaw, Al. Jerozolimskie 3, 00-495 Warsaw, Poland

A paean to the Romantic Polish history painter, combinging the sketches, studies, photographs and the life story behind the complex canvases that thrilled the 19th-century. Brandt spent much his working life in Munich, but a passion for the lost world of the Tatars and their horses underlies much of the work. While the less narrative-orientated works are perhaps of greater appeal today, the narrative of the exhibition, as with so many shows in Poland, is absorbing. Give yourself time.

Of Poland’s three grandee 19th-century painters, Józef Brandt, Jan Matejko, whose handsome house and studio can be visited in Krakow, the Rome-based Henry Siemiradzki, Brandt was the master of the battle scene, and a prolific painter of the defining moments in Poland’s glorious Sarmatian past, all the more poignant as Poland itself, if not the Polish dream, had been all but wiped off the map of Eurasia.

Czarniecki at Kolding is one of his most powerful works conveying the sense of the crowds and ‘the atmospheric vision of nature,’ as Ewa Micka-Broniarek notes in her excellent catalogue: ‘a gloomy landscape with an eerie fortress looming in the distance, shown in the misty aura of a winter’s day.’

Ferry Crossing, painted a year later is again set in the 17th century, probably depicting a scene in 1620 from the 30 Years War. The theme of soldiers gathered by the water, the horizontal composition and immense sky are all characteristic of Brandt’s work from the 1870s onwards. In her notes Micka-Broniarekall describes the ‘grey-based palette, the misty autumn light permeating the scene and the evocative vision of tranquility…’ . It was this that conjured what Kandinsky described as stimmnung – ‘the lofty emotions beyond words’ that enables artworks to ‘feed the spirit’.

From his early years is a vivid sketch for another painting, Lisowczycy (1864). These were the feared early 17th-century Polish-Lithuanian irregulars originally formed in 1616 by the Polish–Lithuanian Aleksander Józef Lisowski, who bore the hedgehog as his coat of arms. Rembrandt’s Polish Rider in The Frick Collection in New York is probably dressed as a Lisowczyk.

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