Symbolist Kraków: a beginner’s guide
November 28, 2015 § 6 Comments
If you initially mistook the building in the photo above for the Vienna Secession, don’t feel too bad – it’s Kraków’s very own Secession, deliberately modelled on the Viennese one. One of the reasons I was so keen to visit Kraków was its art – well, a very particular strand of it. Some of the most marvellous and distinctive Symbolist art came out of Poland, the work of a group of young artists, designers and writers who banded together under the name Młoda Polska (Young Poland). Almost all of it has remained in Poland, and as a consequence (and, no doubt, thanks to the language barrier and the decades of the Iron Curtain), it’s shamefully little known outside its own country. I only really discovered it in the last year or so, and I’ve been a student of Symbolism for close to 15 (!) years now, so, appetite whetted by the few English-language books I was able to get my hands on, I wanted to see the real thing.
If you want to get acquainted with Młoda Polska, you can’t really do better than visit Kraków, which was its heart and nerve centre… although, fortunately for the rest of Poland but unfortunately for me, the National Museum in Warsaw also has a very important collection of it, which happens to include my absolute favourite painting, Józef Mehoffer’s The Strange Garden…
(If, like me, you love this painting but are going to Kraków rather than Warsaw, please do not do as I did and live under the delusional hope that it will for some reason be on special loan to one of the museums in Kraków while you’re there. You will just be frustrated and disappointed. Bite the bullet and buy a train ticket to Warsaw instead. Or plan a future trip…)
So, without further ado, here is my little guide to Symbolist Kraków. Reckon on it taking three days to see everything if you want to do it at a civilised pace, especially as a couple of things (namely Wawel Cathedral) are part of larger monuments or museums.
You’re going to need fuel for your Symbolist odyssey, so where better to start than at Jama Michalika (Michalik’s Den), the Młoda Polska cafe to end all others? The interior, which was decorated by many of the artists who hung out there, is mind-blowing. However, I’m going to be heretical and suggest that you don’t actually eat breakfast there. I’ve heard the food is overpriced and not great, and I skipped it in favour of a coffee which was also… rather underwhelming, which made me glad I hadn’t ordered breakfast. So eat breakfast at your hotel, or grab an obwarzanek (Kraków’s answer to the bagel) from a cart on the way there. Order your lacklustre coffee and gawk at your surroundings while you sip. Then go. You’ve got a lot to see…
The National Museum (main building) is the place to start, particularly if you’re a newcomer to all things Młoda Polska. The collection is on the top floor, with major works by all the big names – Jacek Malczewski, Józef Mehoffer, Stanisław Wyspiański, Wojciech Weiss, Olga Boznańska, Józef Pankiewicz (whose breathtaking nocturnes give William Degouve de Nuncques a serious run for his money) and a whole host of artists I’d not heard of before but want to learn more about. However, if you want to see more of Mehoffer and Wyspiański, you’ll need to venture beyond the museum walls…
…to, first of all, the Mehoffer House, a branch of the National Museum in the house where Mehoffer spent the last fourteen years of his life. It’s still furnished more or less as it was in his day, packed with his paintings (including a couple of small studies for The Strange Garden) and, best of all, some of his stained glass (Mehoffer and Wyspiański, as well as being brilliant painters, were two of Poland’s leading stained glass designers, in much the same way Edward Burne-Jones was in England):
The garden is also worth a prolonged wander (and a stop for coffee, which is better than what you’ll find at Jama Michalika), although sadly (or perhaps fortunately) you probably won’t encounter a giant golden dragonfly there.
(Also in the same street is Cukiernia Michalek, a bakery which sells excellent makowiec. Just saying.)
Next stop – plac Szczepański. Not only can you see the gorgeous Pałac Sztuki (whether you venture inside is up to you – it still hosts temporary exhibitions, so it’ll depend on what’s on), but there’s another excellent branch of the National Museum on the other side of the square. It was once the Wyspiański Museum, and I’m a bit sad that it no longer is, because Wyspiański was a fascinating figure and a true polymath – artist, designer of furniture and stained glass, poet, playwright (his play Wesele [The Wedding] is still a fixture of the Polish theatrical repertoire) – but it’s now something more expansive and all-embracing, the Feliks Jasienski Szołayski House. Jasienski was an art historian, critic, aesthete and collector and Młoda Polska’s most important advocate. The museum houses his massive collection, which ranges from Młoda Polska to contemporary French art to Japanese art (although most of the latter is across town in another great museum, the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology), and was hosting two big and very worthwhile exhibitions when I visited – one on Jasienski’s collection, the other on nineteenth-century French prints. The latter is on until 3 January and the former until next July, so catch them if you can!
Now the hunt for all things Młoda Polska becomes an extended chase after stained glass. First stop – the Wyspiański Pavilion just south of the Rynek. This strange modern building’s main raison d’être is a tourist information centre, but it also contains three amazing windows – posthumous realisations of Wyspiański’s rejected designs for windows for Wawel Cathedral. The windows depict Poland’s patron saint and two greatest monarchs – Kazimierz the Great, St Stanisław and Henry the Pious – as skeletal spectres, which proved a bit too much for the cathedral authorities, who handed the commission to Mehoffer instead.
Speaking of which, you’d do well to head over to Wawel – and then to the Mariacki Church.
Infuriatingly, none of the maps or audioguides for either church point you to any Młoda Polska work (though they’re very eager to tell you about Veit Stoss), so you’ll have to keep a sharp eye out. Mehoffer, Wyspiański and colleagues contributed stunning windows and murals to both churches, so go slowly, look carefully and you’ll be richly rewarded.
But if you want a real Wyspiański extravaganza, head for the Basilica of St Francis. The thirteenth-century basilica was gutted by fire in 1850. Forty-five years later, Wyspiański was commissioned to redecorate it – completely. All the windows and murals are his work; most of them feature gorgeously elaborate floral motifs but the most famous, deservedly, is the swirling drama of God the Father at the west end of the nave.
The final stop on the Młoda Polska tour is a little sneaky, in that it’s inside a building not technically open to the public. The Medical Society House – which is just what it says on the tin and is tucked away on a small street about ten minutes’ walk from the centre of Kraków – contains another stunning set of windows by Wyspiański…
Ring the bell, ask the porter if you can see the windows (I’m not entirely sure what the correct Polish phrase is, but a garbled ‘Proszę, witraże Wyspiańskiego?’ got me waved in) and prepare to be amazed.
You’d have to go a very long way indeed to see anything else like it.