Masculinity Baring Serenity: The Male Figure by Polish Artists

Early twentieth century Polish art owes a great deal to expressionists and futurists such as Tytus Czyżewski (1880–1945), who not only collected artworks and cared for literature, but also practiced with both textual and visual forms. This was a period of cross-cultural encounters and yet a time of gender conflict and identity dispute, especially for women battling sexism in art circles. However, women were not alone in suffering the shortcomings of this era; they had patrons and supporters among male artists in and out of the country. Painters such as Teodor Axentowicz (1859-1938) helped create a space for women artists by supporting the construction of conservatories and studies, so that women could enjoy the privacy and promotion of their own creativity. In 1902, the Society of Polish Artists (Sztuka) held its first exhibition abroad in Vienna, an event made possible by the invitation of Vereinigung bildender Künstler Oesterreichs-Wienner Sezession.

Together with other painters, poets, and sculptors, Czyżewski and his colleagues formed a group who applied technical standards of Italian futurism to their works, though with slight change in perspective. The ‘Polish Formists’ made an effort to transform modes of Italian futurism by combing through Polish idealism before the war in addition to the much-desired symbolism after the international turmoil. This attempt distinguished their work from that of their Italian peers and the Polish artists’ new-found transformation in modes and medium dominated the art scene for a while. Just as the tradition goes with most futurists of early twentieth century, their work engaged with themes of violence, rapture, speed, separation, and machinery. There were, nevertheless, a few artists who did not follow suit!

Feliks Michał Wygrzywalski (1875-1944) came from a different footing. He belonged to a generation of artists who sought reality beyond war-wrought boundaries of Europe. What makes his work interesting to read is Wygrzywalski’s adventurous presentation of human and non-human figures under an extravaganza of light and brightness. His early years of art exploration and experience (with different media and modes) were spent in between Germany and France. By the early 1900s, he settled in Rome, where he married an Italian woman. He then travelled to Africa, where he could find what was hardly available in Europe. Whether it was merely for the sake of staying away from futurist Poles and their novelty (new modes of intellectuality and masculinity represented in abstract manifestations of violence) or simply to replenish his artistic cup of symbolist inspiration, he chose African and Middle Eastern sceneries and folks as his main subjects. Travelling from one border to another never stopped his passion for serenity. This is particularly evident if we consider his focus on nature, the sea, the Sahara, and representations of gender in the sunny continents!

Reviewing paintings in the 11th exhibition of the ‘Polish Artists and the Sea’, Monika Jankiewicz Brozostowska reflects on themes of serenity from an observers’ perspective. She notes that Wygrzywalski was keen on implementing light effects and rich, lively, colours, which can be characterized by their outstanding decorative features and a distinctive lightness as the reflection of great artistic skills. Brozostowska emphasizes the ‘undeniable beauty and serene atmosphere’ as the most significant features in Wygrzywalski’s paintings that made them popular with recipients. She goes on to conclude that ‘by simply looking at them, the viewers can almost feel the warmth of southern sun and a light sea breeze’, with which I totally agree. Wygrzywalski makes the most of light and texture, generating bodies of reflection; environmental bodies coming to appear through human form.

My favorite painting among Wygrzywalski’s collections is ‘Fishermen’. It sparks the light of serenity and strength in one frame. Displaying three male figures trying to pull a dragnet through water, the painting demonstrates total collaboration and harmony – not only socially but also rhythmically. Wygrzywalski captures the moment of eye focus and muscle tension against a most powerful wave in the scene. Hands and feet in the same direction, all three men effortlessly pull the net, resisting the might of nature. Increased vascularity, strongly wide shoulders, and sun-burned upper torsos, altogether imbued with masculine stamina.

'Fishermen' by Feliks Michał Wygrzywalski (1875-1944)

‘Fishermen’ by Feliks Michał Wygrzywalski (1875-1944)

These three male figures represent men of strength and simplicity; they are far from industrialized and perhaps pretentious men of Europe, from whom Wygrzywalski had probably withdrawn. Without wearing any mask or pretense, these male figures signify nudity of the façade and spirit, away from the so-called modernity in fashionably desired attire of the time. Without any violent machinery to aid them in this struggle at the heart of nature, they are to manifest masculine skin tones under the harsh sun; a tribute to masculinity from earlier decades.

'Fishermen' by Leon Wyczółkowski (1852-1936)

‘Fishermen’ by Leon Wyczółkowski (1852-1936)

Establishing a human triangle to embody calm and strong attachment, closeness, helpfulness, these men portray a brotherly congregation of handsome teamwork against destructive and boring individuation which came to the fore after the world wars; the battle of cooperation and brotherhood against singular egotism. Unlike other Polish artists who conformed to masked masculinity in art, painting even their fishermen dressed up in different working fashion, Wygrzywalski rips away that very sartorial façade of idealism, delving, instead, into reality. Wygrzywalski’s ‘Fishermen’ is an explicit objection to fishermen painted by Leon Wyczółkowski (1852-1936).

Details of 'Fishermen' by Feliks Michał Wygrzywalski (1875-1944)

Details of ‘Fishermen’ by Feliks Michał Wygrzywalski (1875-1944)

How this multicultural and multilingual painter narrates the scene of masculine serenity and strength closely corresponds with ‘The Fisherman’ by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). It is as if Wygrzywalski embarks on a journey of solitude, in order to reclaim the face of masculinity without all forms of masks that many European men of letters put on after the world wars. The scene does not extend too far beyond the footsteps of the three fishermen. They are painted in such a closed box that one cannot help but imagine that there is some unity speaking through the painting. Perhaps Wygrzywalski had a dream similar to that of Yeats’s, thinking, hoping, and wishing to meet a ‘wise and simple man’. For Yeats, the narrator is similarly tired of other men who do not fit in the ‘wise and simple’ category. He dreams of a man different from

The living men that I hate,
The dead men that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved-
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer-
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down (ll. 13-24)

The same anxiety that may be read in between Yeats’s lines can be found in Wygrzywalski’s ‘Fishermen’; the anxiety of losing the battle. These are shocking narratives of concealed masculine anxiety, unfolding masked emotions and withdrawn wishful thinking, only to desire restoration of wisdom and simplicity. Both works permeate a lyrical mood, symbolizing a profound nostalgia for the creation of masked masculinities. What Yeats describes as a sudden awakening, noting ‘suddenly I began / in scorn of this audience / imagining a man’ (ll. 26-28), speaks the same language as Wygrzywalski’s sudden withdrawal from painting beyond the seascape. Both works communicate the sudden awakening of masculine pretention.

Yeats composes facial expression and a bodily feature, similar to that of three fishermen in Wygrzywalski’s painting. What strikes me most, however, is Yeats’s similar strategy of connecting with light and brightness, displaying the term ‘dawn’ at the very end of the last line of the poem, rectifying the dream and fulfilling our desire of wise and simple masculinity winning through the tide of nature. The light in Wygrzywalski’s painting and the dawn in Yeats’s poem communicate the continuous existence of such desired embodiments of masculinity throughout decades. Yeats upholds the spirit of such existence by emphatic negation of reality, giving it much stronger attention and attraction.

Here is the man:
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark with froth,
And down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream-
A man who does not exist
A man who is but a dream;
And cries, “before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn”.

The ‘wise and simple’ man both these creative minds conjure, is not a man moaning about his hidden masculinity or his masked chivalry as a result of feminism. Yeats and Wygrzywalski strive to highlight what unmasked masculinity demonstrates: wisdom and simplicity. A man is loved and desired by both men and women for his strong serenity, wisdom and simplicity. Such men do not blame feminism for their shortcomings, nor do they wear the makeup of intellectual pretense, unpleasant wittiness, exposition of ignorance, public and private displays of rudeness, prejudice, and arrogance. Wygrzywalski’s fishermen bare serenity, and speak simplicity as they are, as they should be. Thankfully we still get to meet such men in this day and age…

Happy Epiphany to all men and women, especially to men of wisdom and serenity!

Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch

Maryam Farahani is co-director of Texts and Embodiments in Perspective, an interdisciplinary research group at the University of Liverpool. Lecturing in University of Liverpool Centre for Lifelong Learning and a research fellow in the School of Arts, she has expertise in women’s post-Enlightenment literature, focusing on encounters of Oriental and Occidental Romanticism. She tweets from @farahani_maryam

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