Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 24, 2000
Jan Ostrowski Land of the Winged Horsemen: Art in Poland, 1572–1764 Yale University Press, 1998. 380 pp.; 190 color ills.; 54 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0300079184)
Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD, March 2-May 9, 1999; The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, June 5-September 6, 1999; Huntsville Museum of Art, Huntsville, AL, September 25-November 28, 1999; San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA, December 18, 1999-February 27, 2000; Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, OK, March 25-June18, 2000; The Royal Castle, Warsaw, Poland, Summer 2000.

Given the relative difficulty of transporting a collection of such extraordinary breadth and national importance, it is not surprising that the last American exhibition of Polish art from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took place close to thirty years ago. While readers may be familiar with its fairly limited catalogue, as well as important later texts such as Jan Bialostocki’s The Art of the Renaissance in Eastern Europe and Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s recent Court, Cloister and City: The Art of Central Europe, 1450-1800, few publications in English have specifically addressed the topic of the Polish baroque. The organizers of the exhibition Land of the Winged Horsemen: Art in Poland, 1572-1764 have clearly anticipated the need for a more comprehensive study of the baroque period, and have compiled an exceptional and generously illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibition, which now concludes its United States tour.

The catalogue is edited by Jan K. Ostrowski, director of the Wawel Royal Castle Museum in Cracow, and includes essays by Ostrowski, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Piotr Krasny, Adam Zamoyski, and Zdzislaw Zygulski, Jr. It covers a broad period that begins with the collapse of the Jagiellon dynasty in 1572, and coincides with the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the political and geographic union of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania forged in Lublin in 1569. As a result of the union, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became the largest state in Europe, and the royal court and nobility were able to extend their sphere of influence significantly. Encompassing a region that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the thinly populated expanses north of the Crimea, the newly organized state maintained its administrative capital in Warsaw, but substantial changes in electoral procedures shifted political and economic power to the distant provincial estates and cities of the magnates.

Geographic decentralization not only contributed to a greater diversification of art production and patronage, but also brought the state and nobility into contact with a number of social groups conventionally described as “Eastern”: Armenians, Jews, Karaites, Ruthenians, Turks, and Tatars. It is this cultural exchange between West and East that is one of the central themes of the exhibition. As the authors describe, encounters between Poland and the so-called “Orient” were not always amicable, yet contributed to a general assimilation of Eastern motifs in Polish art of the baroque period. Epitomized by the armor and costume of the winged hussars who lend their name to the exhibition, Polish orientalism was a complex social and political mechanism that strengthened the bonds between art and identity and paved the way for the incorporation of Eastern motifs into the costume, armor, and coiffure of the period.

In the excellent introductory essay “Definition and Self-Definition in Polish Culture and Art,” DaCosta Kaufmann effectively frames a number of questions raised in later essays, and provides a good point of entry into the theme of the Polish variant of orientalism, Sarmatism. As a dominant myth of origin in Poland from the late 16th century onward, Sarmatism was a means by which some members of the nobility and gentry could trace their lineage to the nomadic Sarmatian tribes who occupied the territory north of the Black Sea in the fourth century. Long understood as a device of authentication popularized in the wake of the collapse of the Jagiellon dynasty, Sarmatism is described by DaCosta Kaufmann as a mediation between Western and Eastern cultural conventions, and as an indication that Poland is “a land that possesses western traits and yet approximates and assimilates oriental elements” (17).

The preference for oriental subjects is evident in the catalogue of works exhibited, which is organized according to five categories: monarchy, magnate class, military, religion, and the decorative arts. One of the first images encountered in the meticulous catalogue is a portrait of the prince royal Ladislas Sigismund Vasa by Peter Paul Rubens and studio (c.1624, cat. no. 2). It speaks to the prominent role of commissions by western artists and workshops in the art of the Polish court, an issue more closely addressed in Ostrowski’s essay "Mechanisms of Contact Between Polish and European Baroque. " In the exquisite standing portrait of Stanislaw Teczynski (c.1630, cat. no. 25), attributed to Tommaso Dolabella, a Kashan rug is draped prominently over a side table, a reminder of the import of goods of eastern manufacture and their prevalence in the domestic life at the estates of the magnates. The complexity of Polish orientalism is evident when comparing the prizes of Polish spoliation—such as a Turkish linen field tent seized at the Battle of Vienna in 1683 (cat. no. 52)—with pieces like the Sultan Service (before 1777, cat. no. 129), a richly decorated set of faience dishes produced at the royal manufactory in Warsaw, which integrates traditional Polish motifs with Turkish inscriptions.

In working within a broad geographic and temporal arena, the authors have chosen to address diverse aspects of cultural history, opting for a more generalized approach which highlights significant issues affecting patronage and collecting practices, but foregoes extended discussion of a single patron, artist, or work of art. This allows the reader an overall understanding of the central themes underpinning production and patronage in the period, and is appropriate for an exhibition catalogue that introduces new material to an audience with little exposure to Polish art.

Nonetheless, there are a number of instances in the volume where a more extended discussion would have drawn out important economic and regional distinctions. In this respect, Ostrowski’s essay on the social and religious context of Polish baroque art is particularly mindful; his discussion of the gallery of the seventeenth-century palace at Podhorce (illustrated in an accompanying period photograph, c.1880) provides a glimpse of the interaction between art and its immediate physical situation and audience. In examining the palace of a wealthy magnate, we learn of the collection of over five hundred paintings and the numerous objects of use originally housed in the building, and can thus begin to reflect on the many factors that shaped individual collections and the visual program of estates like Podhorce. In other instances, a more detailed analysis would better support the important ideas advanced by the authors. This is the case with Sarmatism, a phenomenon whose scope and historical significance receives distinct interpretations by the authors. In Zamoyski’s essay on Polish history, Sarmatism is discussed as an “all-embracing ideology” to which the majority of society subscribed (31), and in reading Zygulski’s essay “The Impact of the Orient on the Culture of Old Poland,” it is similarly unclear which political and social entities benefited from this affiliation. Ostrowski is more careful, claiming that the magnates and ranking nobility adopted conventionally Western patterns of behavior, and that this can be viewed as “an expression of the magnates’ anxiety to distinguish themselves from the Sarmatian masses of the gentry and to sanction their own supremacy” (67). Without a more thorough discussion of what constitutes a specifically Sarmatian trait or artistic style, it is difficult to locate the role of discrete political and social motivations, or to envision how the art may have been understood by its original audiences, who were keenly aware of the subtle signals of class, ethnicity, and political standing. A closer visual analysis and textual corroboration would have clarified this issue, and better enabled the reader to position particular visual programs within a broader knowledge of the European baroque.

Due to the condensed nature of the essays, those already acquainted with recent Polish historiography on the art of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth may find the text (which contains few source notes) somewhat limiting, particularly when compared with the extensive publication record of the authors, who have published substantial and well-respected studies in their respective fields. For the majority of readers, however, Land of the Winged Horsemen will serve as an important introduction to Polish art of the baroque period, and the authors have made a valuable contribution by assembling and discussing such a diverse and captivating selection of art. The remarkable color reproductions in this catalogue have not been available outside Poland until now, and for this reason alone the volume is sure to remain an essential reference text for years to come. In view of the lack of literature in English on the subject and the scarcity of adequate reproductions, Land of the Winged Horsemen fills an important gap in North American scholarship. It marks a significant first step in stimulating interest in the art of an often overlooked corner of Europe, and this is perhaps its greatest contribution. As an exhibition catalogue, it succeeds in both portraying the diversity of the official art of the period, and situating the Polish-Lithunian Commonwealth on the larger map of European artistic relations.

Nicholas G. Sawicki
University of Pennsylvania