Paintings as the showcase of Polish history:
The works of the “Lukians” at the World’s Fair in New York
In 1938 Poland was celebrating its 20th anniversary of having regained national independence after more than a century of captivity (1795-1918).
The foundation for economic development was laid in 1924 by the introduction of a strong, stable currency – the Polish złoty. The work of the then prime minister, Władysław Grabski, based on the holdings and precious metal reserves of the Bank of Poland launched that same year, proved a lasting accomplishment. An even greater reason for pride in the Second Republic was the city of Gdynia: on the site of a small fishing village was built the largest port on the Baltic Sea – indeed, the most modern one in all of interwar Europe. In 1933, in pursuit of economic independence from Germany, Poland succeeded in connecting the port of Gdynia with the mines and smelters of Śląsk (Silesia) via a nearly 500km-long coal railway built in record time. Even more quickly, for within just two years, the most ambitious economic project of the Second Republic was carried out – namely, the Central Industrial District (COP being the Polish acronym). Announced in February 1937 by Deputy Prime Minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, the COP was to create an economic “security triangle” for Poland in the uplands of the San and Vistula rivers, and at the same time to solve the problem of unemployment in that agricultural region. The COP’s main investments included: an ironworks and armament factory in Stalowa Wola; an ammunition factory in Kraśnik; aircraft construction in Mielec; machine tools and aircraft engines in Rzeszów; synthetic rubber in Dębica; power plants in Rożnów, Myczkowce, Stalowa Wola, and Mościska; and weapon factories in Radom, Sanok, and Starachowice. Over 100,000 people found employment in COP enterprises. The state-of-the-art “Sokół” (Hawk) motorcycles, and the modern PZL-37 “Łoś” (Moose) bombers manufactured in 1938 by the Aviation Works in Okęcie near Warsaw displayed the growing capabilities of Polish industry. Poland’s Second Republic had achievements that it could boast of.
A lot, an amazing lot, had been done during those twenty years of Poland’s Second Republic, and the plans still being implemented then were even more ambitious.
Another reason for pride, however, was also, and perhaps above all, the great heritage upon which the Second Republic consciously drew. This heritage was created by the more than eight preceding centuries of the independent political and cultural community of Poles, a community which from 966 – through the baptism of Mieszko I – was joined to the wider community of Christian Europe. Nonetheless, in the late 18th century the Polish state – the Rzeczpospolita, as it is called in Polish – was brutally torn apart by Russia, Prussia, and Austria. The struggle to resurrect the Rzeczpospolita (or: Commonwealth) was crowned in 1918, and that fight against imperial violence on behalf of national independence and the right to a free existence adds yet another ever so important element of Polish historical identity.
During the jubilee year of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Independence, Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs under the direction of Józef Beck made a decision to participate in the upcoming World’s Fair in New York in order to present Poland’s modern technological achievements and the great historical achievements of the country. Begun in 1851 with the famous Exhibition in London, the World’s Fair was the most important forum for the global promotion of what today we could call the national brand. The Polish government wanted to make the most of the opportunity that the New York exhibition offered.
Preparations for the exposition planned for the spring of 1939 had commenced over a year earlier. The Polish pavilion was planned to have a dozen or so halls. They were to present such areas as art, the applied arts, science, communication, Poland at sea, social welfare, manufacturing (industry), agriculture, folk art, and forestry. The most important thing, however, was to be the Honor Hall, dedicated to the Past and Future of Poland. It was to be decorated with a series of paintings showing our historical achievements and their central place in European civilization. The selection of the subject matter was entrusted to a team of three eminent scholars: professors Oskar Halecki, Jan Kucharzewski, and Roman Dyboski.
The youngest of them, Oskar Halecki (1891-1973), son of an Austrian general and a Croatian aristocrat, a graduate of the Viennese and Jagiellonian universities, a Pole by choice, medievalist, professor at the University of Warsaw, already enjoyed international recognition. At the Historical Congresses in Oslo (1923) and Brussels (1928) he began to introduce, as the first scholar, the term Central-Eastern Europe, pointing to the fundamental role of the heritage of the Rzeczpospolita and the Polish-Lithuanian Union in the region. He was the most outstanding historian of that Union, as well as the propagator of its renewal in a new federal form after 1918. He had had the role of an expert in the Polish delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and was the secretary of the League of Nations’ Commission for Intellectual Cooperation in Geneva. He knew how to masterfully translate Polish historical experience into the language of the contemporary West. But he never wanted to give up, for the sake of such translation, what was for him the essence of Polishness – namely, its inseparable connection with Christianity, with Latin tradition, and with Catholicism. The republican freedom of citizens achieved in the Commonwealth, the idea of a voluntary union of nations, and finally the role of a bulwark against foreigners from the civilization of militant Islam and aggressive, despotic Orthodoxy, which in 1917 was replaced with the banner of communism in Moscow – these are the basic elements of Halecki’s view on what in Poland’s historical experience is the most important.
This view was also shared by Jan Kucharzewski (1876-1952). This graduate of the Imperial University of Warsaw, activist of the clandestine independence movement (“Zet”, the National League), Polish historian under the Russian partition, during the First World War became one of the most effective promoters of Polish independence in the French-speaking world. At the end of 1917, nominated by the Regency Council to be the Prime Minister of the Polish Government in Warsaw, he gave up this honorable mission in February of the following year when the central states signed a peace-treaty with Ukraine that was injurious to Poland. During the offensive of Soviet Russia against Warsaw in 1920, he again explained the cause of Polish defense in that war in a number of French-language publications, as – unfortunately – they were not at all evident for a large part of Western public opinion. Later while a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, he was involved in the creation of his life’s work: a multi-volume history of the genesis of the Soviet political system: From white tsardom to red (by 1939 he published seven volumes).
The third scholar asked to consult the selection of topics for the artistic vision of Polish history, Roman Dyboski (1883-1945), was a professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, and the head of the English Department. An outstanding expert on Shakespeare’s work, as well as on more recent American literature, he was also a highly successful propagator of Polish culture and history in the academic circles of Great Britain and the United States. In this capacity, he lectured at such outstanding institutions as Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Chicago, at King’s College in London, and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, all the while cultivating the friendship of the relatively few Polonophiles among the UK/US elite, such as Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
Halecki, Kucharzewski, and Dyboski were clearly the best prepared to show what in Poland’s history and cultural tradition was most worth displaying before a world audience in 1939. And thus they chose seven themes ranging from the Gniezno Summit in the year 1000, through the baptism of Lithuania in 1386, the consolidation of Polish civil liberties with the privilege of “nemin captivabimus …” in 1430, the Union of Lublin in 1569, the guarantee of religious toleration with the Warsaw Confederation adopted four years later, breaking the siege of Vienna in 1683, and the Constitution of May 3, 1791.
Work on the paintings was entrusted to a group of painters gathered within the “Brotherhood of Saint Luke”. This fraternity of artists, formed in 1925, was centered on Tadeusz Pruszkowski, a professor at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts – and during the First World War a volunteer-lieutenant in the 1st Lancer Regiment of Władysław Belina-Prażmowski. These Lukians, as they were called (Łukaszowcy in Polish), boasted a number of joint exhibitions, including ones held in Geneva, Amsterdam, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and at the Venice Art Biennale. They were eager to carry out large commissions jointly, in the spirit of a medieval guild – for instance, the painting decorations of the Polish transatlantic ships, the MS “Batory” and “Piłsudski”. Now, at the call of their master, professor Pruszkowski, they joined forces to create a series of canvases for the New York World’s Fair. Bolesław Cybis, Bernard Frydrysiak, Jan Gotard, Aleksander Jędrzejewski, Eliasz Kanarek, Jeremi Kubicki, Antoni Michalak, Stefan Płużański, Janusz Podoski, and Jan Zamoyski met at the beginning of May 1938 in the villa of professor Pruszkowski in Kazimierz on the Vistula River and started work. It was indeed a collective work: each artist painted what he was best prepared for: faces of characters, costumes, architecture, and nature backdrops. After six months the work was complete, in keeping with the commission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Thanks to this, it was possible to present the works at a showing in December 1938 at the Institute for Art Propagation in Warsaw. On February 28 of the following year, the paintings of the Lukians, entrusted to the Hartwig transport company, set sail on the “Batory” in Gdynia en route to New York along with 200 tons of other exhibits.
The exhibition was officially opened on Sunday, April 30. With a bright sun shining, the exhibition grounds (Flushing Meadows in New York’s Queens District) soon grew crowded. Albert Einstein made a speech, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented his own speech with the help of the latest invention – television. Many of the more than 30 national pavilions had yet to be opened. The Polish pavilion opened its doors on the national holiday of May 3. In front of its symbol attracting the attention of visitors – namely, the 56-meter Golden Tower (built of trusses with stylized gilded copper shields) – was the equestrian statue of King Władysław Jagiełło specially created for the occasion by the great sculptor Stanisław Kazimierz Ostrowski. It was a monument to the will for independence and to victory over those who wanted to take it away from Poland – the Teutonic Order. At the same time, it was a monument to the Polish-Lithuanian Union: “a free union between the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe”, as the inscription below the statue of Jagiełło read.
This introduction to the Polish pavilion of the New York World’s Fair must be made here because just like its ideological heart – the series of paintings done by the Lukians – one must discern its meaning in the context of the history unfolding then. Much had changed since the decision on Poland’s participation at the World’s Fair – that is, the beginning of 1938 – and the moment when on May 3 of the next year the first guests could enter the Polish pavilion. Let’s recall those changes. Back in 1938, Adolf Hitler, at the head of the German Third Reich, carried out the Anschluss with Austria and then the partition of Czechoslovakia – and this with the consent of the Western powers. Poland decided to regain the small Zaolzie region, which had been taken by the Czechs nearly two decades before, at this unfortunate moment. However, Poland did not accept the role of the Third Reich’s ally, which Hitler proposed then, at the end of 1938. Nor did Poland intend to capitulate, as Czechoslovakia did, without a fight. Poland did not wish to relinquish its independence.
Let’s recall simply the highlights of the events unfolding from January to May 1939, when the paintings of the Lukians were waiting for shipment overseas, then sailed to New York, and at last awaited the first guests at the Polish pavilion. For without this calendar it is impossible to grasp the emotions that accompanied this presentation of the historical achievements of independent Poland at the World’s Fair from May 3, 1939.
Four months earlier the authorities of Poland’s Second Republic had rejected Hitler’s proposal to agree to the incorporation of Gdańsk/Danzig into Germany and to create an extraterritorial highway through the Pomeranian “corridor” connecting East Prussia with the rest of Germany. On January 8, at a conference at the Royal Castle in Warsaw (with the participation of President Ignacy Mościcki, Prime Minister Felicjan Sławoj-Składkowski, Deputy Prime Minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, Chief of the Armed Forces Edward Rydz-Śmigły, and Minister Józef Beck), it was decided that Hitler’s demands should be deemed a pretext for the total subordination Poland to Germany – and therefore had to be rejected. On March 15, German troops seized the rest of Czechoslovakia without resistance, and proclaimed the founding of a Czech and Moravian protectorate the following day. On March 31, understanding that Germany was aiming both to subjugate all of Central and Eastern Europe and to win dominance over the entire continent, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Neville Chamberlain (after agreement with Minister Beck) announced in a speech delivered in the House of Commons Great Britain’s unilateral guarantees for Poland: “in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power”. The acceptance of the British guarantee by Poland meant a further strengthening of the Polish resistance to the demands of German policy and brought armed conflict closer. On April 3 the Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht, General Wilhelm Keitel, signed the command of combat readiness for 1939-1940. The second point of the order spoke about the “Fall Weiss” (code name for aggression against Poland) – with the deadline for completing the preparations for war being September 1, 1939.
On April 6, after two days of talks with Minister Beck in London, a Polish-British agreement was signed. It obliged both sides to provide support in the event of a direct or indirect threat to their independence. In the event of Germany’s attack on Poland or “another German action that would clearly threaten Poland’s independence” (i.e., an attempt to annex Gdańsk), the British government was to provide „immediate” assistance. On April 28, in a speech delivered in the Reichstag, Hitler renounced the Polish-German declaration of non-aggression from 1934, as well as the German-British maritime agreement from 1935. A characteristic feature of the speech was the refusal of the leader of the Third Reich to attack the USSR, so frequent in the recent past. This was a clear harbinger of the rapprochement of the two totalitarian states, both being neighbors of Poland’s Second Republic – and thus a rapprochement whose aim indicated above all the intention to destroy Poland.
On May 3, the very day the Polish pavilion was opened in New York, news spread round the world that Vyacheslav Molotov had replaced Maxim Litvinov as the commissar of foreign affairs of the USSR. By dismissing Litvinov, Stalin was preparing to undertake real strategic cooperation with the Third Reich. The press across Europe wrote about imminent war. On May 4, in the Paris daily L’Oeuvre, Marcel Déat published an article under the infamous, rhetorical title: “Do we have to die for Gdańsk?” The following day, on the third day of the Polish exhibition at the World Exhibition, the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Józef Beck, spoke. In response to Hitler’s speech on April 28, Beck gave a speech in the Polish Sejm. He expressed in it the meaning of the Polish attitude, the meaning of Polish independence, and the pride in the existence of the Second, Renewed Commonwealth. He said: “Peace is a precious and desirable thing. Our generation, which has shed its blood in war, surely deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things in this world, has its price – a high, but measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any cost. There is only one thing in the lives of people, nations, and states that is priceless. This is honor.”
Having these words and the chain of events preceding them in mind, we can now look at what was on view in May 1939 for those who stood in the Hall of Honor of the Polish pavilion in New York, surrounded by a series of seven paintings presenting the legacy of the Rzeczpospolita. Let’s add that each of them has the same dimensions: 128 centimeters in height, 200 centimeters in width.