“Ab hac die Antonio Michalak licentia suscipiendorum omnium operum ad pingendi artem pertinentum datur”. This is how the diploma called “Attestatio”, signed by Tadeusz Pruszkowski (master), Jan Gotard (secretary), and Jan Zamoyski (master of ceremonies), ends, confirming the solemn ascension of Antoni Michalak to the status of master. It was 1925. The text was written on a large sheet of parchment. “At the top there was a vignette depicting St. Luke […] Next to the saint – a yellow lion, a halo, and the golden inscription Attestatio composed into the vignette”.

Antoni Michalak, A Kazimierz Townscape, 1924, Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

The “Attestatio” did not have the rank of an official document, but for the students, as Włodzimierz Bartoszewicz wrote in Buda na Powiślu [A shack in Warsaw’s Powiśle District], it was “a certificate more binding than any regular school diploma”. Artists received it at the end of their “ascension”, a ceremony that hearkened to the old guild custom of dubbing an apprentice a master. This tradition was close to Pruszkowski’s students, as it complemented the teaching of the professor, who advised them to use the good practices of the old masters. The colorful and humorous ritual was visually prepared in an outright theatrical way. “Prusz”, as Pruszkowski was called, asked a series of grotesque questions and sealed the whole thing with a diploma designed by Stefan Dauksz. The student became a true artist, that is, he started his “independent painting life”.

Antoni Michalak officially received his diploma from the School of Fine Arts in 1928. He began his artistic education at the Drawing School in Odessa, and from 1918 he continued in Warsaw in the Drawing Class under Jan Kauzik. Then he studied at the School of Fine Arts, initially in the studios of Miłosz Kotarbiński and Konrad Krzyżanowski. From 1923 he studied under Tadeusz Pruszkowski. He may have learned his sweeping brush strokes from Krzyżanowski, because, as the artist recalls, when the professor approached his easel he would commandingly urge him with: “Lash it, brother! Splash it!, a dynamic brush stroke made without thinking”. However, it was the teaching instilled by Pruszkowski that had an impact on Michalak’s work. He was Prusz’s favorite student, and so it he who was the first, together with Jan Gotard, to sail upriver to the town of Kazimierz Dolny with the aim of determining if the conditions fostered painting in plein-air. Afterward he visited Kazimierz Dolny annually, and in 1927 he decided to live there, and so he built a house with a studio near the famous tower.

Antoni Michalak, Portrait of a Blind Man with a Little Girl, ca. 1925, Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

The diploma work he submitted in 1925 indicated he was already a mature artist. It was a painting entitled A Fairy Tale about a Happy Man. The simple story that we can find happiness in poverty was most probably taken from the book by Jerzy Żuławski, published in 1924. It was extremely popular at that time and among those who appreciated it was the writer Stanisław Przybyszewski. In translating the story into the language of painting, Michalak raised this happy man in whom we see Kozdroń, a blind man from Kazimierz, above the crowd and onto a wooden platform. He dressed him in ragged pants and a torn coat. The exposed, emaciated torso resembles Christ from another painting by the artist, entitled The Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene and St. Jan. But the character from A Fairy Tale… is Christ from the Ecce homo scene. Exposing his naked body, he points to himself with a clear gesture. He has a hat instead of thorns, and a long stick for a reed. His slight smile expresses joy. As in Żuławski’s book, “the crowd looks at the man with curiosity and surprise”. The artist contrasted the rags of the happy man with the expensive robes of three dignitaries. For one of them “he borrowed the face” of Frankowski, the owner of the restaurant in the old “Pod Krzysztofem” townhouse, which the artists frequented. The composition and figures of the people depicted refer to the art of the Renaissance. The figure of the young man on the right is straight out of works by Antonio Pollaiuol or Masaccio, about whom Vasari wrote that “he created a new type of character with beautiful posture and movements”. Michalak expressed the grace of the figure, and repeated the body position. In this work, he combined various painting traditions. Both the influences of the Italian Renaissance and Dutch art manifested themselves in the realism of the characters and scenes. The composition of the painting with the massive wooden architecture in the foreground is clearly associated with the painting The Birth of Christ by Rogier van der Weyden from the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and The Adoration of the Magi from the Altar of St. Columban by the same artist.

Michalak himself, according to Włodzimierz Bartoszewicz, looked like a Renaissance figure, a Botticellian youth, and very eagerly reached for patterns from old painting. He not only listened to Pruszkowski’s stories about the old masters, but also collected reproductions. He had a large collection of them. One element of this image will be repeated in Michalak’s work – namely, Kazimierz Dolny. Much later, now a mature artist, he summed things up thus: “Kazimierz became my place on earth (…) here I built my home and the whole of Kazimierz was my home. Perhaps the character of this unique town corresponded with the atmosphere of the Italian Renaissance city, to whose tradition I referred in my canvases”. Michalak emphasized the importance of Kazimierz, a place so important to many artists. Thanks to them, on a par with Barbizon, Pont-Aven, Worpswede, and Skagen, he joined the European phenomenon known as an artistic colony. Artists colonized Kazimierz from the nineteenth century, interpreting this place in various ways, which can be summarized via several terms, including landscape, creative freedom, Arcadia, and universal shtetl.

Antoni Michalak, Saint Francis, 1938

A colorful rainbow stretches out in the painting Fairy Tale of a Happy Man above Kazimierz. Michalak had placed the rainbow on the previously painted view of the town (a lost painting), the Crucifixion with St. Maria Magdalena from 1958, which is a replica of a lost painting from 1931 or of the Holy Trinity from 1944. Waldemar Odorowski, following John Constable, described it as “a gentle arc of promise”. He goes on to ask the question: “is it the exclusion of Kazimierz from the sphere of the profane, or a sign of a chosen place, surrounded by special Grace?”. Certainly this sign of the covenant assigns a unique role to the city. It becomes a realm of freedom. It frees him from all evil. The supernatural force flowing from the heavens in the form of a glow of light appears in other of Michalak’s paintings. On the Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene and St. Jan from 1924 or even in the picture showing Saint Anthony speaking to fish from 1931. The Kazimierz tower and the castle brings out the light that is an “element” of the glow emanating from the halo placed above Saint Joseph’s head in the painting from 1964, where the saint holds the Child in one hand, and a lily in the other. So it was not a man who gave a special rank to a place – it was the power coming from above that determined its true value. That is why beauty, good, and happiness reign.

Antoni Michalak, from 1936 a member of the Association of Catholic Artists “Ars Christiana”, took up religious themes in a very thoughtful way. His works are dominated by scenes of Christ’s death on the cross and hagiographic presentations. Michalak was close to monumental religious painting, and he implemented Pruszkowski’s call to “serve the public” through church painting intended for sacred places. These works were commissioned and became a source of the artist’s income. He created them all his life. Several implementations are worth mentioning. They show reflection on the iconography of the representations and the space to which they are to be introduced. The first was established in 1923 for the church of St. Nicholas in Kozłów Szlachecki, the artist’s birthplace. In 1927, commissioned by Wanda Zamoyska, he made a triptych for the main altar of the church in Laszki, which was founded by the Zamoyski family. Also for the main altar of the church in Tymienica Nowa he made a painting depicting St. Tekla. When we look closely at the landscape that stretches behind the barred opening, we will see that it is Kazimierz, as in the painting Saint Barbara closing the eyes of a dying person (1927) from the church in Góreck Kościelny, where in the distance you can see the Kazimierz tower. Here it rises to the rank of an attribute of St. Barbara.

Antoni Michalak, A Lady with a Little Dog

Tadeusz Pruszkowski wrote in Wiadomości Literackie that “painters must be entrusted with making good portraits”. In the photo from 1931, Michalak, sitting among his colleagues from the Brotherhood, presents his painting Portrait of a Lady with a Dog, painted in the same year. Pruszkowski distinguished this image in the article “Variations on the Brotherhood of St. Luke” from 1932 (Kultura, No. 6). It was also noticed by Latvian critics during the exhibition that took place in Riga in January and February, 1934. In “Janaukas Zinas” the harmony of “facial expression with a special color, boldness in painting and bold finish” was emphasized. In “Latvia” it was hailed as the best painting. It was written that “the portrait captivates (…) with the genius of execution and the expression that is reflected on the face. A great master!”. Balanced in color, it is painted with free brush strokes, with a play of light so characteristic of the painter. The woman in the painting is Regina Lewenstein with her dog Żabka. She lived in Kazimierz, in the Regina villa, where she often hosted artists. She wrote poems herself. Another portrait, from 1933, shows Hanna Mortkowiczówna, about whom the SSP Szopka sang: “I’m almost like this mama / For Żeromski and Miriam. / Every layer in Poland knows about me – Pride of bookselling! / Michalak, Korczak, Gubrynowicz, / Staff, Beylin and Serafinowicz / I listen to every confession willingly / Intelligent. (…).

Antoni Michalak, A Portrait Study

The portraits perfectly reflected specific human types. In the 1932 painting Girl with a Rose we clearly read the innocence of a young woman in a white dress holding a flower in her hand. From another picture, Wanda Hoffmanowa, a confident woman with a newspaper under her arm, looks at us. But it is lyricism that characterizes most of the portrayed women. As Pruszkowski wrote, “Poles like melancholic delights” and have “sentimental preferences”. The subtlety and delicacy emphasized by the veil characterize the Woman with a Book and a Rose from 1930. The elderly Mrs. Garszyńska with a cup in her hands in the portrait from 1940 has, as underlined by her clothes and jewelry, pre-war nobility. The portrait of Maria Kleniewska, interesting in terms of its composition and colors, comes from the same year. The portrayed woman worked for rural women and girls, including in nearby Kazimierz Kluczkowice.

Antoni Michalak, A Lady with a Tray, 1929

The subject in the portraits is an important element – it characterizes, adds, or creates a compositional whole. Sometimes in Michalak’s portraits the thing seems important in itself. In the lost Portrait of a Lady with a Tray from 1929, a woman holds a tray with objects grouped on it as if presenting a still life. The artist observes their form and shows them with the greatest precision, although he does not focus on the faithful reproduction of details, as we can see – again referring to the New Objectivity – for example in the painting Table with a Toilet from 1926 by Herbert Ploberger or Still Life by Alexander Kanoldt from 1920 r. The distinguishing feature of New Objectivity was that of focusing on everyday objects and a cool look at things. It is an insightful observation and “painting what is seen”. But the Portrait of a Lady with a Tray can also be related to an earlier work, The Girls with a Cup of Chocolate by Jean-Étienne Liotard.

We also have another type of portrait. An example is the Portrait of Maria Jaroszyńska from 1927. The full-figure of the woman almost fills the canvas. The artist presents the figure, and at her feet is a view of Kazimierz. It is very interesting that this type of representation also appeared in European painting. In Katwijk, the Dutch art colony with which Piet van der Hem was associated, the artist’s painting depicting the fisherman’s wife was created. She is shown in the same approach as Maria Jaroszyńska. The figure, similar to Michalak’s, fills the space of the canvas, and in the lower part there is a view of Katwijk. The work was composed, just like in Michalak’s, with the horizon low, with several objects pointing to a specific town. Michalak was inspired by the works of Francisco de Goya – Portrait of Mariana Waldstein and Portrait of Duchess Carpio, Marquesas Solana. He saw them during his stay in the Louvre, in Paris, where he was on a scholarship in 1925-1926. Michalak repeated the layout of the figures, clothes, and hands, giving the whole a contemporary character.

Antoni Michalak, Collecting River Customs in Bydgoszcz

Antoni Michalak made a number of official portraits of bishops and of rectors of KUL, the Catholic University of Lublin. He himself was associated with this university. In the years 1948-1969 he lectured there on drawing, painting, and art techniques. He had pedagogical experience, because during his studies he taught drawing at the Stanisław Chęciński Male Progimnazjum in Warsaw, and from 1921 he worked at the State Teachers’ Seminary. In the years 1933-1939 he was a teacher at the State Technical School in Lwów/Lviv, at the Faculty of Decorative Arts and Artistic Industry. In Lwów, he created the “Lwowska School” association, to which his pupils belonged. Jan Rosen was associated with this city, together with whom, in 1933, he designed polychrome designs for the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo: Defense of Częstochowa, Miracle on the Vistula, Death of Ignacy Skorupka. After the change, the projects were realized by Rosen himself. In 1934, this time together with Stanisław Teisseyre, he made polychrome designs for the church of the monastery of the Basilian fathers in Chełm. In the 20s and 30s Michalak presented his works at many exhibitions. In 1931 in Padua, where he showed Saint Anthony speaking to fish, the same year at the Musée Rath in Geneva, at the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1933, at the 19th Venice Biennale in 1934, and in Berlin in 1934 later.

Antoni Michalak, Exodus

A painting with an almost prophetic meaning comes from the years 1934-1935 – namely, Exodus. A desert landscape with two abandoned boats heralds doom. The woman, running with two children, seems to be running away from a predicted apocalypse. Fear, sadness, and melancholy emanate from the children’s characters. Immediately after the war, a painting was created that is almost its antithesis – the Winner. In the foreground are two figures: the winged goddess Nike and a running boy. Nike holds the laurel of victory in her left, raised hand, and her right hand holds robes. She has a wreath on her head. On the right, the figure of a boy is dominating, running, with his hands raised, to the finish line. The boy’s exposed, taut body is emaciated. The second plan consists of sketched human figures and the landscape of Kazimierz. The airy, delicate figure of the goddess of victory refers to the style of ancient representations, and her clothing gives direct associations with the “style of wet robes” characteristic of Greek sculpture from the classical period. A similarly painted fabric is the scarf covering the head and neck of the woman in the painting entitled Exodus. The body of the boy who runs first to the finish line does not look like an outstanding athlete. The exposed, emaciated chest and sunken abdomen clearly resemble the body of Christ from the earlier Crucifixions. The boy is not dressed in gym shorts, he is covered with a piece of fabric that resembles a perizoma. However, there is no sign of suffering here. The young man becomes Christ the Conqueror and at the same time a symbol of a nation tormented by war, which, like the Crucified One, turned his suffering into victory. The painting is a great combination of ancient and Christian culture. It could have been painted around 1948, when the first summer Olympic Games after the war took place. This event may have inspired the artist to use the theme to convey a deeper content. The act of sports victory would be a metaphor for the war that had just ended.

tłum. Ph.E. Steele