“Stefan Darling! When will the truncheon no longer rule / and the world will no longer look / like a wilderness […] Oh, to make up for / those years of storms / Those moments of mindless poverty / We will paint / At once / Yours, Janek”. This is the dedication Gotard placed next to the portrait of the painter Stefan Płużański. The artist repeatedly stressed that painting was the essence of his life. He was extremely hard-working and consistent, even ruthless, as Wiktor Podoski wrote about him. When he fell from the castle in Kazimierz and was taken to hospital in Puławy, he escaped from there still in very bad condition. His only response was: “I want to finish the work I started before I leave”, and “I must finish”, which he repeated like a mantra. His work entitled Pereat mundus, vivat ars (Let the world perish, so long as art lives) actually proclaims the victory of art over the world. It is slain by the painter, depicted as St. George.

Jan Gotard, The Fable of Cinderella, 1937

Pereat mundus can be read in many ways[1]. Is the artist destroying the ugliness of the world, or perhaps the pure naturalism of representations? The painter does not want to imitate it, he creates his own reality on canvas. On the one hand, in keeping with Pruszkowski’s call to “record” the surrounding reality, Gotard voyeuristically observes society; on the other, he shifts the reality of painting toward expression. “We are not creating naturalism”, Pruszkowski said. Joanna Pollakówna proposed the notion of shifted reality, where grotesque, magic realism, and expression combine. Grotesque has become a distinctive feature of Gotard’s work. It tells a story about man, but not about his best condition. This humanity is distorted. This is evidenced by his detailed The Fable of Cinderella from 1937, his graphics The Alchemist and Prometheus, both from 1926, or Stitching up the Skull of a Genius inspired by an accident at the castle in Kazimierz, reproduced in the magazine Kanarek in 1924, issue 7.
Gotard is interested in the human individual. This is most likely also why his faces could be so malleable. In fact, he often drew only heads. Let us mention, for example, Epitafium for Stanisław Grabowski from 1923, A Composition of Heads, and the programme of the nativity scene at SSP in Warsaw, where a bordure is made of heads (ca. 1924). In Buddha near the Vistula, Włodzimierz Bartoszewicz described a story how Gotard painted a portrait of American ambassador Stetson. When he looked at the diplomat, he insisted that he would paint him together with his secretary because “he has an interesting face”[2]. When we look at the face of the woman from Portrait of an Old Woman[3], a healer’s battered face from the painting of the same title[4], or the grimaced face of a man from the painting Solitaire[5], we see that the artist chose very characteristic faces. But composition was also important. When he presented ambassador Stetson with a whiskey glass in his hand and a bottle placed on the table, Gotard told the horrified diplomat that he would not change anything “because it would spoil the composition”[6].

Jan Gotard, A Drunkard, ca. 1928, Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

The pose, the position of hands, the objects, obviously those taken from the reality surrounding the artist, create a very well thought-out composition. The glass, with its illuminated outline emerging from the dark background of the painting A Drunkard, is an excellent complement to the whole. It is a delicate counterpoint to the “filled in” upper corners of the picture. It breaks the blackness of the background, just as the black dress of the woman in the Portrait of an Old Woman is broken by illuminated hands joined by a rosary. It is worth paying attention to the hands because in most of the works they mark the diagonal of the composition, they become vectors of tension, and thus are poignantly expressive. They can be spread out, as in the painting A Drunkard or in Portrait of a Sculptor (Alfons Karny) from around 1929 (lost). Gotard sometimes paints them in an unnatural arrangement, as in Portrait of Mrs. K. from around 1929 (lost). (lost). This bending of the hand is also seen in the lost painting Girl with a Cigarette (before 1928). The cigarette as an attribute also appears in another painting, entitled Lady with a Cigarette from c. 1929 (lost). The woman holds it in her raised hand. The artist places the cigarette in the woman’s hand like Otto Dix in the hand of journalist Sylvia von Harden. This is not an accident, it is a record of the then prevailing attitude of liberated women, an expression of modernity. The cigarette thus became a symbol of female power and independence.

Not only Gotard, but also his colleague Bolesław Cybis took up this subject, or to be more precise, this kind of typification. To give another example of the reference to Otto Dix, and by the same token to German New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), let us take a look at the hands of lawyer Hugo Simons on a portrait from 1925. Here we find the utmost probable similarity to the hands in the Portrait of Mrs. K.[7]. However, it should be clearly emphasized here that it was not only the form, but also, if not first of all, the task he assigned to art that brought Gotard closer to the German New Objectivity. It was closer because Gotard’s art did not have such clear references to social criticism, and showing ugliness was not only meant to show a degenerated world[8].

It is the inhabitants of Kazimierz Dolny who hide under most of Gotard’s portraits. Grandmother with a Siphon (ca. 1930, private property) is Miss Józia, a local drunkard who often posed for artists[9]. The history of the painting is interesting. It was bought for a private collection by a member of Pantaleon Szyndler’s family and was the only painting from that rich collection to survive the turmoil of war. The next owner recalls it this way: “the painting survived because, having been thrown out by the Germans after the Uprising in 1944, we realized that we would never get anything back. My father, Zygmunt Ludwik, had been abroad since the beginning of the year, and because he simply loved the painting, my mother, Maria Kazimiera, decided to take it out of the frame and nail it to the closet as the back wall. Since no one discovered it, the closet was large, and so no one fished for it, and in May 1945 my parents recovered the painting (and the closet)”[10].

Jan Gotard, Portrait of a Lad, ca. 1936, Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

In the Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny there is a beautiful Portrait of a Lad from 1936. It is a son of Antoni Michalak’s housekeeper, Mrs Łyszczowa, also a resident of Kazimierz Dolny. This portrait belongs to a different type of representation, one in which the artist shows the subtlety of the figures, almost their incorporeality. The gaze of the depicted person is supposed to be “suspended” between the earthly and heavenly reality. The boy with an object difficult to describe in his hand in the painting from 1936 is looking into an indefinite and unreal distance. Gotard drew on the world of Kazimierz because this place was extremely important to the artist, and Michalak’s house almost became his home. In the catalog to the exhibition Block Z. A. P. at the Institute for the Propagation of Art in 1936, he wrote as his place of residence not his Warsaw address, but “Michalak’s house, Kazimierz Dolny”.

Gotard came to Kazimierz Dolny in 1923 for the first open-air workshop with Tadeusz Pruszkowski and a few students from the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. Earlier, he went to plein-air workshops in Kartuzy with Konrad Krzyżanowski, but he started his artistic education as early as 1914 in the studio of Edward Trojanowski. However, he interrupted it. In 1915, he started to study at the Faculty of Philosophy and later at the Faculty of Law at the University of Warsaw. In 1920, after returning from the front, he returned to his artistic studies. This time he began his education at a private school run by Konrad Krzyżanowski. In 1923, when he joined Pruszkowski’s studio, he also started to study graphics under Władysław Skoczylas. The students from the ateliers of both professors spent several weeks at annual open-air workshops in Kazimierz Dolny. Gotard took an active part in the events organized there, e.g., he designed the shape of evening balls at the castle. He was also involved in all activities at the School. Together with Jan Zamoyski he worked out the Rule of St. Luke Brotherhood and a colourful ceremony dubbed “Wyzwolin”, i.e., passing to master’s status. He was also an author of texts for the Nativity Scene.

When Gotard came to Kazimierz Dolny, his first steps were directed to St. Anne’s Church, where he went down to the crypt where artists had discovered open and decaying coffins with skeletons. He spent hours studying the “objects” found there. For the longest time he “worked out” two terrifying skeletons – namely, the combined figure of an adult with the skeleton of a child. The work was titled Mummies. There is a funny anecdote connected with the “corpse”, as Jan Zamoyski called it. It was bought after the school’s open-air exhibition by an elderly lady. As Zamoyski described it: “a few days later she invited the author to visit her. The painting was hanging in the place of honour above the sofa. Serving Gotard with tea, she said: I can’t tell you how happy I am to have this painting (…) I kept getting a lot of annoying guests that I couldn’t get rid of. Now, after seeing the painting, they leave my house in a hurry, declaring that they will not come here until I throw away this abomination. I am at peace at last.”[11]. These works by the artist have a deeper meaning. They are a kind of memento mori in the Arcadian land, because that is how artists treated Kazimierz. That is, Et in Arcadia ego. This is reminiscent of two works by Poussin and the preceding work by Guercin from around 1628. When Gotard presented his Mummies at an exhibition of students at the SSP in “Sztuki Piękne”, the painting was singled out for appreciation. He also received school awards for his lithograph Portrait of Z. Leśniak as well as the drypoints Prometheus and The Alchemist.

Jan Gotard, Self-Portrait

Gotard belonged to the “Brotherhood of St. Luke” from 1925, and from the moment the group was founded, Gotard belonged to and took part in successive exhibitions together with its members. At the first one in 1928, at the next one in Łódź, and in Bydgoszcz a year later. At the General National Exhibition in Poznań in the same year, 1929, he received a Small Silver Medal. He also participated in the most important foreign exhibitions of the Brotherhood. In 1931, at the Musée Rath in Geneva, in 1933 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and at the Trietiakov Gallery, at the 19th Venice Biennale in 1934. In his book Łukaszowcy (The Lukians), Jan Zamoyski describes how Gotard received a huge sum of money for his painting. The artist did not want to sell it, but since he had to give its value, he came up with a very high amount so that no one could buy it. However, a buyer was found. It was some Dutchman. As Zamoyski writes: “5,000 złoties he gave to his mother. Then he gave all the members of the Brotherhood a set of Blox oil paints and intended to give them further gifts”. Zamoyski prevented this from happening. For the rest, Gotard reluctantly bought himself a new suit which was to look like the old one, and a new study.

To complete the list of exhibitions, one should mention that he also showed his works at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin, at the New Pinakothek in Munich in 1937, in Amsterdam in 1936, and at the International Painting Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.

Jan Gotard was also active as a teacher, serving as Tadeusz Pruszkowski’s assistant from 1929 to 1937. Pia Górska wrote, “he was a great individuality. Doleful, sometimes spiteful, usually remote”[12]. Monika Żeromska complained that “Gotard demanded huge sheets, on which a man, composed, as he said, of only cylinders, could barely fit.”[13]

Antoni Michalak urged him to wait out the war in Kazimierz, in his house, but Gotard often came to Warsaw because of his mother. This “analyst of form” was murdered during World War II in 1943.

[1]See. I. Luba, “Pereat mundus vivat ars”, [in:] Jan Gotard. 1898-1943. Na granicy światów, katalog wystawy w Muzeum Nadwiślańskim w Kazimierzu Dolnym 24 czerwca – 7 sierpnia 2006 r., elab.. Anna Turowicz, Waldemar Odorowski, Kazimierz Dolny 2006, pp. 38-49.
[2]W. Bartoszewicz, “Buda na Powiślu”, Warszawa 1983, p. 89.
[3]Portret staruszki, before 1928, oil on wood, 69.7×48.5, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
[4]Znachorka (Kabalarka), 1933, oil on lamination, 99.5×89.5, Żydowski Instytut Historyczny in Warsaw.
[5]Pasjans, ca. 1931, oil on wood, 102×93, Muzeum Narodowe in Warsaw. Zakupiony był od autora do Państwowych Zbiorów Sztuki.
[6]Ibidem, p. 89.
[7]„O Nowej Rzeczowości: S. Michalski, Nowa Rzeczowość – ikonografia, funkcje, historia recepcji”, [in:] Sztuka dwudziestolecia międzywojennego. Materiały z sesji SHS w Warszawie w 1980r., Warszawa 1982. O Nowej Rzeczowości also S. Barron, S. Eckmann, New Objectivity: Modern Germany Art in the Weimar Republic 1919-1933, Munich 2015.
[8]On the connections of New Objectivity and Estonian neorealism, see I. Kossowska, Artystyczna rekonkwista. Sztuka w międzywojennej Polsce i Europie, Toruń 2017. Se also Jan Gotard. 1898-1943. Na granicy światów, katalog wystawy w Muzeum Nadwiślańskim w Kazimierzu Dolnym 24 czerwca – 7 sierpnia 2006 r., elab. Anna Turowicz, Waldemar Odorowski, Kazimierz Dolny 2006.
[9]The painting was shown at the exhibition at the Graphic Artists’ Salon Blok Z.A.P. at the Institute for the Propagation of Art in 1936, and also at Rapperswill.
[10]Taken from A. Turowicz, “Katalog prac”, [in:] Jan Gotard 1898-1943. Na granicy światów…, p. 94.
[11]J. Zamoyski, Łukaszowcy, Warszawa 1989, p. 41.
[12]P. Górska, Paleta i pióro, Kraków 1960, p. 210.
[13]M. Żeromska, Wspomnienia, Warszawa 2007, pp. 163-164.

tłum. Ph.E. Steele