Dorota Seweryn-Puchalska

Jan Wydra (1902-1937)

In his curriculum vitae submitted with other documents to the School of Fine Arts in 1923, he wrote: “(…) having given up office work, and following the voice of my conscience and proper vocation, I devoted myself to the study of painting, taking Great, Beautiful, and Immortal Art as the only goal in my future life”[1]. He had drawn a lot before, especially during the Polish-Bolshevik war, in which he participated, and later drew children’s figures[2]. Wydra’s drawings were highly appreciated by the poet Józef Czechowicz, with whom he was friends from 1922: “his drawing (…) has features of lightness and accuracy combined in a strange way. This lightness does not result from the treatment of the subject, but from the certainty of eye and hand (…) in this field many could envy him his mastery”. The poet would write about Wydra’s work many times, and show his works for instance in the magazine Pion.

Self-portrait (with a cigarette), 1928

Another creative activity of Wydra’s was connected with establishing an artistic company, within the framework of which, in 1922-1923, he made covers for the literary magazine Lucifer published in Lublin (no. 2-4), a poem entitled “Drogi skrzyżowania” (Crossroads) by Jerzy Brzęczkowski, and the 1st issue of the literary magazine Reflektor.

The first works were painted in 1924, in the studio of professor Tadeusz Pruszkowski: The Temptation of Christ[3] and Crucifixion (lost) indicate the artist’s interest in biblical themes. This would dominate the early period of his work. Christmas, painted a year later, a large-format piece (189×159 cm), is one of the leading works of the still young artist[4]. Wydra alluded to traditional representations, but gave the scene, in accordance with Pruszkowski’s teachings, a contemporary touch. The work does not differ iconographically from this type of representation. On an exquisitely composed canvas, Mary adores the Christ Child who is in a semi-reclining position, and at the same time makes a tender gesture to his mother[5]. Lying on the ground, the Child raises his hand in a gesture of blessing, while the two raised fingers point to Christ’s two natures: divine and human. An ox and a donkey accompany the scene. But when we look at Mary, we see the physicality of the figure emphasized very clearly. She is a peasant woman rather than, according to convention, a delicate, idealized virgin. Joseph, standing with his back to us, looking for someone, is wearing a cloak girded with a rope, the same as Kozdroń, the blind man who accompanied the artists in Kazimierz on the Vistula. He was often immortalized by painters. A hat hung around his neck and a walking stick in his hand are two of Kozdroń’s attributes.

Jan Wydra, St. Anne’s in Kazimierz, 1927 – Muzeum Nadwiślańskie in Kazimierz Dolny

The work of painters associated with the Brotherhood of St. Luke is juxtaposed with the work of German artists belonging to the New Objectivity movement. Thus, there is Pruszkowski’s call not to moralize, not to look into the past, but to observe the world around. This thought has been taken up by his students. The surrounding reality includes objects from everyday surroundings. For example, the jug in the foreground, in the right corner of the painting Christmas. It is the same jug that can be found in the painting Saint Francis (1927) by Antoni Michalak. The artist was not merely arranging the space of the stable. He examines a particular thing as an independent entity existing in the surrounding reality. The otter emphasizes his objecthood. In the distance we can see the architecture of Kazimierz on the Vistula. By placing the Christmas scene in this town he not only emphasizes his relationship to the place, but also gives it a universal meaning.

Kazimierz appears in most of Wydra’s works. In Motherhood[6] painted a year later, described as having a “Rubensian mood”[7], Kazimierz, visible in the distance, shines brightly, brought out by the light coming from the sky. Motherhood, which may seem a cheerful, even ribald genre scene, also refers to the Christmas theme[8]. Yet another such approach can be seen in the work entitled Highlander Nativity Scene from 1927, painted during a stay in Zakopane, where the artist was treating a lung disease[9]. Józef Czechowicz wrote that this was “an allegorical painting (…) with excellent ethnographic details and such a painterly feel for the matter (folds, sleeves, the nativity scene’s curtain) as few Polish painters have ever shown”. A crown of paper, a young Highlander playing with a figure of death, and a paper garland on the boy’s head indicate the grotesque character of the scene.

Jan Wydra, Highlanders

In Zakopane, the artist also created a painting called The Victor, inspired by knightly battles of the Renaissance period, which he describes as a sketch. It was sold, without the painter’s consent, to Jerzy Karasek for his gallery in Prague. Since 1954, the painting has been owned by the local Museum of Literature (Památník Nároního Písemnictví). Staying in Zakopane was forced on the artist, he did not feel comfortable there. After returning and finishing school, in 1928, this time by choice, he settled in Kazimierz, in the villa of the Łopuski family. He stayed there until 1930, painting numerous views of the place. But the first significant stay of Wydra in Kazimierz had taken place in 1923. As a student of the School of Fine Arts, he came with a group of friends to the open air workshop that gave rise to annual artistic trips.

Other important works by the artist in which a thematic scene is introduced into the space of Kazimierz Dolny include Christ and the City from 1925, Allegory from 1929, and one of his last works, the sketch Resurrection of Lazarus[10]. Still dark in color and maintained in the traditional style, the painting Christ and the City is built of scenes arranged simultaneously. In the center, in a luminous halo, stands Christ. His figure is contrasted with the city full of sin. Exaggerated gestures and poses strengthen the meaning of the work. Wydra introduces allegory to them.

Jan Wydra, Asking for her hand,
photo Stefan Plater

This offers the possibility of multi-layered interpretation. One of these images is the work entitled Allegory. It refers to the Resurrection of Christ. We can clearly read this when looking at the flag held by the figure kneeling in the foreground. In this painting we also see a formal change in the artist’s work. He introduces a new way of painting, more lightly, with free, broad brush strokes. He now begins to appreciate color more and more. A breakthrough work is the lost painting Asking for her hand and another entitled The Fisherman from 1931. The latter, according to Józef Czechowicz, bore the hallmarks of modernity.

[1] Taken from Kalendarium, [in:] Jan Wydra 1902-1937: twórczość, elab. Waldemar Odorowski, Aleksandra Szacho-Głuchowicz, Kazimierz Dolny 2004, p. 15.
[2]These works are found in the affiliate of the Muzeum Lubelski in Lublinie, in the Muzeum Józefa Czechowicza.
[3]Kuszenie Chrystusa, 1924, property of Muzeum Lubelskie in Lublinie.
[4]The second version of this work is found at the Muzeum Lubelskie in Lublinie.
[5]During his studies, Tadeusz Pruszkowski paid the greatest attention to composition.
[6]Macierzyństwo, 1926, oil on canvas, 241×180, property of the Muzeum Narodowe in Warsaw.
[7]“Express Lubelski i Wołyński”, 16 kwietnia 1937.
[8]The goblet the boy holds hearkens to the passion of Christ.
[9]Szopka góralska, 1927, oil on canvas, 198×158,5, property of the Muzeum Narodowe in Warsaw.
[10]Chrystus i miasto, 1925, oil on canvas, 194×296; Alegoria, 1929, oil on canvas, 197×160.5; Wskrzeszenie Łazarza, przed 1937, oil on canvas, 160×188.5. All these works are the property of the Muzeum Narodowe in Warsaw; Wskrzeszenie Łazarza is held in deposit at the Muzeum Lubelski in Lublin.