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Exploring Europe at the British Library

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Discover the British Library's extensive collections from continental Europe and read news and views on European culture and affairs from our subject experts and occasional guest contributors. Read more

28 November 2022

Stanisław Wyspiański: Shades of Melancholia

‘November is a difficult time for Poland’ Stanisław Wyspiański wrote in his play Noc listopadowa (November Night). Wyspiański, was a versatile and prolific artist – playwright, poet and theatre director – one of the generations of artists who grew up in the partitioned land.

Cover of Stanisław Wyspiański, Noc listopadowa. Sceny dramatyczne

Cover of Stanisław Wyspiański, Noc listopadowa. Sceny dramatyczne (Kraków 1904). Shelfmark: X.909/354.

The 11th month of the year – listopad, literally leaf-fall – is a time of particular significance in Polish culture and history. The month of the fallen leaves witnessed the November Uprising or the Cadet Revolution (1830–31) against the Russian Empire when Poland was partitioned. It was in November when finally, after 123 years, Poland regained its independence following the First World War.

There is something fascinating about the approaching darkness and nature’s hibernation that appealed to Polish imagination and Wyspiański could definitely feel the ambiguous allure of the cold month. In November 1901 Wyspiański lost his father Franciszek, a renowned sculptor and an alcoholic struggling with mental issues. Stanisław was only too familiar with death from his early years. As a child he lost a younger brother and soon after, when the boy was only seven, his mother succumbed to tuberculosis. His own struggle with a deadly disease – he suffered from syphilis – is thought to have played a substantial role in his artistic proliferation. After the diagnosis Wyspiański worked tirelessly until his death. He was burning through life with an exhaustive energy, with a constant awareness of its finality, with gusto characteristic for the Young Poland modernist era, flavoured with Nietzscheanism.

The artist’s life was marked by emotional and complicated relationships with women. His mother and an aunt who brought him up both had a profound impact on his life. While living with his aunt Stanisław came in contact with Jan Matejko, one of the most celebrated Polish painters, who gave him art lessons and later invited the young man to work for him. Last, but not least in a long line of Wyspiański’s women, was Teodora Pytko, a servant whom he married causing a stir in Krakow’s social circle and a fallout with the aunt.

Jan Matejko, Polonia

Jan Matejko, Polonia, 1864, National Museum in Kraków.

Wyspiański’s childhood was spent in the Austrian partition. His father studio sat a few feet away from the Wawel Royal Castle in Kraków, a symbol of the Polish grandiose past. The imposing structure, in a state of disrepair, full of memories evoking melancholy, was a former seat of the Polish kings degraded to serve as a barracks for Austro-Hungarian troops. This is how Stanisław describes it in one of his lyrics:

At the foot of Wawel my father’s atelier was placed.
A great white vaulted chamber,
Animated by a crowd of images of the dead;
There, as a little boy I wandered, and what I felt,
Later I forged in the shapes of my art.
At the time, by emotion only, and not rational understanding,
I grasped the outlines, moulded in clay,
Which grew before my eyes into giants:
Statues, carved in lime wood.

From Stanisław Wyspiański, Acropolis: the Wawel plays; translated from the Polish and introduced by Charles S. Kraszewski, (London 2017). YC.2019.a.2648

Wyspiański grew up dreaming of becoming one of the artists chosen to restore the Royal Castle to its former glory. A dream that despite many efforts has never come to fruition. The painter’s stained-glass designs, meant for the Wawel Cathedral, were rejected by the church authorities. Wyspiański’s thought-provoking depiction of Saint Stanislaus, a national hero, crushed by his coffin alluded to the playwright’s conviction the saint’s cult was partly responsible for Poland’s downfall.

Unrealised stained-glass design for the chancel of Wawel Cathedral

Unrealised stained-glass design for the chancel of Wawel Cathedral, 1900: Prince Henry the Pious, National Museum in Kraków, in Young Poland: the Polish Arts and Crafts movement, 1890-1918, edited by Julia Griffin and Andrzej Szczerski (London 2020). YC.2022.b.346

A childhood spent in a place where walls permeated history, gazing at the striking stronghold, wandering around Kraków’s Main Market Square surrounded by the city hustle and bustle resulted in a deep love and attachment to his home town and played an immense part in the artist’s journey. Four of the playwright’s dramatic works deal with Wawel: Legenda II, Bolesław Śmiały, Skałka and Akropolis.

Wyspiański’s stage costume designs

Wyspiański’s stage costume designs

Wyspiański’s stage costume designs. Stanisław Wyspiański, Stanisław Wyspiański, myśli i obrazy (Olszanica, 2008). YF.2009.b.2095

Charles S. Kraszewski in the introduction to his English translation of the artist’s works remarks: ‘Wyspiański introduces his “eternal” characters neither from the pages of Christian hagiography, nor from the theories of psychoanalysis, but rather from the traditions of Polish/Cracovian legend, as a way of understanding what it means to be “Polish” in Europe where the country that bears the name no longer exists’.

Model based on Stanisław Wyspiański and Władysław Ekielski’s ‘Acropolis’ design for the renovation and expansion of Wawel

Model based on Stanisław Wyspiański and Władysław Ekielski’s ‘Acropolis’ design for the renovation and expansion of Wawel, 1907. National Museum in Kraków, in Young Poland,  YC.2022.b.346

Wyspiański’s works were a reflection of his identity. Myths, legends and symbols infuse his plays, scenography, paintings and drawings. A Renaissance man, Wyspiański excelled in many forms of art. He was a visionary who made his mark on Polish theatre, poetry, typography, applied art, design and painting. He passed away prematurely, departing together with the autumn leaves on 28 November 1907.

Wawel Wyspianski

Stanisław Wyspiański, Morning at the Foot of Wawel Hill, 1984. National Museum in Kraków

Olga Topol, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

Further reading:

Stanislaw Wyspiański, The wedding: a drama in three acts (London 1998). ELD.DS.551705

Stanislaw Wyspiański, The Return of Odysseus. A Drama in three acts (Bloomington 1966). Shelfmark: Ac.2692.w/16.

Stanisław Wyspiański - Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: the neighbouring of cultures, the borderlines of arts, editor-in-chief Wiesna Mond-Kozłowska (Kraków 2012), EMD.2017.b.6

The Culture.pl website

 

22 November 2022

British Library East View e-resources now available remotely

Good news! If you have a British Library Reader Pass, it is now possible to access most of the Library’s East View e-resources remotely on a personal device. From digital newspaper collections and election ephemera to de-classified archival documents, the resources include a wide range of material originating in the Baltic states, Belarus, Central Asia and the Caucasus, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.

Screenshot of the East View Global Elections Archive

Available titles include the Chernobyl Newspapers Collection, 1979-1990; the Social Movements, Elections and Ephemera collection, including the Euromaidan Protests in Ukraine and the Belarus Anti-Fascist Resistance Leaflets, 1942-1944; Russian central and regional newspapers; the Pravda Ukrainy Digital Archive; the Izvestiia and Pravda digital archives; periodicals of Central Asia and the Caucasus; and The Moscow News (1930-2014) digital archive, as well as statistical and bibliographic databases.

In March 2021, we shared some newly acquired e-resources on our blog. Since then, we have added a further three collections to our offering: the Belarus Presidential Election 2020 Ephemera database; an extension to the existing Chernobyl newspaper and archival collections; and the Poliarnaia Kochegarka Digital Archive. By the beginning of 2023 we will add the Demokratychna Ukraina Digital Archive.

Screenshot of the British Library page explaining how to access e-resources on a personal device

For more information on the Library’s East View collections available for remote access, and for detailed instructions on how to connect using a personal advice, please visit our website.

10 November 2022

The Curious Woodcuts in Hartlieb’s Late-Medieval Adventures of Alexander the Great

There are countless adaptations of the Alexander Romance, a collection of fantastical stories about Alexander the Great originally brought together in Greek, probably in the third century AD. Among the earliest adaptations to appear in print was Hartlieb’s Alexanderbuch. Nine editions of this German translation are known to have appeared from 1473 to 1514 at Augsburg and then Strasbourg. Each is enriched with woodcuts that depict, for example, Alexander’s first encounter with his man-eating horse Bucephalus, his meetings with naked philosophers, and his discussions with talking trees. By comparing the editions, it’s easy to see how the illustrations fall into three distinct categories and to begin to understand something of their development over time.

Johann Hartlieb (c.1410-1468) was a physician who wrote the Alexanderbuch around 1444 for his patron, Duke Albrecht III of Bavaria. His principal source appears to have been the popular Historia de preliis, which in turn was a Latin-language translation of a long lost Greek text made in the 10th century by Leo of Naples. That said, Hartlieb’s text begins with the phrase ‘Hereafter followeth the story of the Great Alexander, which was written by Eusebius’, and Hartlieb’s German adaptation is as a result often indexed under Eusebius of Caesarea in many reference works and catalogues.

Hartlieb’s text circulated in manuscript for three decades until Johann Bämler issued the first printed edition at Augsburg in 1473. His publication is illustrated with nearly 30 woodcuts, many seemingly inspired by the miniatures in a manuscript now at the Pierpont Library in New York (MS M.782). With the exception of the frontispiece portrait (see below), the same woodcuts then appear in three subsequent Augsburg editions (1478, 1480 and 1483) printed by Anton Sorg. Among them is the image of Alexander in a diving bell.

Woodcut showing Alexander in a diving bell

Alexander’s diving bell in the Sorg edition of 1483, IB.5949

The Greek Alexander Romance (Stoneman, Book II, Chapter 38) talks of a descent of 464 feet to the bottom the sea, but here the impression is of a rather cramped-looking Alexander being lowered into a fish pond.

The next group of early editions are all published in Strasbourg. (Unfortunately no copies can be traced of a further Augsburg edition of 1478 reported in the Incunabula Short Title Catalogue). These Strasbourg editions (1488, 1493 and 1503), whether issued by Martin Schott or Bartholomäus Kistler, are curious because they contain broadly the same woodcuts as seen in the Augsburg volumes, but they have been redrawn and printed in reverse.

Woodcut showing Alexander in a diving bell

Alexander’s diving bell in the Schott edition of 1488, IB.1178

The most obvious explanation is that they were created by copying or tracing the illustrations in one of the earlier Augsburg editions.

The last of these early Hartlieb editions also appeared in Strasbourg, but this time from the press of Matthias Hupfuff. Visually, this work is very different, with the text printed in two columns for the first time. The woodcut illustrations are also different, although the subjects are much the same. In the new woodcut of the diving bell, Alexander is still in an impossibly cramped vessel, but there is only one person on the shoreline instead of the usual three.

Woodcut of Alexander’s diving bell in the Hupfuff edition

Alexander’s diving bell in the Hupfuff edition of 1514, C.39.h.14

In common with other illustrations in this 1514 edition, the woodcut appears to have been extended, unsatisfactorily, by the addition of a piece from a different illustration. This opens up the possibility that the woodcuts were not made specifically for this edition, and were in fact being re-used.

Returning to Bämler’s first edition of 1473, several surviving copies contain a curious frontispiece portrait of Alexander with boars’ tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Alexander with boars’ tusks

Alexander with boars’ tusks in the Bämler edition of 1473. © National Library of Scotland

The source for this strange feature may ultimately lie in the Greek Alexander Romance, which tells us that ‘his teeth were as sharp as nails’ (Stoneman, Book I, Chapter 13). In Hartlieb’s German, this has become ‘Sein zen waren garscharpff als eines ebers schwein’ (‘his teeth were as sharp as those of a wild boar’). The portrait has the same features as one seen in a Hartlieb manuscript now at the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt (Hs. 4256), and the two may have had a common model. It is replaced in other editions up to 1503 by a full-length portrait of a seated Alexander without tusks.

The British Library exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth covers 2,300 years of storytelling about Alexander, and runs until 19 February 2023. Four editions of Hartlieb’s Alexanderbuch are on display, including a copy generously lent by the National Library of Scotland that shows Alexander with the mysterious boars’ tusks.

Adrian S. Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections

Further Reading

Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, ‘Book Illustration in Augsburg in the Fifteenth Century’. Metropolitan Museums Studies, 4.1 (1932), 3-17. Ac.4713.b.

Richard Stoneman (editor), Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth [exhibition catalogue] (London, 2022). Awaiting shelfmark

Richard Stoneman (translator), The Greek Alexander Romance (London, 1991). H.91/1160