If you’ve ever visited the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) branch of the National Museum in Krakow, you’re bound to have seen Władysław Podkowiński’s (in?)famous painting “Frenzy of Exultation”. The naked woman riding the frenetic horse out of an apparent abyss captivates some viewers and repels others. The painting is one of the most important items in the collection and stands out from among other symbolic depictions of Polish national mythology. The author himself was so affected by it, he slashed it with a knife a month after it first went on show.
While in the majority of Europe the 19th century was an era of inventions and rapid development, in Poland it is mainly remembered for its powerful national spirit with no foundations in state structures. The aim of creating a collection of Polish art was to provide a mythological framework which would construct and maintain Polishness. Studying it today helps us make sense of the famous Polish Romanticism, fantasies and tendencies to irrational elation, and learn more about historic events we keep returning to time and again. Henryk Siemiradzki’s monumental “Nero’s Torches” is a good example of the Polish perception of the nation and country’s martyrdom. Major historic events, many of which took place in Kraków (such as the Prussian homage, painted by Jan Matejko), continue to inspire reflection and, for many people, remain the very foundations of patriotism. Many paintings at the Cloth Hall gallery reveal artists’ fascination with landscapes (the countryside was seen as the essence of Polishness for centuries) presented alongside moving portraits. This collection explores many universal themes in the context of a mid-sized city in Central Europe, widely regarded as Poland’s spiritual capital.
Kraków’s most famous painting is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”. Displayed in the imposing interiors of the Princes Czartoryski Museum, it continues to attract crowds of visitors yearning to catch a glimpse of the beautiful stranger. The masterpiece has always inspired questions and enchantment.
It is this enchantment which is ever-present in the extraordinary collections documenting the spirit of the Renaissance. Collections of unusual objects, known as cabinets of curiosities, are an example of a passion for discovery. Exotic taxidermies, beautiful shells, crystals with healing properties and other unimaginably fascinating objects reveal that their owners were interested in more than just collecting and displaying such items (the Museum of Pharmacy at the Jagiellonian University is a perfect example).
Contemporary museums in Kraków no longer focus on curiosities, but they continue to enchant their visitors with older collections.