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.