Grandeur of Poland: Exhibit Connects History to Art Heritage

By Rauschart, Lisa | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 11, 1999 | Go to article overview

Grandeur of Poland: Exhibit Connects History to Art Heritage


Rauschart, Lisa, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


They came - the people remembered - like a cloud of flashing steel, sweeping across the plain bringing death to all who stood in their path. From Krakow to the farthest outposts of the eastern frontier, all who saw them were united in their descriptions of this great army. The horsemen, people said, had wings.

In "Land of the Winged Horsemen: Art in Poland 1572-1764," at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, the grandeur and glory that was the Polish Commonwealth is depicted in an exhibition that recaptures all of the opulence of that time. For much of the 16th through 18th centuries, Poland dominated the Most Serene Commonwealth of the Two Nations, which included Lithuania and most of what is today Belarus and Ukraine, according to the gallery.

From religious icons, to portraiture, to the feathers that spooked the horses of enemies, the exhibit presents a wide-ranging, holistic view of the inextricable connection of Poland's history to its art. It is a history and artistic legacy unfamiliar to many.

After the Iron Curtain fell in the wake of World War II, Poland was relegated to "the map of forgetting." History, culture and art were forgotten as borders were closed and communication severed. Much Polish art was scattered or destroyed, such as the 2,000 pieces of the "Vessels From the Swan Service, 1737," commissioned by a Polish nobleman and considered the most famous example of high baroque porcelain produced in Meissen.

As Poland enters a new phase by becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, we have a chance to celebrate its past through the treasures on exhibit. A mid-16th century tapestry displays the arms of Lithuania that celebrated its union with Poland and made the commonwealth one of the largest land empires in Europe.

From a small, relatively homogenous Christian country, Poland was transformed to a large one with a diverse population of Christians, Jews and Muslims. By 1573, the nobility had elected its first king, presaging an unusual approach to monarchy.

"It's time to tell its story, and let people know how rich the culture is," explains Nancy Zinn, executive assistant to the director of the Walters, who was assistant curator during the planning and implementation of the exhibit.

Conceived by curator Ellen Reeder after a 1992 vacation to Poland, the exhibition presents an unparalleled opportunity to see works of art that never have been displayed outside that country. Drawn from more than 35 public collections throughout Poland, the exhibit presents nearly 150 works of fine and decorative art in four major sections - the monarchy, the military, the magnates and religion - with a special section devoted to the decorative arts.

The low lighting and richly damasked walls of the Walters seem especially fitting for the opulence contained here, with each piece exquisitely set and amply documented by accompanying wall texts. Within each section, however, and indeed throughout the exhibition, the delicate dance between Eastern and Western elements is always manifest.

Although King John III Sobieski led the Polish horsemen to victory over the Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, a fascination with the Orient continued. He was elected king in 1674, and a 1691 portrait of him and his family reveals the women in Western attire, his younger sons in native Polish dress and his eldest son in armor, presumably ready for battle.

A 17th-century Turkish tent, probably a peacetime gift, stands ready to receive visitors. Filling its corner of the gallery entirely, the well-preserved tent constantly amazes viewers.

"It is incredibly exotic, and in such beautiful condition," says Miss Zinn.

"We are very fortunate to have it here."

Vying with the Turkish tent for popular appeal, the "Insignia of the Coronation of Augustus III (Crown), 1733" draws in even the most casual gallery-goer. …

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