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0038 Michał Haake, The symbolism of Adam Asnyk with Muse by Jacek Malczewski

RIHA Journal 0038 | 12 April 2012

The symbolism of Adam Asnyk with Muse by Jacek Malczewski

Michał Haake

Originally published as:

"Symbolika Portretu Adama Asnyka z Muzą Jacka Malczewskiego," in: Quart 2 (2011), 45-61. Extended and revised version.

Editing and translation managed by:

Katarzyna Jagodzińska, Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury / International Cultural Centre, Krakow


The essay's goal is to interpret Jacek Malczewski's picture Adam Asnyk with Muse (1894-1897) as a symbolic work. The main argument is that the painting does not depict a scene with a poet being inspired by a muse. The starting point of the analysis is the conclusion that the Muse is not playing the lyre she is holding and that the wings of Hermes are attached only to one leg. The role of the instrument is crucial for the interpretation of the painting not only because it is not used in accordance with its function but also because of the planimetric as well as semantic relationships with other elements of the picture, above all with one of the sheets of paper on the table and the scythe held by a warrior in the spectral pageant. The Muse presses the sheet with the lyre, lifting it and directing its sharp point towards Asnyk's head. The sheet is made similar in its form to the scythe above it, directed towards the manacled young men above the poet. The comparison between the figures introduced in this way suggests that the real nature of the inspiration is destructive for the poet. A comprehensive interpretation of the relationship thus constituted leads to the conclusion that the symbolic meaning of the painting is based on the opposition between the conventional iconography of a poet and the idea of creation conceived as a liberation of the artist from traditional and ossified symbolism (music, the wings of Hermes).


* * * * *

  1. The subject of analysis is the symbolism of Jacek Malczewski's painting Adam Asnyk with Muse, created in 1894-1897 (fig. 1). Together with Melancholy and The Vicious Circle it belongs to works initiating the symbolist phase in the painter's career. Born in 1854 in Radom, Malczewski studied at the School of Fine Arts in Krakow under the master of historical painting, Jan Matejko. Historical references remained in the artist's sphere of interest but in the early 1890s he was intensely seeking a non-realistic poetics for expressing the problems troubling him. Adam Asnyk with Muse presents the eponymous figures sitting at a table and a visionary pageant in the background and in the upper parts of the picture. Asnyk, 16 years older than Malczewski, defended his doctoral thesis in Heidelberg and then settled in Krakow and devoted himself to public service. But for Malczewski's generation he was above all a great poet, taking issue with Romanticism and sympathetic to Positivism but also speaking of the limited powers of reason in discovering the elusive meaning of reality, which made him likable for the Symbolists.

1 Jacek Malczewski, Adam Asnyk with Muse, 1894-1897, oil on canvas, 154x177 cm. Raczyński Foundation at the National Museum in Poznań (Photo: National Museum in Poznań)


The Muse

  1. It is generally believed that the fantastic and imagined motifs constitute the symbolism of Malczewski's work. The picture under discussion is believed to be the most important example of his portraiture.1 In interpreting the symbolism of this and other paintings it is not necessary to invoke a definition of a symbol and symbolism, because then we could end up projecting meanings contained in the definition on the work; in other words, we would be focusing mainly or even exclusively on those features of the analysed work which remain in some relation to the previously collected data, either confirming or disproving them. The proposal of returning to the work itself means for me analysing its visual aspect, for it is only this aspect – taken as a whole, for in parts it may be the result of borrowings, quotes, and so on – that forms the essence of what we have before us. But asking the question about the symbolism and at the same time proposing to focus on the work itself assumes a close connection between the symbolism and the evident aspect of the work. We may wonder if such an assumption would be possible if we did not have a theory allowing for a connection of this kind, that is if the demand of making an interpretation free from a theoretical perspective is not in fact spurious. But such a conclusion would be wrong. For if we ask whether a painting is symbolic, this feature must be connected with its visual aspect, for it exists as this aspect, it is constituted concurrently with creating its visual sphere. Based on these assumptions, in this interpretation of Malczewski's painting I start with verifying the existing explanations of its symbolism on the basis of the visual features of the work.

  2. As already mentioned, presenting imaginary figures is held to be the factor constituting the symbolism of Malczewski's paintings.2 In the case of portraits the aim of such an operation has been perceived as supplementing the image of the seater's personality:

In his very numerous portraits Malczewski is writing poems about the models and trying to enhance their expression, he introduces additional figures, real or fantastic, he is placing some emblems and signs in their hands, he is painting various symbolic accessories in their hands.3

  1. Considering the status of spectral figures we may on the one hand assume that they impersonate the world of experiences of the seaters, which allows the researchers to categorise Malczewski's works as the so called portraits of the souls and on the other hand we may say that these figures are part of the collective imagination, defining the culture to which the model belongs, personifying the cultural heritage from which he draws and which he confronts. The picture discussed here seems to exemplify both these possibilities. Since the pageant stretching above the poet and the Muse is supposed to originate from Asnyk's poem The Dream of Graves,4 we may fairly claim that a causal triad was pictured, developing from the foreground inside and from the bottom to the top, and composed of the artist, his poetic creativity personified by the Muse and the result of this creativity. At the same time the figure of the Muse, a recurrent motif in the poet's iconography, could be treated as an element of tradition, defining an ideological framework of being a poet (in this case formed to the largest extent by the achievements of Romanticism, especially by the work of Juliusz Słowacki). But some critics put forward a relation between the main elements of the painting which undermines such an interpretation: A Muse in Krakow costume dictates a poem to Adam Asnyk. The emerging poem imposes order on the mental chaos visible in the background.5 So the spectral pageant is either the result of poetic creation or raw material still undergoing literary processing. There is no argument allowing us to resolve which of this explanations is legitimate and that raises doubts in the correctness of them both.

  2. Other proposals for explaining the relations between the figure of the poet, the Muse and the pageant also raise some reservations. It has been said that they belong to two different types of space, illusionary/spatial and elusive/visionary6, to the time of narration and decoration.7 These distinctions allowed Dorota Kudelska to set the decadent image of the poet (whose work also included erotic poems) sitting in a rather nonchalant pose and holding a cigarette against the patriotic themes in his poems.8 Based on this opposition, Kudelska ultimately categorises Malczewski's painting as an example of modernist coincidentia oppositorum (characteristic for many artists from the Young Poland movement), seeking a balance between personal and intellectual independence and the duties towards the community.9 But these considerations make no mention, for example, of the fact that Asnyk's head, diminished in relation to the torso and the legs, is placed against the background of books and pages – dematerialised through the use of light, which connects them closely with the spectral pageant – and this connection obviously undermines the legitimacy of ascribing the figure of the poet exclusively to the lower part of the painting. But the function of the books is also not explained by the phrase 'spiritual' backdrop of the 'halo'10, as they were recently called. White sheets of paper are haphazardly lying on the books and beside them. They do not seem to represent the disorder of a writer's study. They cover the volumes as a kind of a shell, which is interrupted only in the upper right part. The pictorial function of the pages is to frame the books in a shape which is the opposite of an oval, in a horizontal rectangle corresponding with the length of the table. The tabletop is as bright and hazy as the books and pages and therefore – depriving the books of "exclusive rights" to spreading luminosity – introduces optical competition to the potential halo, creating a markedly opposite reference to it. We shall return to the meaning of these relations later.

  3. We may also propose a reading based on a fragment of an article about the poet from 1887: Asnyk's poetry (…) had to become a reflection both of the past, to which their creator emotionally belongs, and the present in its changing and scintillating manifestations.11 These words seem to allow for an identification of the spectral pageant, composed of Bacchic figures, scythe-bearing peasants and manacled Siberian prisoners, with the sphere of the past and for perceiving the poet as belonging both to the past (through the books) and to the present (based on his contemporary clothing and other factors). Although this proposal seems to some extent more justified than the previous ones, as it encompasses more data (upper sphere pageant, lower sphere – armchair and the volume of the figure, intermediate sphere – the poet's head and books), but it does not explain the role of the Muse and other things. It was rightly said about the Muse that she contains contradictions within herself: the upper parts are remindful of a country girl and the lower parts of an ancient goddess,12 and these features can hardly be explained through the upper parts of the Muse belonging to the past and the lower parts to the future. The above review suggests that we need to be more careful in recognising the real – that is engrained in the visual structures – relations between the figures and the pageant, because such carefulness will prevent us from subordinating the picture to conclusions made independently of it.

  4. The issue of the relation between Asnyk and imaginary figures and its seemingly obvious identification as poetic inspiration gives rise to the question if such an interpretation demands the introduction of the problem of symbolism. Why would Malczewski's painting have a symbolic meaning rather than simply represent a scene of poetic inspiration being born?


Lyre and sandals

  1. The most convenient answer to such a question, confirming the rightness of looking for symbolic content, is to point at those aspects of the situation and objects depicted in the painting to which the cultural tradition ascribes a symbolic meaning. These aspects are the music (the poet seems to be listening to it) and the winged sandal worn by the Muse. Suffice it to recall the view popular in the nineteenth century culture, originating both from the ancient tradition and from the writings of Friedrich Schiller, Arthur Schopenhauer or Friedrich Nietzsche, that music is the purest form of art, making it possible to overcome most fully the entanglement of existence in the material world and – like a symbol – creating an opening to the world of the spirit.13 The present writer is not familiar with any text which would question the conclusion that the Muse is playing the wheel lyre she is holding. To play this instrument you must simultaneously turn the crank and press the keys. The first action produces a monotonous sound, the musical background of the piece, while pressing the keys produces the melody. To the observation of Dorota Suchocka that the Muse is only turning the crank14 we might add that playing the melody and thus filling the musical background with content is carried out in the poetic creation. But the opinion that the poet in Malczewski's painting is listening to music is insupportable, for the Muse is simply not playing the lyre. To play this instrument you have to place it on your knees and grasp the crank with all fingers of your right hand, as confirmed by pictures by other artists from the period presenting a lyre player (fig. 2) and by Malczewski's work Blind Lyre Player from 1878 (fig. 3), which has not survived.15

2 Franciszek Kostrzewski, Ukrainian Lyre Player, 1861, woodcut based on the author's drawing, drawing based on Karol Beyer's photo. Tygodnik Ilustrowany 1861, no 77, 96

3 Jacek Malczewski, Blind Lyre Player (Dumka), 1878, lost. Photo in: Adam Heydel, Jacek Malczewski. Człowiek i artysta, Kraków 1933, 96

  1. Krzysztof Lipka observes that the manner of holding the crank by the Muse is lacking the piety with which a player approaches the instrument.16 But this does not mean carelessness, for the gesture does not announce any music-making, not even in a casual way. The Muse places two fingers (index finger and middle finger) on the crank or rather hooks them around it and her arched hand is gravitating inertly towards the floor and is not putting the crank in motion. The inertness of the hand corresponds to the demeanour of the figure, which does not seem to be addressing the poet with the intention of passing the creative impulse to him. The Muse is looking morosely, perhaps indifferently, to the side of the poet and slightly down. In Malczewski's painting there is no music, which means that the work's symbolic content, if it exists, is not carried by music.

  2. A number of interesting observations on the role of instruments in Malczewski's paintings can be found in the essays of Teresa Grzybkowska, including the remark that the protagonists of the artist's paintings, nymphs, satyrs, shepherds and himself are holding the instruments in such way that no sound can be extracted from them.17 Taking this opinion into account in our considerations we must nevertheless note that this claim is not quite clear when set against the remark that in Malczewski's pictures there is melancholy and poetic silence, such as when music has just been played or when expecting music, for this suggests an effective use of instruments, and when set against several interpretations by Grzybowska where she speaks about the protagonists playing music.18 And Grzybowska indirectly admits that the painting under discussion here does not fit her theory: Adam Asnyk is listening to music which a girl in a folk costume is extracting from a wheel lyre.19 Equally questionable are Grzybowska's reflections on the symbolic character of instruments in Malczewski's paintings. On the one hand she writes that the protagonists of the artist's paintings (…) are holding the instruments in such way that no sound can be extracted from them. So the musical instruments are symbols of emotions,