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“Sylwetki” by Stanislaw Radzikowski, or How Irena Solska became a muse for artists of Young Poland

11 September, 2013 - 16:29
JACEK MALCZEWSKI, PORTRAIT OF IRENA SOLSKA, 1901
STANISLAW RADZIKOWSKI, FROM THE SERIES “SILHOUETTES OF IRENA SOLSKA,” 1910-11

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries almost all countries in the Austrian Empire were overwhelmed with the passion for the new style – “Secession,” which dragged architecture and art into the orbit of its influence. However, its greatest originality and creativity was observed in decorative and applied art – furniture making, metal and porcelain products, textiles and costume modeling. Special attention of the artists who worked in this style was directed onto the fairer sex – women. Secession received distinctly feminist tone.

The European fashion of the time considered the ultimate type of female beauty – voluptuous forms of Renoir’s female images give way to soft young lady of Secession, which, in fact, has two variants – female reed and female vampire. Star of Folies Bergere – coquettish beauty Otero defies fashion for stoutness, reminding a long dancing line with her silhouette. And Hannah Pulyer – well-known artist of La Scala Theater boasted that the collar of men’s 43-size shirt can be a strap for her dresses. “A woman should be thin, toned, and flat,” summed up the Le Chic Parisien magazine.

Lviv in 1900 tried to keep up with Vienna, Prague, or Warsaw seized by a new fashion of wives of wealthy European industrialists and bankers. Contemporary newspaper chronicles noted with sarcasm, surprise, or pathos the fact that Secession conquered many areas of life in Lviv: “From ladies’ outfits, hats, and ties to furniture and postcards – everywhere, at exhibitions and stores, we come across secession fashion in our everyday life.”

Over a hundred years ago a young actress, wife of industrialist Ludwig Solsky – Irena Solska (1877-1958) settled on 2 Lelewel Street in Lviv. The talented actress played leading roles in productions of Gabriela Zapolska and Stanislaw Wyspianski on the stage of Lviv Theater.

At the same time, Solska sought to dictate new Viennese fashion in Lviv – her fancy dresses, hats of whimsical shapes, and “Art Nouveau” jewelry made by the best European jewelers were true works of art. The way she dressed, talked, and behaved became a subject for discussion and warping of gossip. Literary and artistic elite of the city gathered in her apartment furnished with fangled furniture, painted in floral ornamental motifs of irises, poppies, and chestnut trees, surrounded by opalescent vases (as well as at the place of Gabriela Zapolska).

Irena Solska was not a good-looking lady, features of her face, framed by curls of red hair, were far from perfect, but men fell madly in love with this woman, she was called the “femme fatale.”

Ignacy Witkiewicz and Jerzy Zulawsky, who were the close friends of the actress, immortalized her figure in Polish literature. Witkiewicz wrote about her in his autobiographical novel 622 Upadki Bungam, czyli Demoniczna Kobieta (The 622 Downfalls of Bungo, or The Demonic Woman) and Zulawsky – in two volume novel Laus Feminae. Artist Jacek Malczewski made two lyrical and romantic portraits of the young Solska in 1901.

In memory of Solska during the Lviv period there remains a unique series of postcards – evidence of mad love of Stanislaw Radzikowski for the famous dramatic (both on stage and in life) actress.

A doctor by profession, assistant at the Department of Medicine of the Lviv University, and also an amateur artist, Stanislaw Radzikowski (1868-1935) came from an artistic family. In his spare time he was an avid theater-goer and never missed a single premiere in Lviv Theater. In early 1901 he first saw Irena Solska on stage and from that day on he no longer imagined his life without this woman. Neither scandalous gossip nor career problems caused by this affair ever bothered him.

In ten years, Stanislaw Radzikowski, crazy in love, issued a series of images on postcards dedicated to an actress – red haired woman, often with half-covered slim body, who drove men mad.

The idea of all the images is exotic and they are made in expressively secessionist style – strange vines, mysterious lakes, swings in the tropical desert, paradise fruit and birds, antique clothing, linear whimsical ornament.

The series of postcards designed by Radzikowski was issued in 1911 by the Publishing House of Artistic Postcards in Wieliczka (near Krakow) owned by Jan Chernetsky and published by the Publishing House of Vaclav Anczyc in Krakow and united under a common name, printed on the reverse of the cards – “Sylwetki” (Silhouettes). Every image also has its own name and number. Today we know of 43 postcards with silhouettes, which depict the image of Irena Solska. There is no better example in the entire world of postcards that a card is a messenger of feelings and not only because of the words written on them. The “Sylwetki” series with its own style places the power of feelings beyond any time limits. Emotions that arise while viewing these cards often take us to the world of forgotten feelings and the eternal story of love.

Unfortunately, I had the opportunity to see only nine postcards from the “Sylwetki” series that were kindly presented by the collector and deltiologist Krzysztof Yozefacki from Lublin.

Radzikowski developed his own secessionist graphic style that could be easily recognized on postcards and was remarkable for the power and clarity of line, and also dynamics and rhythm of black and white spots as a means of artistic expression. Black had to be very deep of velvety tone that contrasted with white, yellowish-beige background of postcards. Red, orange, and gray were used as additional colors and was technically applied manually.

Theater, where Solska played, was the source of inspiration for Radzikowski that gave him ideas for symbolic language of gestures and fantastic stories. Female images created by Radzikowski are attractive because of their dramatic and, at the same time, mysterious character. All of his female figures are portrayed strictly sidewise and gorgeous hair becomes a necessary element of ornamental idea in “Sylwetki.”

You might wonder about what happened to Irena Solska. Over time the affair with Radzikowski began to burden her freedom-loving nature. In fall of 1908 she met Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, who was younger than her, and starts a passionate affair with him, which is reflected in several pastel portraits of the artist.

Over the years Irena Solska – actress and theater director was a kind of muse for the artists of Young Poland and the two decades between the World Wars. She was often called “egeria polskich modernistow.” The artist Kazimierz Sichulski left the image of the actress of that time – former “demonic woman of Lviv secession” for the future generations in his caricature. And Radzikowski kept the image of “dear Irenka” in his heart until his death, drawing from memory fantasy variations of her image – Portrait of Irena Solska with Peahen (1929).

By Yaroslav KRAVCHENKO, Ph.D. in Art History. Photo replicas courtesy of the author
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