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Published on October 24th, 2016 | by Magda Michalska

Jacek Malczewski’s Dates With Death

Recently we’ve been really into Symbolism, I guess it’s for this autumnish vibe in the air. Today will be no different, we want to show you somebody from Poland, a fascinating painter whose Symbolist paintings still leave one with goosebumps – Jacek Malczewski.

Death in red

Jacek Malczewski, Thanatos, 1899, National Museum in Warsaw

Jacek Malczewski, Thanatos, 1899, National Museum in Warsaw

In the years of fin-de-siecle, death was a recurring subject of conversations, books and paintings. Europeans feared the new century: they did not know what it would bring and some expected the end of the world. Malczewski, as a legit Symbolist, could have not done other than choose this subject as a leading theme for the cycle of his works. However, he stepped away from the traditional depiction of death and he turned instead to the Greek mythology where death, Thanatos, was a god brother of dream, Hypnos.

Erotic death

Jacek Malczewski, Thanatos II, 1899, Muzeum of Art in Łódź

Jacek Malczewski, Thanatos II, 1899, Muzeum of Art in Łódź

However, Malczewski chose to depict Thanatos as a woman, as it often happened in Symbolism (woman as femme fatale, woman as virtue, etc.). Look at her: she’s naked and the curves of her body are sinuously paralleled by the curves of the wings. The pouch she’s wearing at her waist leads our eyes to her vulva. In her hands she’s holding a scythe, her eternal symbol.

Death as the beginning

Jacek Malczewski, Thanatos I, 1898, National Museum in Poznań

Jacek Malczewski, Thanatos I, 1898, National Museum in Poznań

By depicting death as a fecund woman Malczewski reverted the typical rhetoric: according to him death is not the end, but just the beginning of a new life. By setting her in this dreamy environment, Malczewski wanted to draw on the close relationship between death and dream, Thanatos and Hypnos. Is our life just a dream and death brings to us the awakening?

Religious death

jacek_malczewski_smierc

Jacek Malczewski, Death, 1902, National Museum in Warsaw

This hopeful message is certainly bearing some religious undertones. Look at this old man, he seems to be ready to die, his head turned towards death and his neck tense. His hands clutched in prayer, his fingers fiddling with a small medallion with Virgin Mary, something that many Polish Catholics wear even today.
Death looks almost like a Greek goddess. However, it’s difficult to me to understand her face expression: is she feeling pity for this old man? Or is she just focused on doing her job?

Death and I

Jacek Malczewski, Self-portrait with Thanatos, 1902, National Museum in Warsaw

Jacek Malczewski, Self-portrait with Thanatos, 1902, National Museum in Warsaw

Have you seen a sweeter smile of death? She’s so feminine here, wearing a corset and playing with the flowers in her hair. Malczewski instead is very serious, his gaze challenging the viewer. The two figures are detached from one another, as if each of them belonged to another world. Malczewski seems to be saying: it’s not my time to leave yet. It’s true, he would die over 25 year later, in 1929.

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Malczewski's Dates With Death
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Recently we've been really into Symbolism, I guess it's for this autumnish vibe in the air. Today will be no different, we want to show you somebody from Poland, a fascinating painter whose Symbolist paintings still leave one with goosebumps - Jacek Malczewski.
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About the Author

Magda, an art historian-to-be, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Wei Wei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.



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