The William Morris Gallery, one of my favourite boutique museums (the other is the Estorick Gallery in Islington), did community outreach, as musems do, to connect with the large Polish community in Walthamstow. The upshot is their current exhibition, Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement 1890 -1918, mounted in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute and the National Museum of Krákow. Young Poland is unknown to most in the west – I’d never heard of it before – and most of the exhibits in this show have never been seen outside Poland.
Young Poland is often regarded as a fine art movement with a record of patriotic, religious and pastoral painting, typified in Vastomil Hofmann’s Confession (above), but the Gallery decided to record the artists’ contribution to the crafts, often overlooked but very important.
In central and eastern Europe the Arts and Crafts were an assertion of national identity, one aspect of the struggle for independence, rejecting the forms and styles imposed by the imperial powers. While the British looked to the Middle Ages as they imagined it to be, the Poles looked to contemporary peasant life and art. Young Poland, which emerged in Kraków, focused on the Highlander people of the nearby Tatra mountains and adapted their architecture, interior decoration, textiles and dress in an attempt to create a national Polish style.
Stanisław Wyspiański (top), a key figure in the movement, might be called the Polish William Morris – a brilliant polymath, a painter, poet, playwright, textile designer, furniture maker and graphic artist – though the two men never met and there’s no record of any communication between them.
In one room of the exhibition there’s a large stained glass, a reproduction of a window designed by Wyspiański for the Kraków Medical Centre, in another a model of The House Under the Firs, a vernacular house by Stanisław Witkiewicz, another major figure, drawn from the Zakopane style of building. Witkiewicz is shown with the model on the left of the group above, the other men dressed in traditional Highlander costume.
In lighter mood there were reconstructions of toys from the Kraków Workshops, a co-operative of artists and craftsmen formed in 1913, who made use of folk patterns in their work. The picture (above) shows delightful original toys in the Ethnographic Museum of Kraków.