Self Portrait1903 by Stanisław Wyspiański

It would be nice to think that there were scores of talented artists on the verge of rediscovery. And perhaps it's true. For if anything can facilitate such a development, then it's the internet. Historians tracing obscure figures now have search engines, and at the click of a button, a crucial lead can be found, whether it's an Icelandic sculptor you're after or a dodgy sixties pop song on the verge of oblivion.

Poland, stuck behind the Iron Curtain for half a century, has plenty of figures that are ripe for rediscovery. Most hail from the era 1850-1950, and many achieved considerable international success in their day. Their names are by and large horribly unpronounceable to Western tongues, especially to chaps who've just drunk 50 beers on Cracow's Market Square. That said, most of Stanislaw Wyspianski's artist friends could give today's beer tourists a run for their money: a hundred years ago, the parties at Michalik's Cafe were the talk of the town, and a fair few poets came a cropper as a consequence.

Stanislaw Wyspianski (Staneeswaf Vispeeanskee ) did die young, but not from over-drinking. No, as memoirs recall, he tended to sit sketching quietly while his friends tucked into the liquor. Having studied in Cracow and Paris (where he was taken under the wing of Paul Gauguin, 1894), he was one of the first artists to be invited to join the Viennese Secession (1897). By then he only had 10 years to live, but in the decade that followed he managed to pen Poland's best-loved play, create the country's most original church interior, and even knock off an epic plan to rebuild the Royal Castle Citadel (the latter unrealized). That might seem enough for one earthling, but grand as these three projects were, they barely scratch the surface of Wyspianski's career. Painter, poet, and play-wright, as well as a designer of stained-glass, furniture and stage sets, he was an 'uomo universale' in the Renaissance mold.

In this pastel self portrait, the signs of illness seem already pronounced.(The portrait hangs in Cracow's Wyspianski Museum.)

Although there's an excellent museum in Cracow dedicated to Wyspianski, the best introduction can be found in the Franciscan Church. Several of Wyspianski's artistic projects were turned down elsewhere - his designs were frequently considered too daring - but here he got free reign. The church interior was in dire need of sprucing up as there had been a major fire in the vicinity in 1850. Wyspianski wasn't going to miss his chance, and on winning the competition he set about transforming the church according to his vision. Taking the Franciscan bond with nature as his cue, the artist covered the walls with a complex interplay of floral motifs. He also designed the famed stained-glass windows, jettisoning the medieval practice of using single panes to tell individual stories. The results tend to bowl over visitors to the church.

Allergic to oil paint, Wyspianski was obliged to seek other mediums for his portaits and landscapes. He settled on pastel, and his experiments with it were strikingly expressive. A decent selection can be savored in Cracow's Wyspianski Museum, including portraits of his friends and family....

The last years of Wyspianski's life were made pitiable by illness (it is accepted that he contracted the French disease as a student in Paris). He continued to work - he was made professor of painting in 1896 - but he was not at all well. When he passed away in November 1907, the nation mourned. He was laid to rest in the small Crypt of Honour beneath Cracow's Church on the Rock, where today one can find his tomb alongside Karol Szymanowski and Czeslaw Milosz.
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Media: drawing