How to portray the soul of a nation exhibition at Warsaw’s National Museum

The exhibition “Poland 1840–1918. How to portray the soul of a nation” was presented in Louvre-Lens, a modern branch of the Louvre in Paris, which is visited by about half a million visitors annually. In the museum’s seven-year history this was the first exhibition specifically created for it.

This type of comprehensive presentation, covering the art of the 19th century with its late-Romantic lineage, was last seen in France in 1977, when Poland was still a communist country. It was called "L'esprit romantique dans l'art polonais XIXe – XXe siecles" and was exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris. There have been exhibitions since, with most focused on a specific issue or artist.

The exhibition, which is now opening at the National Museum in Warsaw, was originally intended to be available to visitors in April, right after its return from France. These plans were thwarted by the coronavirus pandemic.

As in France, the exhibition opens with the section "Interregnum" and two pictures that define the narrative of the exhibition: "Melancholia" by Jacek Malczewski and "The Fall of Poland" ("Reytan") by Jan Matejko. The term "interregnum" metaphorically describes the time of national slavery, when the role of the ruler of souls was taken over by artists - this is a symbolic introduction to the presentation. The entire large section "National Mythology" presents examples of historical paintings relating to the glory both in the military and cultural fields of the Republic of Poland. Henryk Rodakowski's "Coconut War", which was given a new life after thorough restoration, regaining its intense colors.There is "Wernyhora" by Jan Matejko, "Departure of Jan III and Marysieńka from Wilanów" by Józef Brandt, "Relief of Smolensk" by Juliusz Kossak.

Most of the paintings on display come from the local collection. The rest came from the National Museum in Kraków, the National Museum in Poznań and the Raczyński Foundation at the National Museum in Poznań, the District Museum in Toruń, the Royal Castle in Warsaw and Kraków, as well as from private collectors.

Audiences can use audio guides and a catalogue. A specially prepared publication was also created - an English album with a commentary on the history of Poland, which is to help foreign visitors understand the complexity of the history of Polish lands from the end of the 18th century until the regaining of independence.

Once the exhibition has ended in Warsaw, another version will be on display at the National Museum in Poznań.