Iconic Polish Matejko’s ‘Conversations with God’ to be exhibited in London

The news that the National Gallery in London would, after consecutive delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic dynamics, exhibit an iconic painting of astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus by the famous 19th-century Polish painter Jan Matejko as of May 21 until August 22 gives art lovers itchy feet. Poland IN asked the head of the Polish Institute in London Marta de Zuniga about the impact of the event on the world of art.

Poland IN: What importance will the display of Matejko’s masterpiece have for Polish art?

Marta De Zuniga, the head of the Polish Institute in London: I believe that the exhibition has huge importance for Polish art for at least three reasons. First of all, through unique exhibitions just like the forthcoming display of the Polish masterpiece, institutions of global reach and importance, with the National Gallery in London being one of such them, initiate a crucial discussion, emphasise a new and at times redefine the well-worn canon of European heritage.”

Secondly, such institutions enjoy a multi-million-strong audience and currently, thanks to increased online accessibility, a worldwide audience, which in practice provides a possibility of bringing the attention of a huge number of people to Jan Matejko and makes it possible to incite broader interest in Polish art.

The third point does not relate directly to the profits reaped by art, albeit is no less important, namely, the selection of this particular piece by Matejko, a piece which shows the astronomer Copernicus providing the opportunity to bring out one of the most important contributions of Polish science into the universal heritage of humankind.

In the time of the abating of cultural life and the decrease in museums and art galleries’ activities, does the exhibition have prospects for bringing about desired results? What results are they? What change in the perception of Poland and its art would you like to observe as a result of the said exhibition?

It is difficult to talk about clean-cut results. Exhibitions provoke questions, discussions, the interest of public opinion and sometimes become a reference point for future exhibitions. In times of pandemic, via accompanying events on internet platforms we can reach a global audience. We also count on scores of visitors, especially given the fact that the exhibition is not ticketed. On May 17 sharp, the museums and galleries in the UK will throw their doors open to the public, whereas we hope that after the months-long lockdown, the art and cultural events-starved audience will return to the edifice at Trafalgar Square with pleasure where they will be welcomed by Jan Matejko’s masterpiece.

Regarding the change that we would like to see, I think it is important to have Polish art institutions perceived as trustworthy, professional partners with an interesting offer. The development of long-term partnerships and programmes such as the Inspiring Culture allow for the organisation of more exhibitions such as the one organised in cooperation with the National Museum in Kraków entitled ‘Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement’ which is to be inaugurated in October at the William Morris Gallery in London.

‘Conversation with God’, what did Matejko want to tell his contemporaries with this title showing a priest and scientist in one person and what does his painting tell us, the people of 2021?

There’s no doubt that faith and reason do not have to contradict one another, quite the opposite they can come together in a creative tension, something which can be seen in the painting - Copernicus immersed in meditation tells God of his astonishing discovery, ruminating over its consequences for the world of science, the Church, the way humankind is understood, and humankind in a broader sense. On the other hand, Matejko summons up Copernicus to create the Polish national imaginarium and boldly enter into the consciousness of the canon from Frombork. What does he tell us in the world of today, in the world where science is omnipresent and AI strips us off the title of the apex of creation? Perhaps it points to the need to trust the skills and creativity of the human mind, for optimism regardless of pessimism of the encroaching pandemic reality, in spite of the destruction of the natural environment and the social divides. This question, however, is to be answered by every single one of us individually at the end of the day.

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Conversing with God

The exhibition, originally scheduled to open at the end of 2020, was initially postponed to this month due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Gallery said on its website that the painting, entitled Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, “unites two of Poland’s most famous figures”, Jan Matejko (1838–1893) and “one of the most important names in the history of science, Polish mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543); known for his theory, published in 1543, which proposed the solar system with the sun at its centre and the planets orbiting around it.

The canvas was painted in 1873 to mark the 400th anniversary of the astronomer’s birth. It shows Copernicus kneeling awestruck against a starry sky on the rooftop of a tower in the city of Frombork, near the cathedral where he served as canon.

“On loan from Kraków's historic Jagiellonian University, one of Europe’s oldest founded in the 14th century, this is the first time that we’ve exhibited a painting by a Polish artist,” the National Gallery said on its website.

The exhibition will also include a copy of Copernicus’s treatise “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (“On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”), from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, and astronomical instruments from the Jagiellonian University Museum.

There will also be Matejko’s self-portrait and a study for Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God from the National Museum in Kraków, southern Poland.

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