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Exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw

The National Museum in Warsaw
November 17,2023 - March 17,2024
Jan Stanisławski (1860–1907) Enchanted Garden 1919 oil on canvas The Sylwia and Tomasz Gardecki Collection

November 17, 2023 March 17, 2024

Arcadia revisits the mythical realm of serene happiness, eternal beauty and innocence. It recalls the image of a land populated by shepherds and shepherdesses, nymphs, satyrs and fauns known from Greek mythology. The term also encompasses the picturesque, sun-drenched landscape of modern Mediterranean culture, exotic far-off lands, Slavic folklore, heavenly gardens and luxuriant nature. However, the idyll depicted at the exhibition is disturbed by a sense of unease: the land of happiness turns into an unattainable ideal, raising questions about climate dangers and the relationship between humans and nature. The age-old pillars of Arcadia begin to sway.

The birth of the Arcadian myth 

While the real-life Arcadia, a Greek region in the Peloponnese, was rocky, eerie  and infertile, the Roman poet Virgil transformed it in his Bucolics into a land of  happiness and delight. Inhabited by shepherds, nymphs and fauns, it offered  a blissful respite from the tumult of cities and public activity. With all-powerful  nature surrounding them, sensual love, music and poetry reigned supreme. For  the ancients, Arcadia quickly became a dream of an ideal world – an illusion  of impossible happiness and unrivalled beauty. 

The idyll of sunny Italy 

The ancient dreams of Arcadia were cultivated in Renaissance Italy, at princely  courts and among the urban patriciate. In rural residences, amid ancient  monuments and burgeoning nature, aristocrats pursued a model of life filled with  banquets, flirtation, reading poetry, making music and singing. This idyll  permeated poetry and arts throughout Europe, as young artists frequently  travelled to Italy. Arcadian Italian landscapes were portrayed, among other, by  the French painter Claude Lorrain. Full of finesse and charm, the Italian patterns  were gradually adopted by the elites of other regions of Europe. 

Northern Arcadias 

The Italian model of aristocratic life, depicted, for instance, in the landscape by  Jacques van der Wijen, gained popularity throughout Europe. Idyllic landscapes,  satyrs, fauns and nymphs became a permanent feature of works created by  Northern artists. The were engraved by the likes of Albrecht Altdorfer and Sebald Beham. Netherlandish artists had their own version of Arcadia, one less at odds  with local reality: literary works praised the idyllic charms of seaside dunes and  shadowy forests around Haarlem. The idyll of landed estates, adapted to familiar  circumstances, was also one of the foundational myths of Polish culture. 

Idyllic pastimes of the aristocracy 

In the 18th century, Europe embraced a fascination with picturesque Italian  gardens, offering an illusion of Arcadian nature and freedom. This aesthetic was  championed by aristocratic elites. Queen Marie Antoinette crafted an artificial  village, Hameau de la Reine, at Versailles. In the Polish-Lithuanian  Commonwealth during the Enlightenment, similar gardens were established by  figures like Helena Radziwiłł in Arkadia near Nieborów, Izabela Czartoryska  in Powązki and Puławy, and King Stanisław August in the Łazienki Park  in Warsaw. Gardens, landscape parks and artificial groves served as a scenery  for picnics, games and flirtations. Nobles reenacted shepherd and folk scenes. These ‘performances in nature’ were captured by painters such as François  Boucher and Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdaine. 

Arcadia in Slavic colours 

In the 19th century, the illusion of returning to the world of primordial values  strongly influenced the revival of rural cultures and folk tales. Arcadia shifted to  the realm of folklore studied by ethnographers. In Poland, this original innocence  was sought in Podhale, the Eastern Carpathians and Slavic mythology. Ancient  nymphs gradually transformed into Slavic rusałkas in the paintings of Jacek  Malczewski and Witold Pruszkowski. The inhabitant of a classical Arcadia turned  into a robust rural musician, untainted by civilization yet having access to the  supernatural world. European artists also explored the folklore of Brittany or  islands in the Pacific. Some looked to Asia for an Eastern rendition of Arcadian  respite. 

Queer arcadias 

The Arcadian myth took on a queer angle at the turn of the 20th century, coinciding  with academic discourse on non-heteronormativity. Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden,  the pioneer of photographic nudes, created a queer Arcadia in Taormina, Sicily. His carefully composed photographs of naked young men garnered awards,  appeared in press magazines and were reproduced on thousands of postcards. The aura of a homosexual Arcadia also emerges in the works of performer,  draughtsman and painter Krzysztof Jung. In his Jungówka residence near Warsaw, he established a secluded retreat visited by his group of friends – a sort  of Arcadia that defied the official discourse on sexuality. 

Contemporary dystopias 

In the 20th century, utopian visions of an ideal society – Socialism, Communism,  National Socialism – eroded into totalitarian dystopias, a transformation reflected  in the works of numerous artists. Bambi from Mirosław Bałka’s Winterreise installation depicts deer – an embodiment of innocent Arcadian nature – approaching the Birkenau fence, clashing with the remnants of the genocide  machine. Another dystopia, life in the People’s Republic of Poland, is depicted in  Zbylut Grzywacz’s Sky. The artist portrays people queueing in front of a shop  on a gloomy street, beneath a sky filled with clouds of meat. The 21st century also  brought a heightened awareness of global environmental threats. Understanding  Earth’s transformation through radical man-made exploitation of its resources,  the crisis of community life and the impending climate catastrophe evoke feelings  of insecurity and fear, prompting questions about the possibility of a return to  Arcadia. 

A lush garden in the museum 

The exhibition brings together over 300 objects, ranging from the early  Renaissance to the present day: paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and  decorative items. François Boucher, Claude Lorrain, Rembrandt, Henryk  Siemiradzki, Józef Mehoffer, Jacek Malczewski, Pablo Picasso, Zofia Stryjeńska,  Edward Okuń, Jarosław Kozakiewicz, Mirosław Bałka, Diana Lelonek, Cecylia  Malik, Agnieszka Piksa, Karol Radziszewski and Anna Siekierska are just some  of the artists featured. The exhibits are sourced from Polish and international  collections. Adding to the allure is the unique arrangement of the exhibition  rooms, immersing visitors in the midst of a lush, green Arcadia, in stark contrast  to the autumn and winter ambiance outside the museum

The exhibition takes places under the auspices of the French Ambassador to  Poland. 

Co-financed from the funds of the Minister of Culture and National Heritage.