FEW of us, to our own loss, know anything of Polish painting. The tragic and vivid portraits, the battle scenes, the rustic views of a forlorn snowy country startle us, not only because of their haunting power, but also because we feel we should already be familiar with them. A recent exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York City has begun to remedy this ignorance, with pictures drawn from five Polish museums and galleries. The accident of geographical position for many centuries rendered Poland vulnerable to the imperialistic ambitions of Prussia, Austria, and Russia, a stand that the last country still maintains. This we have known, without realizing how great an influence Polish artists exerted in helping to keep alive and to cherish the intense flame of patriotism the world so much admires. The pictures shown in New York reflect events when the country, ``immersed in national misfortune,'' was repeatedly attacked, dismembered, and oppressed, while, brave and enduring, it fought on, and never relinquished its hope of independence.
Meanwhile, the painters deliberately fostered the nationalistic consciousness of the people by their depiction of insurgents, of peasants, and of stricken, beautiful widows, some of these themes handled symbolically, some realistically, or with deep sentiment.
The partition of Poland came about in 1772 during the reign of Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski when Austria, Prussia, and Russia ruthlessly divided his kingdom. (The king had been eager to assemble a great collection of art, a pursuit common to monarchs in his time, and had commissioned nearly 200 paintings to be brought together for him in England. These pictures, including works by Rembrandt, Murillo, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Claude Lorrain, Watteau, and other masters, were suddenly left in the hands of his appalled agent Mr. Desenfant, who finally managed to have them taken over by the Dulwich College, London.)
Later, other partitions followed, and it is small wonder that the Poles welcomed Napoleon, hoping that he would help them to regain their independence. This aspiration ended with the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when the nation was reduced to a very small principality.
As the century went on the Poles were highly attuned to the tides of revolution sweeping Europe in 1830 and 1848, when they also rose but in vain. Their last great attempt was in the early 1860s, after which, more firmly crushed than ever, the country remained quiescent, inwardly smoldering.
It was wrongly thought for a long time that Polish literature and music mirrored the national ethos and that painting was in eclipse. Schools of painting developed in several cities, however; Warsaw was considered to be the center of the classical, Vilna was renowned for the romantic, while Munich and more especially Paris, centers for Poles in exile, became known for their art.
Joseph Conrad, in his personal recollections, presents many touching and evocative vignettes of what these repetitive uprisings, always ending in defeat, did to individuals - generally, in this book, members of his own family. An uncle who had a big house in the country in the Ukraine became the guardian of many children orphaned by these events, one of them Conrad himself. He speaks of the genial home where they lived together, happy and gifted, while ``Over all this hung the oppressive shadow of the great Russian Empire - the shadow lowering with the darkness of a new-born national hatred fostered by the Moscow school of journalists against the Poles after the ill-omened rising of 1863.''
The essence of these sufferings is wonderfully captured in a famous painting of Stanczyk, the jester of King SigismundI (1468-1563), in which he is shown in his scarlet livery and expressing the universal timeless character of the fool of which Shakespeare has made us so well aware. Stanczyk bares the features of the artist himself, Jan Matejko of Krakow, and is seen in a moment of deep and bitter sorrow, having just received the news of a Polish defeat by the Muscovites in 1522 at Smolensk. The setting is Wawel Castle in Krakow, where a ball was in progress when the fatal report was received - it takes no effort to transpose the mood to the year 1862, when the picture was executed and the nation once more neared despair.
Jan Matejko, a passionate patriot, used his art to ``judge national history and teach the truth to the nation,'' acquiring a unique status as a social historian, who illustrated the national scene through its personification in great figures. He made an immense impression on his country, because of both his message and his dramatic rendition of situations, and greatly enhanced the reputation of Polish painting at home. Not only the Poles but people everywhere, seeing these canvases, must long for that country's freedom, and hope it will come at last.