Waltham Forest Echo

Waltham Forest Echo

From Krakow to Walthamstow

James Gray from William Morris Gallery on the its 'biggest and most ambitious exhibition yet'

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Nature and Art by Józef Mehoffer, 1901, (credit: National Museum in Kraków Photographic Department)

There has been a Polish community in Waltham Forest for over 150 years and, today, Polish is the second most widely spoken language in the borough – thanks largely to Poles who settled in east London after the country joined the EU in 2004. In local supermarkets, you’ll find pierogi, szarlotka, kabanosy and bottles of Lech lager; mass is celebrated in Polish at churches in Walthamstow and Leyton; and some cinemas screen Polish gangster films. And yet the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Poland remains little understood or appreciated outside the borough’s Polish community.

The William Morris Gallery’s Young Poland project set out to change that. This international research initiative, supported by the Polish Cultural Institute in London and delivered in partnership with the National Museum in Kraków, examines the decorative and applied arts of the Young Poland (or Młoda Polska) period in the context of the international Arts and Crafts movement, particularly the work of Waltham Forest’s favourite son: William Morris. The movement emerged in the 1890s in reaction to the country’s forced non-existence for almost a century, when it was divided between Russia, Austria and Prussia. During those uncertain times, the arts became a means to preserve an endangered cultural heritage and forge a new outward-looking identity and visual style. The movement encompassed the visual arts, literature, music and drama, but little attention has previously been paid to the unprecedented rise of the applied arts and the revival of traditional crafts during this time.

Christmas-tree decorations from the Kraków Workshops (1913–1926), courtesy of National Museum in Kraków

Originating in the southern city of Kraków and the nearby village of Zakopane at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, Young Poland sought inspiration in local folk traditions, wildlife and craftsmanship while collapsing the distinction between the fine and applied arts.

The project has led to a critically acclaimed book (Lund Humphries, 2020) and culminates in a major exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, now on display until January 30 2022. Young Poland: An Arts and Crafts Movement (1890 – 1918) is the William Morris Gallery’s biggest and most ambitious exhibition yet, spanning five spaces and over 150 works, most of which have never travelled outside of their country of origin before.

Actor Józef Sosnowski as King Bolesław the Bold by Stanisław Wyspiański, courtesy of National Museum in Lublin

The movement’s best-known artists, Stanisław Wyspiański and Stanisław Witkiewicz, feature prominently, alongside lesser-known figures such as Karol Kłosowski and Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska.

By bringing this extraordinary period in European art and design to a wider audience, the William Morris Gallery hopes to foster wider interest in Polish art and design from museums, art historians and researchers. And, in revealing the strong affinities between Polish and British artists at the turn of the 20th century, it asks visitors to consider the countries’ shared artistic heritage. Plans are already underway to stage Poland’s first William Morris exhibition in Kraków, drawing extensively on the Gallery’s collection. At a time of increasing division, it shows art still has the power to bring people together.

The Young Poland exhibition is open at William Morris Gallery until 30th January, 2022. The gallery opens 10am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday.