- On Witold Masznicz’s Spadająca Gwiazda (Falling Star)
In the mid-1990s, I took a folk art class with Henry Glassie. Glassie asked his students to select one work of art from a given culture and explain how that artwork offers an entrée into that culture. Glassie gave us free rein; we could select an item of folk, elite, or popular art.
I chose an artwork from Poland. As a child of immigrants, I had grown up with Eastern European folk art. I’d traveled to Eastern Europe several times, to study, as a tourist, and to live with family. I had lived in Poland for the eventful year of 1988–89, while studying Polish language and culture at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University. I would travel to Poland again, to attend a scholarly conference, during my time as a graduate student at Indiana University.
When considering which work of art to use as an entrée into Polish culture, I confronted an embarrassment of riches. I could have chosen a Góral’s, or highlander’s, embroidered felt pants; a wycinanka or brilliant paper cutting from Łowicz; one of the szopki or miniature castles and cathedrals handcrafted from metallic papers and displayed at Christmastime in Kraków.1 I could have chosen Jan Matejko’s painting of Jan Sobieski after his 1683 victory against the Turks at Vienna—an event that Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, post-9/11, identified as pivotal in Islam’s relationship to the rest of the world. I could have chosen one of the films that won Andrzej Wajda an honorary Academy Award.
I could have attempted science and chosen an item from Poland’s geographic center or from the Golden Age of folk art, by some estimates, the late nineteenth century, or one representing an art form common to Poland’s varied populations, including peasants and nobility, Jews and Gypsies, and other regional or minority groups. I could have abandoned all hope of science, closed my eyes, spun the wheel, and pointed. There was the option to obey instinct, and to attempt to explain the powerful pull of the unarticulated.
During a yearlong visit in 1989, I was hiking through northern Poland. I stopped at Frombork, to pay respects to one of those Poles we Poles and Polish Americans who engage in the unending struggle for dignity always cite: Copernicus. There I stepped into a small gallery. On the stone wall hung an artwork. I found myself staring [End Page 226] at this artwork for a long time. Later, in the museum gift shop, I bought a postcard reproduction. The artwork was Spadająca Gwiazda (Falling Star) by Witold Masznicz (fig. 1). It was mixed media. An oil painting served as background; an unpainted wooden human figure occupied the foreground. From the few publications I have since found, I have learned that Masznicz has displayed his works in various cities in Poland and the United States, and that he has been influenced by medieval art. Falling Star was created in 1982, the year of Martial Law and the crushing of Solidarity. In 1884, another Polish artist, Witold Pruszkowski, also painted a piece entitled Spadająca Gwiazda. Pruszkowski’s oil painting has a dramatic, science-fiction look, very unlike Masznicz’s. I don’t know if Masznicz’s artwork is a response to Pruszkowski’s.
Since that hike in 1989, I’ve had twenty or thirty mailing addresses. I’ve long since given away as gifts all the paper cutouts and carved wooden boxes I brought back with me from that trip to Poland. I have kept my flimsy little postcard reproduction of Masznicz’s painting with me, though. Why? Searching in my mind for reasons for being so compelled by it, for keeping it for so long, I came to articulate why I had, intuitively, selected it as entrée into Polish art and culture.
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The work is roughly rectangular, 23.5-by-20-by-9 centimeters, short sides top and...