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Submitted by Marcin Bąk on Tue, 05/14/2019 - 14:06
Remembrance and artistry

Remembrance and artistry

"Transylvanian Panorama" by Jan Styka


"Transylvanian Panorama"[1] is a well-known piece by Jan Styka (1858-1925), a Lviv painter, which, together with its past, belongs to that part of history of art where, rather than a formal analysis of the painting, it is necessary to reach for detective techniques in looking for fragments of a painting which is no longer in one piece as well as personal and historic clues. And as the lion's share of that detective work, of a truly titanic scale has already been successfully done by scores art historians, we are left to recap the acquired historic knowledge and also, which is perhaps even more significant in these circumstances, to perform a formal analysis of this nevertheless characteristic 19th century painting.

            Painting of grand dioramas was a truly the "in-thing" in 19th century art circles, akin to painting illusionist plafonds during the Baroque era, the seventeenth century trompe l’oeil convention or the contemporary 3D film technology. Nearly 30 enterprises active in the second half of the 19th century in the industry associated with presenting such panoramas, or just the sheer number (eleven) of panoramas exhibited in Paris in 1830 at the same time stand testament to the popularity of this form of artistic expression. Exhibiting panoramas was so fashionable that a special building on a circular ground plan was coined just for such a purpose. There was also a standard canvas size: 15 meters high and 120 meters long (circumference). Many ardent painters undertook such challenges primarily for mercantilist reasons, and often the exceptional skills needed to undertake such works were further enhanced by real artistic talent, delivering multi figure compositions of extreme complexity, brimming with expression, primarily based on the landscape with staffage painting convention. The most widely known piece of this time in Polish history of art, permanently located in a museum of Pole's imagination is Racławice Panorama [Panorama Racławicka] (15m x 114m) by Wojciech Kossak (1856-1942) and Jan Styka (as well as seven other Polish painters, acting as assistants: Ludwik Boller, Tadeusz Popiel, Zygmunt Rozwadowski, Teodor Axentowicz, Włodzimierz Tetmajer, Wincenty Wodzinowski, Michał Sozański), exhibited within a separate, dedicated building part of the National Museum in Wroclaw. The "Transylvanian Panorama" is an undertaking on an equally imposing scale (15m x 120 m) and artistic prowess, and as such it is a pity that Jan Styka made a decision as a result of which it ceased to be one whole and became many separate fragments, sometimes artistically tampered with and adopted to serve as paintings in their own rights.

            Before Hungarian customers placed an order with Jan Styka, they admired, together with thousands of other Hungarians, the "Racławice Panorama" displayed at Városliget, a Municipal Park rotunda at the turn of 1896. They desired for the heroic fighting during the Spring of Nations (1848-1849) against Hapsburg domination in Hungary to be commemorated just as spectacularly. It was agreed that the Battle of Nagyszeben (today's Romanian Sibiu), fought under the leadership of Józef Bem, a Polish general, was to be the subject of the panorama. Jan Styka officially accepted the commission already in 1896. He invited three Hungarian painters to his team, Pála Vágó, Bela Spányi and temporarily Tihamer Margitay, as well as two assistants selected from amongst Polish painters involved with the "Racławice Panorama " - Zygmunt Rozwadowski, an outstanding painter of horses and battle scenes as well as Tadeusz Popiel, together with Michał Wywiórski and Leopold Schönchen, a German artist specialising in painting large swathes of sky. Work on the panorama began on 20th of April 1897 at the Lviv rotunda, in a truly expeditious manner and the first visitors, residents of Lviv, could admire it already after five months. An official presentation of the "Bem in Transylvania" panorama took place in Budapest in March 1898 on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the uprising in Városliget Park. Even though the panorama toured a number of Hungary's largest cities, with the press and spectators truly delighted with the piece, and despite 2000 special copies being printed and sold depicting Józef Bem and Sándor Petőfi, the two central characters of the painting as well as a small album with a description of the panorama and thorough photographic documentation thereof, it failed to generate the moneys which the organisers' and most importantly the painter, would be satisfied with. As a result, a disillusioned Jan Styka, with no hope of being paid the agreed upon amount, reclaimed the painting and took it to Galicia in 1900. Attempts to display the panorama in the capital of the Kingdom of Poland were only successful in 1907, where visitors saw the work entitled "Bem in Transylvania", generally known as the "Transylvanian Panorama" for the last time in Warsaw's rotunda at ul. Karowa. Together with the rapid emergence of the cinematograph within mass culture marked the end of the spectacular panorama epoch. The existence of the "Transylvanian Panorama" as a large-scale work-of-art also came to an end.

            Jan Styka, driven by the desire to recover as much money as possible, cut up the painting into many smaller pieces, framing given fragments of the whole into separate battle and landscape pieces in order to sell them as works-of-art in their own right. And in that form they are zealously and passionately collected without respite by museologists at the District Museum in Tarnów, which, through these efforts, has become the central place and a home for the "Transylvanian Panorama". At the end of the last century fragments of the painting were also identified at two museums on Warsaw as well as in the Krosno and Łęczyca museums. By the end of 2012 36 fragments were identified, often solely on the basis of pre-war reproductions and photographs from auction catalogues. An accurate location and details of their owners are only known for some of these. The search continues, and each and every success brings the joy of experiencing original parts of a painting. Nonetheless, it will be impossible to recreate the whole piece in a form similar to the original. In this context we are left to enjoy black and white photographs taken for promotional purposes in Hungary, which still constitute a priceless document of the entire painting. These photographs make it possible for us to imagine the spectacular expression of the painting and analyse the artistic battle composition.

            Each work of such type, restricted by an unusually long format and the need to simultaneously depict as many important themes of this historic event as possible on a flat surface, is, right at the outset, condemned to certain historic inaccuracies and narrative freedom. Another cause was the customary assumption for commissioning works such as this one to convey a symbolic message rather than a historical document. And it was no different with the "Transylvanian Panorama", and thus despite Styka's excellent knowledge of battlefield geography and the chronology of subsequent stages in the fighting (he spent a lot of time analysing the site and studying documents), persons and episodes not in accordance with historical facts appear on the painting. And thus, next to Józef Bem, the commander, but also a poet and an ideological leader of Budapest's youths, a legend of that era, Sándor Petőfi is the main character, who, in actual fact did not take part in this battle. Similar remarks apply to Polish lancers under the command of Count Franciszek Łoś, or the leadership of major Edward Dzwonkowski over the attack by the 27th Honvéd Battalion against Austrian troops. These are just some of the fictional elements added pursuant to the licentia poetica rights to the depiction of the historic Battle of Nagyszeben (today's Romanian Sibiu), which the artist made use of to add drama to the events and enhance its artistic expression.

            And without doubt analytical difficulties are made even worse by the paint coating of the entire painting. The chromatics of the "Transylvanian Panorama" can be analysed solely on the basis of the recovered fragments and also on the basis of two colourful reproductions with the figures of Bem and Petőfi and also to some extent on the basis of the naturalism convention adopted by the painter. The aforementioned elements and an analysis of the use of light and shadow contracts and play of colours, made possible through the surviving full black and white reproduction, indicate that the painter, similar to the "Racławice Panorama", used glaring spring light.  That's as much as can be said for certain. The colour reproduction surviving in Hungary depicting the two main characters of the panorama, general Józef Bem and Sándor Petőfi, suggest cooler tones than the surviving fragments of the painting. We know that Jan Styka did some more work on them in order to infuse them with artistic value in their own right and to improve their commercial value. In such a situation we can only, on the one hand assume that the colours seen on fragments do not fully reflect the dominant colour scheme of the painting itself, whist on the other approach the chromatic characteristics of the surviving reproductions with sceptics, particularly that the time for their production coincides with the early phase of developing adequate technologies. Nonetheless the chromatics of the painting reflected time of spring thaws and, as we can read in a text on the panorama by Adam Bartosz: "The weather of a sunny March afternoon was depicted outstandingly. If one remembers those fragments of the painting where the rolling South Carpathian hills turn gold in the rays of the setting sun, then driving today at the same time of year along a road which passes north of Sibiu, exactly the same colours painted on a canvas of the Transylvanian sky can be seen"[2]. We should also point out that the play of colours, which can be judges quite objectively on the basis of the surviving black and white reproduction, emphasises the main narrative elements of the depiction. And that is why the straight and long line of the road, where general Józef Bem with his general staff are shown, exudes white which contrasts with the road embankment shadows, and the frozen and snow-covered river splits the composition into two narrative and symbolic zones, emphasising the stone bridge motif as an important iconographic element. Which puffs of cannon shots, distributed in numbers across the painting's battle section, allowed the painter to distinctly show given military units and the progress of a military skirmish. Furthermore the said white puffs of smoke, together with the whiteness of the melting snow seen here and there are an additional element in the colour scheme which brings together the structure of the artistic vision whilst leaving it softer, in line with naturalism ideas and more powerful.

            The power of expression, as the overriding aspect of every work of art, is based on the uniqueness of the coupling of the formal (and also chromatic) structure with the content / narrative, while the realizations referring to historical events require specific solutions in this respect and have specific limitations, which we have already mentioned. We can therefore focus on the analysis of the use of formal means, leaving the analysis of the chromatic layer on the side for the reasons discussed above, which can be best followed by comparing with the "Racławice Panorama" previously painted by Jan Styka and Wojciech Kossak. We can describe both of these works as closely artistically related due to all the thematic and formal aspects. This closeness also manifests itself in the compositional and narrative solutions adopted in both panoramas.

            The model framing of the shot, quite obvious in this type of longitudinal format, was developed in both realizations with landscape elements leading deeper into the depiction, mainly through road systems, hills and small landslides - extremely picturesque and allowing to expand the composition on the line levels, expanding the spatial volume the depicted scene also by means of staffage. Nevertheless, the "Transylvanian Panorama" seems less varied and extended in this respect, mainly due to the embankment of the road, the dominant composition layout of the depiction, leading from Megyes to Nagyszeben, where General Józef Bem is stranding with his staff. The road extends as an important structural element, designing the main horizontal strip of composition, for half of the depiction, consequently affecting the reduction of the dynamics not only of the part in which it is visible, but the whole composition. On the one hand, the line of the road begins with a series of military support wagons on the horizon, as well as the suggestive silhouette of the Hungarian hero Sándor Petőfi, riding a grey horse and waving to the coming famous 11th battalion. The other end of the road is bounded by the stone bridge, which is contested fiercely. In contrast to this static compositional solution, the construction of the "Racławice Panorama", thanks to the use of a much larger number of composite diagonals, is more dynamic and narrative at the same time, all the more because Styka along the entire length of the road, i.e. on the middle of the entire panorama, additionally showed static iconographic and narrative elements. First of all, standing in a long row, as if waiting for the fate of the battle, stretching to the far horizon, filled to the brim with ammunition for the army and other fighting equipment, picturesque wagons harnessed by oxen. Near the wagons shown in the foreground, the painter presented a group of hussars on horses and soldiers guarding captive dragoons, Muscovites and Vlachs, in the background of this colourful retinue of military facilities, in turn a group of Gypsy musicians playing to the rhythm of the hussars. The lack of dynamics of the compositional structure of this part of the painting is deepened by the static way of presenting the general staff of Józef Bem, as well as a group of drummers standing far in front of the headquarters of the commander and much behind the Szeklers attacking the bridge.

            This bridge is a compositional axis of the division of the depiction into two separate zones, also separated by the aforementioned colour play, resulting from the use of the frozen and snow covered areas of the river as a distinctive composition boundary. It determines the static part, which we have described above and which stretches between the 11th battalion approaching the battlefield with Sándor Petőfi's and a large cross standing in front of the stone bridge, and the second, dynamic battle section, depicting various stages and fragments of the fighting. Thus, from the side in which general Józef Bem, as well as his general staff and the group of drummers are looking at, the limit of vision dynamics is determined by the roadside cross. On the other side, that boundary is described by four tall trees (perhaps poplars), cut from the top by the picture frame, and underlined by the shadow of the escarpment on the bottom, behind which the painter presented the beginning of a large charge of the 8th Hussar Regiment of Prince Ferdinand Koburg and the 10th Hussars Regiment of the Prussian King Wilhelm III.

            This profound and structurally distinct division into the static and dynamic zone is not seen in "Racławice Panorama", in which the basic structural iconographic elements balancing the all-encompassing dynamics of the fighting are the horizontally oriented hilly terrain and the vertical tree lines, infusing the necessary power of expression to represent battle into "Racławice". On the other hand, the "Transylvanian Panorama" at the expense of the great battle dynamics, achieved admittedly a somewhat intrusive, narrative unambiguity. Here, on the one side, the viewer can observe a calm expression of significant military support of the fighting, balancing the strength of the army in the battle, above all shown in a compositionally high-ranking road, like on a pedestal, the victorious commander and his staff, and also the Hungarian hero in a simultaneous greeting and joy of triumph pose. On the other side, he can admire the great dynamics of the vision, analyse the stages of the great historic battle, observe the movement of the units, fierce battles, violent charges and battle chaos, but also the army and troops forming the attack, hurriedly reaching the battlefield.

            The formal and structural procedure strengthening the discussed contrast and narrative division of the panorama, and at the same time, importantly integrating the whole in the psychological layer, was the use of two size scales for the groups of characters shown. The viewer watches from a shorter distance and more directly the static group, with the central figure of general Józef Bem, frozen in a monumental expression, because it is located in a flat area on which soldiers and wagons of the Hungarian army are standing, and the main group of staff with the commander the views sees as elevated by the road embankment. Thanks to this endeavour, the viewer may experience the calm and balance emanating from this zone, which encourages the viewer to contemplate the memory of a great historic victory. In contrast, the characters making up the groups of fighting military units, the viewer sees from a distance, thanks to which he can feel safer and take on the role of a passive observer, enjoying the tactical analysis of the presented vision of an important national victory.

            Another interesting solution used by Jan Styka is the application of emulation strategies. Admittedly more of an erudite impulse, but infallibly there. This applies to the explicit inclusion in the iconographic structure of a stone bridge, with an arcade shape of the bottom, connecting the two opposite banks, with the fiercest fighting in the entire battle, which is thus the centre of the battle element. This seemingly innocent iconographic element is an extremely suggestive reference to the legendary reference to the genre of such depictions, "The Battle of Cadore" by Titian, which burned down in 1577 as a result of a fire, a year after the painter's death (Titian was born in Pieve di Cadore, in Dolomites in north-east Italy), and is known from the master's preparatory drawing and graphics and copies made at different times, and above all from the magnificent masterpiece by Rubens Fri. "Battle of Amazons", modelled on the fantastic work of Titian (burned, interestingly, in the year of Rubens's birth). This classic artistic strategy called emulation, consisting of a conscious reference to another work, through the use of iconographic elements or systems, characterized by the affirmation of a particular tradition with artistic rivalry features, allowed the Polish painter to situate the "Transylvanian Panorama" in the perspective of the great Latin tradition of presenting famous battles. And thanks to this special artistic rank of belonging in the field of iconographic structure to the Latin painting tradition, the great historical and national importance of the battle for Nagyszeben has also been enriched with a deep Latin moral and civilizational ethos. This dimension is illustrated by a large roadside cross with the figure of the crucified Christ, towering over the Szeklers armed with scythes and shepherds' axes, fiercely fighting for the bridge against Russian infantry soldiers. The moral aspect, i.e. religious and spiritual, seems to dominate the material and historical dimensions, similarly to the "Racławice Panorama", in which Polish scythesmen under the banner of Our Lady of Czestochowa and seemingly from under the great roadside cross under which women, old men, women and children are praying, they move under the command of General Tadeusz Kosciuszko to fight in defence of their homeland, symbolized by a whitewashed peasant hut covered with thatch, before which a woman mourns the death of a man lying on the doorstep, with a big old oak tree growing next to the hut. For Jan Styka the Christian ethos was the axis of his historical and allegorical accomplishments (e.g. "Polonia"). The painter was a man of faith and the author of many religious paintings, so it is not surprising that in his work, also in this spectacular work entitled The "Transylvanian Panorama", the moral and religious dimension, orders the temporal dimension.

            This deep rooting in Christian, Catholic, religious and spiritual dimensions, as well as all the iconographic and formal strategies discussed above, are proof not only of professional preparation and talent but also of great artistic and personal maturity of Jan Styka. They are undoubtedly a testimony to his mastery in the use of iconographic and expressive as well as narrative and formal constructions. Importantly, this mastery, significantly exceeds the aspect of manual dexterity, appreciated in his paintings, admittedly in general but also very superficially. As it is that that qualifying not only the spectacular work discussed above, but all of Jan Styka's artistic achievements usually boils down to. And this certainly makes an analysis of the painter's achievements shallow, condemned to banal simplicity and as a consequence a drawn out familiarisation with Jan Styka's artistic significance. Therefore, one should enjoy the zealous search for fragments of the "Transylvanian Panorama" and the resurgence of interest in this spectacular undertaking, as well as the entire body of Latin tradition painting with its nineteenth-century fascination with spectacular, naturalistic depictions of important historic events.


[1] See A. Bartosz, Panorama Siedmiogrodzka [Transylvanian Panorama], Tarnów 2013.

[2] A. Bartosz, op. cit., p. 36.



dr Janusz Janowski

Autor jest historykiem sztuki, malarzem, muzykiem jazzowym, prezesem Związku Polskich Artystów Plastyków