Horses, War and a Demi-God: And That’s Just One Painting by Wojciech Kossak

defiladaPaintings of military leaders, just like any other important persons, are easy enough to find in art museums. Wojciech Kossak, son of another great painter Juliusz Kossak, authored many paintings with military themes where horses occupied places of honor. His 1933 painting entitled Marszałek Józef Piłsudski oraz gen. dyw. Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer przyjmuje defilade kawalerii na Błoniach krakowskich (Marshall Józef Piłsudski and divisional general Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer accepts a cavalry defilade on Krakow’s Błonie). The painting reveals some themes were prevalent in Polish national identity before the Second World War.

The painting shows Marshall Piłsudski saluting a regiment of cavalry that are parading across the giant field in Kraków, Błonie. In the forefront, and taking up the most amount of space in the painting, is Gen. Gustaw-Orlicz Dreszer on a beautiful chestnut horse. A Podhale rifleman stands beside and a little behind the Marshall. In the background one can see the steeples of the Wawel Cathedral.

Even though the Marshall is not in the forefront, he stands tallest and is easily brought out by his blue uniform. Piłsudski was a peculiar man in a peculiar place. Born in Lithuania in 1867, he believed in the possibility of Poland rising from ashes and regaining independence from foreign rulers. World War I presented the perfect opportunity and through his self-taught military ability (some say genius), as well as a certain amount of daring, he was instrumental in the war, and the events of 1918 saw the Regency Council proclaim him the Commander in Chief of the Polish Armed Forces on November 11 of that year. After the war, he stepped away from public life preferring a background role in politics but the inability of successive governments to govern persuaded him to orchestrate a (sort of a) coup in May 1926 after which he remained the de facto head of state until his death in 1935.

For many of the soldiers that served in the Polish Legions, as well as many non-military personnel (he had a great following among the peasantry), he had a near-divine status. Many referred to him affectionately as grandpa (dziadek). The cavalrymen in the painting look toward Pi?sudski most likely saluting him as they pass by. One can observe the dependence on the leadership of Piłsudski. Also, the military style of the government is underscored by this painting.

The parade itself was organized for the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Vienna in which the Polish-German forces were led by the Polish king Jan III Sobieski. (A painting of the Battle of Vienna with Sobieski in the spotlight was painted by Wojciech’s father, Juliusz Kossak.) The strategy for the battle relied heavily on King Sobieski’s courage and ability as well as on the Hussars. The “Winged Hussars” were a Polish heavy cavalry formation that charged into battle and through the enemy ranks. They tended to repeat the charge, sometimes even several times in one battle. They were the decisive factor in many battles for nearly two centuries. Due to their great esteem, the Hussars held great sway over the national consciousness and the high respect for horses and cavalry carried into the 20th century.

The Uhlans succeeded the Hussars towards the end of the 18th century as the most esteemed military formation in the Polish Armed Forces. It is the Uhlans that are seen marching by Piłsudski in Kossak’s painting. The Uhlans fought in World War I as part of the Polish Legions. They also fought with distinction in the Great Poland Uprising, the Polish-Ukrainian War as well as the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920. Due to the low quality of tanks in the east as well as the geographic makeup of the land, the Uhlans fared better than tanks. This along with the tradition of Hussars contributed to the idea that the cavalry is well-fitted for 20th century warfare.

The inclusion of the Podhale rifleman is also of interest. The riflemen were created out of volunteers from the Podhale region in the south of Poland in 1918. Their dress is very easily recognizable by the cape they wear over their left shoulder and the feather in their cap. Podhale region was traditionally very poor and agrarian. The peasants tended sheep and were mostly untouched by outside influence. The region was romanticized as being quintessentially Polish, the dialect was seen as the original Polish language and the people were seen as very religious and patriotic. The folklore of the region was also based on these themes (in many respects it still is today). Thus, the inclusion of the Podhale rifleman emphasized these themes.

Finally, the steeples of the Wawel Cathedral are seen in the background. The cathedral is a place of burial of all the greatest sons of the nation. The crypts hold the tombs of many kings including Jan III Sobieski which makes the cathedral a logical inclusion. However, I will argue that Kraków, and more specifically, Wawel, hold a symbolic meaning. Kraków is not only a place of burial of the kings; it is also the spiritual home of the nation.

Kraków was the medieval capital of Poland. The city had been a leading artistic, cultural and educational center for centuries. The Polish Golden Age which took place in the 15th and 16th centuries saw many great artists and scholars visit the city. During that time, many architectural wonders were built, including the Old Synagogue in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter, and the Sigismund Bell. The Bell itself is permeated with symbolic meaning not only because it hangs in the Wawel Cathedral, but since it only tolls on national holidays and moments of great importance, it unites the nation; all the different points of view are put aside and the tolling of the bell unites Poles of all persuasions. Tadeusz Kościuszko, a hero of the American Revolution, started an (unsuccessful) uprising against Russia in Kraków’s Main Square. Finally, the Wawel Cathedral is the burial place of kings, Kościuszko, the National Poets (Słowacki, Norwid, and Mickiewicz) and many others. Kraków, because of its culture, history and in a sense, the crypts, took on a somewhat tangible existence and became the spiritual home of the nation.

In his painting, Kossak captured not only a moment in history, an event, a commemoration. He captured a certain vision of what it meant to be a Pole. Marshall Piłsudski’s giant stature, the horses, the Podhale rifleman and the Wawel Cathedral are not just there to witness a moment in history. They are there to create history or at least to give meaning to that history. The people, animals, and the buildings became a symbol; a uniting concept. However, parts of that image, but arguably most or all of it, were only to endure for 6 more years. The events of the Second World War destroyed the country and shifted its borders. The experience of the war forced a rethinking of the past. Piłsudski’s successors were accused of badly handling the war, the Uhlans were virtually non-existent as they were not effective, world horse population never recovered and the national identity was questioned. The ideals and myths discussed in this paper were perpetuated in part because of paintings by Kossak and others that perpetuated them and it took the Second World War to question their applicability to the modern world.