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Chopin, Grieg and Tellefsen, from the nineteenth century, and Weiss, Munch, Przybyszewski and Vigeland, from the turn of the twentieth century, will lead us through changing musical, artistic and literary landscapes. This exhibition presents a variety of attitudes to the construction of national identity during the nineteenth century and the modernistic re-evaluation that brought a shift in the role of national culture.

Fryderyk Chopin spent half his life in the cultural melting-pot of Paris, which searched out ‘the exotic’ and consolidated ‘its own’. He never returned to his homeland, although his strong bond with his native soil is beyond question. In his music, there is virtually no trace of the literal quoting of folk material that was so rife in music at that time, yet we perceive the lion’s share of his most crucial works as embodying the ‘spirit of the nation’, to borrow a term employed by Stanisław Przybyszewski at the turn of the century. Chopin’s music was associated with visions of the land of Poland and the country’s glorious past, reinvigorating the hearts of many generations and seeing in him a creative artist who was capable of grasping the national specificity of the Poles. On one hand, Chopin made use of genres rooted in Polish music, such as the mazurka and the polonaise; on the other, he moved freely about the conventions that held sway in salons and concert halls throughout virtually the whole of Europe. So the distinctive identity of his output fulfils itself on one hand in often concealed, but very legible, national themes and on the other in the individualism by dint of which the listener is ‘one on one’ with the composer.

Thomas Dyke Tellefsen, a Norwegian pupil of Chopin who spent most of his life in the French capital, was never regarded as a national composer like Chopin or Edvard Grieg. Less talented than them, he preferred to become part of the aesthetically moderate juste milieu. Although he did draw on folk material, he was not as consistent in this as Grieg, and in many opuses he remained under the powerful influence of Chopin.

Edvard Grieg, raised within the tradition of German-Austrian music, on one hand made use of genres that were strongly determined by convention (e.g. the string quartet) whilst on the other seeking an identity for Norwegian music in the creative processing of folk material and by turning to notions already functioning in the general awareness that were perfectly suited to constructing the community of the fledgling Norwegian state. The landscape, allied to mythological and historical themes, formed a coherent narrative of Norway, and the image of a composer writing in a humble abode with a view over a fjord satisfied representations of the nineteenth-century artist rooted in his native land.

The turn of the century brought a re-evaluation of national issues, and by the same stroke the need to break with the image of Chopin surrounded by couples dancing mazurkas and polonaises. Although that motif remained, the perspective altered, as interest shifted to the individual, modernist ‘naked soul’. The image of Chopin began to be construed as that of an expressionist artist, detached from national problems; on the other hand, the same Przybyszewski who towards the end of the century had described Chopin within the context of Nietzsche depicted the composer several years later as an embodiment of that ‘spirit of the nation’.

The end of the nineteenth century brought one of the most interesting watersheds in art. Our exhibition includes works by Wojciech Weiss that perfectly illustrate the expressionist approach to reality, thecorrespondance des arts and the links between music and art. Besides extant preparatory studies for Weiss’s fascinating lost painting Chopin, we can also see works by Edvard Munch and Gustav Vigeland, in which Przybyszewski both sought national specificity and at the same time saw a synthesis of the crisis of modernity. This study of attitudes among Polish and Norwegian creative artists may suggest to us an answer to the question of our identity, bringing reflection on the changing role of art.


The exibition 'Anxiety and Exploration. Polish and Norwegian Artistis at the Points of Breakthrough', 14 September 2014 – 22 February 2015, Fryderyk Chopin Museum.