Saturday, May 20, 2006

Warsaw: Łazienki and the Warsaw National Museum

It's the last day of the tour, tomorrow we leave. We went only to Łazienki today, but it was amazing. It's this park with a palace in the southern part of Warsaw, near the park with the Chopin monument. The palace itself is on a small island, surrounded by bridges and random birds (I noticed maybe seven peacocks outside). They make you put slippers on your shoes before entering the building — it was unclear why at first, but very quickly you come across exquisite wooden floors that they want to preserve. The entire palace is decorated with frescoes, gold leaf, statues in a very Greek/Roman influenced style, and very dark (in light, not spirit) paintings I won't try and classify with a few early Romantic pieces. Of course, at some point the Nazis stormed the palace and shattered most of the statues, but they've been reconstructed. One made a really big influence on me: Hercules, in the second or third room, who towers above you with a slain monster at his side. He just looked so overwhelmingly strong, but not in a comic book superhero way. It made me think, "Maybe he wasn't a myth, but a real person who was turned into one." All the rooms really must be seen, there's so much wonderful art; photographs and explanations wouldn't do it justice.

From Łazienki we came back to the hotel. We had a few hours until we were to meet again for dinner, so I set out on a mission to find Matejko's "Stańczyk". Fortunately, the Warsaw National Museum isn't too far, but I wanted lunch first. I decided I'd try something new: McDonald's in Poland. It didn't work out, the place was so packed I could barely move, and I decided to find something else. Walking by H&M I heard "King Without a Crown" playing from some speakers hidden in the building. Tak. I found my way to the underground and got some pizza for 3,20 złotych (about a dollar) — it was a great deal, fresh, with some toppings; what's more, it was tasty. With pizza in hand I began walking east down Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue), and stumbled across the museum after four or five blocks. Inside, I tried to figure out the "procedure" without looking like a helpless tourist... which, I should mention, was almost successful: I dropped off my backpack with the coat-check lady, walked through the metal detector without buzzing, and got a ticket. Unfortunately, when he told me to go "left on the first floor", I forgot that meant "go up the stairs first", so I was scolded by one of the museum workers in Polish for entering an exhibition I didn't have a ticket for. But it all worked out, and I found the Polish painters. It started with some newer work, then a few Zakopane folk artists, and finally moved into a more classical style. You could spend days there and not get bored, so I tried spending as much time as I could with the paintings and sculptures that caught my eye. One of the recent pieces by Jacek Malczewski surprised me: a very simple line drawing on a small piece of paper, some of the lightest markings I've ever seen, but it was so beautiful. I see subtlety like that everywhere, but I need to learn to express it as delicately as he does. Another, a painting by Kazimierz Sichulski, gave me an interesting idea: he had a triptych, a study for some stained glass, and it reminded me of early Art Nouveau. I'm no art history buff, but I'd like to know if those sort of studies influenced the style of the movement. Eventually I found Stańczyk, he was waiting at the very end with some other work by Matejko. I didn't know what size to expect, I never looked up the dimensions, but it was about what I had hoped. I remember some vague thoughts on the crumpled letter next to him, the curtains, the sadness in his eyes... I let the thoughts flash through me, the other paintings already had my mind for that day. As I was walking away, I could sympathize with him: "That's it, that's all for now." It said on the plaque next to the painting that Stańczyk takes on Matejko's features. I can see that.

I took a long way back to the hotel, once I got to Nowy Świat I walked up and down for a while. I ran across an amazing accordionist from the Ukraine, and his Polish partner in crime, Bartez, holding a tip cup. One of the most comical things I've seen yet, Bartez half-danced for nonexistent tips, with exaggerated movements, while his partner lived and died with the notes from his accordion. I gave them everything I had left, and said thanks for the beautiful music. It started raining, so I shuffled quickly back to the hotel.

There was a dinner tonight with some żurek, gołąbki ("Little Pigeons", beef wrapped in cabbage), and some dessert. I had a very sour white wine — it must have been young, or just bad. It was kind of nice to see everyone one last time... but the end of the day, for me, was with Stańczyk and the accordionist.

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