by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
December 16, 2004
The painting depicts the most famous victory of Poland’s ill-fated Kosciuszko Insurrection of 1794, when a rag-tag army of peasants, many armed only with scythes, under the command of the eponymous general defeated a larger Russian force. Subsequent battles went the way of the better armed Russians, and together with Austria and Prussia, they concluded the Third Partition of Poland the following year, erasing what had once been Europe’s largest and most powerful country from the map of the continent.
A century later, nationalists in Lwow organized an exhibition to commemorate the Insurrection’s centenary. The painter Jan Styka proposed the inclusion of a panorama painting, then a common form of popular entertainment, to commemorate the battle. As Poland’s last victory in the field, it was already a popular subject for Polish painters, and Styka had little difficulty raising money to cover the cost of the painting and a purpose-built rotunda to house it.
Styka enlisted Wojciech Kossak, a noted battle painter, the noted landscape artist Ludvik Boller, and a half-dozen other young painters to produce the canvas, which measures 15m by 120m. After research by the principal artists at the site, work began on August 1893 and the canvas was completed on time, allowing it to open with the exhibition the following June. By far the exhibition’s most popular element, it was put on permanent display from 1898 until 1944, when a bomb severely damaged the rotunda and part of the painting. It was then rolled up to be preserved until the cessation of hostilities.
Lwow’s subsequent annexation to the Soviet Union (it is presently the city of L’viv in Ukraine) resulted in the transfer of many of its residents and its cultural patrimony to Wroclaw, the canvas among them. However, it remained in storage until 1980, ostensibly because neither preservation specialists nor sufficient money to build a structure to display it existed, but in reality because Poland’s Soviet overlords would not countenance the public display of a painting glorifying Poland’s defeat of a Russian army. Likely motivated by the Gdansk shipyard strike that year, local authorities agreed to allow the construction of the Panorama’s present home in 1980, and five years later, it was opened and quickly recovered its historic popularity.
The painting is remarkably realistic, an effect enhanced by the artificial terrain placed between the canvas and the view to convey a sense of depth. The Panorama is open from 9am to 5pm from May to September and 10am to 4pm the rest of the year, although it’s wise to arrive beforehand to beat the crowds. Tickets are for timed entry, and you’re given 30 minutes to see the canvas, with an English-language audio guide giving the history of the battle and the painting at no extra charge.
From journal Wroclaw: Phoenix Risen From the Ashes of Two Cities