Seeing Japan, Imagining Poland: Polish Art and the Russo-Japanese War

This piece was first published in 2008 ♦

On first inspection it seems unlikely that the interests of Polish artists and writers in Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century – the theme of this essay – could anything more than the subject of a minor footnote in the history of either country. Living as subjects of three aggressive empires that had partitioned the nation over a century earlier, the Polish intelligentsia was remarkably introspective. The widespread desire for national independence from Russian, German, and Austrian rule overshadowed most aspects of national culture. Art and literature in the late nineteenth century were weighed on Polish scales: a poem or a painting was most highly valued if it captured national hopes or anguish. Patriotic writers and painters were claimed as the authentic voice of a nation silenced by injustice.[1] Polonocentrism was not, of course, limited to art: historians raked over past events in order to find explanations of the misfortunes endured in the present.[2] National messianists, sharing a vision shaped by the poet Adam Mickiewicz in the mid century, claimed that the wrongs done to the nation would eventually be corrected by natural laws of justice and that Poland, like Christ, would arise again. Others saw the causes for the loss of sovereignty in terms of national failings; not least in the anarchic system of government known as the “golden freedom” (złota wolność) which had operated during the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Commonwealth. The Poles could not, however, be accused of ignorance or indifference to present events abroad. Contemporary political dramas in Berlin, St. Petersburg, Vienna, or elsewhere on the international stage were invariably weighed up in terms of their impact on “the Polish question.” From the Polish perspective, Russia’s war with Japan in 1904-5 and the turmoil which followed it throughout Vistula Country (Privislinskii Krai / Kraj Przywiślański), as Russian Poland was known, was perhaps the most important of these gauges of fate in the fifty-year period between the failed November Uprising of 1863 and the outbreak of the First World War. While the impact of the Russo-Japanese War on Polish political activity at the turn of the century is well debated, its bearing in the wider fields of cultural life is less studied.[3] In this essay I explore not only how the Japanese attack was claimed as a model not only for Polish militancy but also for Polish art.

Japonisme – the West’s adoption of the themes and the techniques of the art of Japan – has conventionally been viewed as the invention of the avant-garde of 1860s in London, Paris, and Munich which passed into fatal popularity in the 1890s. The specialist interests of an elite group of aesthetes like James McNeil Whistler and the Goncourt brothers spread into popular taste, becoming a home decorating style and the theme of popular operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. Understood in terms of aesthetics and fashion, Europe’s fascination with Japan appears chimerical. As Oscar Wilde famously proclaimed in 1889, “the whole of Japan is a pure invention. … The Japanese people are simply a mode of style, an exquisite fancy of art.”[4] And like all fashions, Japonisme was destined to become démodé.

It would seem that the story of Polish Japonisme mirrors that of the phenomenon elsewhere in Europe: artists had joined the pan-European fashion for Japanese motifs, filling their paintings with oriental “props” such as fans, kimonos, and blue-and-white china from the early 1880s.[5] By 1897, Stanisław Wyspiański, a symbolist artist to whom we will return, expressed his contempt for artists who littered their works with exhibits from “Japanese and Chinese Museums.” They could not, in his view, “make something new” – the vital quotient of modern art – from such sources.[6] Moreover, in the Polish context, Japanese art lacked the vital national qualities to be valued positively. In 1901, for instance, collector Feliks Jasieński offered to give a large number of fine ukiyoe prints to Zachęta, the Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts (Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pięknych) in Warsaw, a body which claimed a role in the promotion of national culture. He was publicly and vigorously rejected. He received anonymous letters, one demanding that he “take your eyesores somewhere else and go back to where you came from. Develop the taste of the Papuans and not the Varsovians.”[7] Reacting to this slight, Jasieński moved to liberal Kraków, an Austrian-ruled city which laid claim to be the cultural capital of Poland and was the center of what the Poles call “Modernizm” (that is, broadly, Art Nouveau and symbolist works of art, literature, and even architecture). The xenophobia and chauvinism which characterized Warsaw’s rejection was perhaps only an exaggerated expression of prejudices which might be expressed by narrow minds elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless circumstances changed dramatically within a few years and, as I will show, Poles came to imagine themselves as natural allies of Japan in their mutual struggle with Russia.

Józef Mehoffer, “Europa Jubilans,” oil painting, 1905 (Lviv Painting Gallery).

In 1905 Józef Mehoffer painted “Europa Jubilans,” a work of art which ostensibly might look like a pale echo of the “first wave” of European Japonisme of the 1860s and the 1870s. In this light it can be seen as a little more than a late work in an important “genre” within European Japonisme, that of orientalist works which exoticize European women by a making a connection with the material culture of Japan. In this artistic idiom, both become trophies. Mehoffer’s wife, Jadwiga, described the painting:

In the interior of a private museum containing a valuable collection of a lover of Japanese art … with a menacing statue of Buddha and ranked series of majolica figures, a table is covered with an Indian shawl. Europa sprawls, flanked between steel armour, and a dragon in the shadows with a glittering vicious tail.[8]

Despite the clarity of her description, the meaning of this work remains troublingly ambiguous and, as one commentator noted, perhaps lies hidden in the unsettling relationship between the arrogant title and the unsettling scene. “Why,” asked Marcin Samlicki in 1912, “is this colorful work depicting a dapper chambermaid, resting on an Eastern shawl after cleaning a room cluttered with chinoiserie (chińszczyzna) and japonaiserie (japońszczyzna), titled with such high pride?”[9] In order to make sense of this charged work and of the wider revival of Japonisme in Polish culture of which this work is an important example, we need to turn our attention to the events of the Russo-Japanese war.

The unexpected attack by the Japanese on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur in Manchuria in February 1904 raised high hopes many thousands of miles away, not least on Russia’s Western fringes. Finland, for instance, a semiautonomous corner of empire for much of the nineteenth century, was radicalized as different strata of society reacted to the increasing severity of Nicholas II’s rule. 1905 saw an unprecedented wave of antigovernment demonstrations in Helsinki. “The deepening of the Russian foreign and domestic political crisis was,” Antii Kujala observed, “an essential ingredient in the development of events in Finland, since the Finns alone would not have challenged the government.”[10] The Poles were, as the uprisings of 1830 and 1863 demonstrated, rather more militant. In fact, the heightened tensions released by war in the East, coupled with social tensions at home, brought the Poles’ loyalty to the empire under even greater suspicion. According to Charles Steinwedel “Being Polish or Jewish” in the eyes of loyalists “no longer simply meant that one would not support orthodoxy, but that one sought to separate from the empire, thus destroying it.”[11] This perception – though exaggerated – was perhaps not incorrect. Always looking for signs of weakness in the sprawling Russian Empire, Polish militants were exhilarated by the challenge issued by Japan to what they took to be a common enemy. In the eighteen months of war that followed, public opinion was stirred by the fact that Poles, as subjects of the tsar, were serving and dying in the East, a sense amplified by a view that Poles were disproportionately represented in the Russian army and navy. Official attempts to raise support for the Russian forces in the Far East were seized as opportunities for resistance. In the first weeks after the attack on Port Arthur, for instance, Polish activists disrupted theatre performances orchestrated in Radom to raise funds for the war effort, while students in Warsaw refused to participate in progovernment demonstrations. Only the most loyal Warsaw conservatives were prepared to commit support to the Russian war effort by calling for funds for a Catholic Hospital train to serve in Manchuria, a gesture which provoked clandestine attacks on their homes.[12]

“National march” by Poles in Warsaw, 5th November 1905. This demonstration culminated at the foot of the statue to Adam Mickiewicz, erected seven years earlier, on Krakowskie Przedmieście where Henryk Sienkiewicz delivered a speech to the crowd (private collection).

In April 1904 shots fired into an antiwar demonstration in Warsaw had the powerful effect of creating a sense of victimhood. And in the months that followed – a period that saw a steady series of Japanese victories in the Far East and economic recession at home – Russian Poland witnessed many boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and assassination attempts on figures associated with tsarist power. These events culminated in acts of dissent by workers, students, and the poor. On November 13, Warsaw’s Grzybowski Square was the site of gun battle between the Russian police and Polish fighters. Six were killed and many hundreds arrested. Polish protestors made a direct connection between their cause and the Japanese interests. Socialist activist Bolesław Berger adopted the pseudonym “Kuroki” in tribute to Count Tamesada Kuroki, Commander in Chief of the Japanese First Army and victor of the Battle of the Yalu River at the beginning of May 1904, and marchers on Warsaw’s streets shouted “banzai” (as did Polish reservists in the Russian army on the way to the front in an aborted revolt).[13] Events on Grzybowski Square and three months later on Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg were followed by a widespread school strike. Children and teachers boycotted classes to protest at the suppression of the Polish language, a long-standing focus of anger (a boycott that continued sporadically until 1914). A General Strike called in February 1905 saw four hundred thousand workers withhold their labour for as long as four weeks. This, in turn, was followed by numerous spontaneous strikes. In May tensions in the factories gave way to violent disorder on the streets. Rioting in Warsaw was met with swift and violent reaction from the Russian authorities.

Throughout this period of crisis, clandestine political parties vied with one another to lead a society on the brink of insurrection. The Left – already fractured into camps that reflected the national division of Poland and prone to schism – was divided over the correct course to follow. Should it encourage popular nationalism or international solidarity? The socialist and internationalist activist Rosa Luxemburg, writing in Le Socialiste, stressed the international dimensions of the Russo-Japanese War:

The Russo-Japanese War now gives to all an awareness that even war and peace in Europe — its destiny — isn’t decided between the four walls of the European concert, but outside it, in the gigantic maelstrom of world and colonial politics. … This war brings the gaze of the international proletariat back to the great political and economic connectedness of the world, and violently dissipates in our ranks the particularism, the pettiness of ideas that form in any period of political calm.[14]

What this conflict demonstrated, for Luxemburg, was the interconnectedness of a world shaped by imperialism. Workers and peasants were pitched against one another; their solidarity shattered by nationalism and their common interests masked by a divisive ideology.[15] In sharp contrast, pragmatic, indurate voices on the Polish left claimed that its only chance of achieving the support of the nation was to don the clothes of nationalism. The older leadership ranks of the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS) – known as the “Old Guard” (Starzy) – imagined the conflict in the Far East escalating into a European war which would create opportunities to seize independence. As historian Robert Blobaum puts it, “by supporting the Japanese side, the Starzy intended to give history a push while gaining an ally for its efforts to resurrect an independent Polish state.”[16]

In July 1904, Józef Piłsudski, a PPS leader who was to become the central figure in national life after 1918, went on a clandestine mission to Tokyo to secure funds to finance a Polish legion to fight Russia (a trip concealed from some in the PPS leadership because it was likely to exacerbate differences within the party between militant “patriotic” and “internationalist” socialist factions). The Japanese authorities were interested in the Poles’ capacity to provide intelligence about the Russian army and to disrupt the supply lines to the East (Piłsudski offered to attack the Trans-Siberian Railway). In one of the strangest coincidences of Polish political history, Piłsudski met Roman Dmowski by chance on the street in Tokyo on July 11, 1904. Dmowski, leader of the National-Democratic Party (Stronnictwo Narodowo-Demokratyczne), which took a right-wing nationalist view of Polish interests, had travelled to Tokyo to dissuade the Japanese authorities from supporting insurrection in Russian Poland.[17] He argued that the PPS forces – a few hundred men on horseback armed with rifles – were too weak to succeed and that the Russian response would be bloody. Dmowski’s arguments appear to have won the day, and the results of Piłsudski’s mission were relatively modest: Japanese officers attached to the embassy in Paris began to give bomb-making lessons to Polish socialists.[18] According to Blobaum, this failure prompted a shift within the PPS, with its leadership putting its back behind the antiwar demonstrations being organized by workers’ groups.[19] Militant demonstrations against the war – accompanied by repression by the police – were powerful ways of further inscribing the image of Russian injustice in the minds of the Poles.

Understanding the motivating force of images, whether of the textual or visual kind, the Polish Left invested much energy into propaganda. The war years saw a surge of short-lived underground newspapers such as the PPS’s Nowe Życie (New Life) in Russian Poland, as well as others issued by the legal socialist party in Austrian Poland (Polska Partia Socjalno-Demokratyczna Galicji i Śląska Cieszyńskiego, or PPSD), such as Liberum Veto, which was smuggled across the border to Russian Poland. The artists working for these illustrated titles made good use of new graphic techniques – rippling abstract lines of energy associated with Art Nouveau – to deliver a powerful emotional punch and to signal commitment to progress. Witold Wojtkiewicz, a young Kraków-based artist, was regularly commissioned by Leberum Veto and other satirical magazines throughout 1904 and 1905 to comment on the Russo-Japanese War and the strikes and demonstrations which erupted in Kraków during the revolutionary months that followed.[20]His ironic commentary developed as events took their course in the Far East. Early images attacked official rhetoric about Russia’s historic colonization of the East and her indifference to the fate of Polish and Jewish soldiers on the “holy” battlefields sanctified by the tsar’s priests.

Witold Wojtkiewicz, “Glory” cartoon published in Hrabia Wojtek, 1906 (reproduced from Józef Kozłowski, Proletariacka Młoda Polska (Warsaw, 1986).

After the conflict had drawn to an end following the Treaty of Portsmouth (September 1905), Wojtkiewicz turned to the tragic consequences of war. In a late drawing entitled “Sława” (“Glory”) produced for a PPSD satirical periodical, for instance, Wojtkiewicz depicted a “Russian hero” back from the East as a one-legged skeleton with his arm strapped to a rifle, decorated with military crosses and medals. The world – viewed through Wojtkiewicz’s eyes – was populated by figures wearing grotesque masks, children playing out adult roles, and amorphous, threatening crowds. Unlike the left-wing imagery which filled the pages of the socialist press – a banal lexicon of radiant angels, rising suns, and muscular workers snapping free of their chains – Wojtkiewicz’s symbolism was enigmatic and filled with foreboding. This effect was heightened by his extraordinary drawing technique which, in its expressive force, seemed like a cry of rage.

Wojtkiewicz was not the only Polish modernist artist with connections with the PPS. Before making his long journey to Japan via New York and San Francisco, PPS leader Piłsudski had been on another mission. In March 1904 he went in person to the dilapidated home of Stanisław Wyspiański, a modernist poet, dramatist, and artist living in Kraków in the Austrian partition. He went to secure the artist’s support for his scheme to raise a Polish army. Although terminally ill (he was to die in 1907 at the age of 38), Wyspiański was widely acknowledged as a powerful moral force and had, in fact, been proclaimed as a “national bard.”[21] In receiving this decoration, he stepped into the shoes of earlier romantic poets, most notably Adam Mickiewicz, author of the epic Pan Tadeusz (1834) and a tragic figure who lived his life in exile and died suddenly of cholera in Constantinople in 1855 while attempting to raise a regiment of Poles to serve against Russia. In his symbolist art, designs for stained glass, poems, and plays, Wyspiański had made national history his chief theme, though often from a critical viewpoint, pointing to the hubris of romantic nationalism. Messianistic myths had left the Poles passive, hoping for miracles: his self-appointed role – confirmed by his national “investiture” – was to provoke the nation into action. In seeking Wyspiański’s support, Piłsudski sought to tap his status and remind the Poles of their history of militant struggle. In fact, it appears that the PSS even wanted Wyspiański to take up arms to signal the beginning of an armed uprising.[22] But in an unintended echo of Mickiewicz’s fate fifty years earlier, the symbolist artist was too ill to fulfil his destiny as a soldier-poet.

“He welcomed us into his flat in Krowoderska Street,” wrote an eyewitness to the meeting between the veteran of Romanov jails and the ailing artist, “into a sort of ‘day room’ which overlooked the Kościuszko Mound with a view as subtle as a Japanese silk print.” Wyspiański, he continued,

listened with all his concentration, asked questions about some details without saying much for his part. He found the military preparations right and necessary, but found himself unable to cooperate actively… he was ready to support the purchase of arms with a series of his landscape drawings and lithographs of his drawing of the Virgin Mary of Częstochowa. … Piłsudski was against accepting such a personal donation from Wyspiański for the needs of the insurgents. He desired something else: that the poet would impose certain ideas upon the nation, influence the morale of the people who were about to fight.[23]

Piłsudski’s misunderstanding was as much to do with art as it was politics. Wyspiański’s offer of a series of landscape drawings was intended as a political gesture, albeit one which eschewed the lofty rhetoric desired by the politician.

Despite the indifferent response to his proposal, Wyspiański set to work in December 1904 and the early months of 1905 on a small series of views from his studio on the west of the city, of which at least thirteen are known dispersed today in private collections and museums. They depict views of Kościuszko Mound in pastel (and return to a theme which he had first represented as a chromolithograph in 1902). Untitled, they are captioned with dates and times of the day like a visual diary, a fact emphasised by the artist when he exhibited them in Warsaw with these “titles” in 1905. In art historical terms they have been conventionally connected to Wyspiański’s condition and described as “elegiac” works concerned with passing of time and death.[24] This reading has been reinforced by the bleak wintery conditions devoid of life captured in some of the drawings (though not all). However, as Agnieszka Morawińska has demonstrated, they should be understood in close relation to the political events of the day, a reading reinforced by the witness’s description of the view as being as “subtle as a Japanese silk print.”[25] Wyspiański’s inspiration here is less likely to have been a silk print than a famous set of woodblock ukiyoe from the 1830s by Katsushika Hokusai. His “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series presents the iconic image of the Japanese mountain as a constant feature in a landscape changing according to the seasons. Like Hokusai’s ukiyoe, Wyspiański’s drawings adopted different viewpoints (perspectives offered by the different windows in the artist’s flat) and abbreviated perspectives. While the weather and light conditions change dramatically, the mound is a steady presence.

Stanisław Wyspiański, View of the Kościuszko Mound, 1904

But while Mount Fuji represented “eternal Japan,” the Kościuszko Mound pointed to something rather more recent in origin.[26] The thirty-four-meter-high man-made memorial barrow had been constructed on the edge of Kraków in 1820 in homage to the leader of a national uprising against the tsar. General Tadeusz Kościuszko was widely viewed as a national hero of the first rank for unifying Poland against her enemies, even if his fate was ultimately one of failure. The mound was capped with a piece of granite from the Tatra mountains which had historically marked Poland’s southern border and contained soil from the site of the battle of Racławice where in 1794 the Russians had been defeated with the aid of peasants armed with scythes (as well as from the battlefields of the American War of Independence in which Kościuszko also fought). At the time that Wyspiański made his series of drawings, the significance of this melancholic symbol of national valor was overshadowed by the fact that it had been fortified by the Austrian authorities and functioned as a barracks.

In Wyspiański’s series of drawings, events from the past and the present were connected: Polish militancy in the past and present was connected to the war in the East. Nevertheless, the meaning of this association remains ambiguous: alongside sunny images of the landscape in thaw, images of snows and frosts carry symbolic resonance which accords with Wyspiański’s critical view of the martyrological myths in Polish romanticism. While Wyspiański offered the drawings for sale to raise funds for the cause of Polish militancy, they also signalled his doubts.

In the “Views of the Kościuszko Mound,” Wyspiański made an allegorical connection between Poland and Japan. Others drew more explicit connections between the two nations in Russia’s shadow. Chief among these commentators was Feliks Jasieński, the most prominent interpreter of Japanese culture and life in Polish society at the time. Son of a wealthy gentry family, he made Warsaw his home in the 1880s after travelling widely throughout Europe and the Middle East. His primary activities were as a collector and as patron of art. Jasieński established strong contacts with modern artists, first in Warsaw and then in Kraków where he was given the epithet “Maggha.” Jasieński regarded his extensive collection of Japanese art as a kind of didactic instrument to stimulate the arts. There are many accounts of Polish artists borrowing items in his collection and, in fact, Mehoffer’s painting which opens this discussion almost certainly depicts his objects. Moreover, Jasieński purchased one of Wyspiański’s views of the Kościuszko Mound.[27] His promotion of Japanese art was not just a matter of practical aesthetics: he saw his efforts in national terms. Of the exhibitions he curated, he said “I have shown you Japan to teach you to think about Poland, thus following in the footsteps of artists who have thought about Japan in a Japanese style for over two thousand years.”[28]

Jasieński was the author of a monumental, if somewhat sprawling, book, Manggha: Promenade à`travers le monde, l’art et les idées (1901). Adopting the format of the chronicle developed by the Goncourt Brothers in France, this book is a diverse collection of sketches, essays, and recollections including many observations about Japan. Despite his confident pronouncements about that distant society, it appears that he did not travel there. His knowledge had been acquired through the writings of others and by reflection on his extensive collection of Japanese artefacts. Jasieński saw in this art a model of society where common things of utility made and used by people were more beautiful than luxuries accessible only to the rich. Moreover, the role of “national art” of this kind was not to stir hysterical passions but to speak of the nation through the high qualities of its cultural products.[29] This was Japan viewed through a Polish mirror. In reflecting Japan’s virtues, he commented on Polish “failings” (in this case the conscription of art by politics).

Jasieński’s diverse collection had three main aspects: ukiyoe prints and decorative art from the Far East, purchased through European dealers; contemporary modern Polish art, sometimes acquired by exchange for Japanese prints; and historic Polish decorative art, largely centered on tapestries and ecclesiastical robes. Among the latter were “sarmatian” textiles from the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These antiques included a number of seventeenth-century silk sashes with gold threads made with geometrical and floral Persian patterns made by Armenians living in Poland. Worn with a kontusz, a garment with slit sleeves, these sashes were a central element in the noble dress of the day. They belong to a long-standing self-orientalizing tradition in Polish culture, that of Sarmatism.[30] In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Polish nobility believed themselves – erroneously – to be direct descendents of the ancient Sarmatians, a nomadic tribe originating in Asia who later resettled in northeastern Europe. Possessed of mythic skills as horsemen and as warriors, the Sarmatians represented the epitome of independence. This potent fantasy, argued Zdzisław Żygulski,

assured the gentry a privileged position and justified its dominance in state government. It was the members of the gentry alone who enjoyed unlimited personal freedom, the “golden freedom”; furthermore, the myth gave rise to their self-adulation, xenophobia, and megalomania along with a belief in their historic mission and … orientalization of their customs and aesthetic tastes.[31]

The Sarmatian myth was materialized in clothes, weaponry, and even hairstyles, usually as a fusion of European and Turkish forms, as well as in a taste for luxury. According to national mythology, they loved to parade their wealth in extravagant possessions, as well as in bulimic bouts of hospitality.[32]

The ideal image of the Sarmatian noble was that of a figure who combined gallantry on the battlefield with great patronage of the arts. This warrior tribe had been widely revered throughout the nineteenth century, in part to bolster Polish belief in national “characteristics” of independence and resistance in the face of repression.[33] Operating within the chaotic “golden freedom,” whereby each noble claimed the right to resist the authority of the king or the city, the historical image of Sarmatian culture provided a model for Polish militancy. Parallels with this mythic construction were to be found in contemporary representations of Japan. In his essays, Jasieński describes the Japanese nation as “exquisite heroes” (wywtornych bohaterów) and the ordinary Japanese man as a “knight-artist” (rycerz-artysta).[34] It hardly needs noting here that the figure of the calligrapher-samurai also had an analogue in recent Polish history, not least in the figure of Mickiewicz.

The sarmatian warrior almost found his way onto the battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. The socialist novelist Stefan Żeromski, for instance, imagined in rather overwrought prose the corpse of the Polish soldier on the charnel-grounds of the East.[35] Here, according to Żeromski, was transparent evidence of the cynicism which underlay imperial pan-Slavic rhetoric. The writer called for poets to cover his naked body “lacking its gold sash and red kontusz,” with a “dignified cloak, fashioned from the wonderful colors of art.” The invocation of Sarmatism alongside descriptions of the honor and selflessness of the combatants from the Japanese ranks served to bolster what Żeromski called the “heroism” (bohaterstwo) of both nations.

It should be stressed that Japan – distant and incontestable –was pictured in ways that ultimately reflected the worldview of the imagining subject rather than imagined object. The appeal for Jasieński and Żeromski was the image of a society which combined art, honor, and tradition, whereas for Polish modernizers cast in the Positivist mold it was the rapid economic and social transformations following the Meiji Restoration which struck a chord. Warsaw’s leading newspaper columnist of the period, Bolesław Prus, held the latter view. From the 1870s his weekly newspaper columns had keenly pressed the case for the “improvement” of Polish society. He was the best-known advocate of Positivism, a political philosophy designed to maintain Polish economic and cultural life in the face of campaigns of assimilation and political repression.[36] In 1890 he had written that

the Japanese for several thousand years had been a very backward people. They had no locomotives, print, or electricity. They ate rats and beef with equal relish; they did not dress in practical fashions and reckoned themselves to be the most excellent nation under the sun. But twenty or thirty years ago they decided to become civilized and they achieved that goal. Today they have trousers, ships with propellers, and rifles; they have telegraphs, steam engines, journalists, police – everything that a civilized nation requires.[37]

Imperial Japan appeared – from Prus’s perspective – to have vaulted history, becoming modern in ways that the Poles, mired in romantic retrospection and inhibited by foreign domination, should envy.

Not surprisingly, Prus returned to the theme of “Japan and the Japanese” in 1905. Drawing on press reports of the war as well as the wave of new studies and translations published in Poland in the first years of the new century, he presented a picture of the values necessary for a society capable of beating its neighbor.[38] These lay in valor, sacrifice, and hard work: all principles which the Poles should emulate. On January 22, 1905 (a date written in history as “Bloody Sunday”), he wrote that “the Japanese have not only attracted attention thanks to their victories, but also thanks to their extraordinary merits which even Russians admire in them. The opinion of a friend may be pleasant, but the respect of an enemy confirms the real values. … Such a nation deserves not only a closer look, but must also serve as a model for study.”[39]

This 1905 report by Prus appeared in Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly). Following a format established in Britain and elsewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, this weekly was first published in Warsaw in 1859. Each week, its readers became eyewitnesses to the triumphs and disasters of the age. Its remarkable popularity was achieved not only by presenting compelling visual images of spectacular events like the first airplane flights or natural disasters: it also sought to satisfy the considerable appetite for patriotic stories.[40] In 1904 the editor introduced a regular column, “From the Far East,” to cover the Russo-Japanese War. To accommodate the interests of the Russian censors, the war had to be reported in largely in matter-of-fact terms. Readers were presented in with detailed discussions of the mechanism of a Russian carbine; accounts of the numbers of troops in the Japanese ranks; bird’s-eye views of fortifications around Port Arthur; or the slow progress of the Baltic Fleet sailing around the world toward its destruction in the Straits of Tushima in May 1905. Japanese militarism was accompanied by descriptions of everyday life. Reviewing Klośnik’s 1904 book, Japońia, the editors of the Tygodnik noted that “war has engendered in us a special phenomenon”; that is, a fascination with all things Japanese.[41] To satisfy this interest, the weekly published accounts of Japanese art, dress, social conventions, attitudes to nature and geography, folk legends, as well as serious-minded reports into the organization of the Japanese economy. While many of these reports traded Western clichés about the East (Lafcadio Hearn being a frequent guide), the weekly’s authors usually eschewed moral judgment or caricature.[42]

The sober tone of such reports is, in retrospect, deceptive–as it was intended to be. Although explicit endorsement of the enemy could not be broached in the way that some of the tsar’s opponents might have wished (such texts were written and circulated, but were usually published pseudonymously in the Austrian partition, where greater press freedom was enjoyed), they were not neutral.[43] Here a distinction should be drawn between the visual and textual representations of the conflict. Tygodnik Ilustrowanywent, as its title suggests, to great lengths to provide compelling images of the Far East. The intensity of the land and sea battles was captured in the magazine’s illustrations, while the steady lens of the camera was used to record the everyday routines of the Japanese people. Strikingly many of these images were recorded – both graphically and photographically – “behind the lines,” which is to say that they adopted the viewing position of the Japanese reader (and some were acknowledged as copies of Japanese drawings). Interested readers were invited into Japanese shops with their bold calligraphic signs and mysterious baskets of produce. Turning the page, they were presented with dramatic illustrations of Japanese troops straining to get heavy artillery into position while under fire from Russian guns.

Anon., “artillery being put into position above Port Arthur,” illustration from Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 1904 (private collection).

Adopting the conventional visual rhetoric of muscular heroism by populating the Japanese forces with bold officers, loyal troops, and the noble dead, the war images form a striking contrast with the caricatural depictions of Japan which feature in conservative Russian publications of the period. Unable to celebrate victories on the battlefield, as Yulia Mikhailova has argued, the Russian press took to diminishing Japan as a land of “tiny doll-like people” predestined to fail in their attempts to contest the Russian giant.[44] To bolster the broken Russian ego, contemporary commentators claimed for Russia the role of defender of Europe: “Japan is a representative of the idea of Pan-Mongolism – the unification of the people of that [yellow] stock against the white race. … Russia is an obstacle for realization of Japanese government’s plans. … Russia must stay on guard of the European interests from the encroachment of the yellow race.”[45] While the Russians were busy representing their interests as Western ones, it is no coincidence that the Poles were actively exchanging “oriental” ones.

On the pages of Tygodnik Ilustrowany such exchanges were often coded. In a culture circumscribed by censorship and repression, the Poles were well versed in what novelist Eliza Orzeszkowa termed “prison language.” “No date, no thing concerning the national struggle and suffering is given by name,” she wrote in 1887, “yet we understand each other – my reader and I – perfectly.”[46] The possibilities of allegorical writing and reading can be illustrated with a page from a December 1904 issue of Tygodnik Ilustrowany which features a letter from an injured Polish officer from the Eighth Eastern Siberian Reserve Battalion recuperating in a Verkhneudinsk (today Ulan-ude) hospital. In his letter to the editor, he asks readers to send Polish-language books to soldiers conscripted in the Russian forces who, like him, face a diet of “many Russian books from St. Petersburg” (a complaint shared by Polish teachers and school children during these years of strikes). At the same time, he also requests small images of the “Black Madonna” of Częstochowa, the symbolic “Queen of Poland” (and one of the themes considered by Wyspiański as the subject of a print to raise funds for Polish insurgency in 1904). The political symbolism of this petition would have been clear to the Polish reader. The Black Madonna is a painting which was ritually crowned in 1717 in protest against Peter the Great’s growing hold over Poland. Threatened by strong Russian army, the Silent Sejm, as the parliamentary session of February 1, 1717, is known, had no choice but to agree to the dismantling of the Polish Commonwealth. The Marian icon was made – by this act of coronation – into a sign of opposition. While the injured soldier’s evocation of the contemporary struggles over the Polish language as well as the nation’s history of suffering at the hands of her neighbor is notable, the position of the text by the editor warrants further comment. It appeared next to an image depicting injured soldiers being treated in a Japanese hospital. In placing a letter from a Polish injured soldier next to an image of their Japanese counterparts, the editors of the Tygodnik confused the conventional moral economy of war. Enemy and comrade-in-arms were treated with equivalence.

The source of some of the images and reports of everyday life published in Tygodnik Ilustrowany warrants a final comment. Many of the ordinary images of the Far East were supplied by Polish orientalists.

Wacław Sieroszewski, photograph of a street in Yokohama, reproduced in Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 1904 (private collection).

Wacław Sieroszewski, a Polish socialist who had visited Japan in September 1903, travelling from Aomori to Nagasaki via the major cities en route, provided images of streets and shops as well as children and peasants. Sieroszewski, like a number of the earliest Polish interpreters of Japanese culture, was driven East in different circumstances than those enjoyed by their better-known counterparts like Lafcadio Hearn.[47] The Polish perspective on Japan was often viewed – literally and imaginatively – from the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin, an island ceded by Japan to Russia in 1875 and partly regained as a consequence of the Russo-Japanese War. Located off Russia’s Far Eastern coast, Sakhalin was home to both a large convict community and different indigenous groups including the Ainu. Many Poles had been imprisoned on this island penal colony for conspiring against tsarist rule. One of Poland’s earliest and best known Japanists, for instance, Bronisław Piłsudski (brother of the PPS leader) had been sentenced to exile in 1887 for an abortive attempt to assassinate Tsar Aleksander III. On his release in 1899 he was employed by the museum of the Society for the Study of the Amur Region in Vladivostok. Thousands of miles from home, such Poles were placed in an ambiguous position. They were both victims of the Russian penal system, yet they were sometimes employed – as well educated prisoners (Piłsudski had been a law student at St. Petersburg University at the time of his incarceration) – to “improve” the Eastern fringes of the Russian Empire. In 1902, three years after completing his sentence and living in Vladivostock, Piłsudski was, for instance, requested by the military governor of Sakhalin Oblast to undertake a study of the Ainu so that new regulations for their governance could be prepared.[48] He also joined an ethnographic project led by Sieroszewski for the Russian Imperial Geographic Society to study the Ainu living on Hokkaido.[49] Sieroszewski was another Pole who had first been deported to Siberia in 1880 for his political activities. He was destined to be sent back again when implicated in a plot to ferment national unrest in Russian Poland, but avoided Siberia with the help of the vice-president of the Russian Imperial Geographic Society. In return he agreed to undertake the expedition to Hokkaido. Piłsudski and Sieroszewski spent the summer of 1903 recording the voices, bodies, and lifestyle of the Ainu with wax cylinder phonographs, cameras, and anthropometric instruments. Sieroszewski – in a dramatic account of his time spent among the Ainu written in 1926 – adds spice to the end of their travails by describing the delivery of a letter in September 1903, at a time when Japanese-Russian negotiations over their divergent interests in Manchuria were failing: “The consul from Hakodate [a city on Hokkaido] wrote that on the force of orders from the Embassy we were to break the expedition and return to Tokyo. Then I said to the saddened Bronisław: ‘Yes! … A war between Russia and Japan. What can it bring to Poland?!’”[50]

Piłsudski and Sieroszewski’s experiences of Russian imperialism generated – as Kazuhiko Sawada has argued – a strong degree of empathy for a population who were treated with callousness by the Japanese and Russian authorities (a view perhaps confirmed by Piłsudski’s marriage to Chuhsamma, the niece of an Ainu chief).[51] Viewing the world of the Ainu, Sieroszewski nostalgically imagined Poland

among a dense Japanese population the rests of the Ainu were dotted here and there – tiny villages of two to three houses made of reed and covered with large reed roofs with stepping thatches so similar to Polish thatched roofs … at that time it was so beautiful and the houses hidden in the verdure were so picturesque and looked so purely Polish.[52]

Sieroszewski also recorded his displeasure at being mistaken as a Russian official by Japanese policeman during their mission to Hokkaido. In a surreal episode in which the sartorial conventions of East and West were reversed, he described how

before we managed to change comfortable Japanese kimonos for our European clothes the kakuson kocho himself appeared in our door. He stood in the “European fashion” in his gala black police uniform with shining buttons, wearing trousers with stripes, gaitered, with a sword. … A normal conversation started with the Japanese concerning our journey, the weather, our intentions related to our coming here: … “What are you looking for?”

“In the first place we want to learn about all Ainu gods…,” I hastened to calm him down.

“Aha, those shaven wooden sticks inau ?…,” he laughed contemptuously. “This you can study. But you must not draw any map!…”

“We have a Japanese one!” I replied. “Anyway, you probably received special orders concerning us from your general governor from Sapporo?…”

“I know everything!…” he concluded the conversation, bowing and stepping backward toward the door. He did not know, however, anything about Poland and in spite of our protests and explanations he called us Russians (Oros).[53]

The fact that these Europeans could only identify with a native people caught between two large and aggressive s without the protection of the legal apparatus of the nation is not surprising. Japanese policies during the Meiji period had outlawed the Ainu’s language and restricted farming to government-controlled plots. The Ainu also were employed in conditions approaching slavery in the Japanese fishing industry.[54] Piłsudski and Sieroszewski may have imagined their own indentured status as Poles in similar terms. While these reports might well be criticized as empty pathos which obscured their actual actions on behalf of Russia, they point to a more general imaginative capacity to see oneself as the Other. Here one senses a connection to the theory of Orientalism supplied by Edward Said. “Many early oriental amateurs began by welcoming the Orient as a salutary derangement of the European habits of mind and spirit,” he wrote in his classic critique of the phenomenon. “The Orient was overvalued for its pantheism, its spirituality, it stability, its longevity, its primitivism, and so forth. … Yet almost without exception such over esteem was followed by a counter-response: the Orient suddenly appeared lamentable, under-humanised, antidemocratic, backward, barbaric, and so forth.”55[55] In the particular circumstance in which these socialist Poles found themselves, as both of victim and agents of imperialism, their affirmation of Ainu life was perhaps one of Said’s exceptions. In fact, the peculiar conditions of the Russo-Japanese War meant that many different Poles engaged in many imaginative acts of self-orientalization not, it should be stressed, with the Ainu but with Japan. This idea connects the sketch of a snowy landscape with shouting “banzai!” on Warsaw’s streets or the arrangement of images and text on the pages of a popular magazine. Unlike the most bellicose quarters in the Russian press which sought to heighten artificial distinctions between Japan and Europe, the Poles displayed a keen ability to imagine themselves as the Other.

But, of course, a key difference has to be drawn here. While Sieroszewski and Pilsudski’s encounters were framed by actual experiences of Japan (not least in the petty bureaucracy of everyday life), their compatriots in the artists’ studios of Kraków or the streets of Warsaw held a view of Japan that was uninhibited by facts or experience. In their minds, the Far East – a loose concept – could seem contiguous with another collapsed geographical entity, Poland. Denied physical form or political institutions, Poland could be imagined in any form: unrooted by borders, it could occupy an imagined space between East and West. Their acts of self-orientalization were based on an idealization of Japan that was rooted in fantasy: not perhaps “an exquisite fancy of art” as Wilde had described aesthetic Japonisme, but a political one connected to the hopes for national reunion triggered by the Russo-Japanese War. Moreover, Japan was an improving mirror which could be used to reflect Polish virtues, whether real or, more typically, desired. And, as such, the realities of Japan’s aggressive imperialism and militarism remained largely overlooked. Only those very few – like Sieroszewski and Piłsudski – with direct experience of Japan as an imperial state could see the symmetry between the principle combatants in the Russo-Japanese War.

[1] On the relations between Polish nationalism and modern art see Waldemar Okoń, Alegorie narodowie: Studia z dziejów sztuki polskiej XIX wieku (Wrocław, 1992); Jan Cavanaugh, Out Looking In:Early Modern Polish Art, 1890-1918 (Berkeley, 2000); Anna Brzyski, “Between the Nation and the World: Nationalism and Emergence of Polish Modern Art,” Centropa 1 (September 2001): 165-79.

[2] For discussions of nineteenth-century historiography regarding Poland see Andrzej Walicki, Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Poland (Oxford, 1982); and Jerzy Jedlicki, A Suburb of Europe: Nineteenth-Century Polish Approaches to Western Civilization (Budapest, 1998).

[3] See Stanisław Kalabiński and Feliks Tych, Czwarte powstanie czy pierwsza rewolucja? Lata 1905-1907 na ziemiach polskich (Warsaw, 1976); Leszek Jaśkiewicz, Przemiany ustrojowe w cesarstwie rosyjskim w okresie rewolucji 1905-1907 (Warsaw, 1980); idem, Absolutyzm rosyjski w dobie rewolucji 1905-1907 (Warsaw, 1982); and Robert E. Blobaum, Rewolucja: Russian Poland, 1904-1917 (Ithaca, 1996).

[4] Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” (January 1889), in his De Profundis and Other Writings (Harmondsworth, 1986), 82.

[5] For general studies of Japonisme see Lionel Lambourne, Japonisme: Cultural Crossings between Japan and the West (London, 2005); Toshio Watanabe, High Victorian Japonisme (New York, 1991); Aichi-ken Bijutsukan et al., Japonisme in Vienna (Tokyo, 1994); and Ayako Ono, Japonisme in Britain:Whistler, Menpes, Henry, Hornel and Nineteenth-Century Japan (London, 2003). The best source on the phenomenon in Polish culture remains Łukasz Kossokowski, ed., Inspiracje Sztuką Japonii w malarstwie i grafice polskich modernistów (Kraków, 1981).

[6] Letter to Lucjan Rydel, January 19, 1897, in Leon Płoszewski and Maria Rydlowa, eds., Listy Stanisława Wyspiańskiego do Lucjana Rydla II (Kraków, 1979), 421.

[7] Cited in Manggha: Wystawa kolekcji Feliksa Mangghi Jasieńskiego (Kraków, n.d.), 10.

[8] Jadwiga Mehoffer, cited by Kossokowski, Inspiracje Sztuką Japonii (n,p.).

[9] Marcin Samlicki, “Józef Mehoffer,” in Teksty o Malarzach 1890-1918 (Wrocław, 1976), 381.

[10] Antti Kujala, “Finland in 1905: The Political and Social History of the Revolution,” in The Russian Revolution of 1905. Centenary Perspectives, ed. Jonathan D. Smele and Anthony Heywood (London, 2005), 89.

[11] Charles Steinwedel, “The 1905 Revolution in Ufa: Mass, Politics, Elections, and Nationality,” Russian Review 59 (October 2000): 575.

[12] Blobaum, Rewolucja, 45.

[13] Kalabiński and Tych, Czwarte powstanie czy pierwsza rewolucja? 55.

[14] Rosa Luxemburg, “In the Storm” Le Socialiste (May 1-8, 1904), archived at (last accessed August 21, 2006).

[15] For Luxemburg’s views on the so-called Polish question see Horace B. Davis, ed., The National Question: Selected Writings by Rosa Luxemburg (New York, 1976), 60-100.

[16] Blobaum, Rewolucja, 201.

[17] Ewa Pałasz-Rutkowska, “Historia stosunków polsko-japońskich 1904-1915,” in,Historia stosunków polsko-japońskich 1904-1945, ed. Ewa Pałasz-Rutkowska and Andrzej T. Romer (Warsaw, 1996). See also Frank W. Thackeray, “Piłsudski, Dmowski, and the Russo-Japanese War: An Episode in the Diplomacy of a Stateless People,” in Eastern Europe and the West, ed. John Morison (New York, 1992), 52-68.

[18] Neal Ascherson, The Struggles for Poland (London, 1987), 40.

[19] Blobaum, Rewolucja, 49.

[20] Witold Wojtkiewicz: Między ironią a melancholią, exhibition catalogue issued by the Muzeum Śląskie w Katowicach (Katowice, May 1999).

[21] On Wyspiański’s career and oeuvre see Zdzisław Kępiński, Stanisław Wyspiański (Warsaw, 1984); T. Terlecki, Stanislaw Wyspianski (Boston, 1983); E. Miodońska-Brookes, ed., Stanisław Wyspiański. Studium artysty – Materiały z sesji naukowej na Uniwersytecie Jagiellońskim (Kraków 1996); and Waldemar Okoń, Stanisław Wyspiański (Wrocław, 2001).

[22] Stefan Żeromski, “Na Broń,” in Wyspiański w oczach współczesnych , ed. Leon Płoszewski (Kraków, 1971), 220.

[23] Sokolnicki, cited by Marta Romanowska, “Singing of the Nation: Invocation of the Holy Ghost Wyspiański”s Veni Creator Hymn,” in By Force or by Will, ed. Jeremy Howard (St Andrews, 2002), 79.

[24] Kępiński, Stanisław Wyspiański, 164-69.

[25] Agnieszka Morawińska, “A View From the Window,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies 21 (Summer 1987): 57-77.

[26] Janina Bienarzówna and Jan M. Małecki, Dzieje Krakowa: Kraków w latach 1786-1918 (Kraków, 1979), 59-60.

[27] For Jasieński’s account of meeting Wyspiański while the artist was producing these works see Ewa Miodońska-Brookes, ed., Feliks Jasieński I jego Manggha (Kraków, 1992), 336.

[28] Jasieński, cited in Kossokowski Inspiracje Sztuką Japonii (n.p.).

[29] See Miodońska-Brookes’ introduction and Jasieński’s own comments in Feliks Jasieński i iego Manggha, 20-21, 345-48.

[30] See Zdzisław Żygulski, “The Impact of the Orient on the Culture of Old Poland,” in Jan K. Ostrowski et al., Land of the Winged Horseman: Art in Poland , trans. Krystyna Malcharek (Baltimore, 1999), 69-79. See also Stanisław Grzybowski, Sarmatyzm (Warsaw 1996).

[31] Ostrowski, Land of the Winged Horseman, 70.

[32] Maria Bogucka, The Lost World of the “Sarmatians” (Warsaw, 1996), 111-24.

[33] In the 1880s the Sarmatian culture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was popularized by Henryk Sienkiewicz in his trilogy Ogniem i mieczem (With Fire and Sword, 1884), Potop (Deluge, 1886), and Pan Wołodyjowski (1888).

[34] Jasieński, Manggha, 345-46.

[35] Stefan Żeromski, “Sen o Szpadie,” in 1905 w Literaturze Polskiej, ed. Stefan Klonowski (Warsaw, 1955), 202-4.

[36] Stanislaus A. Blejwas, Realism in Polish Politics: Warsaw Positivism and National Survival in Nineteenth-Century Poland (New Haven, 1984).

[37] Bolesław Prus, Kurier Codzienny (June 8, 1890), in his Kroniki, ed. Zygmunt Szweykowski, vol. 12 (Warsaw, 1962), 235.

[38] These works include A. Okszyc, Japońia i Japończycy Kilka wrażen i rozmyslań z podróży na Daleki Wschód (Warsaw, 1904); S. Posner, Japonia: Państwo i prawo (Warsaw, 1905); Juliusz Starkel, Obrazki z Japonii (Warsaw, 1904); Władysław Studnicki, Japońia (Lwów, 1904); and E. B., Japońja, kraj i ludzie (Warsaw, 1904).

[39] Prus, Tygodnik Ilustrowany (January 22, 1905) in Kroniki, vol. 18 (Warsaw 1968), 58.

[40] Beth Holmgren, Rewriting Capitalism: Literature and the Market in Late Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland (Pittsburgh, 1998), 150-77.

[41] Tygodnik Ilustrowany 44 (November 29, 1904): 831.

[42] J. K., “Uśmiech Japończyka,” Tygodnik Ilustrowany 48 (1904): 922-23.

[43] See Józef Kozłowski, Proletariacka Młoda Polska: Sztuki Plastyczne I Ich Twórcy w Życie Proletariatu Polskiego 1878-1914 (Warsaw, 1986). Kozłowski surveys much of the publishing output during the revolutionary months of 1905 and in the years that followed, most of which was produced in Galicia (Austrian Poland).

[44] Yulia Mikhailova, “Japan and Russia: Mutual Images, 1904-39,” (last accessed September 20, 2005).

[45] Voronov, Borba zheltoi i beloi rasy (Moscow 1904), 78, cited by Mikhailova, “Japan and Russia.”

[46] Eliza Orzeszkowa, cited by John Bates, “Poland,” in Censorship: A World Encyclopedia, ed. Derek Jones (London, 2001) 3:1882-95.

[47] See A. Kuczyński, ed., Syberia w kulturze narodu polskiego (Wrocław, 1998).

[48] Koichi Inoue, “B. Piłsudski’s Proposals of Autonomy and Education for the Sakhalin Ainu” (n.d.), 50, pdf version available at

[49] See A. Kuczyński, ed., Bronisław Piłsudski: Zesłaniec-Ethnograf-Polityk (Wrocław, 2000).

[50] Wacław Sieroszewski, “Among the Hairy People,” (“Wsród kosmatych ludzi,” trans. Alfred F. Majewicz), in The Complete Works of Bronisław Piłsudski, vol. 3, Materials for the Study of the Ainu Language and Folklore 2 (New York, 1998), 699. At the end of their fieldwork, Sieroszewski returned to Europe via the Japanese mainland and Korea, while Piłsudski joined his family in Sakhalin, staying there until the eve of the Japanese occupation, when he too fled to Europe via the Japanese mainland.

[51] Kazuhiko Sawada, “Bronisław Piłsudski and Futabatei Shimei,” paper presented at the Third International Conference on Bronisław Piłsudski and His Scholarly Heritage, Kraków and Zakopane, 1999.

[52] Sieroszewski, “Among the Hairy People,” 664, 669.

[53] Ibid, 674.

[54] David Luke Howell, Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Berkeley, 2005), esp. chap. 7.

[55] Edward Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), 150.


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