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On 18 March 1916 the first great Polish exhibition of legionary art, organized by Jerzy Mycielski, was opened in the rooms of the Krakow Society of Friends of Fine Arts. More than 500 works by artists serving in the Polish Legions and those supporting the Legions’ Cause with their art were shown. Originally scheduled to last a month, the exhibition was such a great success that it was extended until the middle of May 1916.
One hundred years later we wish to recall the artists and their works in an exhibition held jointly by the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw and the National Museum in Krakow – both of these institutions boast important collections of legionary art.
The history of the collection held by the National Museum in Krakow goes back to 1916, when Jan Rembowski made a gift of a series of legionary portraits to the institution. Another object of special significance is a donation from 1916, a plaster model of Włodzimierz Konieczny’s sculpture Legionary with a commemorative inscription on the pedestal that reads: KOMENDANTOWI GŁÓWNEMU / JÓZEFOWI PIŁSUDSKIEMU / WIERNY / 2. PUŁK STRZELCÓW / I BRYGADY / 19.III.1916 (TO COMMANDANT / JÓZEF PIŁSUDSKI / FROM THE FAITHFUL / 2nd RIFLE REGIMENT / OF THE 1st BRIGADE / 19 MARCH 1916). The model was used to produce a bronze cast presented to Piłsudski on the day of his patron saint. The sculptor and the legionary who had posed for him were both killed in the Battle of Kostiuchnówka (Kostyukhnivka) on 5 July 1916. The above-mentioned exhibition of the Art of the Polish Legions featured, among other works, a series of drawings by Zygmunt Rozwadowski. The series was purchased by Archduke Charles Stephen of Austria, who visited the exhibition on 13 May 1916 and in 1917 donated it to the National Museum.
It should be noted that exhibitions of legionary art were intended not only to promote the Legions’ Campaign, but also to raise funds for their operations, for example, through the sale of the works on display. The Polish Legions were a volunteer force, subordinate to the command of the Austro-Hungarian Army, but organized and equipped by the Military Department of the Supreme National Committee and funded by the Treasury Department.
In 1920, The Museum received the collection of legionary art held by the Executive Committee of the Supreme National Committee. A document signed by Józef Piłsudski on 29 May 1920 lists 595 items which, in addition to paintings, prints and sculptures, included the types of uniforms used by the Polish Legions, commemorative badges and eagles for military caps. In subsequent years the collection gradually grew, mostly through donations, in particular from the families and heirs of artist-legionaries.
The Polish Army Museum in Warsaw was established by a decree of Commander in Chief Józef Piłsudski on 22 April 1920. The beginnings of its collection of legionary art predates the creation of the Museum itself. Formed through the efforts of the Polish emigration in Vienna, by February 1915 the Polish Military Archives (PAW) was also involved in collecting works of legionary art. Dr. Władysław Semkowicz was President of the Archives, with Prof. Kazimierz Twardowski, Prof. Kazimierz Kostanecki, Prof. Bolesław Ulanowski and Bishop Władysław Bandurski serving as members of its Committee. The Museum Section of PAW collected drawings, sculptures, medals, plaques, patriotic jewellery, photographs etc. During the war all of the materials had been brought from different branches and deposited in Krakow on the premises of the Academy of Arts and Sciences. On 20 December 1918, according to an order by Piłsudski, the collections were to be taken over by the Military and Scientific Institute. The decision coincided with the initiative to establish Poland’s first military museum presented by 2nd Lieutenant Karol Zyndram Maszkowski, Cultural Officer at the Executive Office of the Ministry of the Interior, in a report to the Head of State on 10 January 1919. On 23 January 1919 the Commander in Chief ordered the establishment of such a museum, designating the Royal Castle as its temporary location. Maszkowski, the originator of the Museum and an artist, was appointed its head. Other members of the Board of Directors were the sculptor Władysław Gruberski, Dr. Jan Śliwiński-Effenberger, former Commandant of the Archives of the Polish Legions, and 2nd Lieutenant Antoni Dziedzicki. In September 1919, Lieutenant Józef A. Teslar, also formerly associated with the Archives of the Polish Legions, was dispatched to Krakow to collect the artifacts. When he arrived in Krakow, it turned out that the holdings were scattered and the mission was difficult to accomplish. In a report dated 20 September 1919 Teslar wrote: ‘… Typically for this city, I came up against a Chinese wall of separatism and was assured that Krakow, which had become the owner of the NKN collection, was not going to give anything over to Warsaw, in fact, it would found its own Military Museum.’ Nevertheless, the ‘Inventory Book’ maintained in the years 1919–1920 states that as many as 739 objects, works of art and photographs had been accumulated at the Royal Castle within less than a year. The Polish Military Museum did not survive the confrontation with a competitive concept promoted by Bronisław Gembarzewski, the then director of the National Museum in Warsaw, who suggested to the military authorities that a Museum of the Army be created on the basis of the militaria held by the former institution and that the two museums be located in the same building (as a temporary solution).
The holdings of the Polish Military Museum went to the Army Museum, forming the foundation of the collection of legionary art that would be expanded throughout the interwar period by donations, deposits and acquisitions.
The paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures on show illustrate the battle trail of the Polish Legions: from the departure of the First Cadre Company from Oleandry on 6 August 1914, through the fighting of the 1st Brigade in Podhale in 1914 and in the Kingdom of Poland in 1915, the Carpathian Campaign of the 2nd Brigade (1914–1915) and the Volhynian Campaign (1915–1916), fought by all three brigades of the Legions, the formation of the Polish Auxiliary Corps and the Polish Armed Force, to the Oath Crisis of 1917 and the rebellion of the 2nd Brigade at Rarańcza (Redkovtsy) in 1918. The replica of a trench and dugout which forms part of the display shows the conditions on the front lines of the First World War and the workplace of artist-legionaries. The room located beyond the model of the dugout is dedicated to portraits of the artists, poets and writers who created the art of the Polish Legions.