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THE RIB AND THE CLAY:
The Forgotten, Visionary Work of “Mad” Martwy Przyszły
A Retrospective on the Underappreciated Painter Whose Singular Haunting Vision Is Comparable in Scope And Ambition To The Greatest of Mid-19th Century Romantic Painters And Mayhaps, In Some Ways, Surpasses Them
Originally written in 1967 by Jergen Bergen, translated from original German, Polish and French by John Chrostek
Martwy Przyszly was born on June 6th, 1799 on the Western border of the newly deceased Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania. His father, Jassa Przyszły, was the fifth son of a line of minor Polish nobles who lost much of his ancestral lands and goods after the chaos of the Third Partition. It fell to Martwy’s mother, Annalise, to raise the family as Jassa fell into drink and a life of general rakedom. Annalise was German, the daughter of a banker with ties to the court of Catherine The Great, though any political opportunity that might have afforded the Przyszłys was lost after a disastrous masquerade ball in St. Petersburg wherein Jassa, piss drunk off Slavic wine, dueled and killed another drunk noble for insulting the replacement copper buttons of his doublet. They were forced to flee under the cover of darkness in order to protect Jassa from Russian prosecution and were henceforth incapable of ever restoring their family’s original wealth and status.
In the shadow of their father’s many failures and personality defects, the Przyszły family (two sons, one daughter) were educated modestly and distant from his influence. Annalise was a well-educated and resourceful woman and did much to allow her children to nourish their own abilities and interests as best as she was able. It was said that once she had permitted a young Caspar David Friedrich to spend the night at their dilapidated summer villa nestled close to the river Oder, though this was unsubstantiated outside of scandalous, albeit entertainingly and curiously detailed letters later written by Martwy himself to his muse and great love, the prostitute Theodora. Martwy later claimed this evening in the company of the painter to be a formative moment in his own artistic development. The truth of this statement, like many made by Martwy, is impossible to prove, as Caspar never publicly acknowledged Martwy’s work or existence in general.
At 16, Martwy experienced what many scholars consider to be the defining experience of his childhood and the experiential centerpiece of his art. It was on a cold March morning when Jassa, returning home from a night of debauchery at the local tavern, somehow fell into a barrel of pitch and set himself ablaze. The entire family present at home at the time (Martwy’s eldest sibling had already left home for a more dignified existence in Prague) awoke to find their father immolating wildly on the house grounds. Martwy later recounted in a letter to Theodora that his father, “despite the unquenchable heat of the blaze and his unbroken shouts of anguish and rage, his body, quickly stripping itself of clothes and flesh, moved about as if in casual motion, as if it had only just begun the day’s routine.” Jassa, it was said, carried on this way for half an hour before finally coming to his final rest facing the rising sun.
The first of Martwy’s skeletal portraits, the central leitmotif across his small but fascinating oeuvre, was created in the weeks after the funeral. Titled “Die Ackerfräse” (Fig. B), it depicts in charcoal an unfleshed farmer tilling the fields. It is roughly detailed, with a dark and harshly contrasted sky, and yet most curiously, it depicts the undead laborer as smiling, as though he eagerly awaits the season’s harvest that he himself has no faculty to taste. This author finds it to be strangely comforting, as if we are all the laboring dead and it is fine to be so.
This work is currently in the private collection of famed British magician and mentalist David Berglas.
In the months following Jassa’s immolation, Annalise sold the family’s remaining holdings. Her primary motivation was to assure tuition and a decent pension for Martwy and his two elder siblings, but it easily inferred that she no longer wished to live as the governess of her now dead husband’s dwindling estate. Annalise told her son to enroll in Jagiellonian University and to study painting there.
Two months after Martwy had relocated to his modest Krakow flat, Annalise poisoned herself with a cup of hemlock in the manner of Socrates. She left a will enforcing the gradual release of her children’s pension, “to sustain and never corrupt them, so that they might never fear their future.” (Collected Letters, p. 27)
Years later, after the initial shock and pain of his parents’ violent passing had given way to understanding (that his parents were flawed yet singular people, that he himself was made from their strange mold, that there was no true way through this world without a self that is flayed to the bone), a newly graduated M. Przyszly dedicated his famous painting “Mutter Ernte” (Fig. C) to her at its grand reveal in Prague, financed by Martwy’s eldest brother Fałszywy Przyszly, who had since become successful in the shipping industry. The painting depicts a skeleton lounging on luxurious linens, surrounded by citrus fruits and jewels, implying the wealth and vibrancy offered him by his mother’s selfless, quiet death. If I may be so bold, looking upon this painting, I feel as though, in his acceptance and mythologizing of his mother’s death, Martwy has suggested, for the first time, that a human life truly is nothing more than an object before the lens, that the image is as much a sort of reality as anything. This is, of course, unsubstantiated by direct sources, and yet I feel it to be true.
Armed with a college degree and a small modicum of fame, Martwy Przyszły set about on a meandering European tour, financed by his mother’s pension and cheques from Fałszywy when business was good. For close to a decade, Martwy flitted around salons, brothels and learned parlors in Vilnus, Zurich, Rome, Athens, Paris and more. He became acquainted with emigre artists and thinkers like Goethe and Adam Mickiewicz. It is heavily speculated that during this period Martwy, like much of Europe, had a brief fling with Lord Byron, the two men “engaged in revelries at a Venetian brothel together for half a fortnight, sharing all in furious wisdom and abandon.” (Collected Letters, p. 45)
Little work survives from Martwy’s grand tour. It has been corroborated by many sources that Martwy’s core artistic output were sketches in pen and charcoal, manic slapdash expressions of a man with little emotional ties to responsibility or to the concept of his legacy. In that manner, there are as many reports that in his revelries and travels, Martwy’s latent manias, likely a genetic gift of his late father, bubbled to the forefront. As explosive and charismatic as he was in this period, so too was he destructive.
It is believed that much of his work in this period was destroyed by his own hand.
In “Helle Eichel der Sonne” (Fig. D), one of his only surviving works of this period, we see a maturation in his style, an expressive, manic brush still quite confident in its mastery. The figure of the seated skeleton, in repose in some unidentifiable columned building, is not aflame but is rather as much a living flame as he is bone. What does it mean, then, to be dead and yet still alight with chemical motion? It does not matter if our art will not be seen by the outer world, if we are fated to disappear inside the works of other masters, a footnote to a footnote of history. Still we burn.
The 1830’s marked a significant change in Martwy. The November Uprising of 1830, when Polish-Lithuanian military cadets rose up against the increasingly oppressive Russian Empire, sparked a nationalist fervor in Martwy. Over the span of four months working from his brother’s guest house just outside of Prague, Martwy created three nearly identical renditions of his most famous painting, “Serce Imperium” (Fig. A.) A stunningly direct condemnation of the rule of Tsar Alexander I, it shows a skeletal king adorned in jewels and finery, reminding the viewer that all men must one day die and no earthly comfort can protect our souls from the judgment and decay that awaits us. A bold, dangerous and alluring painting, it stands among the classics of European art, no matter what those insufferable hacks at the Louvre might say. Four million euros is a pathetic, insulting sum to offer for this masterpiece at auction, and their staff should be deeply ashamed (and perhaps replaced with more learned individuals) for this gross oversight of human history.
Martwy displayed one copy in Prague, to much scandal and attention. The second was sent to Adam Mickiewicz in Rome, to be delivered, if possible, to Pope Pius VIII. The third, at great danger and expense, was delivered to Alexander himself. This proved to have been a dangerous gambit. Alexander, already at that point a paranoid and vengeful regent, set out at once to exact revenge for the insult this Polish emigre had delivered unto him.
In 1832, while sailing on a private ship across the Mediterranean sea, Martwy’s brother was thrown overboard. His body was never recovered. To escape a similar fate, Martwy left Prague for good later that year, taking up with other Polish refugees in Paris. Bereft of his brother’s financial and emotional support, Martwy was incensed, powerless and destitute.
It was then, at this dire lowpoint, he met Theodora. In his first letter addressed to Theodora, Martwy says:
“You have bewitched me, root and flower, to this accursed plane, bound to the rocks in fixed pursuit of your illuminated star. I would stand and watch the seasons pale and bloom to marvel at your color, I would grow like moss on the dead bark of my own chest to breathe new life beside you. Oh [Theodora], let me again into your chamber. I have nothing but this desire…” (Collected Letters, p. 110)
Theodora seems to have enjoyed his company, responding at great length to his many letters, though her answers seem to betray a lack of full emotional commitment. An intelligent and modern woman who sought to improve her station in life, she was reluctant to hitch herself entirely to the romantic yet troubled man still marked for death by the Tsar of the Russian Empire.
For his part, Martwy seemed to relish this soft rejection, likely due to the guilt he still carried for the death of his mother Annalise, though there is no surviving letter that lays this out plainly. He painted much in this period, including “Ta, która kocha to, co dawno utracone,” (Fig. E) said to depict Theodora’s closest likeness in his paintings. The painting depicts a beautiful maiden, adorned in floral fineries, pressed in a chaste yet loving embrace of an armored skeletal knight. The maiden’s eyes, gazing into the dark holes of the skull knight’s sockets, seem at once artificially lit yet silvered with grand emotion.
Around this time marks the first of Martwy’s first “visions.” Like many of the Polish Romantics of the period, Martwy grew increasingly focused on mysticism, rejecting the doctrines of the Catholic Church powerfully prevalent in Paris at the time.
However, unlike his contemporaries, Martwy’s mysticism veered far from any kind of productive and romantic goal for mankind.
In a letter to Theodora, Martwy described his vision thusly:
“In the maelstrom that rose before me, all of Paris vanished into smoke, ephemeral. I could see it, then: The world of a far distant tomorrow. It burns, my dear Theodora, I despair to say. It burns like the infernal depths, but it is no hell but this, our green and loving earth. It is coming to our doors, and we are trapped like mewling rats before its great and quiet ending.” (Collected Letters, p. 133)
Theodora sought to assure Martwy, writing back:
Do not fear what awaits this world. What comes a hundred years or more is of no grand concern. We have blue skies and fertile grapes upon our vines. Be merry, sad dove. You have lived a hundred deaths already.” (Collected Letters, p. 133)
Theodora’s efforts were sadly in vain. Martwy, consumed by the immediacy of his visions, became despondent and erratic. Within months, much of the Polish community in Paris had disowned him. Records show he was detained by city guards twice for screaming about demons in the Place des États-Unis.
Around this time, Theodora stopped responding to his letters, though his own continued at a rapid pace. Her final correspondences were brief and deeply pained, but she had found a suitor of noble birth who she described as “kind and delicate, like you once were, dear Martwy.” (Collected Letters, p. 150)
In Martwy’s final letter to Theodora, he described a vision unlike any he had seen before.
“I see it now: The god within the glass. It is not awake, not yet quite yet, though its great gift for dreaming has permeated the here and now. I understand, my rose, that I am myself a product of this god. I am the fruit upon its vine. I look at my own paint upon the canvas and see it clear as summer sun: I have done nothing in this life that shall survive, or rather, I have never been alive.
All that I see is what the demon sees. All that I am is in these words. My love, My Theodora, I ask that you too dream of me. That you keep me like a fire on your mantle as you look out at the darkest night. I do not believe there is another way.” (Collected Letters, p. 165)
On June 6th, 1837, Martwy set off for Calais, France. While there, he found and bartered with a local fisherman for use of his small boat. He offered a paltry sum of francs as well as a painting, the last documented painting of his oeuvre.
It was entitled “Le monde qu'il promet” (Fig. F).
This haunting work depicts a skeleton overlooking a foggy landscape in a similar composition and style to Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.” But unlike that famous masterpiece, “The World He Promises” is stark, smoggy, distinctly modern. Upon close inspection, the entire painting seems to be composed of small points, predating the Pointillist movement by some years. There is a distinctly inhuman sense to the work, as if it was discovered rather than created by human hands. What could this mean? Was Martwy’s great breakdown the source of unknowable insight? And what is this “god within the glass?” Though many lesser scholars of Przyszły’s work have suggested it was simply a schizophrenia breakdown, all these simple, reductive theories offer us is a canned, simplistic reading of his words.
If I may be so bold, I would suggest that what Martwy saw as a “demon,” as the “god within the glass”, was in fact the unassailable truth that this world and all that is contained within it, is a simulation. Martwy, guiding light that he was, reveals to us who listen that this world we live in is a grand lie, that nothing is true and all is illusion. Martwy, guiding light that he was, reveals to us who listen that this world we live in is a grand lie, that nothing is true and all is illusion. There is comfort in that, insofar as there is comfort in anything. A day is not a wasted day, for there is no such thing as a day. A life is not a wasted life, for there is no such thing as a life. Some of us may find comfort in that. There is no singular 'ghost in the machine' — there are several. There are many. They are us.
According to records, Martwy departed from Calais the next day, June 7th, sailing northward on his new boat.
His remains were never found.