22. May 2024

Great Art Encounters – Tribute to Chopin by Jerzy Duda-Gracz

Duda-Gracz tribute to Chopin

I found hidden art treasure in Katowice


I started the Great Art Encounters series because I wanted to write about the background to certain works of art as well as my personal experience of them. And, although the works I have covered thus far have all been by well-known artists, I also wanted to talk about artists who don’t trigger a general spark of recognition.

Although no-one would dispute that masters like Picasso deserve the widespread public recognition they have been awarded – other artists have basked in a limelight and a hype which seems exaggerated. On the other side of the coin, many more richly talented artists never win the acclaim they deserve. They fade away into obscurity because they didn’t have the luck or the financial support that others have.

Artistic success is arbitrary and as unequally distributed as wealth. Great Art Encounters is my own tiny attempt to redress the balance.

Hidden gems

Coming across one of these hidden art gems makes your day. It’s a bit like finding a € 20 note that you’d forgotten about in the pocket of your jacket. Or discovering that the summer dress at the back of your wardrobe which you haven’t worn for three years still fits.

I found just such a jewel on a visit to the Polish city of Katowice in April.

As the capital of the Voivodeship of Silesia, the city grew rich and prosperous from mining the rich seam of coal running under the city.

While mining in Katowice petered out in the late 90s, parts of the coal mine and the old industrial buildings around it have now been given a second lease of life as the location for the Silesian Museum (Muzeum Śląskie).

Embedded within the larger Katowice Cultural Zone, a nascent but promising development. New blocks of modern flats for the well-heeled middle classes, museums and galleries, bars and restaurants too. Yes, this has the potential to be a lush quarter: emblematic of a city turning its back on its industrial past and striding confidently forwards into a slick (and far less sooty) future of services, culture and higher education.

To say that the museum is basically a huge glass-and-steel box, it sits in its surroundings quite unobtrusively. The greater part of the exhibition space is below ground – but the architecture pulls in the daylight to create a lofty, airy space to show off the region’s rich cultural and historical booty. And there’s plenty of that to see, so we buy our tickets, pass through security and dive right in.

Jerzy Duda-Gracz at the Silesian Museum

Besides the Polish painting collection covering favourites such as Jan Matejko, there was an exhibition of work by non-professional artists and a huge section devoted to the history of Silesia. Downstairs, we found an exhibition of photographs taken by the Polish mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz on her pioneering Himalayan expeditions [1].

By the end of all of that, I was feeling tired and my feet were aching. Just one more exhibition to see…did I really need to bother? I’d seen so much good stuff already, surely that was enough for one day. But I do so like to get my money’s worth out of things…

So I amble on into the final dark corner of the museum – an exhibition showing the final cycle of paintings of a Silesian painter called Jerzy Duda-Gracz, inspired by the music of the Polish composer Fryderyk Chopin.

I’m familiar with Chopin and know some of his music, but the name Jerzy Duda-Gracz is entirely new to me. Yet after five minutes in the exhibition, I have decided quite firmly that this artist should be known far beyond the borders of his native country.

These paintings are mesmerising.

Jerzy Duda Gracz Chopin tribute

Artistic synaesthesia

Each of the paintings “depicts” a certain composition by Chopin. They invite the viewer to experience the music in visual form as interpreted by the artist as a manifestation of his own synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia, a condition where the brain routes sensory information through other senses, causes people to experience several senses simultaneously. So, the smell of roses might be inextricably linked to the colour blue for them. Or the word “television” might “be” orange. And, for Duda-Gracz, musical arrangements triggered particular visions, captured for us in these images.

It is a fascinating and deeply personal response to the music. The museum really missed a trick in not providing an audio guide or other possibility to listen to the relevant piece of music while viewing the paintings. To have immersed oneself in the sounds of Chopin while contemplating the image produced from it would have allowed us to peer inside the mind of the artist and ponder his mental creative processes. Why was this piece of music a field of corn, while this one resulted in a village church scene?

A vision of Polishness and passing time

Central to Jerzy Duda-Gracz’s work in this exhibition was the notion of Polishness, which he considered to be especially well embodied in Chopin’s compositions.

When it came to visual representation, he saw that Polish identity as being closely bound up with the rural landscape of Poland – scenes of which dominate the paintings. Quiet woodland clearings, the still waters of wetlands and ponds, and fields of corn under a big, big sky.

Jerzy Duda-Gracz Chopin tribute

The ethereal figures inhabiting these dreamlike scenes seem to rise from the land itself. Swaying with the wind in the trees; dancing and spinning with the grass and the flowers, blown up like a cloud of dust from the road. Part real, part spirit, suffused with folklore, they traverse the lines between the present and the past, the earthly and the mythical.

In line with Duda-Gracz’s signature painting style, the faces of these figures are comical, almost animation. Their bulbous cheeks, oversized buttocks and squat button noses are reminiscent of the drawings of the writer Bruno Schulz – another Polish artist whose work piled pressure on the seam between a brittle, uncertain reality and fantasy.

Yet even with the great wave of movement that sweeps through the collection, the pictures radiate an undeniable melancholy.

Indeed, themes of transience, nostalgia and cultural evolution were themes which Duda-Gracz returned to again and again over the course of his career.

Just like his muse Chopin, he mourned the inevitable changes facing his beloved homeland, and contemplated the transformations it was going through with a certain sadness. All change means saying farewell to what has gone before; letting go to move forwards towards the new. It is this sense of loss and impermanence which infuses Duda-Gracz’s paintings and gives them such a deep emotional resonance.

A farewell to life and everything he knew

This pervading feeling of transience and of things passing may also have been bound up with Duda-Gracz’s feelings about his own life at the time when he created these paintings. He commenced work on the cycle in the final years of the last millennium and continued until his death from a heart attack in 2004.

He had already been suffering from cardiac disease for several years and had survived several heart attacks. He must have known that this would likely be the cause of his final demise and that his time was running out. The Chopin paintings may be seen as a kind of conscious farewell by the artist from the world and the country he loved so much.

Despite being weakened in body, Jerzy Duda-Gracz approached these works with the strength and skill he had built up over his entire artistic career. Conducting extensive and meticulous research into Chopin’s life and music, he submerged himself in the composer’s world to authentically translate the musical compositions into visual form.

A glimpse into Poland’s soul

The result is a profoundly moving experience suffused with the evocative power of Chopin’s music and bringing together two strands of Poland’s extraordinary cultural legacy.

At the time of Duda-Gracz’s death in 2004, Poland once again found itself in a period of deep change. After the painful economic adjustments of the 1990s, it was now moving into the next chapter of its history, acceding to the European Union on 1st May 2004.

For the past 20 years, Poland has been an enthusiastic (if occasionally awkward) member of the EU. With its powerhouse economy and strong military, Poland’s voice and view on the issues of the day are becoming ever more influential on the direction and future development of the Union.

It’s a voice we in Western Europe should pay much more attention to and try to understand – culturally, historically, politically.

For those interested in getting to know the Poland’s complicated and tumultuous story in better detail, the art of Jerzy Duda-Gracz offers an intimate glimpse into the soul of a proud, earthy people.



[1] Wanda Rutkiewicz wrote mountaineering history as the first woman ever to reach the summit of K2. She died on Kangchenjunga in 1992. 


More from the Great Art Encounters series:

“Judith Slaying Holofernes” by Artemisia Gentileschi

“Portrait of Trude Engel” by Egon Schiele

“The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli

“The Slav Epic” by Alphonse Mucha