Muzeum Historyczno-Etnograficzne im. Juliana Rydzkowskiego w Chojnicach

The works of Józef Chełmowski in the collections of The Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice.

The presentation of the works by Józef Chełmowski in the collection of the Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice is a complement to the studies published in museum publications on the works of this great Kashubian folk artist from Brusy.[1]

The oldest document in the Chojnice archives of folk artists in the region, referring to Józef Chełmowski - a curriculum vitae, which he himself wrote and dated 21 February, 1976 – is evidence of his collaboration with the Chojnice museum from the earliest years of his work.  At that time, he could already boast participation in 15 group exhibitions, and receiving several distinctions in various contests, while in a survey he filled out in 1981, the artist lists 8 large museums hosting his works. After over 40 years of artistic creation, it is not possible to give a precise number of his participations in various contests and exhibitions in Poland and abroad.  In 1978, Chełmowski participated in the Kashubian region folk art contest in Chojnice for the first time, and won first prize for his sculptures[2]; he then participated in every edition of this contest until the year 2008.[3]

A selection of the works by Józef Chełmowski in the collection of the Chojnice museum includes 48 artefacts made during the years 1976-2007 consisting of sculptures, paintings, paintings on glass or paintings on wood as well as nativity scenes, toys and folk musical instruments.

The first work, which was purchased for the collection in 1977 and created by the artist one year before, is a representation of St. Hedwig of Silesia (cat.1) which has been created in a manner following the tradition of a shrine Madonna, a characteristic feature of his artistic work.  Here, the doors placed at chest height conceal the attribute of St. Hedwig: a representation of the Virgin Mary. Some other works realized in a similar manner, also opened as a whole figure, include inscriptions or symbols helping to express the thoughts of the artist and clarify the message conveyed by his work.

In 1982 Chełmowski made several representations of St.  Maximilian Kolbe, who was canonized that same year. These works are evidence that artists as well as institutions hosting folk art contests react immediately to current events.  Contests, especially those relating to a particular subject had a great impact on the themes of the artist's work in the initial period of his career.  Invitations encouraged him to read textbooks and albums, and contacts with other artists and their works inspired Chełmowski to present his own point of view on the subject of the competition.  The Chojnice collection hosts two different representations of St. Maximilian Kolbe. The first - typical of the artist, representing a statue of the Saint (cat.3) 96 cm high, equipped with opening doors as well, concealing inscriptions and signs referring to the death of M. Kolbe, including a striped uniform, camp number and a phenol syringe. In the other representation (cat.5) St. Maximilian is accompanied by the Immaculate Mary carrying a white and red crown in her hands.  "Wernyhora" is an especially interesting work within the group of sculptures made in 1982 (cat.4). The legendary bard was placed on a stand representing an open book with a commentary by the author referring to the prophecy concerning the fate of Poland.  The form of the sculpture, named by the author: Moses breaks the tablets of the law (cat.18) was undoubtedly influenced by the artist's contact with the author of a reproduction of Rembrandt's Moses with the tablets of law.  With his hands raised high above his head, the biblical Moses holds the black tablets with Hebrew inscriptions. Clearly inspired by the painting, Chełmowski additionally placed a curved silhouette of a dragon, - Satan - the incarnation of sin on the garment of Moses, and the reason for the desperate act of the Israelites. The sculpture was found in the group of works highly distinguished in the 15th Contest of the Contemporary Folk Art in Kashubia, Chojnice, 1995. Previously, in two other contests - Kashubia included in their names - 1998 (cat.7) and 1987 (cat.9) the artist presented sculptures of genre scenes, reflecting the climate of everyday life in the Kashubia region, inscribing the spoken Kashubian language of the represented characters on their stands.

The work which definitely increases the value of the collection is a sculpture made in 1985 at the request of the Chojnice museum curators, in order to have it included in the newly created permanent exhibition named: The Art of the Kashubia region – representing the Madonna as Hodegetria (cat.6), the entire figure of Mother Mary and Child, full of royal majesty and proud of the Divine Son.  The features were greatly emphasized by the compact form of the statue as well as harmonious polychrome.  For a few years, the sculpture was a feature of the Człuchowska Gate exhibition, and captured the attention of visitors.  That same exhibition in 1985 presented glass paintings byJózef Chełmowski, who was the first artist in the Chojnice region to independently master this forgotten technique of glass painting, using certain characteristics of the old Kashubian paintings he became familiar with.  Among the three representations of Madonnas, the oldest from 1980 (cat.21) includes an illustration taped to the bottom, and the two others (cat. 25-26, 1984) - a silver aluminium foil background - "tinsel”, and all of them are decorated with motifs from colourful Kashubian embroidery based on the idea of the artist.  For the paintings from 1986-87 the artist used double glass to obtain a perspective of space (cat. 27-30). Only after 1989, when he participated in the workshops under the supervision of Aleksander Błachowski, during which the participants became familiar with the antique 19th century glass paintings and secrets of the true Kashubian glass painting, did he start to slowly draw from the regional Kashubian style - however still keeping the individual and distinctive character of his works.

The fate of Man beyond this world and his visions of heaven, purgatory and hell were represented by the artist in a three piece series of paintings: The first...., The Second..., and The Third doors (cat 22-24). He often paints nativity scenes in various compositions, combining folk art representations rooted in tradition with gospel teachings.  In 1992, he participated in the contest "Christmas in folk art" and not only prepared his sculptures, but also 5 of his paintings, which earned him additional distinctions, as the jury appreciated their artistic value and original approach to the subject.[4] All of them remained in the museum collection (cat.31-33, 35-36), accompanied by the nativity scene with sculptures of the Holy Family, surrounded by shepherds and animals, under a thatched roof.   An exceptionally original nativity scene was presented by Józef Chełmoński in the II National Nativity Scene Contest for Folk Sculptors in Chojnice, 1999.[5] The Holy Family in the stable was placed among the most significant monuments in Chojnice: The Człuchowska Gate and Basilica. The artist added a music box playing Silent Night to the nativity scene, and the crowning inscription says: Wszëtcim lëdzóm dobrë wolë w żëcu (cat.42). The last edition of the contest had the artist paint an oil painting on a wooden board, the scene represented is signed: Bethlehem, set in a painted ornamented frame, harmonized with the colours in the painting.

The few toys and instruments we find there, although enriching the collection, are also an excellent guideline as to how to expand it with new, interesting forms.  I think that the canvas paintings reflecting the philosophical interests and original, pensive outlook on the world of Józef Chełmowski should be a part of the collection as well.

Lidia Białkowska

[1] L.Białkowska, Józef Chełmowski, exhibition guide, The Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice 1994; ibid., Józef Chełmowski, „Baszta” Muzeum H-E Chojnice 1996, p.29; ibid., Kaszubskie malarstwo na szkle, „Baszta” no 9, MH-E Chojnice 2005, pp.60-61; A.Błachowski, Introduction..., in: Józef Chełmowski. Madonny, ed. B. Zagórska, exhibition catalogue, MH-E Chojnice 2007, pp.6-34; L. Białkowska, Józef Chełmowski. Madonny, „Baszta” no 10, MH-E Chojnice 2008, pp.100-101.

[2] M.Bruska, Pokonkursowa wystawa twórczości ludowej regionu Kaszub, the guide, The Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice 1978.

[3] Records of the contests of the contemporary Kashubian folk art, the archives of The Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice 1978-2008.

[4] Records of the "Christmas in a folk sculpture", the archives of The Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice 1992.

[5] Records of the National Nativity Scene Contest for Folk Sculptors, the archives of The Museum of History and Ethnography in Chojnice 1887-2007.