I recently discovered the above website, which posts a bi-monthly competition to write something based on a chosen work of art. This was my first attempt: a creative response to the painting ‘Frenzy’ by the Polish artist Wladislaw Podkowinski, in which I imagined the backstory behind the painting. Researching the artist, I discovered that he had slashed the painting towards the end of its exhibition at a gallery in Warsaw, and that it was possibly inspired by a young woman named Ewa Kotarbińska – I then wrote my own account of what could have happened to inspire the painting and to prompt Podkowinski to mutilate his own work. The result of this was the short story ‘Frenzy’, published on the website on August 1st 2019. Feel free to have a look at the Ekphrastic Review, to see the painting and the many poems written by other people and inspired by ‘Frenzy of Exultations’.
From the moment he saw her, his heart was in a frenzy.
The young artist, Wladyslaw Podkowinski, had not intended to fall in love when he visited a summer palace in his native city of Warsaw in 1893. In actual fact, his mind was on other matters: although he’d worked as an illustrator for the Tygodnik Ilustrowany magazine from 1886, his vision had changed in 1889 when he’d visited Paris and come face to face with a selection of works by Monet and the other up and coming ‘impressionists’ who were making a name for themselves as a bunch of renegades who eschewed the rigid and restrictive confines of the Salon de Paris. As he’d viewed Van Gogh’s swirling masterpiece, ‘The Starry Night’, he’d known that he too wanted to pour all his emotion into a maelstrom of colour and texture. The idea filled his mind so that, for the next few years, he thought of little else but creating a painting like this.
Ewa Kotarbińska had such a profound affect on him that she almost displaced his desire to paint: almost, but not quite. Blessed with pleasing curves and long dark hair that was confined to a lady-like chignon, she was the most beautiful creature the twenty-seven-year old youth had ever seen. The more he gazed on her from afar, the more his longing for her swirled into his need to put brush to canvas. He had been entertaining dreams of earning his living with a paintbrush ever since his visit to Paris and now he finally had the inspiration he needed for the work that he hoped would become his masterpiece.
Too gauche to know how to express his feelings to Ewa herself, Podkowinski worshipped his goddess from a distance, producing so many preparatory sketches that he could have filled an exhibition with those alone. Meanwhile, Ewa was totally unaware of her young swain’s affections. At twenty-three, she was still zealously chaperoned by her widowed mother and aunt, who were anxious that she should make a good marriage. In fact, the decision to summer here at Wilanów had been made with the sole purpose of finding her a husband – ideally, an older man with the right connections and enough money to compensate for the lack of dowry.
Podkowinski was obviously not the kind of man Ewa’s mother had in mind: he had neither money nor the requisite background. What he did have, however, was talent. Growing up in Warsaw, he’d visited the Wilanów Palace on countless occasions before this one and had always admired the equestrian portrait of Count Stanislas Potocki by Jacques-Louis David; this became his inspiration for the painting he now visualised, with Ewa taking the role usually adopted by kings or generals, riding a horse, perfectly in tune with the powerful beast. It would be a symbolic representation of the way she had harnessed his heart and now drove him into a frenzy with her presence.
Gradually, the work began to take shape. After secretly watching Ewa for months and observing every detail of her face, Podkowinski had sufficient preliminary oil sketches and charcoal studies to be able to retire to the shared studio he was renting and throw himself wholeheartedly into creating his masterpiece. He rejected the traditional method of setting horse and rider against a realistic background, choosing instead to divide his canvas into light and dark to represent the duality of his love for Ewa. The horse should be rearing, he decided, to symbolise the wild, untameable nature of passion. He wasn’t sure at this stage whether the horse was himself or his frenzied desire, but it must be a black horse, he decided now: one that would blend in with the swirling, dark background; and the rider should be naked, to express raw need and passion. Initially, he painted Ewa as she was: a brunette with rippling locks; then, bowing to pressure from a fellow artist who was a staunch follower of the English artist Millais, he transformed her into a redhead, realising that the dark hair had been lost against the horse’s ebony coat.
Little by little, he added more detail. The frenetic nature of the horse was expressed through its open mouth – teeth bared and tongue hanging out – and its wild rolling eyes. Next, he added dilated nostrils and flecks of foam escaping from the horse’s mouth, reminiscent of the nights he’d recently spent with assorted prostitutes. He’d initially sought them out on the backstreets of Warsaw merely to use as life models, needing to capture the lines of the female form and celebrate naked feminine flesh. The girls in question had made it clear that they didn’t care what he did, as long as he paid them afterwards; but after spending hours gazing at their dimpled nudity, it would have seemed churlish not to take them to his bed to warm them up. As each body lay beneath him, he imagined he was making love to Ewa; and after a few glasses of wine, all the girls had her face anyway. Then, he had been the rider; now he showed a different balance of power as Ewa clasped the horse’s neck with her eyes closed as if in ecstasy and her unbound hair flowed upwards to mingle with the horse’s mane. Would she understand the significance? he wondered. Would she realise that he was hinting at their own physical union, of bodies flowing together in mutual need and passion?
Rejecting the full colour palette, he worked in blacks, browns and greys for the darker, right hand side of the painting, swirling the horse’s hind legs and tail into the accompanying darkness that was Ewa’s ignorance of him. His one hope now was to invite her to see the finished painting once he mounted his exhibition; consequently, he illuminated the upper left corner, focussing the viewers’ attention on the clear figure of the woman, on her pale, naked flesh and contrasting fiery hair.
He painted feverishly, little realising that his tiredness and fatigue were symptoms of something far more serious than unrequited love. After two months of painting through the night, foregoing sleep and eating very little, Podkowinski collapsed in his studio with his masterpiece still unfinished. The lung disease he had ignored for years, despite doctors’ warnings, had finally caught up with him and he knew he had not long to live: a few years at most.
Refusing to give up on either his painting or his beloved, he completed ‘Frenzy of Exultations’ from his bed. It had already been promised to the Zachęta gallery in Warsaw for its exhibition which would be opening on 18 March 1894 and he knew he could not afford to miss the deadline.
He had been so caught up in capturing the height of erotic ecstasy he felt whenever he thought of Ewa that he had not paused to think of the public’s response. The combination of sexual fantasy and female dominance created an atmosphere of scandal and sensation, so that on the first day alone of the exhibition a thousand people came to stare at the painting. By the end of the month, it had been viewed by twelve thousand.
Aware that he had little time left, Podkowinski demanded the staggering price of 10,000 rubles for the painting. It had made the gallery 350 rubles in its first month, but that was not enough to warrant such a ludicrous sum: instead, he was offered 3,000 rubles, which he declined. Ewa was yet to attend the exhibition (she had been visiting relatives for six weeks) and he wanted to show her that he could support them both with his art. Since he had never formally met her or her mother, he issued a tasteful, dignified invitation for Madam Kotarbińska and her family to attend the exhibition before it closed at the end of April, adding that he thought Miss Ewa in particular would be pleasantly surprised by one of the paintings.
Ewa’s family had been absent from Warsaw when the scandal originally broke. Now back in the family residence, they were beginning to hear whispers of the decadent and sacrilegious painting that was still drawing shocked and scandalised crowds – even if only to condemn and criticise. The whole city was talking about it: it would be social suicide to choose not to go.
On the afternoon of the twenty-second of April 1894, thirty-five days after the exhibition’s opening, Ewa finally walked through the doors of the Zachęta gallery with her family and her fiancé. Podkowinski’s heart fluttered as he saw her enter: he had been dreaming of this moment ever since he began his masterpiece. Surely no woman could fail to be impressed by a man who had poured out his heart and soul in a painting that encapsulated her beauty?
Mesmerised by the vision of his goddess in front of him, he stood transfixed as she approached with her family, completely unaware that the man whose arm she held was not her father or her uncle but a rival for her affection. A formal introduction was made by the director of the gallery, who was ecstatic that Count Żółtowski had deigned to visit his exhibition with this local family.
“Mr Podkowinski, Sir,” her mother began in cultured tones, “it was an honour to receive your invitation. May I present my daughter, Ewa, and my sister, Madam Brzezinski.” She paused, enjoying the sensation of the next words. “And the Count Żółtowski, who is to marry my daughter.”
The Count clicked his heels together respectfully whilst Podkowinski stood aghast. No! his mind protested. Ewa could not marry this man who looked old enough to be her father! The Count was at least fifty and there was nothing at all romantic in his appearance. Besides, and now his fevered brain slowly began to think logically, once Ewa saw her portrait, she would realize Podkowinski’s feelings for her and know that her destiny was to be his and his alone.
Slowly, he led the way to the wall at the far end of the gallery where ‘Frenzy of Exultations’ was, as usual, surrounded by murmuring crowds. The Kotarbińska party gazed eagerly at the canvas, then Ewa let out a horrified cry. Meanwhile, the Count pressed his lips together tightly, his face suddenly as pale as his fiancée’s flesh tones in the painting before them. Madam Kotarbińska regarded the painter coldly.
“How dare you, Sir!” she said at last, the epithet dripping with disdain. “You have brought dishonour upon my entire family!”
Ewa was sobbing quietly now. The shock of seeing her own face superimposed upon a completely naked body was too much for her. She would never be able to live this down. Never.
Podkowinski was amazed at the collective reaction: he had expected praise and adulation, not disapprobation. Whilst he struggled to find the words that would somehow salvage the situation, Count Żółtowski turned on his heel and stalked away.
“You will be hearing from our family lawyers!” Madam Kotarbińska burst out as she watched her daughter’s future leave the gallery. Inwardly, she was seething. Although she knew that her daughter had most definitely never posed for any painter at all, let alone a depraved dauber such as this, the rest of Warsaw would assume that Ewa had modelled for the man – and perhaps worse. There would have to be some sort of official disclaimer – in the right newspapers, naturally – to make it clear to society as a whole that this painting was fraudulent; but she doubted that the Count would want to be associated with the scandal.
As Ewa continued to sob, Podkowinski offered an apology. “Your pardon, Madam. This was not meant to offend: I thought to flatter your daughter by capturing her beauty for posterity.”
Had Ewa’s father still been living, Madam Kotarbińska was certain that he would have challenged this degenerate womaniser to a duel. Still, there would be financial repercussions: she would see to that. Grabbing her distraught daughter and startled sister, she swept out of the gallery.
Podkowinski drank heavily that night. Unable to understand why Ewa had rejected him, he decided that if he couldn’t gaze on her naked form, then no one else should either. Early next morning, he placed a knife in his pocket and carried it to the exhibition, where he viciously slashed Ewa’s face and body, desecrating his masterpiece just as Ewa herself had destroyed his hope. It was the thirty-sixth day of the exhibition.
By the time the gallery director realised what he had done, it was too late: the same crowds who had eagerly flocked to see the titillating spectacle of a beautiful, naked woman astride a phallically symbolic horse, gasped in delighted horror at the ruined painting, interpreting the violent destruction as some form of sado-masochism. Meanwhile, in the corner of the room, a paralytic Podkowinski sat and laughed bitterly, cursing God for creating women. He died shortly afterwards, and there was speculation that it was suicide, instigated by his lover’s cruel rejection of him in favour of Count Żółtowski.
No matter how strenuously Madam Kotarbińska denied the rumours, a frenzy of scandal surrounded the painting for years to come.