January 31st, 2013 Headsman
On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.
And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.
“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.
When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.
Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.
(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)
Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.
It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …
-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground
So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.
This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).
The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!
Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.
Also on this date
- 1679: Robert Foulkes, adulterous minister
- 1902: A day in the death penalty around the Pacific Northwest
- 1632: Aris Kindt, Rembrandt subject
- 1879: Takahashi Oden, dokufu and she-demon
- 1955: Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar
- 1945: Private Eddie Slovik, the last American shot for desertion
- 1606: Guy Fawkes and other Gunpowder Plot conspirators
Tags: 1920s, 1923, art, bush v. gore, elections, eligiusz niewiadomski, gabriel narutowicz, january 31, maurycy zamoyski, nationalism, nationalists, stefan zeromski, warsaw, warsaw citadel, world war i, young poland, zacheta national gallery of art