France, collection particulière.
A Polish painter born in Lviv in what is now Ukraine, Jan Styka was studying as of 1877 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna which was known for the quality of its teaching. He won a Gold Medal for a painting representing Ulysses Hunting a Boar. Styka’s education culminated with a year in Rome; he remained emotionally attached to this city which would be his last residence. In particular, he produced forty-five paintings of the Life of Christ for the Vatican. Painter, but also a talented poet and writer, Jan Styka was the personal friend of Tolstoy, with whom he entertained a steady correspondence. In close touch with France, Styka exhibited at the Salon of French Artists starting in 1886. Perhaps it was the memory of his painting which won the medal at the Academy of Vienna which led to the commission to illustrate Homer’s Odyssey, published in 500 examples between 1922 and 1927 by the Société Générale d’Imprimerie and d’Edition (General Society of Printing and Publishing) in Paris. A conscientious artist, Styka traveled faithfully in Ulysses’ footsteps before undertaking this series of eighty-two paintings, from which our work stems.
At the end of the twelfth song in the Odyssey, Ulysses, after having been shipwrecked, was almost engulfed by Charybdis. The daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, Charybdis, along with Scylla, guarded a strait which later was identified as that of Messina. Three times a day, she swallowed and then regurgitated the sea and everything to be found in it, a poetic personification of the whirlpools so redoubted by ancient Greek sailors. Ulysses, though the raft on which he navigated was swallowed by Charybdis, caught hold of a fig tree which dominated the entrance to the abyss, and thus was able to regain what remained of his craft when it was returned to him.
“...those timbers came forth to view from out Charybdis. And I let myself drop down hands and feet, and plunged heavily in the midst of the waters beyond the long timbers, and sitting on these I rowed hard with my hands. But the father of gods and of men suffered me no more to behold Scylla, else I should never have escaped from utter doom."
Jan Styka depicts the very end of the episode. At the lower edge of the painting, an exhausted Ulysses clings to the vestiges of his raft. Behind him, the tumultuous waves are reminders of his harsh combat against the elements. The entrance of the grotto can be seen in the background; above it, rises the stripped branch of the life-saving fig tree. Color choice accentuates the dramatic emphasis of the scene. In response to the white of the foam on the waves, and the browns of Charybde’s lair, the movement of Ulysses’ red tunic swirls and envelopes his muscular body. Perhaps he was thus concealed from Scylla, and therefore was able to arrive safe and sound, at the dawn of Book 13, on the Island of the Nymph Calypso who would retain him for seven years.
Aleksander MAŁACZYŃSKI, Jan Styka (szkic biograficzny), Lviv, 1930.
Homère, Odyssée d’Homère / par Jan Styka, Paris, Société générale d’impression et d’édition, 1922-1927 (reprint, La Belle feuille, 2011).