click the picture to enlarge


The Warsaw Voice, 2 July 1989

Andrzej Drawicz
Maria Wisnowska: Under a Spell of Love and Death

A legend of days past is the subject of a new book Maria Wisnowska written by a young historian Agata Tuszyńska. Maria Wisnowska, a thirty-five-year old stunning beauty, a darling of theatre audiences and a woman of easy virtue, was shot dead by her lover, a Russian officer on June 30, 1890. She died because she had longed to die. She staged and played the part of her own death.

The event gave rise to a legend, very much in keeping with the epoch's climate. It is legend that Agata Tuszyńska's book looks into. The historian scrutinizes a tangle of events that scandalized Warsaw more than one hundred years ago. The monograph's author writes" "Wisnowska's lifr and death was surrounded by an intricate web of rumour and guesswork, which is so complex that it is very hard to tell the truth from the fiction, all the more so that during her life Wisnowska was involved in the making of her own legend, adding to it a wealth of spicy details, imaginary events and facts. She wanted to appear enigmatic and mysterious.

Talented, beautiful, undpredictable, provocative, seductive Wisnowska lived in the demi-monde disregarding conventional morality. She was desired by men of all walks of life. The artist favoured stormy but short-lived relationships, which often ended tragically. Apparently, already in her youth she longed for a big sleep, for her life seemed like an insatiable craving for death, the final fulfilment.

Wisnowska open challenge against normal existance was a source of countless rumours, hearsay and all manner of conjecture. As well-publized trial of her murderer revealed, the victim had repeatedly demanded that her lover kill her. People even read patriotic motives into her behaviour. Polish-Russian relationships at the time both on the national and personal levels were very complicated and abounded in conflicts and dramatic events tainted by the atmosphere or national subjugation and persecution of things Polish. However, Wisnowska's murder was definitely not a cas in point. The killer, hussar officer Alexander Bartenev was put on trial, pledged guilty and was sentenced to a long prison term in a maximum security jail. Thus, we must clearly look elsewhere for an explanation.

A year after Wisnowska's death, Chekhov wrote that only Dostoyevsky could get to the bottom of such a complex absurdity that the poor artist's life had been. Regrettably, Dostoyevsky was no longer around, but nevertheless the actress's fate attracted the attention of the mediocre talent, there was also a man of great calibre: Ivan Bunin, later to become a Nobel prize winner. He presented his view of the tangle of passion and death in The Case of Cornel Yelagin. In Poland, Wisnowska's case was the subject of a recent novel Black Romance by acclaimed author Wladyslaw Terlecki.

The writing of fiction based on historical themes allows a novelist much freedom of manoeuvre. It helps him to form his own hypotheses that are verifiable only in such an approach. Agata Tuszyńska chose a more modest, but at the same time more difficult method, that of thorough and meticulous examination of original success. She read all there was to read on the subject. She compared testimonies, checked records and looked closely at each and every detail. Then she tackled her analysis in which a literary imagination proved a great asset. Tuszyńska got an insight into Wisnowska's character and conjured up her image in her mind. The result is a very special biography: not a classic vie romancee or a popular sensational piece preying on familiar melodramatic stereotypes to attract readers, but a profound psycho-sociological study, very well researched and written with an undeniable flair. It is truly fascinating book, though the author never resorts to cheap tricks to make her task easier.

And what about the case itself? It eill remain enigmatic, like similar, though not as dramatic cases. Agata Tuszyńska shows us how to accept its mysteries with humility: "After several years of meticulous studies, I am unable categorically to say whether Wisnowska was shot dead with her consent or not. We shall possibly never get an answer to that." The author suggests that the actress was obsessed with death, anticipating the approach of the age of decadence, fin de siecle, collapse of the belief in the sense of existence, total despondency and imminent catastrophes. Wisnowska became aware of all that due to her hightened sensitivity. By performing her decadent act she staged a happening according to the principles of the time that was approaching. It may seem irritating and distasteful judging by today's standards, but it was authenticated with the artist's death.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Wisnowska's grave in a Warsaw cemetery is always covered with fresh flowers. Whatever we think about that legend, it is very much alive. In the present day, so full of worries, so immediate and so prosaic, don't we all long for something extraordinary, even if we do not realize it; the magic spell of love and death, an explosion of passion, art and madness.