Polish Treasures at the Hunterian. Migrations through the lens of art

Online exhibition


The Hunterian and Archives & Special Collections at the University of Glasgow host an impressive and varied selection of objects created by Polish artists throughout the centuries. The exhibition presented here, showcases this hidden treasure and highlights the presence of Polish artists and artworks in Scotland.

Over the last few decades, the UK foreign-born population more than doubled – it went from 3.8 million in 1993 to 9.5 million in 2019.[1]  According to NRS Scotland in 2019 ‘of the 7% of Scotland’s population who were non-British nationals, 237,000 (64%) were EU nationals of which the most common nationality was Polish with 97,000 Polish nationals living in Scotland’.[2]

The picture of Polish migrants, and migrants in general, painted by the populist media is often biased, shallow and stereotypical. I hope that the exhibition would enable the dissemination of a more nuanced image of Polish migrants in Scotland and offer an insight into Polish culture.

By creating the exhibition in an online form I aim to provide a resource for teachers and families interested in teaching and discussing the topic of migration with children, provide tools they could use and inspire them to explore the rich Hunterian collections in search of other items, be it those related to the heritage of children learning in Scottish schools or not, stimulating and satisfying in a non-stereotypical way pupils’ interest in learning about cultures and people unknown to them.

The items in the Hunterian collections created by Polish artists or coming from Poland either migrated to Scotland themselves, being acquired or gifted to the host collection, or were created in Scotland by artists of Polish origin who settled here. Those objects reflect the movement and the settlement of people in Scotland but also the complexity of the process of migration and the arbitrariness of marking people or artworks as Polish, Scottish, British, Russian or Ukrainian.

GLAHA:21177, “Le Comptoir”, Marcoussis, Louis, 1920 – 1920, etching,aquatint and drypoint, print, ink on paper (close-up of the label)

This project builds on Shklovsky’s perception that ‘art is the means to live through the making of a thing’ [3] and that in the process of experiencing an artwork the viewers can gain deeper insights into the experience that led to creating it, and build the connection with ‘the other’. I hope that the exhibition would help in the dissemination of a more nuanced image of a ‘migrant’, the process of migration and inspire new perspectives from which migration could be approached.

Understanding more about migration may not prevent future forced migrations but may allow us to see the other not as a migrant or a refugee but as a person like us that happened to be blown by various political and historical forces from one place to another as many others have been and many, most likely, will be.


With the current war in Ukraine, it feels appropriate that the exhibition opens with two artworks created in Medyka  – a place that is currently one of the biggest border crossings between Ukraine and Poland.

GLAHA:40682, Warsaw bootseller, Kielisinski, Kajetan Wincenzy, 1835 – 1835, etching, print, gold leaf over ink on cream wove paper

GLAHA:40681, Sniecianz Krakowski, Kielisinski, Kajetan Wincenzy, 1835, etching, print, ink on white wove paper

These two works were created over two centuries ago by Kajetan Wincenty (Wawrzyniec) Kielisiński, Polish draftsman well known for his watercolours and small etchings in which he captured genre scenes, architecture, folklore and dress customs of his time.  He was born in Mieronice,  in the Świętokrzyskie mountains in August 7, 1808 not long after the last partition of Poland which in 1975 wiped Poland from the map of Europe. There was no border in Medyka at that time – the political map looked significantly different to what it looked like a few decades before and, equally, to what it looks like now. Medyka, now in Poland, was then part of Galicia as well as Lviv, now in Ukraine. There was no border between them but there was a border between Medyka and Warsaw, where Kielisiński studied art at the University of Warsaw. After being involved in the November Uprising Kielisiński admittedly had to assume false identity [4] when travelling there.

 Poland, 1814, Pinkerton, Rumsey collection https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~3797~370009:Poland-

Kielisiński was the custodian of Gwalbert Pawlikowski’s collections in Medyka between 1834 and 1839 and it was there that he learned etching. Even though in his letter to Ferdynand Chotomski  Kielisiński complains that this technique cruelly exposed his lack of drawing skills[5], during this time he created a number of etchings as well as watercolours. In his works, he depicted not only the inhabitants of Krakow and Warsaw seen in the works in the Hunterian  collections but during his travels through Galicia he also depicted people living in Lviv and other towns and villages east of Medyka. In 1839 he moved to Kórnik, near Poznan where he worked as a librarian for Tytus Działyński and continued his work of documenting people and places in his drawings.


GLAHA:54087/a, Fraget, ca.1850, ink-stand, silver

Political movements were also instrumental in other types of migrations. The ink-stand presented above, a fascinating piece of silverware supporting two slightly radioactive uranium glass containers, belonged to American-born artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) whose ancestors migrated to America from Scotland. It came to the Hunterian as part of a collection of over 350 pieces of flatware and cutlery from the Whistler Estate but was made in Warsaw in the workshop of Joseph Fraget – a businessman born in France.

The ink-stand was created a few decades after Kieślowski was born. At the time of its creation, Warsaw was a centre of the Polish Kingdom established in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna on the part of the land that was previously annexed by Prussia. It was reigned by the Tsar Alexander I  who was also given the title of the King of Poland. His politics attracted many foreigners to come and build their companies and lives in Warsaw.

GLAHA:54087/a, Fraget, ca.1850, ink-stand, silver (detail)

Fraget company was founded in 1824 by two French businessmen, the brothers Alphonse and Joseph (in Polish Józef, 1797-1867) Fraget. In 1845 Alphonse left the company in hands of his brother and returned to France. Between 1847 and 1849 Joseph travelled around Europe where he learned about the new technique of electroplating and brought the invention and its teacher with him to Warsaw where he refurbished the factory. The new technology of covering cheaper metal with silver became very popular and silver-plated objects produced by Fraget quickly became well known all over the world.


GLAHA:42303, “Paris Bird market”, Exter, Alexandra; 1882-1949, 1926 – 1926, watercolour, drawing, watercolour on paper

Another work in the Hunterian collections associated with Poland is “Paris Bird market” by Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster, also known as Alexandra Exter or Olexandra Exter. Sources often also provide her name in Russian: Алекса́ндра Алекса́ндровна Эксте́р and Ukrainian: Олекса́ндра Олекса́ндрівна Е́кстер. Born in 1882 as Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Grigorovich in Białystok, now in Poland, then in the Grodno Governorate of the Russian Empire, to a Belarusian father and a Greek mother, she studied art and graduated from the Kiev Art School in 1906. In 1908 she married a lawyer from Kyiv and together they travelled to Paris where she met, between many, Picasso, Braque, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Filippo Marinetti, Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Fernand Léger. Subsequently, she lived, worked and exhibited in Kyiv, St. Petersburg, Odessa, Paris and Moscow, working and socialising with Aleksandr Vesnin, Lyubov’ Popova, Aleksandr Rodchenko,  Varvara Stepanova, Goncharova, Tatlin and Malevitch,  to name just a few. Part of the avant-garde movement after the revolution she stayed in Russia as long as her mother lived and in 1924  ‘prudently left for Paris (…), when the nature of the Soviet regime, her art, and her origins put her in jeopardy’ [6]. In Paris she taught stage design and painting at Leger’s Academie d’ Art Moderne. Kubism, constructivism, futurism inspired her but she was never associated with one movement, and later in her life she returned to figurative painting. The Hunterian holds her work entitled ‘Paris Bird market’ created in 1926 in Paris when she worked with the puppeteer Nechama Szmuszkowicz on a set of 40 marionettes for the never realised film project.

At this time Białystok, Exter’s birthplace was almost in the centre of the newly resurrected after the First World War Poland. Due to her place of birth Exter is sometimes described as a Russian or Ukrainian or French painter of Polish birth, but her biography was much more complex and the notion of one’s national identity can be influenced by several factors, including but not limited to one’s place of birth, family relations, heritage, culture, language, religion and lastly the place and people with whom one lives.


There are many other Polish-born artists born around the turn of the century, whose works can be found in the Hunterian collections. Some of them are David Seifert and Moise Kisling.  Both were born in Polish Jewish families and travelled across Europe, initially for education and later escaping two world wars that affected their lives, some founding temporary refuge in the United States .

GLAHA:46511, Still-Life with a bowl of fruit, Seifert, David, 1925 – 1930, wood engraving, print, black ink on  Japanese paper

GLAHA:46512, “Bathers”, Seifert, David, 1925 – 1930, wood engraving, print, black ink on  Japanese paper

David Seifert was born in 1896, in Wolanka (now Волянка/ Volyanka) near Lviv in what was then still Galicia. He studied in Lviv, then in Weimar. In 1914 he decided to continue his studies in Krakow. Subsequently he lived a couple of years in Berlin and in 1924 moved to France. He initially stayed in Paris but in 1933  moved to South France. After a few years he returned to Paris and in 1960 settled in a house near Meudon (Paris) where he died in 1980.

GLAHA:57565, Die Brucke, Kisling, Moise, c.1910-1953, print, ink on paper

GLAHA:3253, Youth seated on the ground, Kisling, Moise, print, printed in black

Moise Kisling was born in Krakow in 1891. He also studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow ( with Jozef Pankiewicz). He moved to Paris in 1910, was part of the artistic circles there, was a friend with Modigliani and Seifert with whom he spent time in Southern France. During the World War II Kisling sought refuge in the USA. He returned to France after the war and died in his house in Sanary sur Mer in 1953.



Another artist whose works are in the Hunterian collections is Jankel Adler (Jankiel Jakub Adler). He was born in 1895 as the seventh of ten children in a Jewish family in Tuszyn  near Łódź,  a city often seen as a Polish equivalent of Glasgow due to its industrial and cultural history. He studied etching in Belgrade and Barmen, lived and worked in Łódź, Berlin and Dusseldorf.

His was influenced by Picasso and Léger as well as by Chagall whom he met in Berlin and Paul Klee with whom he shared a studio in Dusseldorf. After Hitler’s rose to power Adler, being Jew and modern artist was prosecuted. He moved to Paris and subsequently enrolled into the Polish army formed in France.  When he was discharged in 1941 he settled in Kirkcudbright in Scotland, but a couple of years later moved to England where he died in 1949. He is described as an artist who ‘stands midway between Picasso and Klee’. [7] The works in the Hunterian are an example of relatively early pre-war period and his very late work.

GLAHA:21310, Head of a Girl, Adler, Jankel, 1923 – 1927, print, ink on paper

The ‘Head of the Girl’ is a drypoint on zinc dated between 1923 and 27 which falls onto the time of his travels in Germany, Mallorca and Spain finished in 1925 and his first years in Dusseldorf before he met Paul Klee. His journey to Mallorka and Spain intensified his move towards abstraction, syntetic cubism, very bold outline and rich texture [8] as well as references to Picasso’s work.

GLAHA:50628, Landscape, Adler, Jankel, 1948, colour lithograph, print, black

‘Landscape’, on the other hand,  is a colour lithograph representing much later period of his work. It was created in 1948, a year before the artist’s unexpected death at the age of 53 during the time when he lived in a ‘Whitley Cottage’ in Aldbourne, a picturesque village north-east of Marlborough, Wiltshire, England.



GLAHA:44152, Professor Alan M. Boase (1902-1982), Herman, Josef, 1942, painting, tempera and gouache on board

GLAHA:17874, Two Miners, Herman, Josef, c.1930-1962, print, lithograph, ink on paper

Josef Herman, born in 1911 in Warsaw, was a younger friend of Jankiel Adler. Adler depicted both of them in his work ‘Orphans’ 1941 currently the Tate.[7] Both of the artists were Polish Jews, sought refuge in the UK, and after their initial time in Glasgow moved to England in 1943.

It was during his time in Glasgow when Herman portreyed Professor Alan M. Boase (1902–1982), Marshall Professor of French at the University of Glasgow who played a role in nominating Mark Chagall for an honorary degree from the University (the artist received his honorary degree in 1959). The portrait was executed in 1942 a year before Herman moved to London.

His other work currently in the Hunterian collections was created in the Welsh mining village of Ystradgynlais where Hunter lived from 1944-1953. The ‘image of the miners on the bridge against a glowing sky mystified me for years with its mixture of sadness and grandeur’ [8] wrote the artist reflecting on this period of his life. ‘I do not need a war to make me think of heroism. It is our endurance of the everyday.’- he acknowledged. [9] Herman eventually returned to London and lived there until his death in 2000 but the works from his Welsh period remained of huge significance to his oeuvre. Collins wrote about the ‘monumental dignity’ of the miners Herman depicted and the ‘profondly poetic and romantic dream of the human predicament’ [10] he expressed through this work.


GLAHA:18574, Adam and Eve, Zulawski, Marek, 1959, colour lithograph, print, inks on thick white wove paper

Humanity is often considered anew by 20th-century artists and is reflected in another work in the Hunterian collections: ‘Adam and Eve’ by Marek Żuławski. Żuławski was born in  1908 in Rome, spent his childhood in Zakopane in the Polish mountains, studied in Warsaw and Paris, and in 1937 moved permanently to London where he died in 1985.

Commenting on the French post-war paintings in his memoirs, he wrote: “A man stripped of the dignity he had during the Renaissance or Classicism of the Enlightenment, ceased to be the subject of the painting. If he does appear, it does in a non-individual form, deprived of its distinctive features, automatic or tortured.” For Żuławski however, as noted by Stanisław Frenkiel the most importatn was “[…] the dignity of man as a social being, a struggling and loving man, an oppressed and persecuted man, whose archetype and incarnation is Christ who combines the divine and human nature”.[11]


Yet, another artist born in Poland and displaced by World War II whose work can be found in the Hunterian collections is  Janina (Janka) Małkowska. Małkowska was born in Warsaw in 1912, trained in Warsaw and Vienna and was just starting her artistic career when the war broke out. After the war, she joined her husband who was sent to the Polish settlement in Inveraray.  She settled in Scotland and lived here until her death in 1997. A long-time member of Glasgow Print Studios Małkowska remained faithful to the wood carving technique which she claimed she self-taught during the war. She started creating woodcuts when hiding (and supporting the resistance movement) in the Polish mountains. She later recalled that she carved  her first woodcuts with a knife and printed them using a spoon to press the image onto the paper as there were no other tools available.

GLAHA:53376, “50 Years After”, Malkowska, Janka; 1912-1997, 1989 – 1997, woodcut, print, printed in black/brown on cream Arches paper

GLAHA:53379, “Elleni”, Malkowska, Janka; 1912-1997, 1989 – 1997, woodcut, print, printed in brown and blue-green on cream paper

GLAHA:53378, “Old Town”, Malkowska, Janka; 1912-1997, 1989 – 1997, woodcut, print, printed in black on dark grey paper

Of the five works in the Hunterian authored by Małkowska two are portraits (including one self-portrait), one depicts an urban landscape and two have  complex cultural references.

GLAHA:53377, “Prima Vera”, Malkowska, Janka; 1912-1997, 1989 – 1997, woodcut, print, printed in black on brown laid paper

“Prima Vera” means ‘spring’ in Italian and the artwork references the famous ‘Spring’ by Botticelli as well as potentially one of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. However, Prima Vera depicted by Małkowska  carved in wood and wearing a wreath resembling a bird’s nest with a bird in it, positioned against the backdrop of the sun or full moon, also evokes  traditional folk art and references Slavic folk stories. Additionally, the date of its creation – year 1989 – brings to mind the story of the fall of communism in central Europe – ‘Storia della primavera europea’ –  as the Italian translation of the ‘The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ’89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Berlin’ by Garton Ash Timothy suggest.

GLAHA:50824, “Petrushka’s Ghost”, Malkowska, Janka; 1912-1997, 1982, woodcut, print, ink on paper

Petrushka’s Ghost, on the other hand, refers to a Russian folk story – a  story of a puppet that is more human than the evil magician who brought it to life.  The story of his tragic love has been adapted by Igor Stravinski into a ballet. Stravinski, a composer of Russian origins, Polish heritage and complex migratory history was meant to work on the ‘Rite of Spring’ for Sergei Diaghilev when he started playing with the theme of the Russian folktale. Encouraged by Diaghilev he developed it into a ballet entitled ‘Petrushka’. The role of  Petrushka was given to Vaslav Nijinsky yet another fascinating artist with a complex biography and Polish roots.  Małkowska’s work magnificently captures the dance movements through which the  the humanity of the puppet at once rejected and tragically embodied in his clunky moves is expressed.



GLAHA:17569, ‘From the Inside’, Opalka, Roman, 1969, etching, print, ink on paper

The Hunterian also holds in its collection an etching by Roman Opałka, Polish painter and etcher, who was born in Abbeville (France) in 1931 and died in Rome in 2011. He was most commonly known as the ‘painter who counts’ for in his most famous cycle „Opałka 1965 /1 – ∞” he created paintings consisting of consecutive numbers. He himself said that he wanted to be a ‘painter-hourglass’ noting that ‘klepsydra’ (hourglass in Polish) also means ‘obituary’ and this was a life-long project depicting the world and/in the passage of time.

The work in the Hunterian collection is part of the cycle ‘Describing the World’ the last one Opałka created before focusing exclusively on the ‘counting’ cycle. As such the cycle expresses ideas leading to the creation of the monumental work of a lifetime – the cycle „Opałka 1965 /1 – ∞”. ‘Describing the World’ cycle had biblical connotations and included works such as ‘Adam and Eve’, for which the artist received an award at the World Graphic Biennale in Bradford, UK in 1858 and ‘Tower of Babel’ from 1968. Whilst the work at the Hunterian is titled ‘Earth’ the title of the later version of the same print from the 70s consists of the handwritten citation from the Bible “E faro si che la tua progenie sara come la polvere della terra” which translates to English as “And I will make your offspring be like the dust of the earth”. It is followed in the Bible by the words “…so that if anyone can count the dust of the earth, your offspring can also be counted.”