Postmortem: “Five Dead” by Karol Beyer

Composition Five Dead.
Postmortem Five Dead.

The earthly path of any person always ends the same way – inevitable death. A scientist leaves a legacy to future generations of great discoveries, an artist and sculptor – brilliant works of art, a poet – poems that pierce the consciousness of the reader even after many decades and centuries. And what will remain in this world as a memory of a simple person who did not do anything outstanding during his lifetime? When the post-mortem arose in Europe in the 19th century, a fashion for taking photos with deceased relatives appeared. Many photographs have survived to this day in which festively dressed family members are captured in the company of the dead. But sometimes the tradition was broken: the photographer took post-mortem photographs of people whose death was associated with some socio-political events.

Photo collage Five dead.
Postmortem collage Five dead.

In Warsaw in 1861, the winter turned out to be really hot – in January-February, anti-tsarist sentiment reached its peak and the streets were filled with demonstrators. During this historical period, part of Poland was under the Russian Empire, but radical Poles did not want to put up with this situation and staged demonstrations for any reason. These rallies did not always end peacefully; On February 27, 1861, troops opened fire on demonstrators, killing five people.

This frightening measure did not stop or calm the Poles. The day after the execution, the famous Warsaw photographer Karol Beyer took post-mortem photographs of the executed men and created a kind of collage from them. The photographs were immediately multiplied and distributed throughout Poland. The dead Warsaw citizens were buried with honors, and the names of each of them have since been inscribed in Polish history. These are tailor apprentice Filip Adamkiewicz, high school student Michal Archiewicz, mechanic Karol Brendel, Warsaw residents Zdzislaw Rutkowski and Pavel Karczewski.

Postmortem Funeral of the five victims.
Funeral of the five victims.

Researchers note that post-mortem photography played two important roles in this case. Firstly, it was some kind of report following the tragic events of February 27th. Secondly, instead of the intimidation effect expected by the authorities, the Polish people united, and the photograph of the executed people became a national relic. In memory of the death of ordinary Warsaw citizens, many paintings were created, the poet Or-Ota (Arthur Opman) wrote a poem, and our contemporaries are reminded of the events of that time by a tombstone at the Powązkowski military cemetery (the oldest necropolis in Warsaw).

Postmortem The grave of the five victims in Warsaw.
The grave of the five victims in Warsaw.
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