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Public and national museums owe much of their treasures to private collections. Many began as private collections -- royal, aristocratic, or of connoisseurs -- and subsequently became public. Many more have grown and diversified primarily through private benefactors. A astute individual recognizes objects of value, collects and researches them; and others follow suit, drawing upon his example and expertise. One need only recall such examples as Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Henry Clay Frick, or Chicago's Daniel J. Terra, whose collection became its own independent museum. Often institutions consult private collectors to guide their own acquisitions: collectors specialize and surpass hard-tasked generalists; they exercise uncompromising judgement; and often, in the case of art, they form supportive liaisons with living artists. Private collections, directed and coherent, always exert a strong fascination.
The above observations explain why Part I, in what is planned as series of exhibitions from the Christopher Sztyber collection of Contemporary Polish Art, is an important showing. The Sztyber collection is an actively growing undertaking, and it may be approaching the most comprehensive and methodically selected representation of modern Polish paintings in the United States. The quality of the work is very high, and its areas of interest encompass not only accomplished and renowned artists, but exceptional emerging talents. Thirty featured works in "Polish Paintings in the Sztyber Collection: Part I," will be on display at The Society for Arts, Gallery 1112, at 1112 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, until January 7, 2001.
Grzegorz Stec is prominent among the eleven artists selected from the Sztyber collections, and he is here represented by three canvases: Sand (Piasek) (1997, Oil on canvas, 39 1/2"x39 1/2"); Studio (Pracownia) (1993, Oil on canvas, 26"x36 1/2"); and Tower of Babel (Wieza Babel) (1997, Oil on canvas, 59"x79"). Stec, born on January 24, 1955 in Cracow, Poland, was graduated from the Faculty of Graphic Arts in the Academy of the Arts in Cracow in 1981. Stec's paintings display a striking interplay of vivid color with turbulent brushwork. His paintings counterpoise what seems a fluid working of paint with a disciplined feel for final composition. At first glance, his allegoric fantasies, so reminiscent of a modern Hieronymous Bosch, seem abstractions. But the artist, in an interview with Ewa Krason has stated: "There is no abstract painting. As we get to know the world, nature and all its structures, we discover that all the forms we try to dub abstract already exist. We are made of the world and we cannot think with anything else but the world." A viewer, drawn to the work, upon closer inspection discovers and explores the core of actuality in each painting. Stec, who paints constantly, begins with impulse, a worldly response, and builds creative tension until a painting brings itself to fruition. In his virtuosity, expression and interpretation are unhindered by difficulty of medium or technique. In that same conversation with Krason, Stec observed: "Technique is very important to me. Fully mastered, it permits freedom." (In the catalogue, exodus or carnival: new paintings by Grzegorz Stec (1112 gallery: 1997).)
Sand exemplifies Stec's art. At a reasonable viewing distance, it conjures a sense of super-realism. Upon closer examination, the detail dissolves into loose, impressionistic brushwork. The mountains of Sand, at close sight, seem cob-webbed cinder, ancient and unregarded. The human 'gravel' which constitutes the clashing armies dwarfed below and at the fore, upon closer inspection, dissolve into flecks and specks of color. Their most eye-catching feature are their pennants of war, and their pikes and staves aligned toward the central clash of arms. In all, Sand would seem a commentary, subtle and entirely in image, upon the vanity of human strife, obscured in mists, unmindful of the enduring majesty towering about it: Man, no matter how heroic or self-gloried, here seems an ant, unremarkable and all too soon prepared for a return to dust again.
Grzegorz Stec told art critic, Ewa Krason: "I believe that the deeper one enters oneself, the more learns about oneself, the better the chance for genuine and not concocted originality. On the other hand, when I hold but a small leaf in my hand, I become humble." Tower of Babel would seem to follow a similar theme. Here, the borders of the canvas crop what seems an even more immense domed tower, honeycombed in tiers of eremite cells or coraline rows of windows. The tower evokes a sense of great, but unreal industry, mindlessly applied and futilely repeated. Studio presents a space far more confined, an architecture as much mental as visual. A strong, sun-like focus of light above the painting's indistinct forms adds to the phantasmagoric effect -- artist's studio as a Dante's Purgatorio or a labyrinth by Piranesi. The working style in paintings such as these displays an opulence of palette worthy of Gustave Moreau.
Jan Lebenstein, was born in 1930, and survived the Nazi occupation of Poland. He received his diploma from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in the mid 1950s. Lebenstein died in 1999 after years of ill health. Much of his painting emerged as cycles of work -- "Monstrous Animals" ("Potworne zwierzeta"), "Intimate Notebook" ("Notatnik intymny"), and the like. In the 1960s, the substance of his work shifted from mystical idols to subdued, monochromatic paintings, but a synthesis of mythology and modernity pervades much of his art. His mature technique often reinforces and highlights flat surface contours with a thickly applied impasto to produce paintings approaching bas-relief. This latter low sculpting of raised, often globular paint ridge and mass in many works contributes to a distinctive, pebbly texture of the painting's surface. Lebenstein's palette favors a scheme of subtle earth hues: ochres, umbers, sepias -- and, where reds, violets or blues do enter in, they emerge in subdued, twilight tones, gently desaturated.
Axial Figurine # 124 (Figura Osiowa # 124) (1961), in its irregular, imperfect axial symmetry, recalls a Rorschach blot, one resulting as if from an immense and monstrous insect crushed into the panel. Elements within the composition blend natural forms and textures which recall both arthropod and devil-fish: a procrustean unity of living, primitive morphologies. Patagonia (1964: Oil on canvas) seems a well-preserved fossil vertebrate, vaguely mammal-like, or reptilian, which has been needled into view from within a slab of rock. Lebenstein ranged widely for inspiration and the title is suggestive. Charles Darwin, traveling on the H.M.S.Beagle, visited Patagonia in 1883-84; and his fossil discoveries -- toxodonts, glyptodonts, giant sloths -- retrieved during that Argentine visit, furthered theories of evolution and extinction. In Patagonia, Lebenstein evokes both fossil relic, and at the same time, memories of the dragons and manticores which the mythic sense of man fashioned from them. Demode (1965), a wry title (French for 'out-of-date') seems closer to a partially articulated mummy of Patagonian flesh and bones, although in the converged masses of the matrix there are as well suggestions of severed feet and similar portions of the human torso. Lebenstein's paintings, surpassing their meticulous working of media and detail, provoke overtones and obligatos beyond immediate theme. Balloon Baba (1967), despite the female's large rump, displays ribs protrusive in relief: here is revealed a plentitude of flesh, branded with a prefigurement of mortal flesh's ultimate destiny. At the exhibition's opening, Lebenstein's paintings drew particular discussion among gallery visitors. Jan Lebenstein would have been deeply pleased.
In 1959, Lebenstein received the Grand Prix de la Ville de Paris. His work is represented in the New York Museum of Modern Art by 27 items; in the Smithsonian Institution Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., by thirteen pieces; in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and in numerous similar institutions.
Kiejstut Bereznicki is represented by three paintings, all oils on canvas: Washing (Obmywanie) (1992); Family Scene in Blue (Scena Rodzinna w blekitach) (1994); and Kitchen Still life (Martwa natura kuchenna) (1992). Bereznicki is a particularly interesting painter. His works in this showing reveal an somewhat Dutch Gothic sense of decorum: a quiet, if not stoic, religious sensibility akin to Rogier van der Weyden or Hugo van der Goes. But Kiejstut Bereznicki transforms that meditation to a far more contemporary and yet austere Classical expression. His figures are not the high-born and genteel personages frequent in past masters, but simple, working-class people. The artist's personal idiom here invests a religious iconology with a renewed and authentic expression: they are consonant with our present-day awareness of their source and inspiration. The Jesus of the Gospels was born in a manger, and for much of his life worked as a carpenter. In this artist's choice to finely and delicately distill his portraiture, rather than employ an rich, but illusory naturalism, attention is focused upon each painting's content, not upon the virtuosity of its interpreter. Bereznicki, in exposition, seems in sympathy with such an American artist as Grant Wood and the latter's American Gothic (1930), albeit without the American's half admiring, half touch of irony toward his subject. His paintings in this exhibition reveal a authenticity and serious consideration which befits a society that suffered two catastrophic world wars, as well as a subsequent and failed 'dialectical materialism.'
One first impression upon viewing Bereznicki's paintings in this showing was that they arise from what D.H.Lawrence named "the real stuff of tragedy... the primitive, primal earth, where instinctive life heaves up... [and] the deep, black, source from whence all these little contents of life are drawn." ("Study of Thomas Hardy" and Other Essays, Ed. Bruce Steele (Cambridge: 1985).) In these paintings, each person seems wrapped in a private grief, even as they wrap the body in its death cloth. Bereznicki's paintings evoke the dignity of a great revelation, clothed in low circumstance, yet one which reveals itself in the intimate decorum of common faces and simplest objects. This series does recall the insight of D.H.Lawrence's short story, "Odour of Chrysanthemums": the moment when the corpse of the dead miner, smothered by a roof collapse, is brought home to his mother and his family, to be washed and prepared for burial.
And, in that same prose, Lawrence might have well been referring to Bereznicki's Family Scene in Blue (Scena Rodzinna w blekitach):
A similar reserve is revealed in the titles of Bereznicki's paintings. A viewer is called upon to discern and recognize the art's frame of reference; to see it as actuality, not as idealized, stylized... which today is accounted dismissible (because complacently held as rote cultural baggage). Here is an earthy, and earthly reality, accessible, yet held at a distance for considered scrutiny. A viewer is prompted to seek for himself the very unmundane, the spiritual intent contained therein. Bereznicki's approach presumes no uncritical sympathies, coerces no assent without consideration of his subject. This strategy is furthered by the artist's inclusion of sparse but telling detail and formal gesture which calls for viewer interpretation. In centuries of Christian metaphor, the soul has been compared to a bird caged within the body, and in Washing (Obmywanie), such a cage is presented by the woman framed in a window at right. In Family Scene in Blue (Scena Rodzinna w blekitach), one notes the carpenter's hammer beside the washing bowl. They serve as pregnant emblems for the initiated. Bereznicki writes as well as paints, and his poems and drawings were featured in the arts monthly, Arkusz (Paper Sheet) (Poznan: May 1999).
Kazimierz Ostrowski's Shipyard (Stocznia) (1970: Oil on canvas) analyzes its named subject in terms of Cubist paradigms, and it's dominant color scheme rests with blues, greys and white. One discerns affinities with Kasimir Malevich, and Russian pre-Revolutionary Constructivism, but a salient aspect of this painting is its overall integration of component foci, and a dynamic, sustained tension between horizontal and vertical stress. Shipyard (Stocznia) displays a near decorative, seemingly muralistic formalism of geometry which, in its clean line and sharply defined tesselations, abstracts its subject and yet gratifies.
The paintings in the Sztyber collection, despite their great variety, have an edge, content. That may arise from the judgement and taste of the collector. But, having seen a large survey of art from Central Europe, a certain distinctiveness emerges. A country such as Poland, part of European history, remained aware of the course of art elsewhere, even when it was not cultivated or encouraged. Art there has always been a essential act of life, and modern history has offered no leisure or idle self-complacency to eviscerate it. One reads art writing from the U.S. and Western Europe... To frivolously speculate the fine points of arcana about art -- 'Deconstructionism,' [Arthur C.] 'Dantoism,' and the ilk -- contrasts with art arising from rich ground, art which has been hardened and which has prevailed with greater resolve in the face of adversity. Post-WWII regimes which sought to totalitarianize art ended with pruning and envigorating it. In this art there is content, content with significance. Perhaps the only single trait which fully links these diverse artists is a conviction that art is a vital activity, one which passes from artist to viewer; an activity which, whatever its intents and purposes, nonetheless is infused with import and consequence, open-ended perhaps, even contrary to itself, but vital and generative.
The artists presented in Part I of the Christopher Sztyber Collection are: Kiejstut Bereznicki, Krystyna Brechwa, Antoni Kowalski, Jan Lebenstein, Henryk Musialowicz, Kazimierz Ostrowski, Janusz Przybylski, Franciszek Starowieyski, Grzegorz Stec, Andrzej Umiastowski, Jacek Wojciechowski
Thirty featured works in "POLISH PAINTINGS in the Sztyber Collection," Part I, will be on display at The Society for Arts, Gallery 1112, at 1112 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, until January 7, 2001. The website for Gallery 1112, The Society for Arts is http://www.societyforarts.com
Finis Part I
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editorial Note: Some of the most useful sources in English for these artists are the several catalogues published by The Society For Arts, Chicago, and available at Gallery 1112, 1112 North Milwaukee Avenue, in that city. Of particular note are the society's Contemporary Warsaw Masters (1996), eternal energy: painting of Henryk Musialowicz (1995), Grzegorz Stec (1997), and Jacek Wojciechowski 1998). A catalogue of the Christopher Sztyber Collection is planned in 2001. "Odour of Chrysanthemums" is in D.H.Lawrence's The Prussian Officer and Other Stories (Oxford University Press: 1995).
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