Forging Nazi Documents and Drawing for Kings: Czesław Słania’s Story
Best-known as a post stamp creator, Czesław Słania mastered engraving to perfection and could make stunning miniatures less than a few millimetres tall. This unusual ability allowed him to perform an invaluable service for the anti-Nazi resistance in Poland.
In 1998, Czesław Słania went to China. A meet and greet was scheduled for his Chinese fans; the stamp creator expected to shake a couple of hands and sign a dozen autographs. At the designated location, he found 150,000 fans impatiently waiting for him. His admirers were so enthusiastic that, after several hours of autograph signing, he had to be escorted through the back door. The 300 policeman guarding the event were starting to lose control of the crowd…
In the world of miniature painting, Słania was a rock star. Best known for his post stamps, he also created banknotes and portraits. He favoured engraving, an antiquated technique in our digital era, but one he mastered to perfection. This art involves carving the mirror image of a design onto a wooden or metal plate with a special tool, a graver. The incisions are then filled with ink and the plate is used for printing. One square millimetre of work by Słania can include up to 80 tiny squares cut by him. Interestingly enough, the grandmaster almost didn’t become a professional artist. As a student he was seriously considering becoming a forester.
Forging documents for the resistance
Czesław Słania was born in the Polish town of Czeladź on October 22 1921, but he grew up in Osmolice, a village near Lublin in Eastern Poland. As a child, he already showed exceptional artistic skill. However he much preferred exploring forests to drawing during his formative years. When the devastation of World War II took Poland by storm, he joined the anti-Nazi resistance. He forged German documents like passes and certificates, allowing many insurgents to infiltrate key surroundings. After the war he became a student of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, but his ambition was to become a forester.
One of his instructors, Witold Chomicz, made him change his mind by insisting that his talent was too great to be cast aside. Eventually Słania graduated and landed a job with Security Printing Works, a Polish state institution producing banknotes and post stamps. His first official stamp, a work made in collaboration with another engraver, appeared in March 1951: a portrait of General Dąbrowski. It wasn’t long before he started working individually and in the years 1951-1956 he designed 23 stamps for his employer. In 1956 he boarded a ship headed for Sweden, where the authorities let him go to receive specialised lung treatment. Once there, he chose not to return to the oppressive communist regime ruling over Poland at the time.
Working for King Gustaf
At first Słania made a living in Sweden as a blue-collar worker. He had to wait until 1960 to get a chance to work on an official Swedish post stamp. He completed an unfinished work by the noted Swedish engraver Sven Evert (a portrait) and also made an authorial design showing the painter Andreas Zorn. The results of his work were so impressive that he was hired at the Swedish postage stamp office the same year. There he created pieces showing nature and sports. He was so skilled that he was chosen to design a series of post stamps commemorating the 90th birthday of the Swedish king Gustaf VI Adolf. The monarch liked them so much that he named Słania Royal Court Engraver in 1972. Overall the Pole created more than 300 stamps for Sweden. One of the most noted, issued in March 2000, shows part of a plafond from a royal Swedish residence. Słania’s thousandth stamp, it measures 81 mm by 61 mm and is the biggest-ever official stamp made by steel engraving.
Słania’s work in Sweden made him famous all over the world. He created stamps for many countries including the US, Monaco, Jamaica, China and Australia. He also designed banknotes for Israel, Lithuania, Argentina and other states. Słania rose to such prominence that in the 1980s his first fan club was created in Stockholm. Now there are others in America, Denmark and Poland. The master engraver often visited his home country, especially towards the end of his life, to spend his summers Osmolice.
When Słania wasn’t busy professionally he would often make miniature portraits of monarchs, boxers and movie stars such as Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren. He also had the curious habit of leaving extremely tiny and therefore secret symbols in his pieces. These can only be seen when magnified and include names and images of the artist’s friends. During his long life Słania received numerous awards. He died on March 17 2005 in Kraków and was buried in that city. He used to say that his miniatures were the most important thing in his life.
Author: Marek Kępa, July 2016