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Franciszek Starowieyski

Franciszek Starowieyski, 2005, photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk
Franciszek Starowieyski, 2005, photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk

A painter, illustrator, printmaker, poster artist, theatre and TV set designer dividing his time between the ateliers of Warsaw and Paris, making some 300 posters and earning the name of one of the finest representatives of the Polish school of posters.

Starowieyski was born on 8 July 1930 in Bratkówka near Krosno to a noble family using the Biberstein coat of arms. During World War II his family moved to Cracow. He first studied painting at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts under Wojciech Weiss and Adam Marczyński (1949-52), and then at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under Michał Bylina, and graduated in 1955.

He was a Kościuszko Foundation scholar and a lecturer at the Berliner Hochschule der Kunste (1980) and at the European Academy of Art in Warsaw (since 1993). He was the hero of Andrzej Papuziński's film Bykowi chwala / Glory to byk as well as appearing in Andrzej Wajda's Danton and Krzysztof Zanussi's Struktura kryształu / The Structure of Crystal. He has taken part in over 200 exhibitions in Poland and abroad, including Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, the United States and Italy. He was the first Pole to have a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (in 1985). He was also known as an art connoisseur and collector specializing in the 17th century. 

He has put on more than twenty performances of his Drawing Theatre in various places of the world. Of these he is particularly pleased with those in Venice and Paris, in Spoleto, Seville and Chicago. He also made sets for a number of theatre performances, including that of Ubu le Roi at the Grand Theatre in Łódź.

Main awards: Grand Prix at the Modern Art Biennial in Sao Paulo (1973), Grand Prix for a film poster at Cannes (1974), Grand Prix at the "International Festival" in Paris (1975), Annual Key Award of the Hollywood Reporter (1975-6), awards at the International Poster Biennial in Warsaw and the International Film Festival in Chicago (1979-82). In 1994 he was honoured with the Golden Mask Award for the sets for Krzysztof Penderecki's Ubu le Roi at the Grand Theatre in Lodz and in 2004 he received the Minister of Culture Award in the fine arts category.

Endowed with a baroque imagination, Starowieyski is highly adept at combining sensuous forms with intellectual messages, producing unexpected effects and shocking surrealist visions. His art is exquisitely ornamental and uses a plethora of unique metaphors and an individual system of signs originating from his beloved baroque esthetics. His paintings reveal a fascination with the sensuous, Rubensian female bodies and convey a reflection on passing and death. Saturated with grotesque and humour, his art combines the real world with creations of his rampant imagination and makes ostentatious references to the 17th century masters.

Starowieyski, who is a master of drawing, says of himself,

"Ever since I remember, drawing has been my language. It best expresses my thoughts".

The calligraphically precise lines of his drawings are impressive. He uses them to buil extraordinary, surrealist visions which combine dissimilar, unrelated motifs to achieve grotesque and metaphorical meanings. His predilection for calligraphy, penchant for fantasy, preference for the macabre and pursuit of the anatomy as well as his chiaroscuro, modeling and dynamic compositions are all rooted in the 17th century. His works often include German-like commentaries styled to look like the 17th century calligraphy, as well as titles executed in ornamental lettering. Since 1970 he has been back-dating his works by three hundred years, maintaining that this reflects the state of his soul and mind, a spirit of a 17th century ancestor having incarnated himself in him. He said in an interview that he has the impression of living "in those times, and the rest - things that took place later, up to what we take to be today - is just a matter of imagination". 

He likes to shock with his art and his behaviour, Salvadore Dali undoubtedly being his role model. He once said, "The viewer expects the artist to scandalize, insult and shock him". His popularity started as early as the 1960s with a series of theatre and film posters. Indeed, owing to him the poster acquired the status of a stand-alone art.

In October 1956 he made Płaczący Golabek Pokoju / The Crying Dove of Peace in a gesture of solidarity with the uprising in Hungary. His 1950s film posters, notably Czterdziesty Pierwszy / 41, Matka / Mother, My z Kronsztad / We from Kronstadt, Poemat pedagogiczny / Paedagogical Poema were styled revolutionary woodcarvings. Later he changed his style several times, experimenting with painting and drawing techniques to convey the atmosphere of a film or a play. An important period in his art was marked by the assignments for the Dramatyczny Theatre, for which he designed . Aniol wstapil do Babilonu / Angel Flying to Babylon, Kochanek / Lover, Lekki Ból / Light Pain, Czerwona Magia / Red Magic. 1962 saw him produce a major, indeed a breakthrough work, Franek V, in which the corner of a 19th-century bank changed into a skull at the bottom. This was the first instance when Starowieyski's art featured elements of baroque, a fascination with the inevitable passage of time and a surrealist combination of unrelated items. Shortly afterwards started his fanciful transformations of ornamental motives. His favourite accessories and objects have included the female body, bones, skulls (Brecht's Mother Courage, Wiśniewski's Koniec Europy / End of Europe), birds' heads (Alban Berg's Lulu, August Strindberg's Taniec smierci / The Dance of Death), snakes, the magic eye - their shapes invariably and extraordinarily transformed.

Predatory and expressive, Starowieyski's posters bring to mind baroque mystery plays - take Zdziczenie obyczajów pośmiertnych / The Decline of Moral Standards After Death to Lesmian's play. Such posters as Musica Per Archi or Golem combine bodies and landscapes into images which emanate mysterious moods. Starowieyski's posters do not illustrate or advertise a film or a play - they are works of art in their own right. The artists himself refers to them as "Franciszek Starowieyski presents" or "a commentary to...".

Starowieyski's 1980s posters are visibly less ornamental and the body is no longer treated as an object. Instead, there is symbolism and biological vitality. The year 1980 also witnessed the launch of the unique Theatre of Drawing. This monumental form of art, first exercised during a plein-air workshop in Swidwin, was born by chance as well as from Starowieyski's need to speak in public. Its direct inspiration was Courbet's painting The Painter's Studio. Each session of public drawing lasts for a few days and follows the same strictly defined rules, such as starting the composition from marking its central point (i.e. drawing a circle without a compass), working with female models, conversation with the public. Every time Starowieyski puts three 3 x 6m stretchers inside a square. The stretchers soon get filled with a swarm of human and animal bodies, with phantasmagories resembling baroque deformations. Starowieyski draws with both hands, dynamically, with a gusto, and yet with an anatomic accuracy. He says that what matters most to him during these sessions is to evoke moods. These are created by the select public which, staying with the artist while he is working with his canvasses, cheers him on.

I want to create a world which is independent from our notions of humanity", confesses Starowieyski. "... I want to obtain a third dimension through the spirituals mood of my pictures.

The Theatres of Drawing are a rare spectacle, a media phenomenon whose artistic value comes not only from the act of creation and the resulting work of art, but also from the accompanying visual effects and - owing to Starowieyski's erudition - the literary aspect. His biggest picture, drawn at the Venice Biennial in 1986, was 24 x 4 m large and had the title Pilgrimage to the Holy Half-Horse.

A lot of controversy was aroused by Starowieyski's Divina Polonia, his vision of Poland's place in Europe. The painting, showing a fat, naked woman - a symbol of Poland - being pulled onto a bull by haughty Europe, appeared in the building of Poland's European Union mission in Brussels in 1998.

In early June 2006 Starowieyski started to work on an allegory of the Poznan Riots of June 1956. A figure of Nike, the goddess of war, is to stand in the centre of the 32 sq m painting, surrounded by several dozen faces symbolizing the Riots' victims. A huge red star, "an allegory of the red scourge of communism", will appear opposite them alongside faces of several communist security servicemen and army officers. Once ready, the work will be presented to the Wielkopolska Regional Management of the Solidarity Union and is likely to join the collection of the H. Cegielski Factory Museum.

Starowieyski died on 23 February 2009 in Warsaw.

Selected exhibitions:

  • 1955 - Arsenal Gallery, Warsaw
  • 1959 - Kordegarda Gallery, Warsaw
  • 1963 - "Biennial of Young Artists", Paris
  • 1973 - "International Art Biennial", Sao Paulo
  • 1975 - "Retrospective Exhibition", National Museum, Poznan
  • 1976 - Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, USA
  • 1980 - Aberbach Gallery, New York (regular contributor)
  • 1985 - Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • 1985 - "Retrospective Exhibition", BWA, Cracow
  • 1986 - "Art Biennial", Venice
  • 1990 - "33rd Festival dei due mondi", Spoleto
  • 1991 - Galeria Plakatu, Warsaw
  • 1992 - Dmochowski Gallery, Paris
  • 1992 - "Retrospective Exhibition", Museum of Lublin
  • 1993 - "Retrospective Exhibition", Reszel Castle
  • 1998 - Artemis Gallery, Cracow (regular contributor)
  • 2000 - Galeria Osobliwosci ESTE, Cracow

Author: Ewa Gorzałek, Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, May 2006; updated: February 2009's picture
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Franciszek Starowieyski


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