Painter and draughtsman, educator and journalist, leading representative of the Colorist movement in Polish painting of the 1930s and in post World War II art in Poland. Jan Cybis was born in 1897 and died in 1972.
Cybis began to study law soon after World War I but abandoned these studies in 1919 in favor of enrolling at the Academy of Art and the Arts Industry in Wrocław; Otto Mueller, a former member of the Die Bruecke group of Expressionists, guided Cybis through his studies in art until 1921.
Cybis perfected his skills as a painter between 1921 and 1924 at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, where he was a student of Józef Mehoffer, Ignacy Pieńkowski, and Józef Pankiewicz. In 1923 he became a member of the group of Pankiewicz's students who founded the Komitet Paryski / Paris Committee. The following year he traveled to Paris with Seweryn Boraczok, Józef Czapski, Józef Jarema, Artur Nacht-Samborski, Tadeusz Potworowski, Hanna Rudzka, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Janina Przecławska-Strzałecka, Janusz Strzałecki, and Marian Szczyrbuła, where the group enrolled in the branch of the Krakow Academy founded by Pankiewicz in that city. Cybis participated in the first exhibition of the Capists at the Galerie Zak (1930) in Paris and in the subsequent presentation of their paintings at the Galerie Moos in Geneva (1931).
In 1931 he returned to Poland, inciting an expansion of Colorism, which began to reign supreme in Polish painting of the inter-war period. He was among the creators of the Capist aesthetic and proceeded to propagate it in a periodical titled "Głos Plastyków" (Artists' Voice): "The work of art exists in and of itself. In painting from nature, it is our desire to create a canvas that corresponds to our experience as a painter of the elements of a natural scene. Therefore, the canvas is not a document of similarity, but a game of artistic relations and actions that nature directed us to conceive. All relations in nature must be translated into the conditions of the canvas (the plane) and acquire autonomous meaning there. On canvas, a color exists solely through contrast with other colors. Concepts for colors derive from the game that is assumed, as a result of which colors that seek to simulate nature do not work in the dimension of the painting... A canvas is never so much executed as it should be resolved in a painterly manner." (R. II, 1931, no. 12)
Cybis had his first solo exhibition in 1932 at the Friends of the Fine Arts Society in Krakow. The artist also presented his works at the Salons of the Institute of Art Propaganda in Warsaw and the Association of Polish Visual Artists in Krakow. He represented Poland at the Venice Art Biennale in 1934 and at the exhibition mounted by the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1938. In 1937 he became editor-in-chief of the "Artists' Voice", a periodical that by this time had become the official publication of the Capists and Colorists. In 1948 he was appointed a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. During the Socialist Realist period he was prevented from teaching for ideological reasons; throughout this time Cybis was a curator at the National Museum in Warsaw. Between 1955 and 1957 he lectured at the State Higher School of the Visual Arts in Sopot and was subsequently reinstated at the Academy in Warsaw in 1957. Cybis showed his works during solo exhibitions at Warsaw's Zachęta Gallery (1956) and at the National Museum (1965). He participated in numerous presentations of Polish art abroad, in Venice (Biennale, 1948), Sao Paulo (5th International Art Biennale, 1959), Alexandria (Museum of Fine Arts, 1959), Brussels (Palace of Fine Arts, 1959), Stockholm (Royal Academy of Art, 1959), Paris (Musee National d'Art Moderne, 1961), Oslo (National Gallery, 1961), Essen (Folkwang Museum, 1962), Nancy (Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1967), Edinburgh (Scottish National Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1969), Chicago (1969), Washington, D.C. (1969), and New York (1969). A comprehensive retrospective of Cybis's works was held at the Zacheta National Contemporary Art Gallery at the turn of 1997 and 1998.
Cybis recorded his reflections on art and culture and on the painter's gaze and skills in his journals dating from 1954 to 1966, which were later published as a volume titled Notatki malarskie / Notes on Painting (Warsaw, 1980). He also made a significant contribution to the development of Polish art history by translating E. Fromentin's The Masters of Past Time. In 1955 he was granted a State award (1st class) for lifetime achievement as a painter and a Polish People's Republic 10th Anniversary Medal. In 1973 a painting award bearing his name was established; this award remains one of Poland's most prestigious artistic distinctions to this day.
Cybis work from the time he was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow demonstrates an interest for the achievements of Cubism; influenced by the experiments of the Formists, he simplified his additively arranged shapes and gave them geometric forms, limited his color range, and looked to the folk art of the Polish Highlanders for inspiration for his patterns (Kompozycja /Composition, 1923; Madonna, 1923). Cybis's mature art, however, derives from French post-Impressionism; the aesthetic concepts of Cezanne and Bonnard fundamentally influenced his artistic stance (LA Ciotat, 1925; Pejzaż z Collioure / Collioure Landscape, 1926). Following his return to Poland, Cybis eliminated dark tones from his palette (Martwa natura z Gołąbkiem / Still Life with Dove, 1931). He strived to create paintings that would have universal aesthetic value and embody a high degree of mastery; "good painting" as he conceived of it was characterized by the creation of compositions that accented the plane of the canvas, masterfully harmonized color qualities, and highlighted the substance of the painting by saturating it with light. The Capist aesthetic viewed the autonomy of a painting as embodied in complete abandonment of the simulation of nature; relations between objects in the real world were merely a pretext for the development of color harmonies, for delighting in color and analyzing textural effects (Kwiaty i Motyle / Flowers and Butterflies, 1939). Cybis organized the fluid, pulsating substance of his sometimes luminous and opalescent, sometimes ringing and luscious colors by contrasting warm and cold tones. Intimate subjects - still lifes, landscapes, and nudes - began to dominate his art (Martwa natura z butelka w plecionce / Still Life with a Bottle in Wicker, 1948; Akt / Nude, 1947; Poranek w Starym Sączu / Morning in Stary Sącz, 1971-72). After 1946 his colorful polyphony was supplanted by a color range of largely matte hues based on a single, basic color tone, which in Cybis's case was primarily a cool gray (Modelka i kwiaty / Model and Flowers, 1965-70). He also introduced contrasting light and dark tones, which he would later develop into a play of varied hues. The artist also introduced thick-grained textures that consumed the outlines of the objects he imagined, thus deepening the expressive qualities of his paintings. After World War II, the artist produced watercolors and drawings in addition to oil paintings.
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Science, March 2002.
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