Józef Wilkoń is an illustrator, painter, sculptor, and scenographer. He was born on February 12th, 1930, in Bogucice, near Wieliczka. He now lives and works in Zalesie Dolne.
In the years 1947-1949 he attended the School of Fine Arts in Kraków (together with Roman Cieślewicz and Franciszek Starowieyski). In 1950, he began to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts with Professor Adam Marczyński (graduating in 1955). At the same time he studied art history at the Jagiellonian University, obtaining a Master’s Degree in 1954.
Józef Wilkoń is one of the greatest Polish artists in the field of illustration. He has contributed to nearly two hundred books for both children and adults. Works illustrated by him have been translated into more than 20 languages. He has collaborated with Nasza Księgarnia, Czytelnik, Wydawnictwo Literackie, the National Publishing Agency, Flammarion (Paris), Middelhauve Verlag (Cologne), Loewes Verlag (Bayreuth), Kinderbuchverlag (Berlin), Parabel Verlag (Munich), Atlantis Verlag (Zurich), the Greek Peace Publishers (Tokyo), and others.
In 1956, Wilkoń moved from Kraków to Warsaw. After completing his first illustration projects, he planned to return to easel painting, but it soon turned out that he was to work in illustration for good.
The artist most often portrays animals and nature in fast and decisive brush strokes. His illustrations are realistic, they do not embellish nor idealise nature. Wilkoń is rarely interested in humans, but the psychological portraits of animals created by him are essentially portraits of people. Using animals as metaphors, much can be said about people. However, Wilkoń warns about one important principle:
I never use animal characters in accordance with La Fontaine’s tradition. I never use them to represent a particular human quality, especially a negative one.
Wilkoń is primarily inspired by nature: the atmosphere remembered from his childhood spent in the mountainous village of Bogucice, scenic landscapes and the mysterious world of animals, among which he grew up. The artist manages to give universal form to these fascinations and personal passions. Wilkoń highly values artists who introduce poetic elements into their work, such as Marc Chagall, but he also feels a certain affinity with the exotic art of the Far East.
The artist willingly experiments with different painting techniques, although he typically uses ink, watercolour and dry pastels. His works can be divided into several periods: the years 1957-1963 were marked by experiments with liquid, 1962-1970 – experiments with texture, 1978-1994 – pastels, and finally, 1991-1994 – 3D images and sculptures.
The first book illustrated by Jóżef Wilkoń – About a Cat Which was Looking for Black Milk by Helena Bechlerowa – was published in 1959. In the same year Nasza Księgarnia issued the Peacock Poems by Tadeusz Kubiak, inspired by peacock drawings that Wilkoń, fascinated by the beauty of these birds, made during a holiday in Łańcut. In 1960, the artist’s first solo exhibition took place in the Polish Artists Union Gallery in Warsaw. The display included illustrations which had been awarded the IBA gold medal in Leipzig. In 1963, Wilkoń created a series of illustrations for Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, in which the dominant theme was nature and the landscape. The artist did not recreate the content of the work, but illustrated the romantic landscape of the poet’s childhood. The pages of Pan Tadeusz were filled with big trees and exuberant vegetation, in which people and animals almost find their deaths. This work has resulted in numerous awards for Wilkoń and closed a period of experimentation with watercolour techniques.
Later, the artist had a period of fascination with texture. Illustrations were created with opaque paints (for example acrylic) on unusual materials such as cardboard, wrapping paper with uneven, ragged edges, or astralon (a kind of transparent celluloid). During this time Wilkoń also started using a golden colour reminiscent of the traditions of iconography or Persian miniature painting.
In the 50s, when it was very hard to find paper in Poland, I discovered that grocery stores had sugar bags. They were filled with 50 kilos of sugar, which was not packed but sold by weight. And this paper had an amazing texture. At times the drawings looked like tapestries because the texture of the paper and the brush strokes created a weave effect.
– said the artist.
A number of illustrations were created using this technique, including those for Seven Moons by Wanda Chotomska (1970), Martin from under the Wild Apple by Eleanor Farjeon (1966), Maciupinki by Jerzy Ficowski (1968) and In Not Paris and Elsewhere by Anna Kamieńska (1967).
In the following years Wilkoń enjoyed painting with dry pastels. This technique allowed him to represent different materials with high precision, for example, animal fur. Wild and domestic cats became frequent characters of his works; he even used them to depict the history of the French Revolution (Trampled Cat, 1992).
From the very beginning, the written word acted as a canvas for Wilkoń, on which he created parallel, imaginary worlds – very autonomous, and yet harmoniously linked to the text.
Wilkoń never treated illustration as ancillary or subordinate to the written narrative, but as its artistic development or addition.
Text and illustration should be complementary so that tension in the book grows in the same way as in the theatre
– he explained.
In the 80s Wilkoń stopped working with Polish publishing houses as a protest against martial law and the political situation in the country. However, he worked extensively with foreign publishers on more than 70 projects.
In the early 1990s the artist became interested in sculpture, which soon became as important to him as illustration. The artist created a huge bestiary from wood and metal sheets called Wilkoń’s Ark, that is, fish, birds, bats and many other animals, which constantly travel and are exhibited in a growing number of places in Poland and abroad. About his artistic evolution, Wilkoń says:
I painted in ink and watercolour, with gestures. My ambition was to capture the movement and the character of the animal with one stroke of a large brush. Now the axe or the electric saw have replaced the brush – my pets are made from more than a dozen blows.
Józef Wilkoń’s illustrations, in addition to those mentioned above, are to be found in books such as Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke (1964), Enchanted Berry by Mieczysław Buczkówny (1964), Prince Ibrahim and the Beautiful Sinedhur: Tales from Tunis by Anna Milska (1965), Poetic Songs by James Joyce (1972), Waldkonzert by Kurt Baumann (1974), Sonnets to Laura by Petrarch (1975), Leopanther by Piotr Wilkoń (1991), A Tale of an Enchanted Steed by Bolesław Leśmian (2006), and Rhinoceros Blues by Agnieszka Taborska (2008). Among his newest works are illustrations for The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (2009).
Józef Wilkoń’s works are located in many public and private collections throughout the world. Among the achievements of the artist are dozens of collective exhibitions and more than 60 individual ones, including in the MAG Gallery (Zurich, 1980), the Centre Pompidou (Paris, 1989), the Museum of Illustration (Toyama, 2001) and the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Warsaw, 2006).
• 1959 - Gold Medal at the IBA International Exhibition of Editorial Art, Leipzig (Germany)
• 1966 - Deutscher Jugendbuchpreis für Gestaltung Graphische, Düsseldorf (Germany)
• 1967 - Award of the Minister of Culture and Art and National Award for achievements in the field of book illustration
• 1969 - Gold Medal at the Illustration Bienniale in BIB Bratislava (Slovakia)
• 1970, 1973 - Silver Goats at the Biennale of Art for Children (Poznań)
• 1973 - Award at the Illustration Bienniale in BIB Bratislava and National Education Commission Medal for artistic creation for children
• 1974 - Prime Minister Award for works for children and Premio Grafico at the International Book Fair in Moscow (USSR)
• 1975 - Premio Europeo, Padua (Italy)
• 1977 - Golden Goats at the Biennale of Art for Children (Poznań)
• 1980 - Loisirs Jeunes Diploma for the best illustrated foreign book, Paris (France) and the Premio Grafico at the International Children’s Book Fair, Bologna (Italy)
• 1984 - The Owl Prize, Tokyo (Japan)
• 1959, 1961, 1964, 1970, 1973, 1974 - Awards in the PTWK contests (Polish Association of Book Publishers), Most Beautiful Books of the Year
• 1987 - PTWK Special Lifetime Achievement Award
• 1991 - Grand Prix (Totem Album), Montreuil (France) and Premio Grafico at the International Children’s Book Fair, Bologna (Italy)
• 1998 - Andersen Premio Award, Geneva (Switzerland)
• 2000 - Graine de Lecteurs Award 2000, Arles (France)
• 2002 - Lifetime Achievement Award from the Polish Section of IBBY
• 2006 - Gold Medal Merit to Culture - Gloria Artis, awarded by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage
• 2007 - TVP Kultura Award for the Wilkoń’s Ark exhibition in Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw
• 2008 - Honorary Award - Book of the Year 2007 from the Polish Section of IBBY
• 2009 – Nomination for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award by Internationale Jugendbibliothek
• 2010 - Order of Polonia Restituta
• 2010 - PTWK Award for the illustrations to The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
• 2010 - Golden Sceptre - Polish Cultural Foundation Award
Author: Ewa Gorządek, April 2011, transl. Bozhana Nikolova
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