Fencing – Leon Chwistek
Leon Chwistek created several fencing-themed works. Two sketches from before World War I, a gouache, two watercolours from the 1920s, and an oil painting titled Fencing, currently stored in the National Museum in Kraków, have been preserved. The artist painted the latter in around 1919 and it is considered to be one of Polish formism’s most important works.
Inspirations from avant-garde trends prior to World War I are noticeable in the painting: cubism, Italian futurism, and Robert Delaunay’s simultanism. The fight between two fencers, painted in the spirit of new art, was also reminiscent of a famous duel in which Chwistek took part in 1914 in Paris.
In 1913-1914, Chwistek lived in the French capital with his fiancée, Olga Steinhaus, when she was insulted by the painter Władysław Dunin-Borkoski. Chwistek challenged him to a duel, which took place in the spring of 1914. Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski and Jerzy Dubois were his seconds. Chwistek won, injuring his opponent’s arm and ear, as reported by Paris-based journals, London’s The Times and Warsaw’s Świat (The World) magazine. The latter published an illustration portraying the fight; a photograph of the duel was also preserved.
Fencing, painted in Kraków following World War II and five years after the duel, refers to this specific event. The canvas is not the preserved photograph’s faithful copy, but a pictorial variation on the conducted duel. The spectator turns into a second and observes the two fencers fighting while the Parisian landscape looms in the background. The painting’s right part shows the big rotating carousel located at the Place de la Concorde. In the left part, there is an edifice with two distinctive towers resembling Notre Dame cathedral, and right next to it – the brightly-painted Sacre Coeur basilica’s slanted contours. It also seems that the fencer in the painting’s left part is at the foot of the Eiffel Tower’s moving legs, suspended in the air in a skewed form.
The composition of Chwistek’s Parisian landscape had its roots in the pictorial experiments conducted by Robert Delaunay, who, prior to World War I, created a series dedicated to the French capital’s architecture, including the Eiffel Tower. The French artist harnessed the idea of simultanism, which envisioned simultaneously depicting the same scene as seen from many points of view, embracing the moving perspective concept. In consequence of the simultaneous overview of reality, the Eiffel Tower becomes mobile and adopts unrealistic shapes. Delaunay often used sports as the theme of his art, for example in the painting The Cardiff Team (1913), which evoked the dynamics of a rugby match, with the Eiffel Tower and the huge carousel from Place de la Concorde in the background – the very same same scenery in which Chwistek placed his fencers. Polish formist’s composition introduced a scheme similar to Delaunay’s, in which the dynamic portraying of a sport struggle is interwoven with the Parisian lanscape’s simultaneous portrayal.
If the fencing duel was presented with immobile Parisian edifices in the background, there would have been contrast: dynamism versus stillness, which Chwistek wanted to avoid. When trying to simultaneously present a duel written into the large-city life dynamics, everything must be moving and does not stop for even a short while; even a static item and seemingly motionless buildings are always arranged in motion beside the dynamic environment. Thus, Chiwstek wanted to express a truth about the world being always in movement and breached the static portraying of reality solidified in traditional painting.
Fencing, which could be classified as a formist painting, showed a new approach to the problem of form in Polish art, which was characteristic of the experiments conducted by the French cubists and Italian futurists. In the painting, geometric shapes of people and buildings can be seen, as well as the geometrisation of the duel itself. Furthermore, three stages of the fencers’ movement are mapped on the canvas, thanks to which the viewer can see that the fencer on the left attacks and the fencer on the right parries. Such recording of the many stages of movement brought to mind the experiments of dynamism painting, characteristic of futurism.
The repetition of the dynamic gestures of the body, arms or legs on one canvas was supposed to make it seem as if the painting is in constant motion. The futurist leader Umberto Boccioni wrote that a painted horse in movement has not four but twenty legs. Another futurist – Giacomo Balla – was inspired by Etiennes Jules-Marey’s, showing multiplicated bodies and shapes. Marey was not an artist, but a 19th-century French scientist who analysed motion using photography by recording the photographed person’s subsequent phases of movement. Chronophotography was helpful during his scientific research on the essence of motion and was soon supposed to play a big role in the birth of film and in the 20th century’s avant-garde painting experiments. It is worth noting that Marey’s student, Georges Demeny, used chronophotography to register a fencer’s movement in 1906, registering stages of the sportsman’s moves as he bent his knee in a characteristic way.
It is difficult to say how well Chwistek knew Demeny’s photographs before painting his Fencing. In press articles his work was most often connected to Italian futurism, which was the avant-garde’s first phase – the movement was the first to attempt to bring out dynamism in painting in such a radical way. Chwistek wrote in the 3rd Formist Exhibition catalogue in 1919:
An immeasurably wide field to build from fragments delivered by cubism, futurism and new-style expressionism opens. (…) Formism is an attempt to create a new style, based on realism and beauty, which unfolded from the experiences of cubists, futurists and expressionists.
He believed that all the new artistic trends were characterised by a new approach to form and that formism’s task was to draw from the European avant-garde’s searches and trophies. Fencing was a truly eclectic composition, making use of the trophies of cubism, futurism, and simultanism. It brought the Kraków-based artist’s postulates to life and turned out to be one of the early Polish avant-garde’s most radical painting experiments.
On the other hand, the very themes of fencing and duel referred to the artist’s personal experiences, and also to the sport discipline, which was popularised in Poland by another formist and Chwistek’s friend, Konrad Winkler. It is worth noting that Winkler, together with Antoni Bakowski, established the Kraków Fencing Club in 1920, which was supposed to prepare Polish fencers to take part in the Olympics in Antwerp (1920) and Paris (1924). In this context, Chwistek’s Fencing could be considered to be an important work promoting physical culture, which, in the 1920s and 1930s, promulgated by the Second Polish Republic’s government of that time, would become an important link in the independent country’s modernisation programmes.
Originally written by Przemysław Strożek, October 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, November 2017Culture.pl