The Art & Arguments Of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko
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Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, Triptych by Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, source: St Christopher’s Hospice, p20_triptych.jpg
Dubbed ‘the Polish painter of the 20th century’, one émigré artist went through hard times only to be hard on others who didn’t live up to his standards. Antoni Bohdanowicz explores Marian Bohusz-Szyszko’s motivations and life story by way of a personal family connection.
It was 1947. My grandmother was waiting for a train at South Kensington tube station. She suddenly she spotted her beret for the first time since the breakout of the war in 1939. It hadn’t been stolen, and it wasn’t anything special. Just a beret. Nevertheless, it’s a peculiar story.
Just after the Germans invaded Poland, they rounded up all of the officers to place them in a prisoner of war camp in Gdynia. My grandmother, a local who took genuine interest in the fate of the troops, went there out of her own free will with no proper assignment. She wanted to take account of who managed to survive, and was asking the soldiers if there was anything they needed. One, an artist who she briefly knew, stepped up and said: ‘My lady, I do have pretty much everything, but my beret went missing in action.’
My grandma didn’t give it a second thought. She took the one she was wearing off her head and said: ‘Would this do?’
It did indeed do, since it accompanied Marian Bohusz-Szyszko throughout World War II, and started a friendship that lasted nearly half a century.
Painter of the 20th century
Branded by Stanisław Frenkiel as ‘the Polish painter of the 20th century’, Bohusz-Szyszko lived most of his life in London with Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of St Christopher’s Hospice. He was a founding member of ‘Grupa 49’ was seen as a mentor to many Polish artists operating in the ‘Emigracja’.
His style was unique. Thick layers with thousands of dabs of paint that weigh down the canvas. The closer you look, the messier the paintings look. The further away you stand from them, the clearer they become. But there was much more to the artist than pure genius of colour. He was in fact a great mathematician, and a pretty sharp art critic. Those two actually offer some very interesting stories concerning his life.
Life in German labour
Stanisław Frenkiel & The Death of Marat
But let’s get back to the beret and where it had been. Bohusz-Szyszko, who was already a known artist, had ended up in the Oflag Arnswalde II. It is difficult to say that he was lucky, but life in a concentration camp for officers was a less painful experience than what others had to go through in an occupied Poland. The soldiers were even paid by the Germans. Of course, some officers tried to escape and would end up caught or shot by German guards, but in general the conditions in the camp were not too harsh.
This allowed the officers time to do many things. They created their own art, mathematics and literature clubs, they even had their own theatre club. Bohusz-Szyszko, being a man of many talents, was quite active within a few. He was responsible for the scenography at the camp theatre, he also taught painting and drawing. Before the war, the painter taught the two former at a school in Gdynia, but he also taught mathematics there. This was, a subject that he studied in Kraków after graduating from the local Academy of Fine Art.
During one of these lectures on mathematics, Bohusz-Szyszko presented a mathematical challenge that was created before the war. The artist-mathematician had come up with a solution and explained to his fellow officers the reasoning for his answer. When the lecture had ended, the German guard, who was keeping watch to ensure the captured soldiers were not using these classes to draw up escape plans, walked up to Bohusz-Szyszko. It turned out that he himself was a mathematician at one of the German universities, and was in fact the very person who had created that mathematical challenge.
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Bohusz-Szyszko spent almost six years in the PoW camp before being released just ahead of Germany’s surrender. Early in 1945 he moved to Italy, where he joined General Władysław Anders and the Polish Second Army. He was commissioned just outside Rome, where he would spend the next two years.
Apart from military work, he also founded a school of painting in Cecchignola. This was made possible thanks to the intervention of his cousin, General Zygmunt Bohusz-Szyszko, who inspired Anders to create a painting section within the Department of Art and Culture of the Polish Second Army and make Marian the head of it.
But this wasn’t the most important school Bohusz-Szyszko would create. Two years later, Polish troops were given the option to either move to Poland, which was now being run by communists, or relocate to Great Britain. Knowing what the Russian occupant was capable of, the Katyń massacre in particular on their minds, most of these soldiers chose the safer option and chose a life in exile.
This is where we catch up with the beginning of our story and my grandmother. Bohusz-Szyszko was standing on the platform at South Kensington tube station, and my grandmother walked up to him. He didn’t recognise her at first, but it was the beret that helped him remember.
The Polish school of painting
Katyń – Andrzej Wajda
In London, Bohusz-Szyszko founded the Polish School of Painting. It was acknowledged as the new continuator of the traditions of the Painting Department at the Stefan Batory University in Wilno (now Vilnius). The school attracted many young Polish artists, and was also a foothold for many renowned ones. Two years later, a group of these artists under the helm of Bohusz-Szyszko would create the ‘Grupa 49’ which was aimed at creating and promoting Polish art.
Just reading his writings on art, you can see that ‘the Polish painter of the 20th century’ had a very original take on the subject. He was more about colours and expression, than straightforward form. He would often mention in his works how simple forms don’t attract him and how art is about a lot more.
He wrote in 1946 in a letter to another painter Józef Jarema:
Not only lily yellow, but blue and pink colours exist, they are the basic, easiest shades – but Eugene Delacroix could create millions of shades – not described by words – just like William Turner – but barely visible. Everything is easy to describe, but you Mr Jarema have to have a vision. (…) I prefer art from nature, I prefer to create in my mind my own paintings that have their own characters, without an order. That is why a Persian or Arab or Chinese will never be called my master – but always Cezanne.
A pugilistic art critic
Bohusz as pointed out was not only a painter, but a critic. From his writings, you can see that he seemed to find amusement in certain contraries that he would notice and point out. Take for example the debate on abstract art between conservative Catholics and communists. Both groups seemed to accuse each other of being the author of it, and at the same time were saying how bad this kind of art is. Both didn’t hesitate on accusing the other of their wrongdoings to art. This is what the Polish painter and critic pointed out in one of his 1950s articles:
It’s interesting that theoreticians of the fighting wing of Russian communism and many representatives of the Catholic world share the same opinions about abstract art, that it is the opposite of their ideology, and is something that drives their opponents. For communists this abstraction in art is a creation of the reactive, degenerated capitalist bourgeoisie; they believe in socialist realism (please read the latest text of Sokorski, this is the opinion of the communist regime in Poland). For a vast amount of Catholics, these abstract tendencies are a ‘Jewish-communist’ invention that undermines all the values of the Christian civilisation.
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Bohusz-Szyszko had many more opinions on art where he would prefer the general idea over neat patterns. In his eyes, an artist didn’t have to be the master of form, he had to be a master of ideas. Due to his strong opinions, many in the London art world looked up to him as if he were a master. In fact, to many artists he was.
Despite this, sometimes his opinions would be a bit harsh towards people who looked up to him as an authority. They’d be seeking his approval, but the painter instead would point out all the flaws, and sometimes in fact be spiteful. Take for instance his letter to the aforementioned Jarema. In it, he starts by taking a small dig at the other painter’s speech, and later how his friend isn’t really a painter:
You announced to me with your nasal voice about your recent discovery – the contour colour, and that a friend of yours [Edward] Matuszczak discovered the cyclical contrast. Despite my recognition of your juvenile enthusiasm, I feel obliged to explain a few things. Poor Matuszczak cannot leave from ‘one-dimensional’ hard based surfaces […] this isn’t painting, this is just a workshop.
In those few words, you get a whole picture of Bohusz-Szyszko. Not afraid of criticising and pointing out in a set direction, but not everyone was capable of accepting his criticism. One funny example of this took place in the POSK, London’s famous Polish cultural centre. After visiting a solo exhibition opening there, Bohusz-Szyszko decided to criticise the artist, a female painter of no significant note. He pointed out to her that her forms were childish, and that she lacked talent...
This was an offence that a fine Polish lady couldn’t accept, and somebody challenged the critic to a duel on behalf of her partner who was absent. Amusingly, this was a common absurdity among the London émigrés – many seemed stuck in the 19th century, despite existing in culturally-revolutionising 1960s London. But the duel never took place, as Bohusz-Szyszko knew the code of honour well – he pointed out that his would-be challenger missed his opportunity as he only had 48 hours from when the offence took place to make the official challenge himself. After that, the offence wasn’t considered an offence anymore, so any duel couldn’t stand.
The final years of Bohusz-Szyszko
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poles in london
polish artists in london
polish emigre culture
20th century polish painters
artists of the 20th century
Now we get to the point where we finally introduce Dame Cicely Saunders, the person known for revolutionising the way Britons approached treating cancer. She met the painter in 1963 in London at an exhibition at the Drian Gallery. The two took a liking to each other and soon became a couple, but it took another 20 years before they married. This was due to the fact that Marian still had an estranged wife in Poland, who didn’t want to move to England after the war with their children.
It was a strange arrangement, being that Bohusz-Szyszko was known to be a devout Catholic. He didn’t accept divorce, but nevertheless entered into a relationship with Saunders. He moved his workshop to her hospice and started creating religiously-inspired paintings – they would decorate the place and offer comfort to its terminally-ill cancer patients.
What was interesting were all the insights that Dame Cicely Saunders brought into the life of somebody who wanted to be received by the Emigracja as some intellectual guru. The Daily Telegraph did a feature article on the founder of St Christopher’s Hospice called A Day in the Life… which described what the typical day of such a person looked like. It had Dame Saunders mention how her husband would enjoy watching westerns. His godson, who was also an avid fan of cowboy movies, brought this up over lunch with him, when visiting him at his studio. Saunders had to quickly react by pacifying the child with a gentle kick, whilst Marian pretended that he didn’t hear the question – an intellectual could never be caught watching such ‘low’ art as a common western...
That story on Bohusz-Szyszko and westerns pretty much sums him up as an artist. He was one wearing many masks, including the one of harsh art critic. It seems as if he genuinely wanted to stand out and have people think: ‘This is Marian, the artist.’ The same goes for his art. He was a master of colours, but his paintings are not exactly the type you always appreciate at first sight. Perhaps this is due to the style, or maybe because he himself is looking for something in his paintings.
Back in the 1980s whilst painting a portrait of my late mother, he started painting her on one background, and with every meeting the background changed. It presented the mood he had. It ended up with my mother seated in her wedding dress, with all of Marian’s books and pictures behind her. Quite unusual, but it represented the expressive disposition the painter had at the time. It was like most of his paintings: in a certain way abstract, but with an intellectual, spiritual theme.
As a painter, Bohusz-Szyszko was a thought provoker on three fronts: he thinks, he wants you to think he is thinking, and he forces you to think. He was not a painter you will appreciate the first time you look. But the more you get to think of Bohusz, the more times you leave and return, the more you notice, the more you appreciate, and the more it touches you. This is probably why Frenkiel did indeed exclaim that he is the Polish painter of the 20th century.
Written by Antoni Bohdanowicz, April 2018