The Question of What Is True: Eric Karpeles on Józef Czapski
#photography & visual arts
default, Józef Czapski, photo (reproduction): Andrzej Rybczynski / PAP, center, jozef_czapski_pap_20130000_003.jpg
The American author Eric Karpeles explains his long-lasting fascination with the Polish painter, soldier, and important émigré intellectual Józef Czapski – including why he decided to write an entire trilogy of books about him.
Despite famously investigating the missing officers of the covered-up Katyń massacre, the painter Józef Czapski was not interested in making pictures about his suffering, his anguish, nor the loss of his friends. Eric Karpeles discusses his perspective on writing a book about a fellow artist and the relevance of Czapski's work and life philosophy today. His book Almost Nothing, published last year by the New York Review of Books (and by Noir Sur Blanc, in Poland, this year), is the first American biography of Czapski, but it is not Karpeles' last word on the subject.
Mikołaj Gliński: Do you remember the first time you heard the name ‘Czapski’?
Eric Karpeles: I remember very distinctly. It was a day in June 2012 when I received a copy of Czapski’s lectures on Proust in the mail. The reason the book was sent to me was because a friend in Paris knew that I was a painter who’d written a book about Proust. He thought I’d be interested. And indeed I was. I remember I was almost intoxicated by it. I found his prose completely unaffected and unimposing, unlike most people writing about Proust, who take on a position so that they can place themselves in the history of the literature on Proust. Czapski did none of that.
MG: You went on to translate this book and published it with NYRB Classics in 2018, almost 80 years after it was initially written, or rather delivered, in French... Can you talk about the remarkable circumstances of this book's coming into being?
EK: After having been captured in battle in late September 1939, Czapski was held by the Red Army as a prisoner-of-war at a series of camps. The officers were separated from the rank and file, and these highly educated men devised a schedule of evening lectures to distract them from the grim realities of their situation. Czapski first agreed to speak about the history of French painting, then conceived the idea of speaking at length about Proust. He had no books, of course, and so had to remember what he had read, which was in French, so he chose to speak in French as a means of prompting his memory. This process of summoning his memories of what he had read years ago was a perfect embodiment of the Proustian endeavor.
MG: What did you learn from Czapski about Proust?
EK: In retrospect, one learns very little about Proust that one doesn’t know already one hundred years after his death. There’s so much written about Proust. The affection I have for Czapski’s book is the way these lectures on Proust are really about art, not just necessarily about literature but about the role of art in life, which is a very different subject than writing about a novelist. I felt the undercurrent of that throughout his talks and the way in which his enthusiasm for the subject was meant to raise the spirit of his audience.
Czapski had read Proust in French as each volume of In Search of Lost Time came out and wrote one of the first articles after the whole novel was finally published. He wrote one of the first reviews of the entire opus. The last volume came out in November 1927 and Czapski printed a review in Poland in January 1928. That’s remarkable. His lectures were given in 1941, at a time when Proust’s reputation was at its bottom. Nobody in France was really reading Proust at that time.
MG: Was it during your work on Czapski’s Lost Time that you first arrived at the idea of writing a book about him?
EK: As I was doing the translation, I was thinking: Who is this guy? Why don’t I know so many of these references? Why don’t I know about the Polish condition? About what had happened to Poland. So as I was doing this translation, that was when the idea of learning more about Czapski emerged. At first I thought I’d write an essay to introduce the book. And then the more I read, the more I got drawn in and that carried on for years. Every time I would read something about Czapski, it would be fantastic, completely unexpected or something that seemed completely familiar to me. Encountering his remarkable energy pushed me to write about him.
MG: In the book you emphasise the importance of your first material contact with Czapski’s painting, face-to-face, so to speak?
EK: When I first decided to write the book, I went to Paris and I met Richard Overstreet who’d been a part of the circle in Paris of Polish emigres around Kot Jeleński and Leonor Fini. He’d met Czapski through Jeleński, but he didn’t know him well. He said I should meet Wojciech Karpiński. When I met Wojtek, we sat together and talked. I saw my first Czapski painting in his apartment, an oil on canvas called Young Man Before de Staël. It’s of a figure, seen from the back, intensely studying an abstract painting by Nicolas de Staël, the Russian-born painter whose development was very important to Czapski. The painting is like a play-within-a play, the viewer sees someone looking at a painting, mimicking the very act he’s engaged in.
I said to Karpiński that this is a three-book project: I’d like to do a translation, I’d like to write a biography, and I’d like to do an art book, a monograph of Czapski’s paintings. He listened but he told me much later that he’d thought I was crazy. That there was no way this would happen. He was delighted that I was enthusiastic but he didn’t think it could happen...
The Torn-Out Pages – Józef Czapski
MG: In the book, you say that you and Czapski meet ‘at the end of the pencil’...
EK: It’s a quotation from Czapski’s journal. He’s writing about drawing over a period of days a bunch of tulips that he’d bought. He was talking about how all of a sudden something came to life. All of a sudden he felt that he was really seeing the tulips and the connection between him and the tulips was at the end of the pencil as he was drawing.
But I didn’t understand it entirely when I first quoted these words and it wasn’t until I read the finished, published version that I realised that not only are Czapski and I bound by drawing, but also by writing. So this dual quality of visual and verbal elements come together. That is where we meet: with words and the images.
MG: This is important because I feel that, for most readers, Czapski is first and foremost an émigré intellectual and writer – not a painter. You wrote a book precisely about Czapski the painter...
EK: Yes, as the title claims, my book is the biography of a painter. My sense is that he has never been seen seriously by Poles as a painter. A lot of this has to do with his being known foremost as an émigré writer and a public figure, held in esteem as a witness to the events around the Katyń massacres. But painting was never the lens through which people saw him, though from his point of view, painting was the very essence of his life.
MG: Did your attitude toward Czapski’s painting evolve over time?
EK: Prior to seeing that painting of Czapski at Karpiński’s, I had done a fair amount of background research, looking for whatever I could find online. There were no books on him in English at the time. I remember thinking ‘OK, these images are interesting,’ but... I was also a little disappointed. Because, with a painter writing about Proust, you want to like his paintings. And then very quickly I decided to do a search on myself as a painter. And I remember thinking: If I saw these things online and or in those exhibition catalogues, I wouldn’t be interested in seeing my work either. So I thought I’d make the effort and be sure I was making a judgment based on the real paintings. That moment at Karpinski’s was a seminal, critical moment for me, because I got to see an actual painting and be with it, see the surface, the way he put the paint down: the purity of it, the saturation of the colours, the vibrancy. The picture seemed to float off the wall. It’s actually a painting that I recall as very large in scale, when it’s actually only a fairly small painting. Simply, the impression is quite a bit bigger than the canvas itself.
That was when I thought it would be worth taking the risk of trying to find more paintings – and see where I might go from there. This first experience made me realise there’s a story here, which would also involve my explanation of the experience: not an attempt to convince anybody of the greatness of his work or anything like that. But rather the fact that there’s something to be honoured about the life of a devoted painter; as artists we’re not all Picasso, we’re not all Matisse. It’s up to other people to determine whether we’re artists. We don’t make art, we make paintings. This is something that’s been lost in the marketing of contemporary art in the world where somehow everybody is automatically seen as an artist. The expression ‘making art’ is something that is anathema to me. You don’t make art, you make whatever you make and then it takes its place in the world. Whether what you make is art or not is not up to you. So Czapski and I share this kind of sensibility, we’re both painters; he was very clear about this, as am I. There are moments where I found myself almost having said the same things that I read in his journals.
MG: Can you say what tradition he’s most indebted to as painter? Throughout his life he was consistently a figurative painter...
EK: I think you could categorise him as being from the École de Paris, which consisted of non-French painters who were in Paris at that time. They were working in the excitement of the change in painting that had really begun once Cézanne died in 1906, by the time the impressionists had already passed out of fashion. Czapski came out of that school but in the 1920s he was still searching for his voice as a painter. To Polish audiences, his place in art history has to do with the Kapists, a group of Polish painters with whom he went from Kraków to Paris for six weeks but stayed seven years. Their great rallying cry was ‘Peinture, peinture!’ or, painting for its own sake, a celebration of colour and freedom from historical or religious narrative as subject matter.
MG: Where does Czapski’s strength as a painter lie?
EK: Czapski was enormously devoted to the visual world, to the sensation of seeing something and wanting to capture what he saw. ‘Vision’ was his word for that, capturing a vision. There are a myriad of stories, throughout his own journals and other people’s recollections of him, where he’s with someone and suddenly sees something and has to excuse himself, go back to the studio, get it down right away while it’s emblazoned in his eyes. And that was generally not happening as an artistic impulse at that time, when abstraction was so dominant as an aesthetic sensibility. And I think it’s now happening more again. There’s an aspect of Czapski’s painting that I find enormously contemporary. He doesn’t care about compositional and technical issues, much like the way that painters today are freed from the entire arc of abstraction that happened in the mid-20th century after it finally ran its course and made its point. It clearly has moved painting to another place but that doesn’t mean that everybody has to follow that rule. Czapski was never a trailblazer, his ambitions lay elsewhere.
Forest Opera and Self-portrait in a Mirror, two Czapski's paintings in the collection of National Museum in Warsaw, reproduced in the Polish edition of Almost Nothing. Source: Noir Sur Blanc
His work is also very accessible. More so than any of the other Kapists, like Piotr Potworowski or Artur Nacht-Samborski whose work is also strong but formulaic. By and large, they found a pattern and they repeated it. Czapski never did that. He continued to grow as an artist, as a painter throughout his life. In fact, I think his best work was done after he turned 80, and this to me, as a painter, is also very inspiring: to think that you can keep working and working and then suddenly something opens up. In the book, I say that if he had to change his style in order to be in the cultural limelight, he would prefer to remain in the shadows, doing what he felt was true. Honesty and truth at all levels, in every endeavour, that’s the one thread that runs through all the complex aspects of Czapski’s life. The question of what is true.
MG: War was an important caesura in Czapski’s life. Many of his friends died in Katyń. He miraculously avoided this fate, but that history in many ways marked his whole life. Would you say that these ‘Polish obligations’ maybe stopped him from being a better painter?
EK: It certainly stopped him from being a painter. In the 1940s, he made one painting only. That was in Baghdad, where Czapski was with the Anders Army. Some friend gave him paint and canvas – and that was his only canvas. Whether it kept him from being a better artist, who can say? But the work before the war and the work after the war, are not entirely unconnected. I wouldn’t say it’s a through-line, but in the 1930s in Warsaw, where he was painting and had a studio, he was able to really reach something. He was in his thirties, he was struggling – and that’s a good time to be struggling for a painter, a time to be making decisions. So, in the middle of this journey of discovery, suddenly ten years go by without his being able to paint.
Stefan Artur Nacht-Samborski
MG: But not without being able to draw...
EK: Drawing was very significant in broaching that gap. He always drew, he always had a pencil on him and a sketchbook. This is how he kept that hand-eye coordination active. All through his creative life he would draw, he would see people and objects and flowers and he would draw them, always writing the names of their colours on the drawing. That to me indicates almost a sense of desperation or hunger: ‘I want to see this in colour! This is how I want to remember it!’ This is that idea of ‘vision’ that comes with it and has quite specific localised colour. He was able to do that for 10 years during the 1940s – but not paint.
MG: When did he start painting again?
EK: In 1949, he painted his first self-portrait in ten years. I think that’s a very key moment, because he had to start over again, as he said, from zero. This was of course not the case, it was an exaggeration. But as a painter you often don’t get to start twice. So perhaps it might have been an advantage after all, it might have made him a better painter. Not having continuity, but having to start again, as an older person, now in his forties, with a different relationship to his work than he had as a young man. He had to make new decisions, he had to commit himself to that life. Which he did.
MG: Czapski’s experience as a witness of 20th-century history doesn’t seem, at least at first sight, to come to the surface in his painting? His choice of subject is often banal scenes from everyday life. As one critic once said, and this has become the title of your book, ‘They are almost nothing…’
EK: Czapski was not interested in making pictures about his suffering, his anguish, the loss of his friends. I thought of that when I saw Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń. It’s a ‘Hollywood’ film, in the way it tells the story, with handsome actors wearing immaculate costumes. It has a certain superficiality about it, although it’s an amazing story and I’m sure it came from Wajda’s heart (his father was killed in Katyń). But my sense of watching it for the first time was: this is what Czapski did not want to do, to represent something that can’t be represented in an entirely truthful manner.
Somehow what Czapski saw and lived through could be written about, but visually for him, it was not something he could paint. The historical and religious themes that dominate Polish art were not his. The one painting that he made, which to me is a connection to his experience as a witness of history, was a painting called Białołęka, 1982. It shows five men from Solidarity who were interned in a prison in Warsaw. This was his first and only historical painting. He made it from a photograph of these men that had circulated outside Poland. He was moved by the men’s experience of imprisonment to make that painting. That to me has all the pathos that he might have painted had he painted scenes from Russia and 1940.
Katyń – Andrzej Wajda
MG: You argue that there’s also a darker aspect to Czapski the artist...
EK: Czapski was enormously heartened by his discovery of Goya in 1930 when he went to Spain. This concerned the fact that Goya could paint both what he saw in the world: as a court artist, he painted the royal family and had to paint whatever was asked of him. And he did it spectacularly, with great panache, verve and elan. But at the Prado, Czapski also saw these dark, brooding black paintings of Goya which express the soul, the suffering of the human condition, the mystery of life, and the dark side of it. That encouraged him – because he felt he hadn’t previously seen how he could bring those two sides of his personality together as a painter. This separation was an ongoing struggle and it makes perfect sense that a painter would be conflicted. In certain paintings, one side of life is shown, and in others, another, sometimes darker, side is revealed.
Czapski worked every morning, he would do a still life, but sometimes he would do a painting of a blind man he had seen at the metro station or a beggar sitting on the side of the street. And one feels in these images all his empathy. That to me is perhaps why people don’t see a coherent whole in his work. My hope with this book, and the beautiful reproductions at the end, is to make manifest the range of possibilities he drew from. Whether he was successful or not successful over his career is immaterial to me. You want to assess each individual painting before you make the decision about the impact of all of his work.
20th century art
École de Paris
polish emigre culture
MG: What aspect of Czapski’s character as a person have you come to value most?
EK: As a person, a painter, a writer... What all these things have in common for Czapski is that he always approached everything with great integrity. I think: discipline, integrity and honesty… It’s almost as if he generated these qualities and people were drawn into that with him. I think these days there’s something very appealing and helpful and necessary for us to have symbols of these qualities – and that’s what really stays with me about Czapski. We talk about people of ‘integrity’ and often it’s almost as a negative connotation, it somehow suggests a lack of something else. But not in Czapski’s case. He’s a model of a cautious, thoughtful intellectual, full of doubt but also determination.
MG: There’s still the third Czapski book you are working on..
EK: Yes, it’s a monograph, an art book exclusively of Czapski’s work, due to be published in October 2019. It’s arranged chronologically, with work from every decade (except the first) of the 20th century, starting with drawings from his teenage years. It will be, for me, my crowning achievement. Even though it can’t replicate the experience of standing in front of a painting, I believe that the way this is done, by presenting his development as a painter chronologically, will have a positive impact on people who don’t know the full range of his work.
Interview conducted in Warsaw by Mikołaj Gliński, April 2019