Architectural decorations are the most crucial part of their artistic output. They used various methods, usually combining creating mosaics (utilising simple, inexpensive materials, such as pebbles or glass) and wall painting. Gabriel Rechowicz was responsible for the design, but his wife, Hanna, closely co-operated with him. The married couple also created exhibition pavilions, decorative textiles, and paintings. Gabriel Rechowicz, often called Gabr, also did press illustrations and designed children’s books and posters. Hanna Rechowicz worked as a set designer.
They met during World War II, but their paths entwined for good in Paris, where Gabriel ended up after fighting in the Warsaw Uprising, being arrested, and serving in the American army. They both studied at École des Beaux-Arts (around 1946 to 1947); Hanna also attended Atelier Paul Colin (also around 1946 to 1947). In 1947 they returned to Poland and started studying at Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Sztuk Plastycznych, a fine arts academy in Tricity (1948-1952). Gaber also studied architecture at Gdańsk University of Technology for two years. However, they were connected with Warsaw throughout their whole professional lives, where Hanna still lives in her family home on Lekarska Street.
When they were students, they both started working at Wystawa Ziem Odzyskanych (Recovered Territories Exhibition). It was a propaganda event aimed at showing relations between the Recovered Territories and Poland. Emphasis was put on the cultural and industrial development of the territories under the new communist regime. The couple designed one of the pavilions and the publication accompanying the exhibition. They didn't graduate from their university and moved to Warsaw where they started their artistic careers as – this refers mostly to Gabr, who was older than his wife – ‘late debutants’.
In the capital, Gabriel started co-operating with architects, making large-format wall decorations. He created his own technique and recognisable style. He usually encrusted his paintings with inexpensive, simple materials – pebbles, glass or metalwork. His works are detectably inspired by surrealism and informalism (a movement very popular in the 1950s). From abstract, organic matter emerge recognisable, fairy-tale-like motifs: fragile trees and branches, sometimes human figures. The colours interpenetrate. Gabriel’s wife consulted on all of his most important works. Klara Czerniewska, the author of a book on the couple, wrote: ‘It’s hard to imagine Gabr’s work without her – and the other way around’. However, it should be noted that the wife played second fiddle in this tandem.
Today artists like the Rechowiczes are often perceived as creators of potboilers catering to the needs of the state. As Czerniewska emphasises:
Artistic life was strongly institutionalised and controlled by the state at that time. Therefore, Gabriel Rechowicz was forced to work out an approach that in a way had to be situated on the fringes of official, systemic culture. His entanglement in the political aspect of creative work stemmed from the necessity of being incorporated into the ruling order and considering the expectations of employers.
The first orders for architectural decorations came from befriended architects, Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka. On their commission, in the late 1950s the Rechowiczes designed the interior of a café in Instytut Doskonalenia i Specjalizacji Kadr Lekarskich, a centre of postgraduate medical education. Gabriel Rechowicz and the Piechotkas co-created a famous playground in the Bielany II neighbourhood. In 1960 Gabriel Rechowicz participated (most likely together with Edward Krasiński) in the works of a team called Miastoprojekt Stolica-Północ (Cityproject Capital-North) which prepared a design for an international competition for an experimental housing estate in Moscow. As well as Rechowicz and Krasiński, the team comprised the Piechotkas, Jerzy Baumiller and Jan Zdanowicz.
The most important preserved work of the Rechowiczes is the decorations in Dom Chłopa in Warsaw (currently called the Hotel Gromada), built between 1960 and 1961 by Bohdan Pniewski. The couple won a competition for the graphic design of the hotel. As Czerniewska writes:
The experimental technique combined the texture of stone, the colour of a fresco and the shine of ceramic and glass fragments of a mosaic. From 1961 on, this technique became a distinctive trait of the Rechowiczes’ work, distinguishing it from other ceramic and stone designs decorating the public space of Polish cities.
In 1962, Gabriel Rechowicz co-operated with Edward Krasiński on the interior design of Bar Frykas. It was located in the newly-built Supersam in Warsaw, a building designed by Jerzy Hryniewiecki (the construction was demolished in 2006, which sparked many protests among architecture lovers). When designing Frykas, Gaber decided to move away from his established, recognisable style and decided to exploit more ‘modern’ and geometrical motifs instead.
Over the course of approximately 30 years, the Rechowiczes realised several dozen such projects, becoming representatives of late Polish modernism in architecture (this style is also frequently called ‘socialist modernism’). These include: decorations in Dom Wczasowy Rzemieślnik, a vacation lodge in Zakopane (1964, 1984), a mosaic on the edifice of the WKS Legia swimming pool in Warsaw (1967), the design of the so-called Szkoła Rzemiosł on Zajączka Street in Warsaw (1969), Café Alinka on Puławska Street in Warsaw (1969), a mosaic in the cardiology hospital in Nałęczów (1972), decorations of a villa and swimming pool in Boinville, France (1970s), and the design of Centrum Zdrowia Matki Polki in Łódź (1985). Additionally, Gabriel Rechowicz worked on the designs of Polish pavilions at international events, co-operating with architects, including Jerzy Hryniewiecki, Jerzy Baumiller, and Stanisław Zamecznik, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
Most of the Rechowiczes’ works were not preserved or survived only in fragments. As Hanna Rechowicz said in an interview for Wysokie Obcasy:
Only pieces were saved, little fragments. When they started demolishing Dom Chłopa, the monuments conservator of Warsaw tried to prevent the patio from getting plastered over, but he was a little late. They managed to destroy a part [of Rechowiczes’ mosaics – editor’s note] but it is nevertheless the largest piece of our work that survived. Supersam was also demolished, but Frykas was turned into a McDonald’s in the beginning of the 1990s and nobody protested. I think that this happens worldwide – the difficulty of preserving an artistic interior. […] A new owner comes and does things differently, which is mostly tantamount to destruction.
Gabriel Rechowicz also painted for his entire life, although he never presented his work at home. However, they were displayed abroad during several exhibitions, including individual ones, mostly held at small private galleries.
Gabriel painted until the end of the 1990s. His style was most suitable for children’s book. From the end of the 1950s to the 1980s he co-operated with Nasza Księgarnia publishing house. He also created illustrations and covers for magazines, including Kierunki, Zwierciadło, and Polska.
The Rechowiczes also led an abundant social life and were considered part of Warsaw’s bohemia, which was made possible by well-paid commissions both at home and abroad. Their house was nearly legendary – it was adorned with stone intarsia (the stones filled in the holes left in the building after the war); Edward Krasiński lived on and off in their boiler room, creating his paintings, at the time resemblant of the style the Rechowiczes also represented. A sledge served as part of their furniture – this curiosity was frequently described in the press. It was by no means accidental that this element was included in Andrzej Wajda’s Everything for Sale, the film for which Wajda recreated the artists’ house in a film studio.
After 1989 the Rechowiczes were largely forgotten. A portrait of Hanna Rechowicz, dating back to the 1950s and painted by Edward Krasiński appeared as a discovery at a small exhibition in Fundacja Galerii Foksal, accompanying the conference Awangarda w Bloku (2007), devoted to the studio of Henryk Stażewski and Edward Krasiński. It used to be located on the last floor of a block of flats located in Aleja Solidarności in Warsaw and was re-opened as Instytut Awangardy (the Avant-garde Institute). The aforementioned portrait was also shown among other early works by Krasiński during the artist’s exhibition in Bunkier Sztuki in Kraków, curated by Andrzej Przywara (2008).
This motif in Krasiński’s work, alongside with his relationship with the Rechowiczes, interested Jakub Baniasiak, who ended his book Zmęczeni Rzeczywistością (Tired Reality) with an interview with Hanna Rechowicz. Baniasiak’s work is a collection of interviews conducted with contemporary painters who exploited surrealistic themes. The book contributed to the re-discovery of early surrealist works by Krasiński, an acclaimed artist whose popularity grew after his death, or the works of the Rechowiczes.
The re-discovery of the Rechowiczes was also partially caused by the growing interest in modernist architecture constructed in the times of the communist regime in Poland. The first exhibition of the couple’s projects, entitled Hanna and Gabriel Rechowicz was held at Kordegarda Project in the spring of 2011. It was curated by Paweł Giergoń, who not only displayed the works, but also paid attention to the destruction of the important part of tradition that the artists’ architectural decorations were.
At the end of 2011 an exhibition of the Rechowiczes’ works, entitled Aranżacje Przestrzenne (Spatial Arrangements), was opened in Galeria Kolonie, run by Jakub Banasiak. The publishing house 40000 Malarzy, also run by Banasiak, published Klara Czerniewska’s book about the couple, entitled Gaber i Pani Fantazja (Gaber and Mrs. Fantasy). A more approachable work on the subject was Max Cegielski’s Mozaika: Śladami Rechowiczów (Mosaic: Traces of the Rechowiczes).
While Czerniewska’s book is a typical (yet interesting) monograph, Cegielski, perhaps thanks to the observation of the re-discovery of the couple’s work, managed to pose some curious questions about creative work under the communist regime, while at the same time avoiding accusations.
The re-discovery of the Rechowiczes also marks a proper moment for a solid re-evaluation of their work. Neither Czerniewska nor Cegielski managed to fully fulfill this task, yet there are numerous questions to be answered. Do Gabriel Rechowicz’s paintings stand up to the standards set by other artists creating in his epoch? Is surrealism really left out of the history of Polish art? How does one evaluate the Rechowiczes’ work: were they skillful, talented hacks or eminent artists undervalued in the hierarchy of art which values fine arts more than applied arts? Is it really surrealism or rather fairy-tale-like kitsch?
Originally written by Karol Sienkiewicz, December 2011. Translated by NS, April 2017.