Born in 1896 in Prague, died in 1993 in Maisons-Laffitte, France.
The character and biography of this future artist were to a great extent shaped by the family environment in which he matured.
The character and biography of this future artist were to a great extent shaped by the family environment in which he matured. Equally formative were his experiences as a youth, and primary among them were his readings (the works of Stanisław Brzozowski, Janusz Korczak, Stefan Żeromski, and Lev Tolstoy with his pacifist ideals) and his membership in a religious organization created by brothers Antoni and Edward Marylski in St. Petersburg at a time when that city was engulfed by revolution. Czapski resigned from the 1st Frontier Cavalry Division, for which he had volunteered in 1917, to join this group.
His subsequent adventures combined the fate of an artist with those of a witness to history. In 1918 Czapski entered the class of Stanisław Lentz at Warsaw's School of Fine Arts. Shortly thereafter, however, he was forced to suspend his studies in order to travel to Russia at the request of military authorities to search for officers of his division who had disappeared in action. It was during this voyage that Czapski developed a close friendship with Dymitri Mereżkowski. His intense, deep relationship with this Russian thinker caused the would-be painter to forget his pacifistic ideals and participate in the fighting during the war of 1920. With the end of the war, he went back to his artistic studies, this time at Krakow's Academy of Fine Arts. Among his teachers were Wojciech Weiss and Józef Pankiewicz. It was under the latter's patronage that in 1924, Czapski and a group of Pankiewicz's students (among them, Jan Cybis, Artur Nacht-Samborski, Piotr Potworowski) relocated to Paris, thus gaining the name Komitet Paryski (Paris Committee - later abbreviated to "Capists")
Czapski and company began their time in France by visiting museums and studying the paintings of their predecessors. However, they had exhibited as much an interest in the art of the previous few decades as they did in completely contemporary creative manifestations. They spent most of their time pondering the canvasses of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, and esteemed the work of Paul Cézanne especially highly (Czapski would later focus on this artist in one of his most important essays titled "O Cézannie i swiadomosci malarskiej" / "On Cézanne and a Painter's Consciousness", 1937). After a few years, in 1931, Czapski returned to Poland, settling in Warsaw. He was an active participant in the city's artistic life, exhibiting with the Capists and devoting more and more effort to taking part in discussions about art - as a critic. It was at this time that Czapski published his first critical sketches, in "Głos Plastyków" ("Artists' Voice") among other publications, and a monograph on the works of Pankiewicz (1937).
Czapski's own paintings at the time remained within, and were largely influenced by, the shared aesthetics of the Capists. His membership in this group was the source for his belief that paintings should transpose nature, and the transposition be accomplished through visual means, pure color being one of the primary. Throughout the 1930s Czapski painted within this convention, applying its principles to still lifes (Martwa natura / Still Life, 1930), interiors (Tramwaj / The Tram, Orkiestra / The Orchestra, both 1935), portraits (e.g. that of Mira Ziminska, 1935), and outdoor scenes (W parku / In the Park, Opera Leśna w Sopocie / The Forest Opera in Sopot, 1937), only rarely shifting from a largely muted to a more intense palette of colors. Some of these compositions heralded the artist's later interest in an unusual (somewhat Japanese-influenced) framing of space (Lustra / Mirrors, 1937) which, in much more radical form, would become typical of a large share of the artist's paintings after the Second World War.
Czapski was drafted at the very beginning of World War II and shortly thereafter landed in a Soviet prisoner of war camp. After being freed and joining the army of General Wladyslaw Anders, he once again received a military mission: to investigate the fate of Polish officers who had been detained by the NKWD (Narodnyj Komissariat Wnutrennych Del - Soviet Union's secret police) and - as it would later turn out -executed while prisoners. He related the shocking story of his search initially in his Wspomnienia starobielskie / Reminiscences of Starobyelsk (1945), and subsequently in a book titled Na nieludzkiej ziemi / In an Inhuman Land (1949). Czapski traveled with Anders's army, finally arriving in Baghdad, where he began publishing columns in newly created Polish newspapers ("Orzel Bialy" / "White Eagle," "Kurier Polski" / "Polish Courier"). By 1945 he was in Rome, from where he moved to France in 1946, where he was welcomed into the Polish emigrant publishing community headquartered at the Instytut Literacki (Literary Institute). Czapski created the institute with Jerzy Giedroyc and Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (going on to live at the institute's editorial headquarters at Maisons-Laffitte in a suburb of Paris). Throughout the decades that followed, Czapski contributed to "Kultura" ("Culture") monthly as a political commentator. Above all, however, he published essays about art and fragments of his famous diary, which he had been keeping since the war. With time, these vast "notebooks", published only fragmentarily and existing primarily in the form of manuscripts, brought him no less fame than his rich biography and his art, that latter of which also has its devoted admirers and collectors (the most significant among them being Swiss collector Richard Aeschlimann).
In France, Czapski became an active member of the Polish émigré community that settled there after the war, contributing to other publications, among them the London-based "Wiadomości" ("News") and the French "Preuves." His activities as a columnist strengthened his position as a moral authority, a status he held among both émigrés and readers in Poland.
After 1945 Czapski was equally active in two areas - as a writer and a painter. He devoted most of his essays to art but did not confine himself to this subject, providing insightful commentary on literary works, including the masterworks of Marcel Proust and those of Stanislaw Brzozowski. Czapski's oeuvre as a painter - to a great degree unknown due to the high degree to which his works remain dispersed - is variegated and artistically inconsistent. Its inconsistency derives from the variety of subjects that inspired Czapski, whose temperament inclined him to break out of the dogmatic principles instilled in the Capists by Jan Cybis at the outset. With time he developed a greater affinity for masters of expression (Chaim Soutine, Nicolas de Stäel), who emphasized the internal power of colors over their intrinsic value. In an effort to tap into this power, Czapski contoured patches of lively, bright colors and introduced color dissonance into his work. Expressiveness was also underlined through composition - usually free, open, boldly framed - and through deformation - which he also used liberally, at times achieving a grotesquery resulting from a highly simplified treatment of elements, particularly human figures. One of his primary motifs after the war was the normally portrayed, often old and poor man, solitary in the turmoil of the big city (Człowiek w poczekalni / Man in a Waiting Room, 1960; Bilard elektryczny / Electric Billiards, 1981).
Frequently the existential expression and tenderness with which Czapski portrayed his heroes became secondary to an energy and boldness of composition and a crisp combination of colors. In time the artist abandoned this formula, opting instead for an alternative approach in his landscapes, particularly those created in the last years of his life when he was slowly losing his eyesight and painting with ever-greater difficulty. During this time Czapski primarily created airy, calm landscapes which were expansive and painted freely and broadly (Pejzaż złoto-fioletowy / Golden-Violet Landscape, 1980), and modest still lifes, usually constituting studies of the simple objects that surrounded the painter in his room at Maisons-Laffitte (Martwa natura z owocami i karafka / Still Life with Fruit and Carafe, 1985; Dwie białe czarki / Two White Bowls, 1987). These may seem awkward, as if painted in a hurry, but they are an expression of Czapski's zealous faith in art and his creative determination. The intensity of experience reflected in them is comparable to that evident in the artist's drawings, which seem unskillful but are unpretentious and moving as a result. Some of these are completely autonomous works, others Czapski drew into his diaries or on letters. Woven into the rhythm of his handwriting, with the text they constitute a private chronicle of Czapski's life (hitherto published only in fragments as Wyrwane strony / Torn Out Pages, 1993 ). The essays of the artist are similarly personal in nature (Oko / The Eye, 1960; Patrząc / Looking, 1983 and 1996; Czytąjac / Reading, 1990) and are broadly viewed as outstanding in terms of their literary value. Nevertheless, the significance of Czapski's achievements as a painter is still very much the subject of discussion and is often questioned, this despite the increased exposure his works have gotten over the last dozen years. This has occurred through numerous exhibitions (the first post-war exhibit in Poland was organized in 1956, the second not until 1986; subsequent to this date, however, there have been a number) and publications (the album "Czapski" edited by Joanna Pollakówna, 1993; an anthology titled "Czapski i krytycy" / "Czapski and the Critics", 1996).
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Lysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, Faculty of Art Theory and the History of Artistic Doctrines, December 2001.