Julia Keilowa’s designs stand out for their almost purist simplicity and carefully considered functionalism, qualities that place them squarely in decorative modernism, which was – along with modernised classicism and folk inspiration – an important movement in Polish art déco. Her promising career was interrupted by the outbreak of war, and ended for good with her untimely, tragic death in 1943.
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Julia Keilowa, née Ringel, was one of the most interesting and original creative figures among the Warsaw sculptors of the 1930s. Just three years after she had completed her studies, critics were already writing about her as a ‘major talent in sculpture’ and mentioning her in the same breath as Olga Niewska, Magdalena Gross or Ludwika Kraskowska-Nitschowa. Keilowa entered Warsaw’s School of Fine Arts in 1925 at the age of 23, with considerable education and life experience already behind her. She had studied at gymnasiums in Vienna and Lviv. In 1920 she began studying in the Philosophy Department of Lviv University, abandoning this a year later in favour of the State Industrial School in the same city, where she began delving into the mysteries of figural sculpture, wood-carving and sculpting in stone.
She managed to complete only the first semester before moving to Upper Silesia, to Königsshutte, with her new husband, Ignacy Keil. The inscription ‘Markus Rinkel’ on the oldest tombstone remaining in the Jewish cemetery there allows us to surmise that this was the artist’s hometown. In 1922, after the stormy period of the Silesian uprisings, the formerly prosperous town became incorporated into Poland under a new name: Huta Królewska. The disadvantageous property changes introduced by the Polish government had caused the town’s economic demise and the emigration of many of the local Jews. The young couple returned to Lviv, and by the end of 1923, Julia was enrolled once more at the Industrial School for lectures in anatomy and art history. After the birth of their son, the family moved to Warsaw, this time for good.
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Julia Keilowa, bowl, vase and epergne, hand forged, 1930s, collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, photo: Michał Korta
Ваза, чаша и блюдо, выкованные вручную. Юлия Кейлова, 30-е годы XX века, в коллекции Варшавского национального музея. Фото: Михал Корта
Keilowa returned to school to resume her studies in sculpture. She ended up in the studio of Tadeusz Breyer, an outstanding teacher whose pupils were soon to change the face of Warsaw sculpture. She also participated in shape and surface composition classes run by Wojciech Jastrzębowski, one of the most outstanding proponents of the development of Polish artistic crafts. She frequented the metal sculpture studio of Karol Stryjeński and the monumental sculpture studio of Józef Czajkowski. The leading figures of Polish art déco thus influenced her education and her artistic personality.
For the next six years, Julia Keilowa divided her time between the School of Fine Arts and travels abroad. She would spend around six months of every year in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, or France, where she visited museums and galleries and increased her knowledge of the arts. Her first successes came while she was still a student. In 1929 and 1930 she received an award for her work in metal, made under the supervision of Professor Stryjeński, and in 1931 she won a distinction for a sculpture (now lost) made in the studio of Professor Breyer. In 1929 she entered the Forma sculptors’ cooperative, whose founders were Breyer and Stryjeński, and whose members were their students.
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Like many young artists in the early thirties, upon completing her studies, she joined the new government Institute for the Promotion of Art (IPS). The artist’s work appeared in public for the first time at the IPS’s 3rd Winter Salon in 1932. From then until 1938 she displayed her work regularly at the IPS. These were most frequently wooden sculptures, marked by a proficiency of technique and a classical style, compact in form, and drawing from tendencies reigning in French sculpture of the time. In 1935, the IPS commission gave the artist an award funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and in 1937 she received an award for a portrait she sculpted of the actress Elżbieta Barszczewska.
Keilowa’s oeuvre in sculpture, both awarded and praised by the critics of her day, presently evokes somewhat less interest than her parallel work in artistic crafts. The latter is also better known for obvious reasons: she made mass-produced designs for renowned Warsaw tableware companies – Fraget, the Hennenberg Brothers and Norblin – which were produced in large numbers and of exceptionally hardy materials, and so had incomparably greater chances of survival. Today they can be found in many museums and on the collector’s market, though some designs are known only from photographic documentation. So far we have not been able to establish precise dates and circumstances of Keilowa’s collaboration with the companies mentioned. We can only assume that it began immediately or shortly after she completed her studies at the School of Fine Arts. At the turn of the 1920s and the 1930s, tableware producers sought to go with trends and the growing demand when they commissioned artists to design new models. Producers purchased Keilowa’s designs, one-of-a-kind tableware, personally hand-wrought from silver, directly from her and put them into production. (1)
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Her designs for table-settings, trays, bowls, goblets, cutlery, ashtrays, and candlestick-holders demonstrate her extraordinary discipline in working with shapes that are perfect and sophisticated in their simplicity – such as circles and derivative forms, cuboids, and cones – and which are minimal and subtle in decor. They also show an impressive knowledge of the materials used to produce them. The dominant recurring attributes in Kielowa’s designs for tableware companies, and in the artist’s independent projects are: functionality, simplicity, contrast, and a tendency toward geometrical and fan shapes. All of these are typical of the fashions of the 1930s. One critic wrote: ‘The objects she makes are simple and fine (...), they have their own sense of expression. They are all for everyday use, and respond to an evident need.‘ (2)
The finest example of this functionality might be the breakfast set of 1935, commissioned by Fraget for furnishing the S. S. Piłsudski transatlantic liner. All the set’s pieces are ball-shaped, their only ornaments being disproportionately large handles or weights to support their stable, heavy lids. The form was evidently subordinated to the conditions of sea travel. All of Kielowa’s works are marked by simplicity, generally reducing the shape to basic geometrical figures. The above-mentioned contrast, meanwhile, is well illustrated by the silver coffee or tea sets, whose shiny, fluted parts are built compact and slender, but then complemented by black wooden handles that are repeating and rounded in form. The fan-shaped quality so characteristic of the inter-war period is found in many of Keilowa’s designs, including her one-of-a-kind auteur projects.
Julia Keilowa (1902–1943) was a highly regarded sculptress in the 1930s. She designed for the J. Fraget, the Hennemberg Brothers, and the Norblin tableware companies. She graduated from the Lwów State Industrial School. From 1925–1931 she was a student at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 1929 she joined the Forma sculptors’ cooperative. She also worked as an editor and a journalist for the Bohêmaz pamphlet (1931). Her awards and distinctions included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs award (1935) and a prize at the International Art and Technology in Modern Life Exhibition in Paris (1937). In 1941 she co-organised and taught at a ceramics workshop in Lwów. She hid in occupied Warsaw until 1943, whereupon she died in mysterious circumstances.
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Author: Agnieszka Kasprzak-Miler. Text originally published in Out of the Ordinary: Polish Designers of the 20th Century, edited by Czesława Frejlich and published by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (Warsaw, 2011) in cooperation with the Karakter publishing house. Translation by Søren Gauger, edited for the purposes of Culture.pl by Agnieszka Le Nart.
For more information on the book, see: www.karakter.pl
(1) J. A. Mrozek, in: Rzeczy Pospolite, Polskie Wyroby 1899–1999 (Everyday Objects, Polish Products 1899-1999), ed. Cz. Frejlich, Olszanica 2001, p. 94.
(2) N. Samotyhowa, Wskrzeszone Rękodzieło: Metaloplastyka Julji Keilowej (Resurrected Handicrafts: Julia Kielowa’s Metal Sculpturs), Arkady year 1936, no. 1, p. 51.