Born in 1943. Historian of ideas, literary critic, art historian and translator with excellent education. He is one of the very best Polish essayists with a brilliant command of style. Died on 18th August 2020 in Paris.
This historian of ideas, literary critic, art historian and translator boasts wide education and reading, has a brilliant command of style, and is one of the very best Polish essayists.
Versatilely educated and well-read, with a brilliant style, he belonged to the top Polish essayists of the middle generation. He has received numerous awards, including the Kościelski Foundation Award (1975), Ingram Merrill Award (1978), Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award (1989), the Minister of Culture Award (2004) and the Włada Majewska Association of Polish Émigré Writers Award (2013). In 2012, he was awarded the Officer's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta "for outstanding achievements in creative work, journalism and publishing, for his contribution to the popularisation of literature". He has lived in Paris since 1982. He was a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. He also lectured in the United States: at the University of Texas (1990) and New York University (1994-1995).
In 1966 he graduated from French Studies at the University of Warsaw, then studied philosophy there, and from 1967 he taught French literature. As he himself said, he wanted the 17th century French literature to be his escapist space that would provide him with shelter from the heaviness of the surrounding system.
Conceptual Art in Poland: Spaces of Discourse
He began publishing profiles of nineteenth-century Polish politicians, thinkers and statesmen in the 1970s and early 1980s. He was concerned at determining which of these figures led the way, through their reflections and actions, to the recovery of Polish independence. As he later explained, he set himself the task of attaining individual freedom, spiritual development, and above all liberation from the intellectual terror and ordinary colorlessness of communist Poland. From the moment when he settled in the West, Karpiński began to make use of a wider, European perspective. He also found literary material in the many journeys, both real and imagined, that he undertook in order to document his artistic fascinations.
In 1995 Karpiński published Fajka van Gogha (Van Gogh’s Pipe, trans. by AP), a biographical book about the misunderstood genius. The result of his in-depth work on source documents, studies and correspondence of Van Gogh is a very accurate portrait of a Dutch painter who was looking for balance in both his life and work. As Karpiński wrote:
Van Gogh shows people and things and at the same time conveys feelings. He does this with varying intensity. The letters are an indispensable document to trace the metamorphoses of his artistic temperament. The eternal question "how a man becomes who he is" is answered by Van Gogh with an astonishingly full and sincere answer. He tries to be faithful to himself, to the point of pain, to the extreme that provokes human mockery. At the same time, he is subject to the changes of time, transformations. He does not deny them. He searches for himself and is ready to pay the highest price for this search. He pays it. He also leaves us with the records of his struggle.
His best-known collections of essays are the Memory of Italy, which contains sketches of Venice, Piero della Francesca, Piranesi and Machiavelli, as well as other Italian localities and artists. At the same time, the book is a record of his own spiritual labours, a tangible experience of the continuity of European culture. Karpiński wrote:
Venice is a life-giving dream, a stimulation of spirit and mind, a sharpening of sensitivity. But how do you express this dream, how do you save Venice within yourself, how do you consolidate its influence? (...) Traveling should be the cleansing of eyes, the renewal of sensitivity. The harmonious weave created by Italian culture, the co-occurrence of art and politics, heaven and earth, facilitates the struggle against aridity. The Memory of Italy is also the memory of overcoming impotence. It's a cure against spiritual idleness.
The Robber Books and The Insignia of Exile are devoted to emigré writers, bringing Witold Gombrowicz, Czesław Miłosz and Gustaw Herling-Grudziński together with Vladimir Nabokov, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Hugo Hoffmansthal and Nicola Chiaromonte.
Other prominent figures in the literary life of the Polish community abroad whose work, but also personal influence, was formative for Karpiński were Aleksander Wat, Konstanty Jeleński and Jerzy Stempowski. Wat spoke of Karpiński:
This charming boy from Warsaw, Wojtek Karpiński (I fell in love with his mother, from afar) visits me. Before leaving for America, Zygmunt [Hertz] brought him to me on Rue Bonaparte as a lucky charm, because he was an admiral of my Hak i Klucz (Hook and Key, trans. by AP), and even of poems. He graduated from French Studies and Philosophy, he possesses an intelligence that not only astonishes with the power of analysis and imagination, which often happens in Poland, but with the moderation of judgments, their maturity and balance. And a sophisticated taste (without being under the spell of trends) and sensitivity to poetry and thought. This is his image: "a poet like Miłosz happens once every hundred years, there was no such poet after Norwid"... This should be important for you, very important... It is hard to find a better reader. (22 X 1965, from a letter to Czesław Miłosz)
During his stay abroad, Karpiński also met Józef Czapski, with whom he became connected over the many years of friendship. Apart from many sketches, a French selection of his works and his correspondence with Jeleński, Karpiński dedicated to him a biographical book Portret Czapskiego (Portrait of Czapski, trans. by AP) published in 1996. This is how he described his friend:
Czapski never stopped being a passionate observer of the world. His methods of creative work are changing. The artist's personality remains constant in changeability: a painter, writer, soldier, activist, an extraordinary witness of history [...]. He left behind a flash of enlightening vision, the melody of a sentence, the ability to creatively combine many phenomena, the ability to learn from others and remain himself – in constant transformation. His paintings, his texts and scattered traces of his personality around the world are, above all, a school of seeing.
Karpiński's latest works include his personal Obrazy Londynu (Pictures of London, trans. by AP) published in 2014, a collection of excerpts from a travel diary written in the English capital, visits to museums and galleries and meetings held there.
His next biographical book is Henryk (2016), dedicated to the outstanding translator and publicist Henryk Krzeczkowski. Karpiński brings closer his figure and describes the contradictions in his biography, which Krzeczkowski himself generated through ambiguous decisions made in the course of life and through his great mystery. An officer of communist intelligence, but also a leader of the young conservatives’ community. He died in a German concentration camp in Stanisławów, but he also was an oppositionist in the 1980s. In his biography, Karpiński tells a personal story because in the mid-1960s he made friends with Krzeczkowski himself, who encouraged him to publish his texts. Karpiński started working on his biographical book in 1997, when he learned from Paweł Hertz about the existence of the journalist's diaries. He published it after fifteen years of in-depth analysis of the documents, but also after conducting interviews with a wide range of people who were or might have been acquainted with Krzeczkowski – from friends from the school bench in Stanisławów, through his colleagues from the intelligence service to young conservative activists from the 1980s. From his meticulously executed portrait, emerges a full picture of Krzeczkowski, who made sure to cover his biography with clouds of mystification during his life.
In 1970, at the age of 26, Karpiński published his essay W Polskich Oczach (In Polish Eyes, trans. by AP) in the Parisian "Kultura". He wrote about the problem of totalitarianism imposed on Poland and the tradition of cultural and ideological resistance against enslavement. After almost 50 years, Karpiński published his essay W Moich Oczach (In My Eyes, trans. by AP) in a collection of texts Szkice Sekretne (Secret Sketches, trans. by AP) published in 2017. He described his introspections after reading the works of "rogue writers" – Miłosz, Gombrowicz, Czapski, Jeleński, Wat, Herbert and others. He also described other figures from the life of Polish culture in exile and his experiences in Warsaw, Paris and London. As he commented:
When I wrote the first part of the Szkice Sekretne, Poland belonged to the Soviet empire, and I lived in Warsaw. When I was writing the second part, the empire was already decaying, civil society was reviving in Poland and I lived in Paris. The third part was created when there was already a free Poland and I could freely choose where to live and publish. Therefore, only the initial chapters of this book were, also secret from the point of view of police and bibliography, written under a pseudonym, by a hiding author who could not and did not want to openly point out the contexts and meanings that were important to him, require more extensive explanations today. The remaining parts should be clear, but I will try to sketch out their background.
As an editor, he worked on the Polish editions of Jerzy Stempowski's and Konstanty Jeleński's writings, Józef Czapski's French L'Art et la Vie and Nicola Chiaromonte's Italian essays. He prepared prefaces and afterwords to the English edition of the Gombrowicz’s Diary, texts by Józef Piłsudski and Jerzy Stempowski, among others.
Source: www.polska2000.pl; copyright: Stowarzyszenie Willa Decjusza. Update: AP, August 2020. Source: wojciechkarpinski.com
Od Mochnackiego do Piłsudskiego. Sylwetki polityczne XIX wieku (From Mochnacki to Piłsudski: Political Profiles of the Nineteenth Century) (with Marcin Król). Kraków: Znak, 1974 (censored version); Warsaw: Świat Książki, 1997 (unabridged version).
Szkice o wolności (Sketches of Freedom). Chicago: Polonia Book Fund, 1980.
W Central Parku (In Central Park). Warsaw: Klin, 1980.
Słowiański spór (The Slavic Quarrel). Kraków: KOS, 1981.
Cień Metternicha (Metternich's Shadow). Warsaw: PIW, 1982.
Pamięć Włoch (The Memory of Italy). Kraków: WL, 1982.
Amerykańskie cienie (American Shadows). Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1983.
Chusteczka Imeratora (The Emperor's Handkerchief). London: Polonia Book Fund, 1983.
Książki zbójeckie. Szkice o literaturze emigracyjnej (The Robber Books: Sketches of Emigre Literature). London: Polonia Book Fund, 1988.
Herb Wygnania (The Insignia of Exile). Paris: Zeszyty Literackie, 1989.
Polska a Rosja. Z dziejów słowiańskiego sporu (Poland and Russia: From the History of the Slavic Quarrel). Warsaw: PWN, 1994.
Fajka Van Gogha (Van Gogh's Pipe). Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnoślaskie, 1995.
Portret Czapskiego (Portrait of Czapski). Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnoślaskie, 1996.
Prywatna historia wolności (A Private History of Freedom). Warsaw: Iskry, 1997.
Drzewa i ludzie (Trees and People), Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, 2000.
Twarze (Faces), Warszawa: Zeszyty Literackie, 2012
Obrazy Londynu (Pictures of London), Warszawa: Zeszyty Literackie, 2014.
Henryk, Warszawa: Zeszyty Literackie, 2016.
Szkice sekretne (Secret Sketches), Warszawa: Zeszyty Literackie, 2017.
Awards and distinctions:
Critical Art. Selected Issues
- Kościelski Foundation Award, 1975,
- Ingram Merrill Award, 1977,
- Herminia Naglerowa Writers' Association of Polish Writers in the Foreign Countries Award, 1984,
- Zygmunt Hertz Culture Award, 1989,
- Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation Award, 1989,
- Minister of Culture Award, 2004,
- Officer's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, for "outstanding achievements in creative work and journalistic and publishing activities, for merits in popularizing literature", 2012,