18 May 2011

Silesian threads

I made two trips to Silesia—one in May 2009, focused mainly on Krakow, the other in January 2010, between Katowice and Gliwice. During the course of those two trips, I took the opportunity to do the usual gallery-hopping, museum-browsing, antique store window-shopping that is ‘de rigueur’ for my type of low-cost culture-focused tourism.

Krakow, May 2009: Predictably, my eye scanned for unusual things, patterns, objects that are out of place or simply beckon for attention. And so it was, while waiting for a train at the main station of Krakow, across from the Andels Hotel, I had time to kill and needed some change. There was a bric-a-brac style antique store on the upper floor of the train station called “Galeris u adama antyki.” The room was huge—perhaps 60 feet long with 15 foot ceilings. On one side were tall windows—normal, we were in a pre-1940 train station!—and the other three walls were covered floor to ceiling with gaudy, garish, moody, dark, overdone or underdone landscapes, portraits and god-knows-what. From the corner of my eye, in the midst of this cacophony called ‘art’, a small beige abstraction in a simple tan frame caught my eye—a stand-out, a perfect anomaly hanging in the upper right corner, impossible to reach except by ladder.

I asked the owner who spoke bare English whom the artist was. He told me Maria Ender. How much? The equivalent of 400 dollars in cold cash, which I did not have to spend at that point. Too bad… Saddened by my unrequited find, I later did some research into Maria Ender. She was born in Leningrad and died there in 1942 during the Siege. All I could wonder is: how did one of her “avant-garde” pieces end up in a Krakow train station antique bric-a-brac? Who knows?

The Flower Girl, Mojzesz Kisling
Source: Silesian Museum
Katowice, late January 2010: On one of the coldest days that I could ever remember, frozen stiff, I ventured out of my hotel which was facing the historic train station of this industrial city, from which forced and slave laborers were carted off in January 1945 to destinations within the Reich and to the former Protectorate, escorted by SS guards and Vlassov soldiers. Like many cities in Silesia, the last days of German occupation left many parts of the city in ruins and the scars are obvious for all to see to remember day after day until the end of times. I headed to the “Muzeum Slaskie” on Korfantego 6, which appears not to have suffered greatly, if at all, from the late January 1945 artillery and tank pounding.

The permanent collection of 19th and 20th century paintings is housed on the 2nd floor of the Slaskie. Each room is guarded, if one can say that, by an aged female Cerberus. They look like they are sleeping but they actually follow you from the corner of their eyes. Very efficient and very intimidating…

Sulamitka (Dama z wachlarzem), Maurycy Gottlieb
Source: Weranda
I marveled at the quality of artists who plied their creative wares in pre-1940 Poland. And that’s when I saw a painting by Mojzesz Kisling, the “flower girl”, 1914-1921, and a painting by Maurycy Gottlieb, “Sulamitka,” executed in 1877. Two Jewish artists! Very impressive… I continued into a small room which turned out to be a shrine—no one would have known that except for obsessive compulsives like me who later spent hours researching dates of death of these artists… Two-thirds of the artists whose works were in this and an adjoining room had died between 1939 and 1945. Not a single mention of their fate. Embarrassment? Indifference? The same questions that gall me regarding other museums’ professed inability to share the rich and oftentimes tortured stories of works of art on display and their creators came back to haunt me on this visit.  Nevertheless, it was an opportune time to contemplate these works and absorb them for what they are—testimonials to the creative breadth and energy of artists of different faiths whose talent was snuffed out during the dismembering of Poland and the suppression of those living within its borders at the time.

Here is an incomplete list of those artists:
  • Jadwiga Bohdanowicz-Konczewska, died in 1943—sculptress who studied in France with Antoine Bourdelle.
  • Olga Boznanska, died in 1940,
  • Stanislas Kamocki, died in 1944, in Zakopane.—influenced by Jacek Malczewski and Leon Wyszolkowski. Taught at an art school in the village of Poronin near Zakopane.
  • Roman Kramsztyk, died in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto—qualified as a Polish Expressionist. Part of the Friends of Fine Arts Society, Krakow. Linked to Tadeus Pruszowski and Eugene Zak. Had studied in Paris before returning to his native homeland in the 1930s.
  • Edward Okun, died in 1945.
  • Jozef Pankiweicz, Impressionist-like, died in 1940,
  • Tadeus Pruszkowski, died in 1942. He belonged to the Warsaw School and the Fourth Group and taught at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, and was a member of the Rhythm Group (1922-1932).
  • Michal Rouba, died in Wilno in 1941.—His ‘Landscape of Mlyn, 1927’, is very much in the spirit of Soutine’s curvy landscapes. Studied in Krakow, but worked and lived in Wilno.
  • Jan Rubczak, died on 27 May 1942 at Auschwitz—arrested by the Gestapo in April 1942 at a Krakow café with a group of artists.
  • Henryk Szczyglinski, died in 1944, born in Lodz, died in Warsaw.
  • Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, died in 1939.
  • Feliks Michal Wygrzywalski, died in Rzeszow in 1944—a realist/orientalist painter trained in Munich.
  • Kasper Zelechowski, died in 1942.—studied in Krakow.