Jan. 29, 2021

About Felicja Uniechowska and her things

Prof. UAM dr hab. Piotr Korduba

Instytut Historii Sztuki UAM

 

I can still see that attic room. Small, but monumental in design.

 

In its corner, at a perfect English mahogany table, in a wonderful, also English armchair, sits a tiny old lady. By her side, always up-to-date reading: newspapers, the latest books, often catalogs of recent exhibitions. A green cut glass with water at hand and a lot of green gadgets around. One, probably decorated with the image of a dachshund. Near the table there is a late-baroque Stollenschrank, fragments of 17th-century tapestries on the walls, a modest, but 18th-century corner piece filled with faience, an oriental screen and the main character of this room - a wardrobe of a standing clock painted in red with chinos.

 

I have known Felicja Uniechowska (1925-2019), an art historian, set designer, collector, widow of Antoni Uniechowski (1903-1976), a famous draftsman and collector in the last years of her long life. We met for professional reasons, I was collecting materials for my book and I wanted to interview the famous interior reporter, known to me only from the archival issues of 'Ty i Ja'. As it turned out during the first meeting, we were connected by much more than an expert conversation between two art historians. That day, I met one of the greatest personalities I have ever met.
 

We saw each other systematically until her death in May 2019, sometimes even once a month. Our professional contact quickly turned into a social acquaintance or maybe even a friendship - as she called it herself. First, I said that you have to be friends with those a generation younger than yourself, and with time I revised my view - with those two generations. From a certain moment, she had no peers anymore - she liked to remind that to herself with her own distance and wit. After some time she suggested: - maybe I will adress you by your first name, but you will talk to me as before, otherwise it would be somehow silly.

 

Our meetings had their own unchanging ritual. Almost until the end they started with a two-course dinner she prepared, served on a table covered with elaborate haberdashery. Then coffee with dessert. Everything well thought out, but at the same time extraordinary. At the end I was aked to wind up the red clock. A total of two, sometimes three hours, of exciting conversations. Initially more historical, founded on her interesting life and wonderful memory, but paradoxically with time more and more contemporary. Because initially Felicja Uniechowska to me was a historian and a scientist, first and foremost, a witness of the century that she'd lived through. She perfectly remembered and consciously experienced pre-war, occupied, communist, transformative, and post-transformational Poland, and finally did not take her eyes off any contemporary matters. She was a figure through whom all the most important personalities and personalities of Polish culture, as well as hundreds of other equally exciting people, passed their lives. But there was no pride in it, or even more presumptuousness in knowing, acquaintance or even friendship with those who have streets named after them today, great biographies were written about them, and outstanding works remained after them. It was rather a private collection of characters, which Felicja Uniechowska kept, recalled, whose outstandingness she once used herself and which experience she was able to share with unsurpassed skill. Attentive to words, discreet, mindful of merits and flaws, she drew mini-portraits, almost always hooked on a colorful anecdote and always humorously and pointedly pointed out. Thanks to these portraits, bronze figures came to life.

 

Felicja Uniechowska had a well-known passion and it was objects. One could say that before the turn to things and materiality became a fashionable research tendency in contemporary humanities, it was in dealing with the objects of Felicja Uniechowska that it had its pioneer. This is what Franciszek Starowieyski wrote about her: "I have known only one perfect collector's wife so far. She was Felicja Uniechowska, an art historian. Her husband, Mr. Antoni Uniechowski, came from a large family of collectors. They created their home collection together. Tonio was fond of monumental things, Felinka on the other hand. - in earthenware, small silver, snuff boxes, etc. He was attracted to old Polish decoration, she held him back a bit. Tonio, in turn, did not allow her to accumulate trifles. Their entire collection is a beautiful set, the most civilized collections I have seen. No. a store of antiques, only precisely and very beautifully, tastefully decorated interior ". Because the collections of the Uniechowski family, and later only of Felicja Uniechowska, were actually arranged in a unique apartment, a kind of penthouse above the roofs of the Old Town. There were more and less of them, but they also moved around the interiors, in arrangements and configurations that were willingly and consistently changed by the owner. In recent years, a bit disappointed, she used to say: I don't know how to rearrange something here, because all the variants have already been tried! She had this need to the end.

 

Felicja Uniechowska did not call herself a collector, she was happy to say that she collects faience. There was a trick in this, because when she was constantly asked "what do you collect", she started a little to cut off her research, to display faience in her curiosity. She would also like to add: but I don't collect porcelain because they don't like each other. In her case, however, it was not ordinary expertise, a trained eye and great knowledge, it was a belief in the agency of objects, sometimes even more important than in their aesthetic, historical or material values. When, during my first visit, I noticed her famous collector's wardrobe, she replied intriguingly: we will open this wardrobe the next time you come. There were plenty of these subsequent conversations about objects and the stories they carried. She started with a cup, snuffbox or picture; those at hand, or extracted from memory to quickly unravel the web of their stories, vicissitudes, tangle of owners and the fascinating circumstances in which their changes took place. And so, starting from the knife, chair or platter, we ended with Professor Jan Białostocki, Stanisław Lorentz, Bohdan Pniewski, Bronisław Krystall, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and many, many others. Felicja Uniechowska attached importance not only to the characters associated with the objects, but also to the circumstances of their acquisition. She drew from her memory amazing situations, people, addresses with whom in her search she encountered, and whose aura complemented the history of objects. As she said in an interview I had the pleasure of conducting with her: "It may seem strange, but I did not do it every now and then, but every day. I had a constant trail. Every day, at about the same time between noon and 2pm. , I visited all the antique shops that were there. I started with Desa in the Old Town Square, then Desa in Nowy Świat, finally in MDM, or vice versa, because Desa was a monopolist in the antiques trade at that time. "Veritas" owned by Pax, run by Zofia Potocka. It was basically a continuation of her occupation "Miniatura", for which the sign was designed by my future spouse Antoni Uniechowski, graphic designer and illustrator. At Mrs. Potocka, due to her family and social connections, both during the occupation and in the post-war years, many items came from aristocratic and landed gentry collections. they tried to sell something in Desa and gave it to Mrs. Potocka. There were more hunters like me, of course we all knew each other, so hunting had social advantages as well. There was no need to sit in the cafe, we just stopped for a chat in one of Desa's salons. Among these people, there were a few younger colleagues, such as Franciszek Starowieyski, for whom it was a kind of sport to track down misidentified objects and inform Desa's employees about it. It was quite a snobbish competition that amused me, among other things because thanks to these mistakes we could buy something unique. [...] Not all of them were buying, and if so, our financial possibilities were of course different. Some of these people were, let's say, tasters who, first of all, came to water their eyes with a nice item. I always made up my mind quite quickly. In this respect, my opposite was the well-known set designer Tadeusz Wybult. Once he stood over a pair of classicist chests of drawers and asked me: I wonder if I should buy them or not? I replied - Mr. Tadeusz, I have already deprived you of this dilemma, I just bought them! "She always emphasized at the same time how an excellent companion her husband was for her, with whom they could talk for hours about something, argue about its authorship, dating, and sometimes also authenticity .

 

Thus, objects and people were for Felicja Uniechowska the perpetrators of micro-history and full participants of great history. However, there were less and less of these items, as well as people known to her, around her. I asked her once if it was not sad for her to part with objects, she replied, as usual, with distance and rationality: - no, because if the objects had not circulated, they would not have come to me. After a few years, recalling one of her paintings, she added conclusively to this thread: besides, where I am going, large formats are not taken into account.