The Age of Colourist Painting


The Age of Colourist Painting

The colourist tradition in Polish painting has a long history that continues to this day. It is full of turns and has been marked as the artists' ‘struggle' for autonomy as well as the virtue and purpose of painting. The auction will be a chance for collectors and art admirers to be reminded of the works by outstanding, and often key, painters of the Polish art history - as well as be reminded of how their achievements are perceived today. 


In Polish painting, colours began to have a life of their own during the interwar period and became the most important constructive element of painting compositions. On the one hand, it was a pan-European tendency - artists, tired of avant-garde experiments, searched for peace and balance. On the other hand, when compared to the rest of Europe, the Polish colourist movement was an exceptional phenomenon. Above all, it was an attempt to escape the national and patriotic purposes and duties of art. It was the artists' ‘struggle' for autonomy and the virtue and purpose of painting. 


The early 1920s were a remarkable period and a time of fundamental breakthroughs for Polish painting. The existence of an independent Polish state set the tone for the youth at the Academies of Fine Arts in Cracow, as well as in Warsaw. At that moment, the first violent reactions against the epigones of the Young Polish Art (Polish: Młoda Polska) emerged. The ‘Young Polish' painting tradition began to be crossed with futurism, cubism, contemporary French painting, and elements of Russian art. Józef Czapski wrote about the then prevailing ‘universal, refreshing lure' (Józef Czapski, ‘O przyszłości polskiej plastyki' [in:] ‘Wiadomości Literackie', XI, 1934-35, p. 34).


It was a time of aesthetic pluralism and dynamic ‘flourishing' of artistic life. Anything seemed possible. The mood of the young art adepts studying at the Academy of Fine Arts was utterly positive, as new doors and perspectives were ahead of them. Everyone was accompanied by the belief that ‘new means better'. Yet, the understanding of the avant-garde and modernity promptly began to differ between the emerging groups. For an artist group, later known as the Kapists, the adoption of new art trends and the interest in formism (Polish avant-garde literary and artistic movement) was not equivalent to a rejection of the old art. Quite the opposite, the artists were insatiable. Moreover, they never considered linking painting with a given social ideology, as was the case with the Cracow Group (Polish: Grupa Krakowska). 

Józef Pankiewicz was the father of Polish colourist painting. He was well acquainted with French painting and was an admirer of paintings by Paul Cézanne and Pierre Bonnard. After returning from France in 1923, he took up a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. Pankiewicz, for the second time in the history of Polish painting, opened the door to European art and made Paris the centre of the artistic world - making a significant contribution to the consolidation of the French culture myth. In 1923, the students gathered around Pankiewicz - Jan Cybis, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Artur Nacht-Samborski, Jan Boraczok, Hanna Rudzka (later Cybisowa), Józef Czapski, Józef Jarema, Tadeusz Piotr Potworowski, Ewa Strzałecka, Jan Strzałecki, Marian Szczyrbuła, and Seweryn Boraczok - set up a Paris Committee (Polish: Komitet Paryski) with the aim of raising funds for studying abroad in the French capital. 


Even in Cracow, Pankiewicz had already played a significant role in the artistic attitudes of the young artist surrounding him. Józef Czapski wrote about Pankiewicz's painting the following: ‘Pankiewicz's paintings are not only a discovery of modern painting but painting in general. They are a feeling of the initial joy a painting can give, regardless of what it depicts. We were drawn by the quality and the honesty of those canvases - an atmosphere of an authentic painting culture. No one in Cracow was able to show us the meaning of the colour play with such convincing clarity. (Józef Czapski, ‘Józef Pankiewicz', Lublin 1992, p. 91). The artists associated with Pankiewicz took a turn towards ‘pure' painting, however, did not follow the formist spirit present in Cracow at the time. Yet, the Kapists made an attempt at the ‘de-symbolisation' of paintings, following the cubist and formist thought. They turned towards a search for the essence of painting and its long-standing issues. At an early stage, Kapists' painting came from two sources: Pankiewicz's influence and the experiences of formism. The birthplace of the Kapists was ‘Gałka Muszkatołowa' - a club attended by the most important artists from that circle, such as Chwistk, Witkacy, Czyżewski, Zamoyski, and Pronaszko.

Artur Nacht-Samborski, Girl in red dress, 60' XX.

The set goal of leaving for Paris  to study was quickly realised, as it took place only a year later. At the outset of their Paris adventure, the artists did not have a precise artistic program. They focused on studying paintings in Paris museums and the nature surrounding them. Even though they were very closely associated with Pankiewicz's studio, the artist's paintings no longer influenced them, unlike Pankiewicz himself and his personality. Piotr Potworowski recalled: ‘when it comes to the work method, by the sweat of our brows we were searching for it. In any case, we decided upon rejecting all the gimmicky manners of the (boring at the time) École de Paris. We completely rejected the search for cheap originality and settled on the modest study of nature' (Piotr Potworowski, Dorota Seydenman, [in:] ‘Straty Kultury Polskiej 1939-1944', II, p. 417, Glasgow 1945). Czapski recollected: ‘It was only Paris that provided us with the world of art - not one from a photograph, but a real one - with its modern art and most importantly, the Louvre' (Józef Czapski, ‘Tło polskie i paryskie' (1933) [in:] ‘tegoż, Patrząc', p. 33).

The Kapists' Parisian turns of the fate are well known and have been documented in numerous memoirs. The eleven Pankiewicz adepts studied in Paris the works of French masters, especially the impressionists and Cézanne, who with time, became their main point of reference. Using their experience with French art, their experiments and efforts began to take a course towards colour, which was a carrier of light, shaped forms, and special relations. The way of ‘building' forms using colour taken from Cézanne was an important, if not the most important, point of reference. The point closest to the eyes, which was also the brightest one, was a place that remained ‘disturbed' by the colour of other composition elements. The more distant in the perspective the elements were, the more the local colour was blurred and the more it was enriched by the colours of the objects surrounding it - those gradual transformations modelled its massiveness and space. Noting an object using only colours became a crucial lesson for the Kapists. From Bonnard, they learnt boldness and imaginativeness in contrasting colour combinations. In turn, through Cézanne's and Bonnard's paintings, they turned to impressionism. 


Using colour contrasts became the main principle of colourist painting. Through mutual relations and a certain closeness, the colour spots were supposed to change their value and lead to optical illusions and delusions. In an introduction to a catalogue of the first collective exhibition of the Kapists in 1931, Jan Cybis wrote: ‘By painting from nature, we want to create a canvas which would complement our painting experience in the face of nature. The aim is for it not to be a documentation of similarity, but a game of relations and artistic activities that nature guided us towards. All activities in nature must be transposed onto the conditions of the canvas (surface) and take on a meaning of their own. The colour on the canvas only exists by standing in contrast with other colours. A colour that has not derived from the assumed game, one that merely imitates the colour of nature - does not work in terms of painting. The more legitimate the colour, the fuller the form (Cézanne) and the closer to the artistic realization it will be' (Painting Exhibition of the Kapists, exhibition catalogue, Polski Klub Artystyczny "Polonia", December 1931").


On the one hand, the Kapists' painting was similar to the search undertaken by the Impressionists - their asemantic way of seeing the world which means nothing, is not symbolic, nor does it refer to another non-visual reality. The Kapists, like the Impressionists, were interested in ‘the laws governing the art of painting which the Impressionist era has discovered.' They were interested in colour, colour contrasts, and complementary colours. They knew the mechanisms behind ‘the colour game.' Nevertheless, just as Cybis underscored, all that knowledge was of not much use to the Impressionists, as well as to the Kapists. ‘In the end, you always paint by the seat of your pants.' (Jan Cybis, ‘Journals,' 1956, p. 38). The liens to impressionism were strictly intellectual, they did not concern painterly solutions. Later, Cybis clearly and definitely distanced himself from impressionism. 

The Kapists' landscape compositions from the 1920s and 1930s have a common feature of emphasizing fortuity. Usually, the fragmentary frames were not restricted to a strictly defined motif. One often gets the feeling that the choice of the motif was random. Any fragment of nature could serve as an object of colour transformations. However, the Kapists' works were not about the fragmentation of the shot either. It was a demonstration of their artistic credo - they were solely interested in the painted subject. It was a form of rebellion against the domination of a given theme and the non-plastic meanings. 


The form itself was not a meaning carrier, it was within it that the sense and purpose of the painting were hidden - in that sense, the Kapists are like the Constructivists, who were on the opposite side of the spectrum. This was, however, only a starting point. With time, each artist began a search for their own route, their own interpretations of the initial joint explorations. In the paintings by Józef Czapski, colour was initially only a carrier of light. Heavy and saturated colours appeared quite promptly in his works, bringing an element of expressive tension and drama. Artur Nacht-Samborski, who never de facto rejected contours and value moulding, began his individual search equally quickly. A hint of German expressionism can also be detected in his painting - he eagerly chose anti-aesthetic solutions. A kind of game between colour and form often took place on his canvases. Zygmunt Waliszewski was also entirely different. In his infamous ‘Renaissance Feasts' (Polish: “Uczty Renesansowe") and ‘Venus' Toilet' (Polish: “Toaleta Wenus"), he combined the colour with the theme of the paintings in an unusual way. He was not afraid unlike his fellow artists from the Committee of Literature in Painting. 

The Paris period ended with two exhibitions which were the first official shows of the artists' works - one was smaller and took place in Gallery Zak in Paris in 1930, the other was held in a Geneva-based Gallery Moss in 1931. Both resulted in considerable international success for the young artists. In August 1931, most of them returned to Poland, apart from Nacht who stayed in Paris until 1939. 


In the 1940s and 1950s, the majority of Kapists took up professorships in Academies of Fine Arts -Jan Cybis and Artur Nacht at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Hanna Rudzka-Cybisowa at the Acedemy of Fine Arts in Cracow, whereas Artur Nacht and Piotr Potworowski at the National Higher School of Fine Arts (Polish: Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Sztuk Pięknych) in Gdańsk. Their role in shaping the national cultural politics was significant and with time became key. One achievement of the Kapists in the field of Polish painting was the consolidation of high artistic culture and ‘good painting work.' The Kapists gathered at ‘Głos Plastyków' represented the modern approach toward tradition and culture like no other group in the country at the time. Free from national indoctrination, they understood the history of painting as a whole- a history that lives, is up-to-date and, importantly, is subject to the criteria of contemporary evaluation. They reproduced both the best old and contemporary art in a journal they edited. They wanted to build a universal art awareness by explaining and analysing art issues. There were a few artists-critics endowed with great literary talent among the Kapists (e.g.  Józef Czapski, Jan Cybis, Tytus Czyżewski). 

In general terms, the Kapists' work should be categorized as somewhere between avant-garde and traditionalism. They stood for artistic moderation, did not reject tradition and their works were in line with broader, pan-European art tendencies taking inspiration from classical trends. At the same time, they referred to the discoveries of the avant-garde. Although their art was undoubtedly a heterogeneous phenomenon, the role of the group and their influence on Polish art after 1945 was significant - perhaps even the most important of all groups established in the interwar period.  


It was the above-mentioned professors who, in large part, decided upon how art should be and their work at university undoubtedly gave them the tools for it. It is worth emphasizing that colourist painting, unlike many trends, collaborated even with socialism. In the post-war period, places such as Warsaw or Cracow functioned dynamically but were promptly joined by Gdańsk with its ‘Sopot School' and Poznań. They based on grand individuals such as Wacław Taranczewski, Artur Nacht-Samborski or the duet of Emil Krcha and Eugeniusz Geppert. The terms of the post-war colourist painting were accurately defined by Mieczysław Porębski in 1946 when he wrote: ‘Our current ‘academism' is of a specific character. Its rigour is seeing things naturally. […] Simultaneously, it concentrates all of its creative efforts on sublime colour speculation. […] It is not a trustworthy repetition of the optical experiencing of reality, nor is it independent of reality abstract colour play. […] The colour arrangements are clearly linked to a concrete appearance of things and this determines their sense and character. The essence of a formal achievement is, however, that the depicted appearance is not only a random aligning of optical moments, nor a fleeting, sensual note. It is an appearance that has been rationalized properly in painting. The ‘visual moments' have been reduced here to consciously selected colour principles and rules […] to give reality emotional tension and an intellectual dimension. The colour construction is an instrument organising the emotional reaction to objects. It is accompanied by a corresponding construction of the compositional layout: the arrangement of the linear and directional rhythms, the finding of proportions, and a clear disposition of smudges and figures […]. The original rationalism of colour and form, as well as the rigorous respect for the probability of appearances, determine the art - with all of its academic stability and academic perfection.' (Mieczysław Porębski, ‘Sztuka naszego czasu', Warsaw 1956, p. 27-28)

Concerning the general thought behind the Polish colourist painting in the second half of the 20th century, one could distinguish two ‘schools': the Sopot school and the Poznań school. The former could be distinguished by the monolithic nature of its staff's views. Both, its initial founders, and the later-recruited lecturers were considered colourists. Even though an avant-garde movement developed simultaneously at that time in Poland, the Polish colourists made Cézanne a true cult. They not only wanted to continue his artistic way, but also the ethical one which focused on honesty in nature studies. It is impossible to objectively depict the world, paintings should create - in their view - partial sensations that change with the point of view, just like in Cézanne's paintings. This means that the internal logic behind a painting stands in contrast with nature and it is subject to its own painting rules. The lesson taken from Cézanne had its continuation in both cubism and fauvism, followed by abstract art. Despite the passing of time and dynamic changes in the development of artistic thought, the Kapists restrained themselves to Cézanne's discoveries. The monolithic view structure of the founders and lecturers on the Coast meant that a conflict between the avant-garde and traditionalist attitudes never appeared - even though it was typical, at times key, for other artistic circles. The seven founders were later joined by Artur Nacht-Samborski, Jan Wodyński, Stanisław Teisseyre, Stanisław Borysowski, Jan Cybis, and Piotr Potworowski. After Marian Wnuk, the rector, left for Warsaw in 1949, he was replaced by Stanisław Horno-Popławski and Adam Smolana. It was them, who dictated the tone of the artistic life on the Coast. The most significant initiatives were born among them, such as the pioneering idea of hosting a Festival of Fine Arts in Sopot. Also, in their usual enthusiastic way, they joined the efforts to reconstruct the destroyed Gdańsk by carrying out, among other, the artistic renovation of the buildings by the Royal Lane (Polish: Droga Królewska) in Gdańsk. 


The situation changed around the time of the ‘thaw.' Then, the artists associated with the famous Arsenal exhibition of 1955, have definitely distanced themselves from the post-impressionist tradition. The works of Piotr Potworowski, heavily influenced by his acquaintance with Cybis, were an exception to this. It was Cybis, who made him pay special attention to colour. In his own individual way, Potworowski transformed the possibilities offered by colourist painting into their Kapist version. This resulted from his many post-Cubist inspirations, but also from the artist's ability to constructively analyse reality. Although the landscape was the main starting point in his compositions, the artist reduced it to a composition of colour smudges on canvas. In terms of colours, he analysed nature in a way that it became a pretext for variations on the subject of colours. 

After the thaw, a new version of the abstract colourist painting was born in Poland. Anda Rottenberg wrote on this phenomenon: ‘Galleries and solons are being filled with abstract paintings by the whole pleiad of artists: starting with the metaphysical canvases by Stanisław Fijałkowski from Łódź who was the last apprentice of Strzemiński; through the illuminated, joyful and landscape-like paintings by Tadeusz Dominik; the dramatic axis figures by Jan Lebenstein; the ‘brutalist' compositions by Aleksander Kobzdeja;  the tashizing canvases by Rajmund Ziemski, ending with the clear colour saturated, concentric circles by Wojciech Fangor' (Anda Rottenberg, ‘Sztuka w Polsce 1945-2005', Warsaw 2005, p. 81). The words of the respected art critic synthetically cover the diversity of the phenomenon. It seems that each of the artists was distinct due to their own reception of colourist painting. One has to mention Stefan Gierowski at this point, whose canvases - abstract and raw in their form - were a study of the general nature of painting from the very beginning. The artist explored subjects associated with the Kapists such as the function of light, the gleam and the matt, colour texture, the interplay of colour ranges, or the compositional tensions. Years later, it is apparent that the Polish school of colour combined with constructivist rules gave a solid base for artists such as Tomasz Ciecierski and Leon Tarasewicz, who are among the leading representatives of Polish contemporary painting today. At the very core of their search is the supremacy of colour and light that act as the supreme means of expression. Krzysztof Kostyrko underscored that ‘Polish colourists additionally took into consideration ‘an additional viewing filter' in their perception. It was an aesthetic of specifically understood decorative character of painting as a flat, uniform surface that was balanced to the maximum in its internal, harmoniously built colour tensions' (Krzysztof Kostyrko, Władysław Rutkowski [exhibition catalogue], Poznań 1970). Here, one could turn to the words of the researcher Wacław Puczyłowski. When summarizing the Polish colourist painting in the second half of the 20th century, he denied that the national colourist painting had a preservative or a conservative formula. Quite the opposite, it was a benchmark for modernism or even the avant-garde. In the works by the aforementioned artists, the aesthetics similar to that of colourist painting can be found independently - regardless of which trend they followed when creating (matter painting, informel, or the new figuration). The colourists are owed an undoubted credit for turning artists working after the war towards strictly painting-related issues. This is also true for abstract works that had the analysis of the internal structure of the painting at its very core. It was only the death of Czesław Rzepiński in 1995 that has symbolically ended the era of Polish symbolism, although his successors continue to create and evolve. (Wacław Puczyłowski, ‘Koloryzm w malarstwie polskim drugiej połowy XX wieku', "Roczniki Humanistyczne" Volumes LVI-LVII, notebook 4, 2008–2009).