In the arts there is one unifying factor that establishes reputation: the historical context. Critics and then historians look for trends, precedents, and convenient labels so that readers may more easily find links for what are set before them. Through various disciplines, the disseminators of curriculum shape opinion from an early age with certain reference points guided by an unseen arbiter of posterity. But historical contexts depend as much on personal perspective at any given moment—in which direction our attention is focused—along with the time and place at that particular intersection. Our gaze can only take in so much, and some artists elude historical and geographical contexts while creating independently, outside standardised parameters and under the radar. Occasionally, all too rarely, such an artist surfaces between the fast-flowing currents of national movements for which the undertow of time-place pulls in other directions. All free-searchers make similar discoveries that can only be wondered at and enjoyed within the sphere that is opened up.
The Polish artist Stefan Żechowski (pron. Ge(r)-hovksi) is a perfect example of these factors, who like the Czech T.F.Šimon or Russian writer Mikhail Artsybashev are even neglected in their homelands. Żechowski’s fate was to be born in a village preceding a world war that for the first time in 125 years signalled national independence from the yoke of a Prussian/ Austrian/Russian Partition, cruelly snatched away again after the next world war by an intolerant Soviet regime. Poland traditionally took its cultural vision from the West rather than Russia, but usually with a slight time-delay of a few years before taking hold from earlier models. Thus Romanticism, Symbolism, Impressionism, and Modernism had Polish exponents too, permeated by their specific geo-social and cultural experiences. Subtly inspired by the first two movements, irrespective of fashion, this was the complex location in tragic times where our subject lived.
Born on 19th July 1912, exactly one week and decade after another original artist-writer whom he admired, Bruno Schulz, he lived all his life in Newtown Street in Książ Wielki, a village near Kielce. He was the fourth and last son of Wincent and Florentyna, honest and industrious simple folk who in spite of isolated rural poverty ensured education for all their children. One became a teacher and another had artistic talent like Stefan, their lives cut short as victims of Auschwitz thirty years later. For an artist who became so fascinated, indeed mesmerized, by the female form, it may be significant that there were no sisters in the family, nor were more distant relatives mentioned as suitors. A girl at the same school, a one-storey thatched 17th century building, remembered that the future artist didn’t join in playground games but stood watching or else read and sketched, traits that never left the outsider all his life.
The first person to recognise his talent was the school headmaster in 1926, who allowed Stefan to draw portraits of those around him during class. Other teachers sometimes even bought the drawings for money or sweets. A developing theme for his work and philosophy from this time was the subject of hate, which he recounted in a diary written all his life. For example, one Sunday when out walking he heard screaming from a victim of mugging who was hit on the head by a stone, an almost biblical memory that he regularly reworked: he asked himself what does it mean, why do people hate each other so much? It was a question that could never be answered, perpetuated in local drunken fights that disgusted him and which featured, allegorically, from his earliest surviving pictures right to the end.
In 1929 the 17 year-old travelled the 60 kms to Kraków, the former capital that became the nation’s cultural heart, for an examination to enter the Ornamental Arts and Crafts School in Mickiewicz Avenue, appropriately named after the national poet he avidly read and portrayed. His still-partly surviving portfolio, with illustrations of another bard’s verse and country scenes that somehow fuse the uncanny with the actual, so impressed the Board of Directors that he was exempted from the theory exam. Indeed, they created quite a stir as a new discovery, which must have lightened the long trek home as he didn’t have enough money for the fare so had to walk the last 30 kms on foot. (The train ticket cost 7 złoty, he recounted 50 years later, the price of food for a week.) The parents’ joy was tempered by worry about how to fund his new life in the city. His diary says he was one of the poorest and youngest students there in his brother’s hand-me-down clothes, suffering hunger and deprivation as well as disappointment with the curriculum (the endless drawing of chairs and pots seemed like an insult) among classmates who included irritating rich girls bored with their new environment. He confessed hunger was the worst part as a developing awareness of the importance of his art transcended the constant humiliation, while school fees were successively reduced due to success. This developing individuality reappeared when he was called-up for the army, a nightmare that also involved solitary confinement on bread and water for drawing a caricature of his officer!
First exhibiting in 1929 with 12 more in the next 8 years, his first solo show in that city in 1930 included pictures of saints, perhaps a reaction to the school experiences. Icons, whether religious or cultural, were a constant motif. After graduation in 1932 he joined a little-known group, the Tribe of the Horned Heart, based on inspiration from the pagan, pre-Christian nation. He was fascinated with the art and ‘haughty personality’ (Ben Hecht) of its leader Stanisław Szukalski (1893-1987), whom he deemed a master though later questioned his personality and fell-out (much of his work was destroyed by the Nazis, including his own museum). They were on parallel paths, the elder painter having one of the most singular theories for art and mankind that there has ever been; his ashes were spread, significantly, on Easter Island. Outliving the disciple, his reputation revived around the same time in the 1980s and has been sponsored by Leonardo diCaprio. After leaving this group, who were somewhat against the tide when experimental movements such as the Artes (formed in Lwów then moved to Paris) held sway, Żechowski returned to book illustration which resulted in its own controversy. In 1936, on the recommendation of the artist Marian Ruzamski (1889-1945), he visited the writer Emil Zegadłowicz (1881-1941), a magnet for controversial cultural figures. In his rambling country mansion, among sculptures and wall-paintings of demons mouthing aphorisms outside an altar-room once used by a Christian sect, he shared a ghostly experience and ran shouting outside. While there he contracted ’flu and the family nursed him while becoming close friends, a rare experience for the loner described by another visitor, the Socialist Leon Kruczkowski whose book he later illustrated with Flemish-like detail, as ‘quiet, confident and hard-headed but not witty’.
Zegadłowicz was an individualist in a kindred vein, later completely ignored by C.Miłosz’s arrogantly-titled The History of Polish Literature in spite of writing an early study of Wilde and modern art movements, dramas and poetry including Chinese forms like Ezra Pound. His novels combine a daring exploration of inner drives and passions with awareness of Nature and folk customs of rural communities such as the Tatra highlanders. He told the artist that his drawings conjured in front of his eyes the doyen of Decadence who had died a decade earlier, Stanisław Przybyszewski (see Wormwood #6), an intriguing collocation as the three explored similar aesthetics. His guest confessed, shamefacedly, that he had read almost nothing by that writer who was once famous across all Europe, but in childhood wanted to read his 1890s novel Homo Sapiens until his brother took it first saying it was not for the young. Zegadłowicz was an important conduit for such material during the inter-war years, when for example he met Bruno Schulz and given a couple of drawings, which as we saw on our visit to the home are still lovingly kept by the writer’s daughter. She still remembers Stefan’s thick dark hair when he used to shave out in the garden during his stay.
The artist gave them 30 drawings as a gift and contributed 37 illustrations to the writer’s new novel, Motory (1937, The Motors). Due to those difficult times, when the establishment controlled the media, the novel was issued by a fictitious publisher that was the author himself, but soon almost all the 1,000 copies were confiscated and the illustrator accused of ‘anti-government rebelliousness and immorality’. The artist’s wish to be associated with this work is in itself significant—at first he was disappointed by the erotic scenes that were too naturalistic for his romantic spirit and view of love, but decided to choose only the fragments he personally liked. Żechowski usually preferred the classics of Polish and European literature from earlier periods, such as Dostoevsky, Edgar Allan Poe, Nietzsche, and the Romantic icons Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki (whose poem “Anhelli” he illustrated at school). Their evocative, almost mythic portraits reappear as a touchstone during the alienation of everyday life. Apart from a few short stories he read all Dostoevsky’s work, which he described as like going to a dark witch-world where the poor, innocent, ill and angry people dwell, a space very much occupied by himself too in the cramped village cottage at the end of a lane and round the corner from the surprisingly massive church. He spent a couple of months away from school with his work, buried in thinking about the sense and meaning of the world around him, but when he also read Poe (which was possibly illustrated by Odilon Redon) he felt himself losing the will to fight to change his situation. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, translated by the Decadent writer Wacław Berent, sent the painter into raptures from its very first words.
The visual artists that Stefan Żechowski admired are also significant for an understanding of his own art—not for explication, because they primarily registered on his consciousness rather than the images and style, as with all true originals (in this respect it’s the same with the evocative art of the Quay Brothers, who first introduced us to the Polish master’s work in their studio). Apart from the already-mentioned Szukalski, whose strange creativity mysteriously ‘confronted’ the prodigy before emigration to America, contemporary artists are noticeable by their absence from his stated influences. At college he would be the first and last to leave the National Museum on Sundays gazing at the famous canvases of Szukalski, Artur Grottger, who died aged 30 and had a famous love affair with a female patriot, and Jacek Malczewski as well as his ‘teachers of light’: Leonardo da Vinci, Correggio, Rembrandt and Reubens whose work of ‘divine features’ also featured in Michelangelo’s sculptures. One exception to this pantheon was an interest in the more recent ethereal Symbolism of Arnold Böcklin. Before and during the war he created various cycles entitled “Childhood Memories”, “Dreams of Power”, “War”, “Summits”, “Hymns to Nature”, and “Ill Earth”, as well as essays on free-will, Christ and Satan, subjects that allow a glimpse into his thinking during the mindless engulfing of Europe.
Poland was soon placed in Stalin’s grip, there was no middle ground and little choice but to accept the regime’s Social-Realism or else be ostracised and starved if not imprisoned. From 1946-1949 Żechowski designed a series of thirty postage stamps on Polish culture along with sculpture-like portraits of Lenin and Marx (as well as Chopin, Paganini, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Plato), the following year receiving first prize at a national exhibition as well as the Gold Cross of Merit in 1955. At this time he illustrated a new edition of Emil Zegadłowicz’s most famous novel, Zmory (Nightmares) which was made into a film by Poland’s foremost director Andrzej Wajda, as well as the well-known Jerzy Żulawski’s On the Silver Globe. After the short-lived thaw following Stalin’s death in 1956, he withdrew from public life.
Three years earlier, while away, he heard that his home in Książ had been set on fire by a neighbour. He lost his diary, which involved 23 years of his life, drawings including some of the “Anhelli” series, and correspondence with writers and artists. The motive for the arson is unknown for sure, but when we visited the Muse of his art, his widow Marianna Żechowska, we could see that the home is still closely-bordered by other cottages. Almost unchanged from her husband’s portrayal, and the time when the younger girl used to supply him with books when working in a bookshop, she kindly showed us unpublished drawings from his prodigious albums along with decorated artefacts that are little known. The astonishment that the art provokes cannot be adequately conveyed in a narrative, but it is comparable to the shock that this wondrous treasure-trove of a lonely artist, whose ideal was to convey a unique vision, should be so little known in the world.
Some international notice did come, albeit sporadically, during his last twenty years. In 1964 he exhibited in Brussels then exactly ten years later at an erotica and fantasy exhibition in New York, for which he had won a scholarship, a rare achievement in Communist times. He was invited to stay but preferred to return to Poland, although some exhibits appeared in Sternberg’s renowned L’Amour sensual: An Encyclopedia of Erotic Art that has been periodically reprinted and Andrzej Banach’s Les Enfers (The Hells), both in Paris. In 1977 a television documentary “Hermit” was filmed with interviews in his studio, which is still screened today, showing the always clean-shaven, soberly-dressed man almost as incongruously placed among the art as the viewer. According to his wife, he didn’t smoke or drink, ‘his only addiction was women’. A selection of drawings, poorly reproduced, alongside his writings was published as an album in Łódź, Na Jawie (1981, The Undream), when a monthly pension was granted for his lifelong service to art by the city of Kielce. This belated recognition was only briefly experienced, as he died on the 28th October 1984 and laid to rest in the cemetery among the quiet fields surrounding his home.
At the beginning of the new century a better-produced, lavish folio with rare photographs appeared, Kusiciel Demonów (The Temptation of Demons), but against the wishes of the artist’s wife. Also of interest, with unpublished material from the family archive, is a concurrent exhibition catalogue by Kraków’s Historical City Museum. In 2002 the local school was renamed after him, and his widow donated four portraits at the inauguration ceremony; for the 25th anniversary of his death a ceremony was held there attended by local dignitaries.
It is said that his preference for solitude combined with an introverted nature contributed to the underestimation of his reputation that is only now being rehabilitated, yet it is extremely rare for any village artist to even be heard about outside their locality. Full of disdain for the low level of modern art, this master craftsman diligently worked in pastel, crayon, charcoal, pencil and oil in a deliberate archaic style that adds to the dreaminess, the otherworldliness of the vision. Too superficially it is sometimes labelled kitsch, but that term signifies degraded value, the sad substitutes for life fostered by banality and mediocrity: Stefan Żechowski’s art is a reaction to such objects of the world, such artefacts of atrophic modernism, it is an outpouring organic in its growth. The eternal verities are depicted to counter the incursive modern world, as did the admired Symbolists. One of the first diaries of R.M. Rilke, another advocate of the solitary way, defined art as ‘the means by which singular, solitary individuals fulfil themselves on a path towards freedom. What Napoleon was outwardly, an artist is inwardly. He creates to make more space within himself,’ and this applies to our subject.
It would be too easy to compare with kindred imbibers of infinity such as Odilon Redon, Alfred Kubin, Feliçien Rops or Aubrey Beardsley. Yet these originals do share a principle image of woman in an inner micro-cosmos or fantasy-world that in human terms is driven by the dynamics of extreme passions, which can manifest sexually or through its counterpoint of hate. To some extent there is the bond of a Symbolist-Decadent view of Woman as a Temptress, as Eve and Salomé, but She is also fundamentally a Muse for Man with the same burden. The fleshy women, as in the more staid forms of Bougereau, J.-A.Ingres and Rubens, are juxtaposed with the startling and often chaste beauty of nymphs, ethereal as their settings. It is human physicality in the space not of an ‘orthodox’ real world but the cosmos of the imagination and its own nature, exposed to a secret viewing. Just as the ancients preferred not to set figures in landscapes but in their own right, so Żechowski places them webbed in a personal prism of his own making, like a crystal. There is a complete, final absence of all the trappings of the so-called real world. The melancholy of the artist is let loose in a joy of the pagans, and each result touches unforgettably the viewer’s inner self.
Art of course stresses the primacy of the imagination, the inner-self, and here he obliterates the outer world to build on its ruins with a concentration derived from the primal source of the landscape-within. The various cycles focus on states of consciousness, the moods and passions derived from fragments of literary memory, woman in her various forms manifested and interior, sometimes in the peep-show owned by Death. Apostles and mythic allegories vie with Pan, bony angels with bug-eyed morphs twisting around their prey to be startled in Ensor-like mirror-play; in profoundly-titled dreams or nightmares are frozen the inhabitants of worlds obviously too small to hold more than themselves. There is a stunning uniqueness of each image, and while they parallel Goya, Bresdin and de Groux as if from a secret chamber in Huysmans’ A Rebours, there are no actual precursors nor any external referentials because autonomous, from the singular thread of one hypersensitive seeking to find himself in the unreal realm of human existence. There is not exactly standardised horror but its aftermath, its consequences, a profound and incomprehensible disquiet sensed without end or frontiers, a wandering of the earth as in the borderlands experienced by Blake. Like séance records, the light is from another, hidden source.
His deliberate, steadfast isolation formed the characteristics of individual style. From an early age he was determined to pursue an unconventional path, primed by self-study from endless hours in museums and libraries. He tells us in the “Hermit” film that ‘My intemperance of youth passed in a blaze of fervent, almost religious cults surrounded by the spiritual figures of the nation, the talented artists, martyrs of ideas, geniuses of justice, prophets of liberation. The brightness of the everlasting shone to help me face and eclipse the darkest moments of my life’. This evolution, always on the margins, had its own philosophical paradigm of Time: every given moment forms the continuum of eternity, whether in superb classroom scenes which seemingly derive from racial memory or on the curve of a planet’s rim. The world we share through observation of his art is saturated with inner light, as if escapees from Plato’s cavern. His astounding imagination, unusually inspired mostly from literature (like Redon and to some degree Mervyn Peake), is becoming increasingly available via the internet. The imagery is so rich that, in all truth, it defies description, at least outside the parameters of a book. Even then, during the night, it would seep out when we are unaware. For explorers of true art, it is not hyperbole to say that discovery is akin to a revelation. Stefan Żechowski’s tomb, among the meadows and orchards he left to tell their own story, bears the legend: ‘I dreamed my art’.
© Brian R.Banks & Marta Mazur, 2010.