A Painter Emerges: The Quest for Czapski presented by Eric Karpeles
Józef Czapski (1896-1993) witnessed the tumult of twentieth century Europe firsthand, as a military officer, an art and literary critic, a disciplined chronicler of his own experiences, and above all, as a painter skilled at isolating the subtle significance of the everyday. Art and life were never differentiated for Czapski. Two inseparable realities—the life lived and the life examined served to shape his understanding of what it was to be in the world, a world in upheaval, a world of personal loyalties and political betrayals. As a student in St. Petersburg in 1917, he experienced the terror of the Russian Revolution and fought in the First World War. Beginning his painting discipline in Paris in the 20s, he sold a painting to Gertrude Stein. In Warsaw in the 30s he set up a studio, but was again called to arms when Germany and Soviet Russia invaded Poland. Taken prisoner by the Red Army, he became one of only a minute percentage of officers spared from mass execution. After the war, he made Paris his home, working tirelessly to preserve the voice and spirit of a non-communist Poland; Camus, Malraux, and De Gaulle were among his circle. He painted and exhibited regularly in European capitals over a period of four decades.
Eric Karpeles, a painter whose book Paintings in Proust filled a niche in Proust studies, was sent a copy of lectures Czapski had given on Proust, in French, while enduring extreme hardship as a prisoner of war, with hopes of raising the morale of his fellow officers. This crossover of painter and writer in both men triggered Karpeles's interest in a figure, and a world, entirely unknown to him. Over a period of six years, he traveled across Europe meeting people who knew the man, in pursuit of Czapski canvases displayed in private collections, unearthed in closets, and lingering in museum reserve rooms. Karpeles went on to translate Czapski’s Proust lectures (Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp), to write a biography of the man (Almost Nothing: The 20th Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski), and to assemble a lavishly illustrated monograph of the artist’s paintings and drawings (Józef Czapski: An Apprenticeship of Looking).
Co-organized with the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures