Polish Art Collections in America
“A painting that is not looked at lives no more. ”
It will not be very original if I say that the publication of Polish Art Collections in America was decided by chance, but that is exactly how it happened. I came to America in 1979 and soon began photographing famous celebrities, both Poles and Americans. Shooting sessions often led to friendships and further to the discovery that some of my sitters had superb art collections. Among the people I photographed were outstanding artists: Tadeusz Kantor, Jan Lebenstein, Tadeusz Brzozowski, Henryk Stażewski, Zygmunt Menkes, Witold Mars, Stanisław Szukalski, Nathan Rappaport, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Wojciech Fangor, Andrzej Pityński, Franciszek Starowieyski, Zdzisław Beksiński and others. They would ask me to document their own works and the collections they had compiled. That was how I learned how to photograph works of art. Those who have tried their hand at it will know it is not easy.
As I delved deeper and deeper into the subject my fascination with it grew. I communed with genuine works of art that for the most part were inaccessible for the public, I became acquainted with collectors, observed their collecting passions, and met extraordinary artists.
The first big collection I photographed was the already legendary collection of Wojciech Fibak. The session was held in his English Gothic style house designed by the architect of the Empire State Building in Greenwich, Connecticut. Fibak had amassed works by the most celebrated representatives of 19th and 20th-century Polish painting, with particular emphasis on the École de Paris (School of Paris). Piotr Michałowski, Tadeusz 'Tade' Makowski, Tadeusz Ślewiński, Olga Boznańska, Józef Pankiewicz, Gustaw Gwozdecki, Mela Muter, Eugeniusz Eibisch, Zygmunt Menkes, Leopold Gottlieb, Henryk Hayden, Moses Kisling and Eugeniusz Zak are only some of the big names in the collection. As a frequent visitor to Fibak's residence I met a wide circle of art lovers. Suffice it to mention Henryk de Kwiatkowski, Ivan Lendl, Zbigniew Brzeziński, Kazimierz Brandys or Tom Podl of Bellevue, Washington, whose collection toured major cities in Poland as an exhibition entitled Colors of Identity. My relation with Wojciech Fibak continued for years as I photographed everything he bought for his houses in Greenwich, New York and Paris.
I also took pictures of Barbara Piasecka-Johnson’s Polish collection (no longer in existence) at Jasna Polana, Princeton, one of the most expensive residences in America. Paintings from her holdings are systematically sold off at charity auctions and the proceeds go to benefit autistic children in Poland. Another collection of enormous importance that I photographed was the painting collection of Stanisław Jordanowski, who became a good friend of mine. Unfortunately, after his death the collection was dispersed, surviving only in The Handbook of Polish Painting, a book Jordanowski published in New York. (A reprint has been prepared by the Ossolineum Society in Wrocław.) Stanisław Jordanowski wrote about the history of Polish painting for New York's Nowy Dziennik daily, and in such a captivating manner that many readers contracted his enthusiasm. Among the new art buffs were Dr Józef Malejka, Dr Edward Luka, and Dr Michał Zavro.
Alongside my photographic activity, I also began writing about collections and artists, initially for the culture section of the Nowy Dziennik, and subsequently in Poland for the Sztuka, Art & Business, and Gazeta Antykwaryczna magazines. In the mid-1980s in New York I chanced upon the widow of Adam Styka, Wanda, who had kept documents relating to the Styka family of painters: Jan Styka, the father, and his two sons, Adam and Tadeusz. Based on those I penned a series of stories for the Nowy Dziennik, which the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, Bolesław Wierzbiański, offered to publish in book form. Entitled The Styka Saga, the book came out in New York in 1988 in Polish and English, and to this day remains the only book on this extraordinary family of painters.
Exploring the history of Polish collections in America I went as far back as the 19th century. I found that in 1892 over a hundred paintings by Polish artists (Józef Chełmoński, Wojciech Gerson, Jacek Malczewski, Władysław Podkowiński, Włodzimierz Tetmajer, Franciszek Żmurko and others) were sent to the World Columbus Fair in Chicago, never to return to Poland. Three years later they were put under the hammer by Baron de Sosnowski at what appears to have been the first auction of Polish painting on New York’s Broadway. At that time, one of the leading Polish collectors was Bolesław Mastaj, who staged the 1945 exhibition of Polish painting in the prestigious showrooms of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Large collections were also garnered by Mieczysław Ciepliński in Washington and Dr Stefan Głowacki in Detroit.
We need to remember that for quite some time collectors have been donating their collections to a variety of institutions. In 1947, Stefan Mierzwa bequeathed his collection to the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York, and was followed in 1977 by Aleksander Mełeń-Korczyński, who donated his collection to the Piłsudski Institute in New York. This year (2005), the collection of Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was devised to the Ossoliński National Institute in Wrocław and is already open to the public.
The present holdings of Polish art in America owe a lot to the fact that after World War II great Polish painters went to live and work in the United States, notably Zygmunt Menkes, Rajmund Kanelby, Rafał Malczewski, and Adam and Tadeusz Styka. Also, Galerie Chalette on the famous Madison Avenue, New York, has played a fundamental role in promoting Polish modern art in America. The owner of the gallery, Madeleine Chalette-Lejwa, has mounted exhibitions of Jan Lebenstein, Henryk Stażewski, Jerzy Tchórzewski, Bronisław Kierzkowski, Stefan Gierowski and many other Polish artists. Polish paintings have been on view in America's leading museums: the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Fifteen Polish Painters, 1961) and the Guggenheim Museum in New York (Wojciech Fangor, 1970). The Chalette-Lejwas’ collection, the Sylwestrowicz collection, installed in a specially designed building, and Ewa Pape's collection, located first in Los Angeles and later in New York, rank among the largest collections of contemporary art. Founded in 1976 in New Jersey and then moved to New York, the Lippert Gallery, run by Zbigniew Legutko, has also been instrumental in setting up a range of superb holdings, among them Wojciech Fibak's collection, which has triumphantly toured a number of Polish cities, Barbara Piasecka-Johnson's collection of predominantly Polish art, and Jacek Blacha’s collection.
Over the past 25 years I have explored more than fifty collections featuring Polish paintings. Each of them is different but they are all equally valuable, whether large, comprising several hundred canvases worth millions of dollars, or small with no more than a dozen or so works. I had access to many of these collections thanks to my collaboration with the art dealer Zbigniew Legutko. Some other projects we worked together on were a book on Zygmunt Menkes, a painter I was lucky to meet personally and visit in his studio in Riverdale, Bronx, and a unique magazine on the arts entitled Pro Arte, where artists published their original works. It came out in New York with the financial support of Wojciech Fibak.
Although the cover of Polish Art Collections in America has only my name on it, the book is in fact a collective work. It would be impossible to list all those involved in the project, but my greatest thanks go in the first place to my wife Aleksandra and my son Adam, who assisted me at every stage and moment of the process. Central to the project was my long cooperation and friendship with the art dealer, and aficionado of Polish art in America, Zbigniew Legutko, who introduced me to many collectors. Another person engaged heart and soul in the project at the groundwork stage was Andrzej Kenda, an artist, art dealer and collector in one. This book would not have been possible without the active help of all the owners of the holdings described in it – the vast majority of them remain my good friends. I should also mention the late Tadeusz Kwiatkowski and the late Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, great collectors and keen supporters of this project. On top of that, I was ceaselessly and disinterestedly aided by the ardent collectors Marian Majchrzak and Jacek Blacha, whose exciting discussions certainly contributed to the present shape of this album. I am enormously grateful to all the collectors mentioned, as well as to everyone who had a part in making this album.
As a final note: this is just a beginning. As the first publication of this type, this book could not possibly accommodate all the private collections, neither could it mention all the important institutions that have Polish art among their holdings, such as the Kosciusko Foundation, the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences and the Piłsudski Institute in New York, the Orchard Lake Schools Art Gallery, the American Częstochowa Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and the Polish Museum of America, founded in 1940 in Chicago.
Together with the National Museum in Warsaw I also plan to show a few dozen masterpieces of Polish painting from American collections in selected Polish cities in the near future.
— Czesław Czapliński