UW Polish Studies Endowment Committee presents the lecture “A Singular Spirit: Józef Czapski, His Art and Life” by Eric Karpeles.
Czapski (1896-1993) was a painter, a writer and a Polish military officer who in vain searched for Polish officers infamously massacred at Katyn during the WWII. He also wrote about his experience in the Gulag system and after the WWII, he became a co-founder of the Literature Institute in Paris, the publisher of Kultura.
Czapski witnessed the tumult of twentieth-century Europe first-hand, as a military officer, art and literary critic, disciplined chronicler of his own experiences, and above all, as a painter skilled at isolating the subtle significance of the everyday. At a time when abstract art tended to dominate aesthetic discourse, he preferred to observe the world around him, to portray people going about their daily business. Some of his most compelling works depict theatergoers and art lovers engaged in the same process—looking carefully.
The lecture focuses on Józef Czapski as a painter who all his life searched for a better way of expressing himself through art. Despite the traumatic difficulties of personal life, Czapski considered himself foremost as an artist; he belonged to the Polish Kapist group in 1930s who were under post-impressionist influences and was active as a painter till the time he died at age 97.
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. He was never without a pencil or a sketchbook; his pursuit of serendipitous visions, translated into paint on canvas, epitomized his belief in what it was to be an artist. Honesty, discipline, and faith radiate outward from both his personal and artistic lives.
Eric Karpeles is a painter and a writer who singlehandedly popularized Czapski for American audiences. His fascination started with Czapski’s lectures on Proust. He published three books about Czapski: a translation of Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in the Soviet Prison Camp, a biography Almost Nothing, the 20th Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski and also an artist monograph Józef Czapski: An Apprenticeship of Looking. Eric Karpeles’ interest in the relationship between the visual and the verbal resulted in Paintings in Proust: A Visual Companion to “In the Search of Lost Time”, a book translated into several languages.