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Friday, March 7, 2014

Aleksander Gierymski

Jewish Woman with Oranges, 1881, Aleksander Gierymski
Self-portrait with a Palette, (stolen)
1891-92, Aleksander Gierymskii.
(Photo inset, 1900).
Almost two years ago, I wrote discussing the plight of European museums seeking to recover work having been stolen by German Nazis. Most such confiscations came in the waning months of the war as their army retreated across eastern Europe. That was the case especially in Poland which, alone, lost some 516,000 works of art valued today at over $11-billion. That list included paintings by such names as Lucas Cranach (the elder), Hans Holbein (the younger), and Jan Brueghel (the elder), as well as more recent works by Julian Fałat, Joseph Brandt, and the sculptor, Xawery Dunikowskiego. In 2010, the National Museum in Warsaw found and recovered one such lost painting, Jewish Woman with Oranges, painted by Aleksander Gierymski in 1881, and stolen by the Nazis in 1939. It was considered one of the more valuable of the missing masterpieces, and inasmuch as it had been missing so long, and turned up in Germany, under German law, the museum was forced to buy it back.

Museum conservators work cleaning Gierymski's recovered painting 2010-12.
Getting the painting back was one thing, making it presentable for display once more on the museum's wall, was quite something else (above). More than seventy years in hiding had not been kind to Gierymski kindly peasant street vendor. To start with, the painting had been glued to a sheet of plywood under tremendous weight (conservators guess that only a bookbinding press could have exerted such pressure). Secondly, as is often the case with such works, the overall painting, to put it bluntly, was filthy. And finally, the surface of the paint itself had been severely damaged due to negligence in the painting's care and handling. Moreover, the painting had apparently been retouched before. It would have to be repaired, then touchup paint again applied to hide the repairs. Museum conservators had their work cut out for them.

The untouched image is at far left, the cleaned image and the surface restoration are
pictured in the middle, while the finished, retouched image is at far right.
First came the problem of simply deciding what to do, where to begin in the process of saving the painting. They decided to begin with the painstaking task of removing the tortured canvas from its wooden backing and mounting it again on fresh canvas. That done, the cleaning process could begin (first and second images above are before and after cleaning). Then the surfaced cracks and deformations were repaired using a kind of "putty" (third image, above). Finally the repaired surface was painstakingly retouched to bring back, as nearly as possible, the original appearance of the painting (fourth image above). The whole process took some fourteen months at a cost the museum doesn't even want to talk about.

Scene from Paris, 1892, Aleksander Gierymski.
Visiting Paris loosened up his handling of the paint.
Boy Carrying a Sheaf, 1895,
Aleksander Gierymski--a portable
version of Monet's haystacks?
Why such effort and expense to purchase and restore a single painting? Gierymski was born in 1850. He is considered (by the Poles, at least) as the Cezanne of Polish painters. Gierymski was not a painter of history, mythology, or interested in the literary elements as to the content of his work. Instead, like Cezanne, Gierymski was concerned with light and color...what one might call Impressionism without all the painterly brushwork (which he'd tried and rejected in an earlier trip to Italy in the late 1870s). However, once he visited Paris, Gierymski's style changed, he gained a new insight into Impressionism. His brushwork became looser, his subjects less personal--landscapes, architecture, and, as seen above in his 1892 Scene from Paris, unusual episodes involving Paris street life. In returning to Poland in 1895, Gierymski once more turned his attention back to Jewish life, as seen in his amusing, Boy Carrying a Sheaf (above, right).

Cathedral in Amalfi, 1897,
Aleksander Gierymski
Gierymski's greatest strength as an artist also likely contributed to his downfall. He was extremely self-critical. If a painting effort did not measure up to his liking, he simply destroyed it. Moreover the art community Gierymski returned to in Warsaw, as well as the wealthy Jews supporting it, did not appreciate his newly developed French style or his involvement with Impressionist light and color. As a result, Gierymski spent the final four years of his life in Italy. His Cathedral in Amalfi (left) suggests a return to his earlier, less Impressionistic style. He died in Rome, in 1901 at the age of fifty-one, a patient in a mental hospital.


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