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Friday, July 25, 2014

Wlastimil Hofman

Madonna with Starlings, 1909, Wlastimil Hofman                          
History teaches us. Art history does too, though the message is usually a great deal more subtle. In general, one of the most consistent lessons art history teaches us is that art and war don't mix. Art is fragile, sensitive, a pleasant pastime, a luxury coinciding with excess wealth, and flourishing almost exclusively in the presence of peace and tranquility. War is none of those, and in fact, pretty much the antithesis of all of them. Quite apart from the general bounds of creative expression, art history teaches us that war has a devastating effect upon artists and their work. War is traumatizing and its psychological impact shows up in the work of virtually every artist whose life it transverses. Even if the artist sees little or no combat, even if he or she is far removed from its immediate horrors, as Rhett Butler observed to Scarlett O'Hara: "War changes people."
Self-portrait with Two Figures, 1925, Wlastimil Hofman.
Groups of three are common in Hofman's work
War changed the Polish artist, Wlastimil Hofman, but with a twist. Rather than traumatizing him, it tempered him, strengthened him personally, and honed his skills. Being Polish and living in Poland with a Jewish wife, one might not be surprised to find that Hofman was an artist victim of the war. Though intimately involved in the conflict as a civilian, Hofman possessed the intelligence, foresight, courage, and strength of character to not just endure and survive the massive military, political, and social upheavals of Eastern Europe during World War II, but to emerge from it as the preeminent Polish painter of the post-war era.
Madonna, 1909, Wlastimil Hofman, one of serveral from that period.
Portrait of the Artist's Wife, 1917,
Wlastimil Hofman
Wlastimil Hofman was born in 1881 in Prague, the son of a Czech father and Polish mother. When he was eight, the family moved to Krakow. There Hofman grew up to attend, first the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts, before moving on to Paris and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Upon graduating in 1904, Hofman began painting a series of peasant madonnas (top). His 1909 Madonna (above) is typical. He first showed his work in Paris, followed by exhibitions in Munich, Amsterdam, Rome, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Warsaw. In 1912, a former instructor at the Krakow Academy helped him obtain a teaching post at his old alma mater. When WW I broke out, he and his wife, Ada, fled Krakow, first to Prague, then to Paris. After the war, around 1921, they returned to Krakow for the next eighteen years until the rise of German Nazism. Inasmuch as Ada was Jewish, they wisely decided to once more flee Krakow and what they (but few others) foresaw as almost certain death.
Old Age and Youth, 1922, Wlastimil Hofman. Old age is a recurring theme and
image in Hofman's work. Strangely, there is virtually no overt reference
to war in any of Hofman's paintings.  It's as if it never happened.
The only problem was, they fled in the wrong direction--east--out of the frying pan into the fire of Russian-controlled territory. Hofman barely escaped capture by the advancing Soviets, though he saw and helped many of his countrymen who hadn't, even going so far as painting their portraits on rough cardboard, then sending them to the soldiers' loved ones. His efforts along this line number in the hundreds. As others in the same straits perished, Hofman joined the Polish Legion, not much of a fighting force, but one which managed to escape the war, traveling though Istanbul to Haifa, then Tel Aviv, finally arriving in Jerusalem in 1942. There, Hofman and his wife spent the remainder of the war.
And Lead Us Not into Temptation (Triptych), 1956, Wlastimil Hofman
After the war, Hofman returned to Krakow for a short time, then, in 1947, moved to an obscure little town of about 7,000 in mountains of southwestern Poland. There he produced mostly religious paintings for the local church and portraits of local residents, gradually gaining national and international recognition as Poland's most popular postwar painter. He died in Szklarska Poręba (by then a popular ski resort) in 1970 at the age of eighty-nine. Though not exactly a headliner in most art history books, Wlastimil Hofmanhas been given a starring role in the art history of Poland, an artist who first survived (two wars), then thrived.

Impromptu Nativity, Wlastimil Hofman. I guess it loses something in translation.


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