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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Boleslaw Cybis

The ship which brought Polish artist Boleslaw Cybis and his wife to America (and almost returned them to England).
In mid-October, 1939, a Polish painter, muralist, and sculptor named Boleslaw Cybis and his wife boarded the White Star Cunard liner, Georgic (above) in Southampton, England. A few days later (October 23, 1939) when they arrived in New York, they were detained...locked up as "undesirable" enemy aliens. Sound familiar? They had not broken any travel rules. German troops had invaded Poland on September 1. They were not Germans but civilian refugees. Instead of going back to their homeland under German occupation, the two had chosen to return to the United States. Yes, both Cybis and his wife, Marja (Maria), also a talented artist, had been here before, commissioned to paint murals for the Polish pavilion at the New York World's fair less than a year earlier. Two days after their arrival, Cybis appealed the government's decision. After a hearing on November 6, they were admitted into the country. Had he not won his appeal, Cybis would never have spent a single day in an American pottery works. The beautiful porcelain he later created, now in hundreds of art galleries, museums, and private collections, would never have happened.

Victims of "Extreme vetting" 1939 style.
Boleslaw Cybis came from modest beginnings. He was born in 1895, in Wilno, (near Vilnius) Lithuania, the son of Franciszek Cybis, a renowned Polish architect and engineer, said to have designed the Peterhof Summer Palace near St. Petersburg, Russia. Cybis was a student at St. Petersburg's Academy of Fine Arts in 1917 when he dropped out in a vain effort to defeat the Bolsheviks in their revolt to overthrow the Russian czar. Cybis fled to Constantinople, where he used his meager art training to support himself by sketching people he met on sidewalks and in nightclubs, while also helping other artists with billboard advertising, and creating posters for theater shows. It was there that Cybis first learned to work in clay, making pipes to sell in order to buy bread, goat's milk, and other food. Later, when he could afford it, Cybis went to Warsaw where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. He graduated in 1925 and the following year married fellow art student, Maria Tym.

The Heroic Acts of Boleslaw the Brave, 1934-1937, Geographical Military Institute, Warsaw, Boleslaw Cybis and Jan Zamoyski.
In the years that followed, Cybis' paintings, sculptures, and murals won him recognition in Paris, Geneva, Munich, Frankfurt, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Bucharest, and Vienna. From 1926-1930 Cybis became fascinated by the peasants of the country side, whom he likened to 15th century medieval portraits. Over the next four years he painted a series of peasant portraits now in various museum collections. During the 1930s his work first appeared by invitation in fine art exhibits and museums in the United States. Studio Magazine in 1934 noted that his paintings bore a striking resemblance to those of Leonardo da Vinci. Cybis first big break came when he and fellow Polish painter, Jan Zamoyski, were commissioned to paint a cycle of frescoes at the Geographical Military Institute in Warsaw titled The Heroic Acts of Boleslaw the Brave (above), executed between 1934-37.

Cybis' Native American Conte drawings, 1939-40.
Once they were finally allowed inside the country, Boleslaw Cybis and his wife chose to become American citizens. It was about this time that Cybis became fascinated by the Native American people and culture of the far west. This may seem odd when you consider that much of his later ceramic-based works were distinctly Rococo or Old World European in style. During the years 1939-40, Cybis made numerous Conté drawings of Native Americans. His portrait drawings represent the Comanche, Shoshone, Taos, Apache, Hopi, Mohave, and Yuma tribes. Cybis was nothing if not eclectic in his tastes. Although he had spent many years as a painter, he was also fascinated with three-dimensional porcelain art. The couple established Cybis Studio at the Steinway Mansion in Astoria, New York, in 1940. There they began to create porcelain art in the fashion of the great European Studios they had known during their youth.

Prince Brocade: The most magical unicorn of all. Captured forever in porcelain by Cybis. A limited firing of 500, fourteen inches high, valued at $950 to $1,700.
The company relocating to Trenton, New Jersey, in 1942. Cybis turned his attention fully to porcelain sculpture using techniques derived from his study of the Old Masters in Europe. Cybis was not a man to be tolerant of less than perfection. His instincts were correct. In less than two years, he and his company achieved recognition as a leader in the field of porcelain art. I should mention that, though the company continues to produce collectible porcelain figurines, some valued in the hundreds of dollars, Boleslaw Cybis died in 1957, his wife a short time after that. Therefore very little Cybis porcelain seen and traded today (including the piece above) were actually created by the master sculptor, who was almost turned away from this country as an "undesirable alien."

The Polish Pavilion, 1939 New York World's Fair.


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