Resurrecting Eastern Europe’s forgotten artists
Young collectors Artur Trawinski and Irmina Nazar are on a mission to bring the forgotten painters and sculptors of Eastern Europe to the attention of the wider world. Timothy O’Grady visited them at their home outside Wroclaw in Poland
It was a dark evening in winter, the sky low. The house on a hill in rolling land outside Wroclaw in the south-west of Poland was lit up like an ocean liner. Two Gordon setters paced the driveway. The dining table was set, the housekeeper Ania was sitting at a counter, head on hand.
We were all awaiting the arrival of husband and wife Artur Trawinski and Irmina Nazar. There was a delay in the departure of their private plane from Nice. This was to be the schedule: they would talk with me for a couple of hours, we would eat something, they would have a short business meeting and then they would leave for the Seychelles at midnight.
I had arrived in daylight so I could look at the art. This is a young house, just four years old, open fields and orchards of black twisted trees rippling towards the horizon. In the grounds, a colourful Karel Appel figure with a pointing arm altered the landscape. Just inside the door was an Ai Weiwei wooden globe set on marble and raked sand, one of his Divina Proportione series. The lines were everywhere long and clean, the materials natural and dark; wood on the ceilings and floors; stone, mostly blacks and greys, on the walls — and glass the length of the house to bring in light.
This is one of three residences belonging to these young collectors, the other two being an apartment in Monaco and a house in the Provençal village of Mougins, where Picasso died. The art moves between them. On the day I was in Poland, much of it lay in boxes or was stacked in rooms and along corridors, awaiting decisions as to its fate, while other pieces were already hung.
There was a large and impressive Janus-style double head by Zachary Armstrong, as well as work by other young Americans including Gina Beavers, Austin Lee and Petra Cortright. A Modigliani female bronze head rested on a mantelpiece and a massive tome of Annie Leibovitz photographs was on a lectern. But the dominant presence here was Central and Eastern European — Hungarians Victor Vasarely and Imre Bak and Poles Jan Ziemski, Wojciech Fangor and the globally renowned painter and avant-gardist of the theatre, Tadeusz Kantor, among others.
The collecting of art began privately for Artur and Irmina before they met, and it continues now they are together, but the project has taken on a public dimension since the establishment, last October, of their European ArtEast Foundation, based in London and dedicated to raising awareness of contemporary and communist-era work from their sector of the continent.
The couple were behind a massive tribute to Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, involving 120 works in museums and public spaces in Wroclaw, launched just before the artist died in April 2017 aged 86. They have also sponsored the young Romanian Alexandra Pirici’s performance art piece Co-natural at the New Museum in New York.
The idea is to collaborate with institutions in the mounting of exhibitions, but also to promote research and publications about neglected art from this part of the world. And they have joined the acquisitions committee at the Centre Pompidou that deals with Eastern European art.
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Beams like searchlights hit glass and sky as a vehicle ascended the driveway. The door swung open, and Artur and Irmina entered in a flurry with bags, seven children (four of them their own) and a nanny, he in jacket, baseball cap and workout clothes, she in a dramatic long fur coat, the sleeves trimmed with pink bands. Backpacks were relieved from small shoulders, greetings and apologies for lateness were offered, children dispersed to various rooms. And then we sat down to talk.
‘They’re by Frank Lloyd Wright,’ says Artur, pointing upwards to stained-glass lamps hanging from the ceiling. ‘I love Frank Lloyd Wright. This house is a tribute to him. I designed it with my friend Sotyrys Pantopulos, a Greek-Polish architect. They make those lamps under copyright only in one factory in Japan, with native cherrywood frames. They come packed like Cartier jewellery.’
The pair are remarkably young, still in their thirties, to have collected as they have without trust funds or family connections in the art world. The fuel comes from FM World, launched by Artur in 2004. His father made, and continues to make, perfume in Wroclaw. Artur briefly entered the family business, but wanted independence and went to Australia at 19 to improve his English and to study marketing.
There he encountered MLM (multilevel marketing), something then unknown in Poland. He conceived a plan, for which his father offered his perfumes as a product. They went from selling zero bottles per month to a million in three years. They added cosmetics and cleaning products to the model, moved outwards into Central and Eastern Europe and eventually into 96 countries, and next year will launch the company in the USA.
‘Wojciech Fangor was such a towering figure to me. I longed to meet him. He seemed to embody the figure of the artist’ — Irmina Nazar
Irmina is from Czestochowa, the holiest site of pilgrimage in a land much given to religious observance. Here, in the monastery of Jasna Góra, resides the revered icon of the Black Madonna. She is called ‘Poland’s Queen’, and is said to have been painted from life by St Luke. She is also held to have protected Poland during the many invasions it has suffered, and to have frustrated thieves by increasing her weight beyond their capacity to lift.
As Irmina was growing up, she dreamed of becoming an artist. She began to draw and paint. Her father, who worked abroad, brought back good-quality paints. But she kept her work to herself. ‘And I became shy,’ she says, ‘too shy to exhibit. But maybe there were others not so shy, living the harsh, difficult lives artists often do. Maybe I could help them.’ She began to collect.
The first serious work she bought was an oil painting by Wojciech Fangor. ‘I was living in Warsaw by then,’ she says. ‘He was such a towering figure to me. I longed to meet him. He seemed to embody the figure of “the artist”. But it was impossible, of course. I had no connections. Then, by chance, I met a lady who said, “My friend Fangor should make a portrait of you.” And the extraordinary thing is that she actually set up a meeting. It was almost mystical.
‘I couldn’t sleep for two days,’ she explains. ‘It was like meeting Picasso. And we got on so wonderfully. He told jokes, and he had such a fresh mind, even at 89 as he was then. He said he wanted to do a last portrait, and he offered to make it of me. He had exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York, he had lived in Paris. He had a taste of the outside world and some success there. But not as much as he deserved, in my opinion. And he was rare.
‘Really for me it was a curiosity I found I had. The lives of artists amazed me’ — Artur Trawinski
‘It’s hard now to imagine what it was like for other artists of his time. They had no money, no languages, they were behind the Iron Curtain and not only could they not travel, they didn’t have any way to know what was going on in art elsewhere. If they didn’t do official propagandist art, their isolation was extreme.
‘I wanted so badly to do something for Wojciech. I said, “Would you let me set up a foundation in your name?” He said many people had asked him that, he hadn’t done anything about it, but if I wanted to go ahead, I could. He said he would be pleased if one day his work could be seen in the Centre Pompidou. Because he’d lived in France, it was the ultimate for him.
‘He hasn’t lived to see it, but it’s my dream to make this happen. So this gave me the impetus to do something big, something serious, with Artur, for all the artists of that time. It’s as if they’ve been imprisoned by the circumstances of having been born in that world at that moment. We’re both committed to that. As for taste, we can argue about a piece sometimes, but more often we synchronise. We have similar tastes and a similar attitude about why we want to have art in our lives.’
Jan Ziemski is a favourite of Artur’s. He’s not sure how many he has — ‘somewhere around 50’, he says. Ziemski lived in Lublin, which happened to have one of the only libraries in Poland with Western art books. His early work is a gallop through the styles he saw in those books, from Impressionism all the way up to Abstract Expressionism, until optical experiments began to entice him, perhaps partly due to his medical training. Artur has a number of works of this nature, some of them three-dimensional.
I wondered if there might be any connection between the propensity for mathematics he would have needed to construct the model for his company, and the appeal for him of geometric and Op art pieces. ‘This art,’ he says, ‘I don’t see it as mathematical. Fangor was into stars, astrology. Ziemski was after something happening in the subconscious. They go beyond mathematics and into another world. The maths becomes an aspect of the imagination.’
Why does he collect? ‘There was something back in the family. My great-grandmother was a collector in Ukraine, but everything was lost in the war. But really for me it was a curiosity I found I had. The lives of artists amazed me. Look at Van Gogh. Who else but an artist would do such things as he did? They were not made to live in this world. Dalí, Picasso. They had imaginations beyond anything I knew.
‘Then when I got a little older, I started to look in my own country, and farther out into this part of Europe. I found museum-quality work that almost no one had ever heard of. That whole period from the 1940s to the 1970s was lost, unless it was propaganda. Ziemski was so dynamic, but his estate has ceased to exist. It’s hard to find the work. It could be forgotten in an attic. We’re trying to resurrect him.
‘Imre Bak had an exhibition once in Berlin, but found it very difficult to get established. Even Kantor, though he went to Paris and became known, was cut off during his best period. I love to go to the studios, meet the artists, get their stories, if they’re still alive of course.
‘There are so many we wish we could have met. We met Dora Maurer in Budapest. She’s known now. Her work sells, she’s in all the major museums of the world. But when she was younger they wouldn’t give her a diploma because she was too experimental, too controversial. Somebody had to help her.
‘There are so many, past and present, who need help. We keep finding them. We recently heard about the Sigma Group in Timisoara, Romania. They did very dynamic work in three dimensions, mostly in the 1970s. Some are still working. It’s very exciting when you find such things. But they need help. And we’re in a position to provide it.’
‘Ours is really the last generation with a link to their time,’ said Irmina. ‘We lived in it — not as they did, of course, with a lifetime of privations – but we tasted it, we have an understanding. Those artists struggled to survive, but they took great pleasure in basic things. It’s an antidote to social media and the slightness and transience offered to people now.’
What is the future of this project? ‘The foundation is just getting under way,’ says Artur. ‘We’ll try to keep telling the story,’ adds Irmina. ‘Some day,’ says Artur, ‘we’d like to have a building to show the art from this part of the world. But not in Poland. The point is to show it to the rest of the world.’