Dorota Seweryn-Puchalska

Bernard Tadeusz Frydrysiak (1901-1970)

On its 50th anniversary in 2018, The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., showed an oil portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt painted by Bernard Frydrysiak[1]. It was created in 1946 along with a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It all started with an idea to raise funds. The idea “came to the artist’s mind” when he saw an American “camp” on Pius XI Street. In one of the wooden barracks there was a reading room with richly illustrated magazines that sparked the artist’s dream to see the works of European masters, right there in America. Frydrysiak hoped to sell portraits of famous political figures in this American “town”. He was wrong. There were no buyers. He sent his paintings of the Roosevelts, through the ship captain, J.W. Russell, to the portrayed. He received a letter from Mrs. Roosevelt thanking him, but as he wrote in his Memoirs: “with these portraits I was a little foolish, for I admit I was hoping for a financial response…. O! Polish naivete! Get to know Americans first, and then begin to count on something”[2].

Roosevelt was not the only American president Frydrysiak portrayed. In fact, he started with Harry Truman and General Marshall. Their portraits by Frydrysiak hung in the camp mentioned above for a year. In January 1948, the painter left for America on the Batory. On November 6, 1951, he was present at Truman’s meeting with the Polish Legion of American Veterans. The President was then presented with the portrait Frydrysiak had painted. Information about this event and the painting can be found at the website of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Frydrysiak remained in the USA until his death. He made numerous portraits, including those of professor Stefan Mierzwa, founder of the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York (1948), Gerhard Williams, Governor of the State of Michigan (1950), and the pianist Sylwia Zarębianka (1950).

It seems that Frydrysiak took to heart Pruszkowski’s call that “painters should be entrusted with making good portraits of outstanding contemporary people”. Admittedly, the professor was referring to figures associated with Poland, but if we look at the earlier period in the painter’s work, we will of course find portraits of Polish reality. Frydrysiak himself believed that portraiture was a “deserted field” due to “lack of proper understanding of its essence, its purpose, its psychological depth”. What he valued most in a portrait was the dark, deep background with the figure brought out by light. “Light, valors – that is power!”. But he himself, perhaps because of the difficulty of making such a background, created images with a complementary background.

In 1946, portraits of Wincenty Witos and Antek Rozpylacz were created. The latter is a portrait of Antoni Godlewski, who died on August 8, 1944, at the age of 21. He had fought in the “Sokol” battalion and became famous for his courage and determination. Indeed, he became a symbol of the Warsaw Uprising. In the upper left corner, the artist painted the War Order, Virtuti Militari. In the background, we see the burning buildings of Warsaw. Frydrysiak himself lived through the drama of the uprising. Fleeing from Warsaw and seeking shelter, he stayed for a year at the manor house of Jan and Maria Chrzanowski in Radonie. He created watercolors, pastels, and a few oil paintings. He received oil paints from one of the guests of the house. He helped the owners with their daily chores, but the master of the house was an “art lover and wanted the artist to work at the easel”.

There is a portrait of Tereska from 1941, and another of the Bieńkowski family’s daughter and son from 1942. In the background there is a landscape, the horizon is lowered, and if we look carefully we can see Kazimierz Dolny with its well-known tower and castle.

Bernard Frydrysiak, A forge, 1935

For Frydrysiak, as for all students of Pruszkowski and many other artists, Kazimierz was a special town. Let’s recall that Frydrysiak studied at the School of Fine Arts from 1928, first under professor Kotarbiński, then in the studio of Tadeusz Pruszkowski. He joined the Brotherhood of St. Luke and actively participated in its activities. Years later, in 1964, he dedicated a poem to the group, which in twelve stanzas reflected the essence of the Brotherhood. The Lukians, as they were called, realized their talents to the fullest in Kazimierz, a space that gave them artistic freedom. Perhaps this is why most of them, even after many years, enjoyed reminiscing about this oasis of happiness. In a letter to Antoni Michalak written in 1963, Frydrysiak mentions the most important and most characteristic qualities of Kazimierz, which even have become immortalized. He begins thus: “Dear Antos! What’s new with you in Kazimierz? / Do you still receive guests / With noodles in tomato sauce / On an antique blue plate?”. He recalls former times with nostalgia, but also knows that “… …there will be no more interesting times for me / Other than those of my own, of Kazimierz / The times of the Michalaks, Gotards, and Pruszkowskis! / But all is not yet gone with the wind / … And Saint Kozdroń will stand by the Fara / Herszek and Nojman will show their faces. / And everything will be without the slightest change / I remember… I remember… Kazimierz beloved…”.

Many of Frydrysiak’s works were created in Kazimierz, including a series of landscapes later purchased by the Ministry of Education and Religious Denominations. In 1935, he painted the work Old woman with a mortar, awarded at the annual Salon of the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts. The woman portrayed is Miss Józia known from Jan Gotard’s painting, Old woman with a siphon, from around 1930. Miss Józia, an alcoholic, was a characteristic figure of the Kazimierz community. She liked liquor, therefore the artist placed a bottle on the table as an attribute.

For artists of all European art colonies, their local inhabitants, for various reasons, became objects of the painters’ fascination. Perhaps the girl from the painting Puca from 1935 (lost) was also a resident of Kazimierz. This painting, presented at an exhibition at the Art Propaganda Institute, was purchased by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It could also be seen at the Brotherhoods anniversary exhibition organized at the Zachęta Gallery in 1938. The artist’s talent was also highlighted.

However, Frydrysiak did not free himself from the influence of early art. This can be seen in his other works: Grandmother with her granddaughter of 1937 (lost), purchased by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Cheder of 1938 (private property). On the one hand, Pruszkowski emphasized his student’s skills, but on the other he was put off by the dark range of his canvases. The artist himself wrote: “I cut myself off from color”. The critic Stanisław Rogoyski, who reviewed the ZAP (League of Polish Artists) exhibition in 1936, also noted that, “Frydrysiak, endowed with considerable talent and a lot of wit, presented himself most effectively among these passé artists. His strength lay in the handling of drawing and chiaroscuro. At the same time, this artist has an outstanding ability to use the painting technique. Color, however, is his weak point. Frydrysiak almost always uses brown tones, which persistently evoke analogies with “Munich sauces”[3].

Nevertheless, Frydrysiak’s paintings were very popular. After the exhibition in Rapperswil, three works shown there, Kitchen, Fisherman, and Pasture, were purchased[4]. T Grandmother with her granddaughter was awarded a silver medal by the Society for the Encouragement of Fine Arts in the 1937 Salon. The medal survived the conflagration of war because, according to the painter’s sister, Marianna, it accidentally found its way into the artist’s jacket.

Frydrysiak was also a printmaker, and during his studies he attended the atelier of professor Władysław Skoczylas. Together with four other graduates of this workshop – Zofia Fijałkowska, Aleksander Sołtan, Janina Kłopocka, and Fiszel Zylberberg – he formed the Black and White Graphic Artists Group. They organized their first exhibition in January 1936.

Frydrysiak also joined in the efforts to enrich the Prints Collection of the Jagiellonian Library in 1936 and 1939; he helped Jan Zamoyski in creating a copy of Jan Matejko’s painting Batory at Pskov, intended for the reading room on board the S.S. Batory.

Art for Frydrysiak was something exceptional. As he wrote, “the very word Art is already a holiday. … Works … should act like a prayer, like a sacred song introduced into the soul and heart. True works of art should be a symphony, an orchestra, a noble single chord or an angelic choir”.

[1] Today it is the property of the family of the former president and his wife.
[2] B.T. Frydrysiak, Wspomnienia, Życie i twórczość, Warszawa – New York, 1908-1970, Kraków 1992.
[3] S. Rogoyski, „Malarstwo na Salonie Bloku Z.A.P.”, “Plastyka” 1936, nr 2.
[4] See Bernard Tadeusz Frydrysiak 1908-1970. Życie i twórczość, exhibition catalogue, Muzeum Nadwiślańskie w Kazimierzu Dolnym, Kazimierz Dolny 1989.