Izabella Mościcka

Bolesław Cybis was born on June 6, 1895 at the tsarist estate of Massandra near Yalta on the Crimea. Between 1912 and 1918 he lived in Kharkiv, in today’s Ukraine, where he studied at the School of Fine Arts and belonged to the artistic group, “The Union of Seven”. This association pursued art of a cubist-futuristic orientation – and indeed, Cybis’s works from the period reveal that orientation’s strong influence on him. Before returning to Poland, he focused on theatrical scenography and films about art. When the Soviets and their repressions reached Kharkiv, Cybis fled to the Crimea, to Theodosia, before settling in Istanbul in 1920. In the capital of Turkey, together with Włodzimierz Bobrycki, he founded the union “Russian artists”. During his sojourn in Turkey he made drawings, sculptures, gouaches stylistically hearkening to Russian cubist-futurism. These were mostly grotesque and fantastic creations.

Bolesław Cybis, A Chinese Woman

In 1923 he was back in Warsaw living with his parents. By this time he had become a fully-formed artist who well knew his own talent. That very year he applied for admission to the School of Fine Arts. He chose the atelier of prof. Tadeusz Pruszkowski and at the same time attended classes in graphic art conducted by prof. Władysław Skoczylas. During plein-air lessons in the picturesque town of Kazimierz Dolny on the Vistula he became friends with his classmates from prof. Pruszkowski’s courses. In 1925 he joined the Brotherhood of Saint Luke. In 1930 he traveled to Italy and to Africa. From 1934 he belonged to the Bloc of Professional Graphic Artists. He presented his works abroad many times through the Society for the Promotion of Polish Art among Foreigners (e.g., the Exhibition of Polish Art in Moscow, the XIX Biennale in Venice, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh). In 1937 he received the Grand Prix at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Paris.

In addition to easel painting and graphics, Bolesław Cybis made wall decorations. He also worked on a prestigious order to decorate two Polish transatlantic liners – the Piłsudski and the Batory. In 1939, he left with his wife Maria Tym to New York to work on the decorations for the Polish Pavilion at the World’s Fair. Together with the members of the Brotherhood he created seven large-scale paintings for the Polish pavilion presenting the most important events in Polish history, including the epic scene from the year 1000 in Gniezno, Poland’s first capital city, Bolesław Chrobry’s Meeting with Otto III at the Tomb of St. Wojciech. The initiator and patron of this undertaking was Foreign Minister Józef Beck.

Bolesław Cybis never returned to Poland, he settled in Trenton, New Jersey, where he and his wife established a ceramic workshop. He died of a heart attack while in Florida in 1957.

Cybis was an exceptional artist with many talents. Unfortunately, after the war, because of his trip to the USA, but also due to the policy of Poland’s then communist authorities, he fell into oblivion, just as did his fellow Lukians back in Poland who were considered suspect because of their association with the authorities of the Second Polish Republic, then held in disrepute.

Bolesław Cybis, An Old Jew, ca. 1925, Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

At the beginning of his artistic journey Cybis was drawn to cubism, surrealism, and Russian cubist-futurism. When as a young man in the 1920s he returned to Poland, his work underwent a huge metamorphosis. Cybis at once blazed his own trail as a painter, a trail that wove between magical realism, New Objectivity, and “new classicism”. In his paintings you can find overtures to old Italian masters – Rafael and Leonardo, but also to the art of seventeenth-century Holland, where great attention was paid to presenting details. The characters and objects in Cybis’s paintings are very realistic and at the same time somehow magically, ambiguously stated. Via this mood the artist approaches the works of Georg Schrimpf and Otto Dix.

Extraordinary originality and conception is what distinguishes Cybis’s painting “Primavera”, which he created in 1936. It is rich with a veiled erotica reminiscent of adolescent Balthus girls. However, it arose from his fascination and adoration for the artistry of Sandro Botticelli. And his heightened realism in the work refers to New Objectivity. Cybis showed young Spring as an teenage, adolescent girl – and yet with the sarcastic look of an adult, experienced woman. The dingy interior covered with a wallpaper having a motif of tiny flowers, a dirty rug, and an old, worn-out wash basin resembles rather more a dirty, cheap hotel room than a girl’s boudoir. The very male figure combs thinning hair. The nudity of the blossoming and at the same time spindly body is contrasted with the red stockings slipping off. “Primavera” presents the very definition of Cybis’s art – excellent drawing, the special emphasis on providing details, and most importantly – an upending of reality. The seemingly unprepossessing representation of the girl turns into a fascinating study of human existence filled with magical, realistic ugliness that draws the viewer into a disturbing, no longer real world of art.

Bolesław Cybis was also keenly interested in folk art – hence, a frequent motif in his paintings was that of women in the regional costumes of Łowicz – the striped skirts and stiff, starched shirts, reminiscent of ladies from Italian Renaissance portraits. In these paintings, as well as in the works created after traveling to Africa, the artist sought new means of artistic expression; he enriched the texture by introduced gilding, mixed several types of paint, made use of plaster, and introduced “merla”. The most visible interference in the surface of the canvas is to be seen in the painting “An encounter” from 1931, showing the figures of African women against the background of an oriental street. The artist paid considerable attention to the illusionary reproduction of texture effects. On virtually each of his works one can discern the subtle nuances that usher in an atmosphere of wonder.

Bolesław Cybis and Jan Zamoyski,
Polish Sky, 1939
Photo: Urząd Marszałkowski Województwa Pomorskiego

From 1934 Cybis focused mainly on monumental painting. Together with Jan Zamoyski, in the years 1934-1937 he created the fresco “Bolesław Chrobry marking the boundaries of Poland on the Odra river”, and in the years 1937-1939, the ceiling “Polish Sky” in the auditorium of the Gdańsk’s Józef Piłsudski School of the Motherland. In 1936, he made relief decorations with African motifs for the bar on the transatlantic liner Batory. In 1937 he received an honorary diploma for his “Abundance” fresco, which decorated the Polish pavilion at the world exhibition of Art and Technology in Paris.

Bolesław Cybis’s paintings are characterized by a telltale display of structural elements and exquisite drawing. The originality of his works is highlighted by his illusionism paired with the frequent ugliness of the people portrayed. The artist employed national motifs perfectly and transposed them to the canon of contemporary European art, which emphasized the return to order and to decorative art with a realistic penchant. Bolesław Cybis’s painting stood out against that of the other Lukians. For he was the only one who hearkened to magical realism. The figures from his paintings depict an upended reality frozen in time – what at first glance seems ugly, becomes beautiful and sublime in its perfection.