Tadeusz Pruszkowski

Władysław Skoczylas, Professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, called Tadeusz Pruszkowski “a Renaissance man”. This label has been repeated to this very day. Pruszkowski was a professor, pedagogue, painter, aviator, and motorist. Above all, however, one should emphasize his enormous significance for Polish art, and not only as an artist and educator, but also as a theoretician involved in the discussion on the shape and role of art.

Pruszkowski’s strong and colorful personality, which would play such a great role in the future, was already evident during his secondary school education. As Szczęsny Rutkowski recalls, the painter was expelled from school for making ridiculous drawings in the margins of the textbook, History of Russia.

The period of his studies at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts under Konrad Krzyżanowski and his later cooperation with the Master are important for understanding the artist’s further path. It was then that Pruszkowski’s artistic attitude took shape and he developed a kind of master-pupil relation. Pruszkowski started his studies in 1904. That’s when the School of Fine Arts started its activity and included in its curriculum an extremely important element, namely plein-air work. Tadeusz Pruszkowski was present on all artistic expeditions organized by Krzyżanowski, including in Arkadia (1904), Zwierzyniec (1905), and Istebna (1906). Pruszkowski himself would later use this experience to create an artistic space in Kazimierz Dolny. This “child prodigy of the school”, as Szczęsny Rutkowski called him[1], was strongly influenced by Krzyżanowski’s authority, “he absorbed every remark of the master, […] he trusted implicitly what he heard”[2]. He was still close to the Professor. We can see him in a group photo from Christmas Eve in Rybiniszki near Witebsk. He is smiling and pointing a gun[3]. We know that the gun was a requisitioned weapon that was used for military training in connection with local robberies and assaults. He stayed with his plein-air work in Zwierzyniec when rebellious female students (ones Pruszkowski called “sensitive doves”) “escaped” to Kazimierz Dolny[4]. In a letter to his future wife, Michalina Piotruszewska, written in Zwierzyniec, Krzyżanowski joyfully recalls Pruszkowski’s feat of “killing […] a squirrel” (sic!)[5]. Krzyżanowski valued his pupil for his talent and personality and expressed this most eloquently when he painted his portrait in 1904 (lost)[6].

Pruszkowski took from Krzyżanowski’s painting, or maybe it was a lesson learned from Hals, whom he valued highly, “a gift of freely using the paintbrush, a liking for the dynamics of a painterly gesture, and a sketchiness of texture”[7]. There is, however, one picture, a portrait of a woman entitled Dame a l’incoyable from 1917 [8], which differs from other representations in the way it is painted, its depiction of the figure, and its gaze. The black patch of a coat and a hat, the upright figure of a self-confident woman, and her bold gaze bring this painting close to Krzyżanowski’s portrait of Dagny Juel Przybyszewska from 1901.

From the beginning of the 20th century, Paris became the destination for most painters, a place where new artistic trends were created. Pruszkowski, too, stayed there from 1908 to 1911[9], following the new changes in art. However, it was not the avant-garde principles that became close to him, but rather the ideas of Maurice Denis from the Neoclassical period. He did not draw from it directly, but it was this current that determined his artistic path, one above all, as he wished, free from the “naturalism of the impressionists”.

Pruszkowski was very active in Paris. In 1909 and 1911 he took part in the Autumn Salon, and in 1910 in the Salon des Independents. Commenting on the latter, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote: “here is Pruszkowski – intelligent, inspired, although he paints in a spirit that has nothing French about it”. He also presented his works at the exhibitions of the Society of Polish Artists, of which he was a member and where he served as a librarian[10].

After returning to Poland in 1912, Pruszkowski joined the Towarzystwo Artystów Plastyków “Młoda Sztuka” (“Young Art” Society of Artists)[11], which was so close to his artistic views. It assumed a reference to tradition, a strengthening of the level of decorative art, and the promotion of artists[12]. After the outbreak of World War I, members of the Society joined the Polish Legions. Pruszkowski enlisted in a lancer regiment commanded by Władysław Belina Prażmowski.

From 1918, he was an assistant in the private school of his master Konrad Krzyżanowski. From 1922, after Krzyżanowski’s death, he managed the school. In December 1922, he became a professor at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts, in 1930-1932 he was its director, from 1935 to 1936, after it had been renamed to the Academy of Fine Arts, he was its rector, and in 1936-1938 – its vice-rector[13].

Tadeusz Pruszkowski, The Legend of the Sleeping Knights

In the 1920s, Pruszkowski departed from the subject matter he had previously undertaken. Earlier he referred to knightly epics. Thus, in 1914 he created the painting Legenda o śpiących rycerzach (Legend of Sleeping Knights); in 1916 it received the second prize from the Association of Artisans and Designers in a competition on the theme of “Polonia”[14]. The news magazine Tygodnik Ilustrowany wrote: “the competition painting is a visible symptom of the liberation of his talent from the shackles of fashion. Healthy, strong realism speaks in Sleeping Knights in tones (…) skillfully harmonized. The Boruta painting, whose concept was influenced by Persian miniatures, as Szczęsny Rutkowski wrote in Sztuki Piękne (1927/28), was inspired by a legend connected with Łęczyca, a town close to the artist. In 1917, Piastuny was created, and in 1919, the Annual Salon showed: Legend of Szczerbiec and The Beheading of Zborowski and Łucznik (the Archer) was featured on the cover of Tygodnik Ilustrowany / Illustrated Weekly No. 18 of 1922. There, too, an article was devoted to the artist in connection with the first individual exhibition prepared by TZSP. For the author of the text, Wilhelm Mitarski, “Łucznik (…) is a convincing proof that its author has an essential sense of imaginative composition, because he knows how to give to his images realistic shapes with original artistic forms”.

Tadeusz Pruszkowski, Portrait of a Young Woman

The departure from historical subject matter referring to the knightly ethos was connected with the artist’s new attitude towards art. Pruszkowski increasingly often proclaimed that one should create modern art, illustrating the time in which it is created. He did not, however, draw on native folklore, as the Formists did. It was necessary to “create an epoch”, a “plastic expression” for the newly formed state. The art of the old masters was to be a kind of medium, and artists were to learn good technique from it, but at the same time create current art. In Wiadomości Literackie in 1934. (no. 4), he proclaimed his departure from his youthful fascination with the naked soul and “various oddities”. He replaced the Przybyszewski and Nietzsche he had read with Krzyżanowski with Dickens and Twain. He dreamed of monumental, public art “serving the general public”. However, in spite of the discussion he had about the shape of art with the Capists painting in the French spirit, as they were said, creating “art for art’s sake”, he did not reject other trends. In Gazeta Polska (1936) he wrote: “a wonderfully painted picture containing 'just that’ will be a masterpiece in spite of all”. In reviews written for Gazeta Polska, he praised the paintings of Hanna Rudzka-Cybisowa and Zygmunt Waliszewski.

Tadeusz Pruszkowski, Melancholy, 1925

Tadeusz Pruszkowski was very much involved in the discussion on the shape of Polish art. He singled out the features that most characterized the spirit of the Polish nation. These were melancholy and lyricism. This is also how he titled one of his paintings, a portrait of a young woman from 1925 (National Museum in Warsaw). Such a lyrical mood is present in most of Pruszkowski’s portraits of women. For example, Girl with Flowers from 1929, Portrait of Irena Lorentowicz or Woman with a Balalaika, both from 1927. His portraits of men are more official. After all, he made portraits of outstanding figures of the day: Józef Piłsudski, Gabriel Narutowicz, Ignacy Mościcki, Władysław Reymont, and Stefan Żeromski. As he proclaimed, one should “make good portraits of contemporary outstanding people and leave posterity with an idea of what the creators and organizers of the resurrected state and its culture looked like. Photography and cinema are not enough”. He also created a portrait of Lech Niemojewski, who designed the artist’s house in Kazimierz Dolny in the late 1930s.[15]

Tadeusz Pruszkowski, Self-Portrait, 1915

Pruszkowski also painted a series of self-portraits which perfectly characterize his person. “He wanted to capture his own self in order to show it to the world”, as Hans Belting wrote. We can see in them how he was able to create his character, not only on canvas; he was like that in real life as well. He created his image and it did not have the characteristics of artificiality, but resulted from his colorful and cheerful personality. It was said of him: “with tact, humor, he relieves rebellion, soothes disputes, carries out resolutions”. Thus, he presented himself in various headgear, shirts, with a brush, pipe. He also “recorded” various moods. Not only joy, but also nostalgia. This is expressed by a self-portrait in which he depicts himself as a clown with a red nose and red cheeks[16]. The self-portraits most clearly show the influence of the master he most revered, Hals. Another, about whom he could tell his students so beautifully and passionately, was Rembrandt. He painted most of his portraits in the 1920s, doing fewer as time went by.

He was involved in the activities of various groups and organizations, as well as pedagogical work. In 1922, he joined the Rhythm Association of Polish Artists. This is how, after the first exhibition, Mieczysław Treter evaluated his painting in the review published in Tygodnik Ilustrowany (Illustrated Weekly): “(…) Pruszkowski’s virtuoso caprices are equally strongly recorded in memory and imagination (…)”.

Tadeusz Pruszkowski, Portrait of a Woman Playing the Piano, ca. 1925, Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny

In 1930. Pruszkowski co-founded the Institute for the Propagation of Art, and in 1934 he was the originator of the creation of the Professional Artists’ Bloc. As he wrote in the catalog for an exhibition in March 1936: “it came into effect at a time when the spreading ferment of views on the issues of art was undermining the artist’s connection with society, thus destroying the reliable values on which the further development of the plastic arts in Poland must be based”. The creative freedom expressed by Pruszkowski was clearly visible in his program. “The Bloc does not associate adherents or followers of one common artistic idea. The Bloc does not create or join any direction, does not support any special kind of art, does not deny the right to life to any actions, does not thunder against any program”.

Tadeusz Pruszkowski was also a member of the Society for Propagation of Polish Art Among Foreigners.

Now, Pruszkowski the educator. This is an extremely important part of his activity. Loved by his students, he taught in an unconventional way. He gave them creative freedom, directed, and did not impose. He participated in their school life without creating barriers and distance. And he was the only professor of his time to place a strong emphasis on composition. From 1923, he took his students for outdoor painting trips to Kazimierz Dolny. In Wiadomości Literackie of 1939, he recalled: “I was surprised by the impression of the similarity of the mood of Kazimierz to charming Italian towns. Nothing worse and very much its own. A sandy, wide river, mountainous shores overgrown with incredibly lush, varied vegetation, amazingly beautiful and original old architecture, romantic ruins, in a vast and wide, often cloudy landscape”.

He truly liked the place. He used to stroll around the market square and the adjacent streets as if they were his own property. He probably took the functioning scheme of the art colony from Konrad Krzyżanowski. The day was very orderly from the organizational point of view. In the evening, there was a meeting at Master Pruszkowski’s place in a white house where they sang, discussed art, and read literature. Pruszkowski believed that an artist expressed himself not only by painting, but also by his attitude. The students understood and felt this perfectly, which is why parties and balls were an inseparable element. Art was connected to life. “Kazimierz is the most outstanding film actor! I say that without any exaggeration. Water, rocks, ravines, architecture… And all for free”. Kazimierz on the Vistula river became such an actor in the film Szczęśliwy wisielec czyli California w Polsce [Happy Hanged Man or California in Poland] shot by Pruszkowski with a Debris-type camera. He wrote the script together with Feliks Topolski and Zygmunt Jurkowski. The film was screened at the Splendid cinema in Warsaw.

Tadeusz Pruszkowski was killed by the German Gestapo on July 1, 1942. His last portrait was painted by Wojciech Fangor that same year. Fangor, who had studied painting with the professor, recalled him many times as his first and most important Master[17].

The Grave of the Painter Tadeusz Pruszkowski – Rector of the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw – at the Warsaw cemetery “Stare Powązki”

[1] S. Rutkowski, Tadeusz Pruszkowski, Sztuki Piękne 1927/1928, R. 4, nr 6 (październik-wrzesień), p. xxx
[2] D. M. Kozielska, “Plenery Konrada Krzyżanowskiego w dokumentach i wspomnieniach studentów”, [in:] Sztuka wszędzie. Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie, 1904-1944,
[3] To Rybiniszki Konrad Krzyżanowski brought his students for plein-air workshops in the winter of 1904/5 and 1906/7.
[4] Księga pamiątkowa uczestników pleneru malarskiego Warszawskiej Szkoły Sztuk Pięknych w Zwierzyńcu w 1905 r., manuscript, Arch. ASP, nr inw. H/160/391, cited from: Kozielska, ibidem, p. 88.
[5] Cited from: Konrad Krzyżanowski, 1872 -1922, Wystawa monograficzna, kat. wyst., elab. Lija Skalska-Miecik, Warszawa 1980, p. 101.
[6] Mentioned in the catalogue accompanying the artist’s monographic exhibition, position 15, paintings lost, p. 73. Also mentioned is a drawing done in pencil (lost) from 1905, ibidem, p. 92.
[7] I. Kossowska, “Tadeusz Pruszkowski i jego legenda”, [in:] Sława i zapomnienie. Studia z historii sztuki XVIII-XX wieku, Dariusza Konstantynowa (ed.), Warszawa 2008, p. 257.
[8] In the collections of the National Museum in Warsaw.
[9] Mentioned are also sojourns in Bretagne, England, and Algeria in that period.
[10] A society founded in Paris in 1910.
[11] „O „Młodej Sztuce”., K. Woźniak, „Młoda Sztuka” – stracona szansa na nowoczesność”, [in:] Sztuka lat 1905-1923. Malarstwo, rzeźba, grafika, krytyka literacka, Małgorzaty Geron i Jerzego Malinowskiego (eds.), Materiały z Konferencji Naukowej, Toruń , 21-23 września 2005, Toruń 2005, pp. 63-68.
[12] “Kurier Warszawski” 1912, nr 32, p.2.
[13] On the activities connected with the School of Fine Arts, and the later Academy of Fine Arts, see Sztuka wszędzie. Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie 1904-1944, Jola Gola, Maryla Sitkowska, Agnieszka Szewczyk (eds.), Warszawa 2012.
[14] I. Kossowska, Artystyczna rekonkwista. Sztuka w międzywojennej Polsce i Europie, Toruń 2017, p. 328.
[15] This painting is found in the collections of the Nadwiślańskie Museum in Kazimierz Dolny.
[16] This painting is found at the National Museum in Poznań.
[17] This portrait is found at the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.

tłum. Ph.E. Steele