Train de Banlieue (Commuter Train)

Józef Czapski1967

The National Museum in Krakow

The National Museum in Krakow

Józef Czapski had an important place not only in culture, but also in the history of 20th century Poland. He was a painter, writer, art critic, officer of the Polish Army, who was one of the first to learn and disseminate the truth about the Katyn crime. After the war, he became a co-creator of the artistic-intellectual society in exile, concentrated around the Parisian “Culture”. In 1924, together with a group of colleagues from the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow organized to create the Paris Committee, he left for France. At that time, he was fascinated by van Gogh, painters associated with École de Paris, and of course Cezanne. In the 1930s he was influenced by Matisse and Bonard, but he emphasized that their art primarily directed his way of seeing and perceiving phenomena. In 1939, after a defensive campaign, together with officers of his regiment, he was taken captive by Russia and interned in a camp in Starobelsk. He was one of the few who avoided the fate of over 20 thousand officers murdered in Katyn. He joined the army of General Anders and, on his order, began searching for “missing” officers of the Polish army. He described his experiences in books: Reminiscences of Starobyelsk (1945) and Inhuman land (1949).

As a painter, he clearly inclined towards expressionism. He said that this was “the artistic trend closest to (...) a violent and cruel epoch” marked by the experiences of war. He established his individual style based on synthetic manipulation, a distinctly contoured shape and vast planes of saturated, boldly juxtaposed colors. He also developed a special method of work which, as Konstanty Jeleński wrote, resembled “a wanderer with a camera”. He recorded splinters of ordinary everyday life striking him with color, shape, light or mood. He “painted” immediately in imagination (he called this activity of the mind “higher” seeing, covering the whole picture, also “memory painting”), most often grasping it also in a drawing or colorful, summary note. He evoked the film recorded in such a way, sometimes after a few years. When painting a piece, he tried not to go beyond the first experience condensing the essence of things; “the rest – as he said – only disturbs”, the detail “destroys the whole”, “degrades the painting”. He strived for Cezanne’s painting asceticism. Among his contemporaries, Giorgio Morandi, the creator of still lifes in anemic, whitewashed colors, was close to him.

Czapski’s painting is characterized by a specific mood of expectations, thoughtfulness, anonymity, loneliness. However, he admitted himself that he never faced problems of this kind in painting. “When I paint,” he said, “I never think that I do it for someone or for some purpose. (...) A selfless attitude seems to me to be the foundation of art”. He attributed a decisive role in the process of creation to inspiration, which he compared to the “medium state”. He believed that in such moments he achieved connection with God.

In the Train de banlieue painting, a greyheaded woman is sleeping inside a railway wagon, and just behind her, an almost completely obscured figure in a hat emerges. Bright, joyful advertising posters visible on the wall of the wagon contrast with the tired face of the woman. The elements of the composition are surrounded by a strong contour, which fills in intense colors in bold juxtapositions. Color clashes are an expression of emotions conveyed by the artist, whereas the subject matter of a painting, depicting a banal fragment of everyday life, seems to be devoid of such emotions. What draws one’s attention is the seemingly careless framing, characteristic of Czapski, reminiscent of a hastily taken photograph. The randomness of the shot was emphasized by the door between the wagons visible in the foreground. It gives the viewer the extra impression of participating in the presented scene.

Czapski’s painting is striking for his ability to observe closely, despite the rejection of realistic imagery. The artist wants to capture a momentary enlightenment; he finds magic in banal situations, and in ordinary people – beauty and dignity. He treats the protagonists of his paintings with great affection, tenderness, which is also shared by the viewer.

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  • Title: Train de Banlieue (Commuter Train)
  • Creator: Józef Czapski
  • Date Created: 1967
  • Provenance: Gift of lady Phipps, 1969
  • Medium: oil, canvas