Józef Czapski: A Soldier and Artist Fights for Liberty

When Eric Karpeles received a slender book in the mail from an old friend, he was a painter and a writer on art and literature, with a particular interest in Marcel Proust. His friend had sent him a book by another painter, in French, on the subject of Proust. “One June day,” he had never heard of Józef Czapski; “the next day I was hooked.” We have his friend to thank for Karpeles’s translation of the little book on Proust, and the project that became a comprehensive biography of its author.

No wonder he was hooked. Czapski (1896-1993) led a long and extraordinary life. His intellectual and artistic achievements are ultimately his most important but, as Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski shows, he seems also to have been present at more events of historical and cultural significance than just about anybody.

The Foreign Minister’s Nephew

Born into the Polish nobility, Czapski was part of a family that included Baltic Germans, Czechs, Russian speakers, and committed 19th century Polish patriots. He was raised in a fervently Catholic household and educated in St. Petersburg as an adolescent; there were relatives in Vienna and Prague and Paris. For a time, Uncle Count Franz was Austrian foreign minister; when he once pushed past a waiting Jewish doctor to claim a first-class train compartment (the emperor had summoned him), his arrogance gave the doctor nightmares that later turned up analyzed in a groundbreaking book, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900).

Czapski served briefly in the Russian army in 1917 before returning to Poland, where after a stint in art school he saw more significant military service in the Polish army during the Russian-Polish war of 1919-20. (He would encounter one of his military instructors, Lieutenant de Gaulle, again.) In the 1920s he and a group of contemporaries travelled together to Paris to paint, learning from the work of Paul Cézanne and Pierre Bonnard and meeting such present and future notables as the Nabokov brothers Sergei and Vladimir, the novelist Julien Green, the Polish-French art patron Misia Sert, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Sergei Diaghilev, and Pablo Picasso.

Returning to Poland in the early 1930s, Czapski embarked on a fruitful period of painting, exploring portraiture as well as other subjects. (A journal article about him was called “Adventures in the Country of Color.”) In this section, as in all those in which he apprehends and discusses Czapski’s painting, Karpeles is at his most vibrant and evocative. Czapski’s use of color in space—a “sapphire-colored sea,” a deep red carpet that grounds his tall figure in a self-portrait, pinks and golds conveying sunset against green trees—comes alive, and Karpeles’s  recognition of artistic influences from Velázquez to Matisse adds to the depth and solidity of his analysis.

The biographer is perceptive, as well, about Czapski’s personality which, while never demonstrative or voluble, was not without a quiet confidence. As a young man Czapski observed that great literature shows us two types of gardens: “one that is open and public . . . another that is secret, hidden, more difficult to access,” as Karpeles paraphrases. The “essential duality” of the personal, intellectual, and aesthetic aspects of Czapski’s life nonetheless issue in a “unity of character,” says the biographer. “In matters of religion, politics, and sexuality,” writes Karpeles, “he was unwilling to conform to a singular type, to be bound by defining limitations or conventional expectations.” This likewise applies to the biographer, who resists all sorts of fashionable determinisms in understanding his complicated subject, not least his homosexuality, considering it as part of a whole personality, and as a matter of whom he loved rather than as some sort of ideological trump card.

Religion is treated respectfully, as well. While Czapski seems not to have been a practicing Catholic as an adult, Karpeles takes his background seriously and considers it an important element of Czapski’s aesthetics and his considerable public service.

1939: His Country Invaded at Each End

On September 2, 1939, a 43-year-old Czapski stuck a volume of Andre Gide’s memoirs in his coat pocket and reported for officer duty in a Polish army now mobilizing in response to Adolf Hitler’s invasion of the country. He didn’t know, and neither did his superiors, that less than three weeks previously Hitler’s foreign minister and the Soviet foreign minister had agreed on how they would divide up the spoils in the forthcoming war, and that the Soviets would invade eastern Poland a fortnight after the Germans came in at the other side. By October 6, hostilities were over; just before that, Czapski and his regiment had been captured by the Soviets and were already “squashed together in the back of a . . . truck” en route to Russian prison camps administered by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD.

This period of Czapski’s long life, spent with his fellow officers in successive camps, saw two decisive events: one aesthetic and artistic, the other (to use a phrase taken from his hosts) of world historical significance. The former, placed in its historical context in Almost Nothing, is told in Czapski’s own words (as translated from the French by Karpeles) in Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp.

In the camp at Gryazovets, northeast of Moscow, the imprisoned “former officers of the former Polish army” kept their spirits up by improvising a series of evening lectures on various subjects. One spoke about architecture, another about sports, another about ethnography. “Each of us spoke about what he remembered best,” Czapski later recalled, and what he remembered was, as Karpeles knows, “the quintessential book of remembering.” Without a written text or other resources, Czapski somehow managed to call to mind, and partly recite, À la recherche du temps perdu. Much as Proust’s madeleine evoked his involuntary memories, Czapski realized, he had to let the great roman fleuve flow back to him, to “emerge on the surface of my consciousness.” He started slowly, then gathered steam. “Far away from anything that could recall Proust’s world, my memories of him, at the beginning so tenuous, started growing stronger, and then suddenly with even more power and clarity, completely independent of my will.”

The Truth of Fact Refracted Through the Truth of Art

Czapski had first read À la recherche in the late 1920s. Recovering at an uncle’s house from both typhoid and a broken heart, he says he was “almost drowning in Proust.” Already a painter, he understood Proust’s discovery of the inevitability of his writerhood in the light of Czapski’s own realization, “I am a painter.” The idea of the artist as recognizer, the interplay of will and memory, imagination and intellect, the truth of fact refracted through the truth of art, would bear on Czapski’s understanding of his métier for the rest of his life and on his larger contemplation of truths aesthetic and empirical.

Along with great literature, Czapski shared with his fellow captives a kind of Proustian travelogue of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and its many snobberies. The prisoners, shivering in their ragged, quilted-cotton fufaikas, must have noted the irony that on other evenings he was interrogated for hours by the NKVD apparat, with an entirely different approach to memory. What were the Polish officer’s politics? What was his attitude to Mother Russia? To the great “Man of Steel,” Josef Stalin? In Czapski’s case, the enormous disconnect of worldview was revealed when he was unable to get across that he had gone to Paris as a young man not as a spy for the Polish government but as a painter.

The NKVD man said:

“Do you think we don’t understand that as a painter you would be able to draw a map of Paris and send it back to the [foreign] minister in Warsaw?” I had a hard time convincing my inquisitor that if one wanted a map of Paris all one had to do was to buy one for a few coins on any corner, and that Polish painters were not spies who secretly make street maps of foreign cities. Until the very end, I was incapable of getting these men to believe that one could go abroad for reasons other than espionage.

The irony cut in more than one direction, though. Ignorant though they probably were of the details, his buffoonish interrogators probably had a better sense of the malign universe they all inhabited at the time.

Katyn: Searching for the Missing Officers 

Some months before the evening lecture series began, Polish officers from several camps had been relocated, with Czapski and his group of about 400 ending up at Gryazovets. Several thousand of their comrades, they thought, had been taken to camps deeper into Soviet territory.

They were mistaken. The other Poles were transferred to several places in western Russia, halfway between Moscow and the city of Minsk, that are mostly remembered under the collective name of Katyn. In the spring of 1940, on orders signed by Stalin and Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD, something like 22,000 Polish prisoners were shot in the back of the head and buried 10 or 12 deep in mass graves that are still coming to light today.

This is the world-historical event I mentioned, that shaped not only Czapski’s subsequent life but the rest of the 20th century, in Poland and the West, through the Cold War and afterwards. After Hitler turned on Stalin in June 1941, the remaining imprisoned Poles and their countrymen from Soviet-occupied territories were freed to join an army allied with the USSR and Britain. Released in September, almost exactly two years after he was captured, Czapski joined the exodus of thousands of Poles toward the Caspian Sea, and was charged with organizing assistance for new arrivals. As he began to draw up lists of names and to arrange to reunite families, he asked about the missing officer-prisoners. “Of the endless sea of men who passed through his office,” writes Karpeles, “not one would ever confirm having seen a single one of these officers. Nor had a single one turned up to join the new army.”

But, he says in his memoir of the period,[1] “the very idea of their disappearance seemed impossible to me,” and with the agreement of the Polish command, Czapski set out to find them. As tall and thin as Don Quixote, clad in the armor of his own honesty, he presented himself at the office of the chief administrator of the Gulag system, then at the regional NKVD office, and finally at NKVD headquarters, enquiring after the fate of his colleagues. He was of course put off or referred on at all of these places, until he was finally comprehensively shut down and sent back to the army, where present exigencies (military supplies, caring for Polish civilians, and dependence on the Soviets for all resources) meant the quest had to be shelved.

When, in 1943, the occupying Germans announced the discovery of the Katyn burials, complete with information about the identities of many of the murdered men, the Soviets insisted furiously that the invaders were the killers. They began to disseminate disinformation and attempted to muddy the waters. But Czapski and other Poles knew then what had happened, and they saw even more clearly what would become of Poland when in 1944 the Red Army’s advance on Warsaw halted outside the city, giving the Germans time to destroy it rather than coming to its rescue.

The pressures of the Soviet alliance through the end of the war, and the silence of those who might have spoken up—neither Jacques Maritain nor François Mauriac responded to Czapski’s plea that they speak out during the destruction of Warsaw—prefigured the abandonment at Yalta and the clanging down of the Iron Curtain from Stettin in the Baltic, as was famously said, to Trieste in the Adriatic.

Helping the War-Displaced

After the war, Czapski returned to Paris and became active with a group of his compatriots in establishing cultural outreach through publications such as the journal Kultura, cultural organizations, and his longstanding attempt to establish a University in Exile for displaced Central and Eastern European youth. Along with such figures as Arthur Koestler, Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and his old acquaintance the composer Nikolai Nabokov, he was involved with the Congress for Cultural Freedom, created to try to combat the advance of totalitarian ideology. (The revelation in the 1960s that the CIA was a funder of the organization complicates its already complex history, but many participants were unquestionably supporters of genuine intellectual freedom.)

The public advocacy side of Czapski’s career was drawing to a close in the 1950s, but one of its final episodes illustrates the challenges that the supporters of the Congress for Cultural Freedom were up against. He’d had all sorts of difficulties finding a publisher for his memoir of his Katyn mission; even a truncated version was rejected, because it was (accurately) deemed anti-Soviet. In autumn 1950, he agreed to appear as a witness in a libel trial brought by a former Resistance fighter who had been called a liar for writing about the Soviet camp system. (The plaintiff was in fact the first to use the word “gulag” in a French publication.) The respondent in the case was a French communist publication. It bears remembering that, at the time, and even after Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech, many members of the French Communist Party were unrelentingly Stalinist. Czapski’s testimony corroborating what the plaintiff had witnessed created an uproar that enlightened some on the Left and contributed to the plaintiff’s winning the case. (Jean-Paul Sartre, of course, refused to believe him.)

Holde Kunst, Noble Art

Living in a house shared with a group of Polish expats and their small publishing enterprise, joined eventually by one of his sisters, Czapski was able to return to painting in the 1950s. Karpeles’s understanding and appreciation of what this meant to the man, and what his artistic achievements became, are explored in the biography’s most vivid and evocative passages.[2]  Supported and encouraged by an appreciative group of artists and writers, Czapski drew and painted, as well as writing for the journal Kultura and traveling to raise funds for its support. Beginning in the early 1970s, a Swiss gallery regularly showed a collection of his paintings, widening his audience and augmenting what had always been an extremely modest income.

Despite the terrible blow of failing eyesight in the last years of his life, Czapski continued painting—the nearly monochromatic At the Eye Doctor of 1982, when he was 86 years old, includes “a tall bouquet of flowers” humorously reminiscent of “Munch’s Scream reconceived as a flower arrangement,” says Karpeles. When he could no longer see shapes, in his 90s, he drew lines and boxes, comprehending space. He wrote “Katyn” over and over, and the names of people and places he remembered. In Polish he wrote: “You have to prepare for silence.”

A much younger friend was with him when he died. They were listening to Chopin, and he quoted to her in German some words of Franz Schubert: “Holde Kunst.” “Noble Art.”

Czapski once recounted what it was like to work toward acquiring the skills of the visual artist. “Two drawings of some tulips,” he said, “seemed to me suddenly to come alive. Why? Because I felt them as I was drawing them . . . as if there was no break between the end of my pencil and myself. I was at the end of my pencil.” Karpeles, for his part, tells us it was his hope “to bring Czapski to life in the way he describes drawing these tulips. He and I meet at the end of my pencil.” The rest of us are lucky to meet both of them in these books.

[1] Czapski’s account of his search for the disappeared Polish officers, Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941–1942, was also published by New York Review Books in 2018, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones with an introduction by historian Timothy Snyder.

[2] Karpeles’s monograph on Czapski’s painting, Józef Czapski: An Apprenticeship of Looking, is forthcoming from Thames and Hudson in October.