Feliks Topolski R.A. - Profile

Self portrait

FELIKS TOPOLSKI: Chronicler Extraordinary
Bernard Denvir reviews the life and work of this prolific and versatile artist.

The diversity of Topolski's art is, in a sense, the reflexion of a life of infinite variety and experience. He was born in Warsaw in 1907, his father being a not very successful actor, who at one time, significantly in view of his son's later contact with Bernard Shaw, played Bonaparte in that writer's Man of Destiny. He studied art at the Warsaw Academy, and at the same time was cadet at the Artillery Officers' School. Growing up beneath the shadow of Warsaw's rococo architecture and revelling in the new-found nationalism of Marshal Pilsudski's Poland were both experiences which were to have a deep influence on his personality, endowing him with a taste for the rhetorical flourish, a liking for dash, a penchant for pageant and ceremonial which have never left him.

It was whilst he was still a student that he received his first commission, to paint a mural for the hall of the Polish Institute for the Promotion of Modern Art, and he also contributed drawings to The Warsaw Barber, a kind of Private Eye of the period.

Then came a period of travel before he settled down - for a while at least - in Paris. in 1935 he came to England, primarily to record the Silver Jubilee of George V for a Polish magazine, but he was enchanted with the exotic traditionalism of the country, its greenness, the dark Georgian houses of London. the pomp and circumstance and the eccentricities of its natives.

... He rapidly became a figure in the London scene. George Bernard Shaw became one of his admirers (he rather inaccurately described him as "perhaps the greatest of all the impressionists in black and white").'The association between the young Pole and the writer was a fruitful one, producing a whole series of portraits of the old sage.

Topolski's war was as tumultuous and as variegated as his works had become. An officer in the Polish army, a war artist for two governments, between 1939 and 1945, he experienced virtually every aspect of the war. Wounded in the blitz, travelling in a cruiser on patrol duty in the Arctic, fighting with the Polish 2nd Corps in Italy, experiencing the war in Burma, entering Germany with the invading allied troops, visiting Belsen, attending the Nuremberg trials, he had already assumed the duties and functions of the recording eye.

Then in the late Forties and early Fifties came his Eastern experience. Invited to India by Pandit Nehru, he witnessed the last days of the Raj, then went on to Burma, witnessed the wars of liberation in Malaya and lndo-China, and eventually arrived back in London via the United States, in time for him to produce the Festival of Britain mural, positioned in the arch under Hungerford Railway Bridge.

In 1959, in one of the more imaginative gestures to contemporary art made by the Royal family in this century, he was commissioned by the Duke of Edinburgh to paint a mural for the corridor in Buckingham Palace which led to the State Apartments, one side being continuous, the other broken by windows looking out onto the interior courtyard. The result was a remarkable work, pulsating with life, full of vivid detail and broad sweeping perspectives. Since then his travelling has been virtually continuous, timed unerringly to coincide with seminal happenings. China, Russia, the USA, Africa have all fed his omnivorous imagination.

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