FELIKS TOPOLSKI R.A. (1907-1989)

Drawings of Paris in the ’30s

Saturday 8th – Saturday 22nd December 2012

That any of the many pen and ink studies made by Topolski on his visits to Paris between 1935 and the War survive is remarkable. On his departure for War Artist duties he entrusted his London studio, with its large glass windows, to the care of his future wife, Marion Everall. Fortunately for her, and the contents, bombs did not fall on the building. As the original, on-the-spot sketches for those subjects worked up for intended publication in 1939 as ‘Paris Scenes and Secrets’ they were largely forgotten. The extraordinary story of how the selected drawings were stolen from the Warsaw publisher by the Nazis in September 1939, lost during the War and only returned to the artist in 1963 was told in our 2008 catalogue (see bottom of this page). Their eventual publication in 1973, at the height of Topolski’s fame, attracted much attention but it is only now that the artist’s family have considered parting with the sketches from which they originated.[1]

It was during his first tour of Europe in 1933 that Topolski began to chronicle his times. Those who saw his drawings immediately recognized the continuation of a venerable tradition: acute and satirical they were both specific and typological. Rowlandson, Daumier and Lautrec captured and defined their worlds thus. The success ‘The London Spectacle’ in 1935 persuaded him to settle in England but he traveled continually and Paris society, high and low, bohemian and louche, was of course an irresistible subject for a talent such as his.

Anyone familiar with Pariswill recognise these scenes and characters. The wonderful way in which certain defining aspects of cultures endure in the face of ‘globalisation’ is heartening. Topolski later became famous for his great, expressive paintings and drawings recording the ceremonial events and personalities of the post-war world and his ‘Memoir of the Century’, but it is with observational studies such as these that all that great work began.[2]

[1] Feliks Topolski, Paris Lost. A sketchbook of the Thirties, Hutchinson, 1973.

[2] Visible at his studio under the arches of London’s Hungerford Bridge until its closure.

Preface to our 2008 Catalogue

            The ninety six drawings of which these twenty three form a part were lost between 1939 and 1963. Intended for  publication in England in September 1939 as Paris Scenes and Secrets – recorded and revealed by the pen of Eugenio d’Ors and by the pencil of Feliks Topolski (editions were to appear later in France and Poland) they were marooned in Topolski’s native Warsaw with a publisher by the outbreak of WWII. At the request of d’Ors, the socially and intellectually eminent Spanish Academician who had introduced Topolski to Parisian Society and collaborated with him on the project, they were then expropriated by the Gestapo to be sent to him in neutral Madrid. They did not, however, reach their destination. The Germans, perhaps realising that these were the works of an Official War Artist – Goebbels had already used one of Topolski’s war drawings of a tired ARP warden as propaganda against the Allies – redirected them to Berlin. They only emerged again at the end of the war when the documentary film maker, Hans Curlis, bought them from a Russian soldier on Berlin’s Kochstrasse. Curlis, who bought them purely on quality, new nothing of the artist and so it was a further eighteen years before Topolski’s hand was identified by a curator at the Berlin Museum and the drawings returned to him in London.

Happy at their miraculous reappearance, the artist was too involved in other projects to do anything with them at the time. It was only after another decade had passed, in 1973, that a friend prompted their re-emergence and eventual publication as Paris Lost – A Sketchbook of The Thirties, by asking what was contained in a dusty portfolio that had caught his eye – ‘Oh just some drawings of Paris I did before the war’ Topolski replied with casual modesty.

Famous as his paintings and drawings recording the great ceremonial events of the post-war world had made him by the 1970s, Paris Scenes and Secrets, later so lightly dismissed, had been intended at the time as an important step in establishing Topolski’s international reputation as a mordant and brilliant observer in the tradition of Rowlandson, Daumier and Lautrec. It was to be the keenly awaited follow up to the ‘The London Scene’, which had been such a success when published here, Topolski’s new home, in 1935.

Today, the poignancy of these records is coloured by our knowledge of what the next five years were to bring. But Paris Lost? –  all of these scenes and characters can still be found in modern Paris. The works are a testament to Topolski’s ability – one that he shared with Daumier – to extract from the specific situations he observed universal types, fascinating and recognisable to us all.

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