Jan Lebenstein

Lebenstein studied painting at Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts (1948-54) under Artur Nacht-Samborski. He debuted in the period that preceded the post-1956 "thaw", during the "Against War, Against Fascism" Polish National Exhibition of Young Visual Arts at Warsaw's Arsenal (1955), showing a series of modest, nostalgic landscapes depicting the lackluster suburbs of Warsaw (Stary Rembertów / Old Rembertów, 1955). Both their subject (everyday reality) and their language reflected the artist's fascination with the art of Utrillo. Within Poland, however, they constituted a distinct, independent creative style. Recognizing this, the exhibition jury awarded the artist a prize.

 At this same the artist also created a series of largely unknown and uncomplicated gouaches of modest interiors (Skrzypek / The Fiddler, c. 1955). The simplified, symbol-like human figures inhabiting them announced the artist's future tendency towards deformation. In 1956 Lebenstein linked up with the independent, alternative (as we would say today) Teatr na Tarczyńskiej / Tarczyńska Street Theatre, run by writer Miron Białoszewski in his Warsaw apartment. The group was more a circle of friends than a drama troupe in the real sense of the term. Core members included the poet and his friends, above all Ludmila Murawska and Ludwik Hering. Lebenstein had his first solo exhibition on Tarczyńska, for which he created his Figury kreślone / Drafted Figures, which were followed by Figury hieratyczne / Hieratic Figures and finally by his Figury osiowe / Axial Figures. These compositions (drawn and painted) depicted vertically oriented, highly simplified human figures. The figures were centrally located on the canvas, most often female, and in the drawings resembled insect-like creatures (Figure dans un interieur, 1956). His precise, detailed, even "anatomical" drawings shared something with the art of Wols, while their pictorial values (the near autonomy he granted to material, the richness of tones in his usually narrow and seemingly unimpressive color range) placed them on par with works created at the same time by Polish artists Zbigniew Tymoszewski and Rajmund Ziemski.

The originality of this highly personal figural art formula saturated with existential fears drew the recognition of French critics, who awarded Lebenstein the Grand Prix at the First International Biennale of Young Artists in Paris in 1959. The painter immediately settled in France, though he would remain on the sidelines of the Parisian artistic melting pot. He developed a stronger link to the Polish émigré community (those at the Paris-based Instytut Literacki / Literary Institute and "Kultura" / "Culture" magazine, as well as the editors and writers of "Zeszyty Literackie" / "Literary Notebooks") than to the European or global art worlds, though his work interested such influential authors as Jean Cassou, Raymond Cogniat, Mary McCarthy, and Michel Ragon. In spite of his success, Lebenstein always felt he was an artist apart and independent. Neither did this change in 1971, when Lebenstein accepted French citizenship after residing in the country for many years.(culture.pl)

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