Andrzej Kuhn

  • Title: Self Portrait with Wood Carving
  • Medium: Oil on board
  • Width: 77.5cm 30 1/2in
  • Height: 66cm 26in
  • Year of creation: 1963
  • Notes: Signed ‘A Kuhn
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Andrzej Kuhn, who was born in Poland and came to live in England in 1947, has always been an idiosyncratic original in the British art world. His self-portrait, painted especially for Ruth Borchard in 1963, is immediately recognisable for its Eastern European folkloric character. Using robust, simplified forms, it portrays the bearded artist as a serenely contented woodcarver.

Andrzej Kuhn was born in 1929 in Lvov, then the third largest city in Poland (as Lviv, it is now part of the Ukraine). His early childhood was happy and unspectacular but following the Russian invasion of eastern Poland in 1940, tragedy struck. Kuhn’s father was incarcerated, and he and his mother and sister were deported and transported by cattle-truck, then by ox-cart, in winter, through Russia to Kazakhstan. His mother died in a labour camp, and the children were placed in an orphanage in dreadful conditions. As the novelist and poet Glyn Hughes noted in an introduction to a Kuhn exhibition catalogue (Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham, 1994), ‘On the day before [the family was] transported, 10-year-old Andrzej, possessed by foreboding, sought ease by sifting through the illustrations in his children’s books. No doubt memories of them continued to console the child during the transports, during his three years in Russia, and in his further exile, a lesson in the power of art that he never forgot.’ Then, Hughes records, ‘in the arbitrary fashion of events in our century, Andrzej’s father was released and joined his children in exile… in refugee camps in some of those countries which seem most typical of the imagery of Andrzej Kuhn’s paintings [owing to the pictures’ qualities of fairy-tale-like exoticism], Iran, Palestine and Egypt.’

Kuhn came to England in 1947, and after six arduous years of labouring jobs, and a spell in the merchant navy, went on to win a scholarship to the Chelsea School of Art. Hughes points out that ‘it is hard to imagine any method or genre more uncongenial to Andrzej’s spirit than the training in an English art school in the nineteen fifties… [its] French Impressionism filtered through Sickert and the Euston Road School.’ Jay Goldmark has written, ‘At Chelsea, Kuhn discovered… the elegance and rhythm of [Aubrey] Beardsley’s drawings and their allusions to Eastern design.’

Hughes calls Kuhn ‘a contemporary icon painter’. In Kuhn’s 20… self-portrait, the forms of the artist (in his outlandishly expansive beret and oceanic blue-black shirt or jacket), of the luminous expanse of yellow landscape and the pink, red-roofed houses on the hillside horizon, are simplified – sometimes attenuated as in the tiny, wittily insistent figure of the Saul Steinberg cartoon-like dog, sometimes expressively enlarged like the painter’s head here with its emphatic, inward-seeing eyes (Hughes mentions that ‘Kuhn talks of Sumerian sculptures, ‘with the big eyes”) – rather in the manner of traditional Polish-Ukrainian folk artists and icon makers.

The sun, a pale simple disc, shines in the light blue sky, and the artist points with a vivid ochre-triangular-tipped paintbrush towards his easel painting of a miniature crescent moon in an inky-blue sky above a white, brown-turreted castle or grand house. As Hughes point outs, ‘the moon appears more frequently than any other image in Kuhn’s work. From the sky… smiling serenely and enigmatically upon our tender or… puzzled affairs. Sometimes she sits in the sea and watches. Occasionally a fisherman throws his net and catches her. Scenes fill with more than one moon. Lovers sit on the moon.’ The pale yellow-green moon to which the artist draws our attention – and towards which even the naïvely abbreviated dog is peering – seems to symbolise the nature of the mysterious cosmic dimension which this introspective artist is perhaps always, consciously or consciously, seeking in his paintings.

In a 1961 article, Kuhn wrote: ‘To me, painting is like a journey into an unknown world… in those far lands I meet strange people, creatures of the imagination. They are poets, fiddlers, sailors, tramps. Their heads are large and their bodies out of proportion… I set them on canvas, where they can live again, smoking their pipes, talking and wondering at this new existence.’ The wild poetry of his native Polish folk art, as well as painters such as Chagall and Klee, inspired him.

Kuhn’s 1963 Self-Portrait with Wood Carving (acquired by Ruth Borchard) depicts the bearded artist as a serenely contented folkloric woodcarver at work on an elegant yet rough-hewn figure with a simple black dot for an eye – which seems to gaze knowingly at the artist whose own innocent eye looks abstractedly afar. This work’s palette, its staccato brushwork and deliberately naïve style have something in common with the pictures of the avant-garde Polish artist Tadeusz Makowski (1892-1932), who in his final years (inspired by Polish folk sculpture) often painted eery, childlike figures, appearing like sentient wooden puppets.

Glyn Hughes described how Kuhn and his wife Diana, whom he had met as a fellow student at Chelsea, then went on to make their ‘home on the east coast of Lincolnshire… a place of drained salt marsh… laid out with fields of potatoes and cabbages… but for Andrzej Kuhn an empty landscape is an inspiration. He describes it as being like an empty canvas. It encourages him to fill his head with images… there is… a small wood. On penetrating it, one finds watchful, painted sculptures, female… hieratic muse figures, made of scrap wood, strung with beads. Moons on their heads perhaps. Embedded in the trees is a long, low, small house and studio, much of it coloured blue or faded pink, and filled with art.’ The transporting, magical air of this remote, secluded spot was captured in a series of quietly eloquent photographs by Jay Goldmark, taken to mark the artist’s eightieth birthday. Andrzej Kuhn died in 2014.

His paintings are in the Collections of Clare College, University of Cambridge, Durham University and the University of York.