There is one letter from Marek Zulawski to Ruth Borchard, dated ’23.4.63.’, from his home/studio in north London, asking ‘Would you like to come to my studio and see [several self-portraits]? Mornings are best for me.’ Ruth paid 21 guineas for this large, 1949 self-portrait.
Marek Zulawski was born in Rome in 1908 to Polish parents (his father Jerzy was an eminent playwright, philosopher and poet). So he would have been around forty-one when he painted the self-portrait in what was then his Warwick Avenue studio in London. Brush in his right hand, he stands in front of his easel, a still, imposing presence in his vivid scarlet dressing gown. He appears a tall, lean, muscular, almost hieratic figure, with a high cheek-boned face and strong neck and hands. Even near the end of his life, he was a powerful presence, with a dignified bearing and moving large, heavy canvases around his studio with ease.
The black lines describing his head, dressing gown and hands suggest that here is a resourceful, determined character. Yet he also comes across as a sensitive figure. His sensuous yet expressionless lips and the eyes narrowed to the point of seeming (at least initially) shut or half-closed in visionary reverie, help reinforce this persona of a ruminative, perhaps inscrutable man.
In contrast to the wider composition with its stringently abstracted forms (including a geometric painting on the wall) and its mellow, earthy tones, as well as with the artist’s strangely sallow skin, the scarlet tones of his dressing gown carry a fierce resonance.
Having studied at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, he won a scholarship to study in Paris, where Bonnard’s paintings strongly moved him. In 1936 he visited London for a few days and, in his own words, ‘stayed ever since’.
Some of his haunting 1946 pen-and-ink drawings of a Warsaw reduced to rubble and desolation are reproduced in his autobiography, Study for a Self-Portrait (published in Warsaw in 1980). A 1946 oil painting of the body of Christ lying at the foot of the cross indicates how his work was becoming increasingly semi-abstracted, and compassionate in tone. Later pictures depicted the cosmic dramas of figures like Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel, as well as working men at rest, against barren landscapes rather resembling austere colour field paintings.