The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is hosting a temporary exhibition of abstract art by Frank Stella inspired by Poland’s vanished wooden synagogues.
The story begins with lectures by Oskar Sosnowski at Warsaw Polytechnic Faculty of Architecture which inspired two Polish architects and scholars of synagogue architecture, Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka, to document wooden synagogues destroyed by the Germans. Their documentation turned into a book, published in 1959, which fell into the hands of Frank Stella, an American-Italian artist. His imagination on fire, he created 3D abstractions made from corrugated cardboard, Bristol board, etched aluminium, mixed media, felt, paint on cardboard, canvas.
The exhibition begins with a video of Maria Piechotka and shows pages of the book that resulted from years of work, while she and her husband were also designing reconstruction in Warsaw after WW2.
Already an established abstract artist, Stella was fascinated by “interlockingness”, the essence of the carpentry and craftsmanship of the wooden synagogues. The exhibition shows the stages of his creativity. There are plans and photos of the synagogues; preliminary sketches on paper in pencil; maquettes of various stages in the construction of the artwork; and then, on a blank wall, the finished piece. He sees his work as “experimental large scale wall reliefs” and this exhibition showcases five reliefs, based on synagogues in five different villages: Olkienniki, Grodno, Łunna Wola, Bogoria and Odelsk. He says the construction was “very tight in terms of engineering … I was around all the time to deal with things like tilt, angle or surface finish.”
The process is best seen in the Olkienniki gallery, beginning with the plans in the book …
… followed by a maquette …
… and then the finished artwork.
Other parts of the process are seen in other galleries: the nailed first draft 3D …
and a paper collage in delicate colours, probably my favourite of the abstracts.
Upstairs, there are interpretive pieces: one a series of cylinders which enable you to contain details in a circle, maybe imitating Stella’s process.
The synagogues are the real stars for me, and the sadness of their destruction. This final photo is of the synagogue at Zabłudów, one of the oldest in Poland dating from 1635. In 1929 it was declared a cultural landmark: in 1941 it was burnt down by the Germans.