What a story!

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 …


… then his preparatory drawing in pencil (at an odd angle because it was in a glass case.)

… 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.

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About morselsandscraps

A retired Australian who spends a lot of time in Warsaw, and blogs as a way of life.
This entry was posted in architecture, art, photos and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to What a story!

  1. Tish Farrell says:

    This is just wonderful, Meg – one form of creativity leading to another. A real multiplier effect, but as you say, so sad about the lost synagogues. Architecture to lift the spirits and to bring homely comfort too.

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  2. Lucid Gypsy says:

    It’s so sad to think how so much was lost and still is being because of war. It’s a pity the synagogue in the last photo can’t be re-created.

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  3. restlessjo says:

    You’ve really taken to abstracts, haven’t you? So many wonderful angles, and a sad story. 🙂

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    • I wonder afresh every time I come across German destruction of beauty. And then I think of the Taliban; of mining bent on destroying ancient Aboriginal art sites; the destruction of libraries and precious manuscripts. It really is strategic vandalism: wipe out the competition and the pride and hurt as much as possible.

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      • restlessjo says:

        Fortunately there are still a lot of great people in this world too. (like you 🙂 ) And some amazing museums. Pauline (Pommepal) had some fabulous Aboriginal stuff last week. The Nazis do send shivers though. I found the Oskar Schindler museum fascinating but it does leave the finger of dread.

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  4. findingnyc says:

    This is really interesting. I’ve heard of these synagogues before. I know there was one where the synagogue’s members were actually massacred by the Nazis who barricaded them in it and burned it down. Such tragic history, and the meticulous details in his art really pay tribute to the people who built the synagogues

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  5. Heyjude says:

    Such an interesting post Meg. I think my favourites here are the grey and white ones, below your favourite. Love the abstracts. Love wooden buildings, the synagogues remind me of the wonderful Norwegian Stave churches – also wooden.

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  6. Rosemary Barnard says:

    I completely agree with you about the real stars of the exhibition being the synagogues. I am incredibly sad that the originals of such beauty, craftsmanship and creativity were so cruelly and deliberately destroyed. I wonder whether the same things happened in other parts of Europe, and whether to the same extent that they happened in Poland? It has always puzzled me that the Nazis kept intact the synagogues of Prague, complete with collections of artefacts from synagogues communities all over the Czech Republic, meticulously documented by Jewish archivists and curators before they too were sent to their deaths in concentration camps.

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  7. pommepal says:

    So much beauty destroyed that can never be recreated. I do like the colours of the final abstract art.

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