Obituary: Aleksander Zyw

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The Independent Online
The death of Aleksander Zyw reduces still further the surviving band of distinguished artists born in Poland who enriched British culture by their work and presence from the 1940s. Zyw was a member of the same generation as Feliks Topolski and Josef Herman, born a decade later than Henrik Gotlib and Jankel Adler. Zyw's distinctive contribution to European art began in the 1950s in works which were meditations on nature's forms and forces.

Zyw was born at Lida (then in Poland, now in Belarus) in 1905. He studied law and art history at university in Warsaw before going on to the Academy of Fine Arts, from 1926 to 1932. He then travelled in Europe, notably to Dalmatia, Greece and Italy, before settling in France in 1934, and establishing a studio in Paris. At this time he specialised in landscape, working both in oils and other media. In 1939 he enlisted in the Polish army in France, in which he served until the French surrender. He then escaped to Britain, and rejoined the Polish army.

Zyw was appointed as war artist to the Polish forces, a job which he carried out with considerable success. He served in Britain, went across the Atlantic, took part in the Normandy invasion and reached Belgium. He worked mainly on small drawings in ink and wash, recording the everyday routines of soldiers, as well as scenes of more significant military events. A set of drawings in a similar style and technique was published in 1945, as Edinburgh as Seen by an Artist. Edinburgh became his main home after the end of the war until the 1960s, when he began to spend an increasing amount of time at his house and studio in Italy.

After the war Zyw married Leslie Goddard; they settled in Dean Village, in Edinburgh. He established a firm reputation as a Scottish painter, drawing on France and Italy for inspiration, his pictures "jewelled and rich in colour and figures", so described by Douglas Hall, the Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. But his most remarkable pictures were still to come, when in the 1950s he began work in a more austere way, taking objects as points of departure for sombre and abstracted imagery; at first pebbles, clinker and olive wood, in pale colours, greys, browns, blue-greys and blue-greens. An important series of nearly 100 works was devoted to water, inspired by the River Leith, of which some were shown at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh in "An Instant of Water" in 1975; and a series on air, painted between 1976 and 1980, was a further example of his individual interpretation of elements and natural forms.

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where his work is rightly well represented, honoured him in 1986 with an exhibition of which the catalogue is called Aleksander Zyw: The Nature of Painting.

Joseph Darracott

Aleksander Zyw, artist: born Lida, Poland 14 September 1905; married Leslie Goddard (two sons); died Castagneto Carducci, Italy 17 September 1995.