Obituary: Marian Kratochwil
Saturday 07 February 1998
Marian Kratochwil was one of those artists of distinction, many but not all of foreign birth, for whom the English art establishment has had shamefully little time.
Like other Polish artists of his generation he made his escape in dangerous circumstances from occupied Europe and rejoined the Polish army in Scotland in 1940. After the Second World War his background and beliefs ruled out a return to his native country, and he arrived in London in 1947, more or less penniless.
There was nothing in that background to prepare him for the radical changes in art which marked the post-war period, or indeed those which had been brewing in Paris since the year of his birth, 1906. His classical education in philosophy, coupled with one-to-one study with an experienced painter and a self-determination to learn the methods of the old masters, resulted in distancing him equally from modernism and from the feeble productions that passed for academic painting in this country. It was not a comfortable situation to be in, but, for Kratochwil, comfort was never the first consideration.
Two women helped to rescue Kratochwil from the grimness of a penurious life in post-war London. One of them, the fine New Zealand painter Kathleen Browne, eventually became his wife. Together they ran a small art school in Chelsea until their retirement in 1979, when they moved to Hampstead. The other was also a painter, now not well enough remembered, Dame Ethel Walker, who recognised his talent and unusual mind.
When Kratochwil came to London she was already in her eighties and too old to help his career in the way she wished. When she died in 1951 she bequeathed him a large number of paintings, believing that by selling them he could buy time to paint. Kratochwil felt a strong sense of responsibility towards this legacy, but fashion had passed Ethel Walker by, and her paintings did not spare him from the need to teach. It was many years before he could place the most important of them. Some of the finest he gave to the Courtauld Institute in 1973.
Kratochwil began his career as a painstaking observer of the vanishing rural life of eastern Poland, and his drawings of it are of great historical as well as aesthetic interest. He continued this fine graphic tradition with sketches of Scottish weather done in spare moments while in the Polish army, then with scenes of London life in the East End, and after 1956 in Spain.
Often his attention would focus on the ironies and humiliations of the human condition. From 1932 onwards he developed his oils technique, to the point where he could justly represent the Spanish landscape, say, with the ferocious concentration on its rocky structure that David Bomberg evinced in his landscapes of the Ronda district, or again with the celestial vision of El Greco at Toledo, a city he represented in paintings that do no violence to the memory of his great predecessor.
Marian Kratochwil's love affair with Spain, and with Toledo in particular, was fully reciprocated, and it is in the Museo de Santa Cruz in that city that the best collection of his work is now to be found. Spain, with its respect for continuity was prepared to give the foreigner wall space which neither Poland nor Britain allowed him.
In his last 10 years Kratochwil was engaged on a series of allegorical subjects, perhaps taking their departure from his many paintings of Don Quixote. They culminate in a large and complex painting which seems to represent the worldly powers contemplating their apocalypse, surely one of the most curious and unusual canvases to be painted in recent years, which was still on his easel a year ago, but is now on permanent display in Granada.
Even in old age, Marian Kratochwil was a commanding figure of impressive size, a fervent talker and prodigious correspondent. He was wholly unaffected by ideas of political correctness, or by a sense of modernist evolution in art. His discourse drew on his education and extensive reading, not without nostalgia, but fixed always on two topics that he thought were completely interdependent - humanity and art.
With the help of devoted friends he and Kathleen maintained their Hampstead home in the teeth of old age and infirmity. A few years ago he unexpectedly found himself in a position to do as he had longed to do and publish a study of Kathleen Browne (who survives him), which in its turn throws light on his own character, and is written with understanding and the tender gallantry of a distant age. Conversely, he bitterly regretted not being away to clear away the cloud of oblivion he felt had fallen on his late patroness, Ethel Walker.
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