Portret żony artysty (Portrait of the Artist’s Wife). Roman Kramsztyk, Poland, before 1925. Muzeum Górnośląskie, Bytom, Poland. (Image courtesy Renata Piatkowska)

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Kramsztyk, Roman

(1885–1942), Polish painter and illustrator. Roman Kramsztyk was a scion of two of the most prominent Jewish families of Warsaw, the Kramsztyks and the Fajans, who belonged to the Polonizing Jewish elite. This small group played a significant role in the social and intellectual life of nineteenth-century Poland. Baptized as an infant, Kramsztyk considered himself a Pole and a Polish artist. It was only during World War II that Jewish motifs began to appear in his work.

Kramsztyk studied drawing and painting in Warsaw with renowned artists who were influenced mostly by impressionism: Zofia Stankiewicz, Adolf Edward Herstein, and Miłosz Kotarbiński. He attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków (1903–1904), where he was taught by Józef Mehoffer, one of the most outstanding representatives of Art Nouveau in Poland, and then studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich (1904–1908) under Ludwig Herterich. Beginning in 1909 he lived intermittently in Paris but remained active in Polish artistic life; from 1915 to 1924 he lived in Warsaw where he was a cofounder (1922) of the Rytm Association of Polish Artists, one of the leading artistic groups during the 1920s. The Rytmists wanted to combine the new artistic trends with the workshop tradition of the older masters, to encourage a dialogue between tradition and modernity.

Figobranie (Picking Figs). Roman Kramsztyk, Poland, 1920. Oil on canvas. (Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, courtesy Renata Piatkowska)

His paintings, strongly influenced by French postimpressionism, were characterized by dark tones with accented strong outlines; however, by the end of the 1920s he brightened his colors and made the outlines softer. He remained faithful throughout his career to certain subjects: portraits, landscapes, still-life studies, and nudes. His artistic vision combined the achievements of modern art with the tradition of the old European masters, especially Michelangelo (in, for example, Figobranie [Picking Figs], ca. 1920 (see image at left), Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, and Tintoretto. His work is also representative of l’École de Paris (for example, Uliczka w Collioure [A Street in Collioure], ca. 1925).

At the outbreak of World War II, Kramsztyk was living in Poland. After November 1940, half a million Jews, including Kramsztyk, found themselves behind ghetto walls. This radical change in his circumstances forced the artist to reconsider, or rather reinterpret, his identity. Nazi racial laws forced Kramsztyk to share a common fate with people to whom he had previously felt no connection. He found the surrounding world of the ghetto strange; he did not speak Yiddish, which dominated the streets, had no connection to Judaism, and was considered an apostate. Nevertheless, Kramsztyk refused to go into hiding on the “Aryan” side and remained in the ghetto. His salvaged ghetto drawings (among others Stary Żyd z dziećmi [Old Jew with Children]) are graphic testimony to the Polish Jewish experience of the Holocaust, documenting imprisonment, poverty, hunger, and death. Kramsztyk was shot on 6 August 1942 during the deportations of the Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka.

Suggested Reading

Janet Blatter and Sybil Milton, Art of the Holocaust (London, 1981); Renata Piątkowska and Magdalena Tarnowska, eds., Roman Kramsztyk, 1885–1942: Wystawa monograficzna, luty-marzec 1997 (Warsaw, 1997); Renata Piątkowska, “‘Intra muros’—Roman Kramsztyk w getcie warszawskim,” Kwartalnik Historii Żydów 2 (2002): 195–205; Renata Piątkowska, Między “Ziemiańską” a Montparnasse’em. Roman Kramsztyk, (Warsaw, 2004).



Translated from Polish by Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov