Artist lays his painful life bare Retrospective to open Friday

February 02, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

To sit and chat awhile with Jerzy Kajetanski, a World War II Polish resistance fighter and Nazi labor camp prisoner, you would not sense that this is a man full of emotion and vision.

At 79, his hair is wispy and white. The body bends with age. In conversation, he is a man of few words.

It is his paintings, thousands created in a lifetime filled with extreme despair, deprivation and derision, that are his power, his words.

"This man may very well be one the great unfound gems of modern-day art. To look at him you wouldn't know it, but he's just a frenzy of emotions, ideas and energy," says Rhoda Toback, curator of a 50-year retrospective of the Columbia resident's work.

The show is scheduled to open at Slayton House Gallery in Columbia Friday and will run until March 1. The retrospective follows Mr. Kajetanski's life, from the destruction of battle he witnessed as a resistance fighter to the struggle of human dignity in the forced labor and concentration camps, and then on to the freedom, serenity and color of life in the United States.

"His work truly evokes what it means to be human," says Ms. Toback.

The retrospective begins with a self portrait of the artist created in 1945. It was his very first work after the Americans and British liberated the forced labor camp he and his wife and only child, Eva, were imprisoned in for about a year.

Though a prolific artist in his youth, he did not attempt to paint or sketch a single work while he was in the camp, he recalls.

The day after the liberation of the Wattenstedt labor camp, he rifled the German prison commanders' offices for paper, paintbrush and paint and immediately set to work on the self-portrait. The painting is a view of himself in repose, paintbrush in hand as he looks at a work in progress. Behind him is a window, filled with light.

"I did not know what I would paint. I only knew I had to set to work," he says.

The brightness and hope of the portrait stands in stark contrast to the darkness that follows in the retrospective: Four prisoners from a nearby concentration camp marching to their deaths. A mossy color imbues the work, evoking decay. Mr. Kajetanski created the work in 1951 after being haunted by visions of the concentration camp prisoners he watched pass the labor camp.

"It is the most compelling of all his works," says Ms. Toback. "In most of his paintings there is a sense of energy and movement. But in this there is only finality.

"The first time I was shown it I was staggered. I felt as if I wathere."

Viewers who are moved by the work, entitled "Concentration camp prisoners at Immendorf," owe thanks to Mr. Kajetanski's wife, Halina. It was she who saved the work after her husband tore the creation into pieces one evening out of frustration with an art gallery rejection.

Mr. Kajetanski believes that it's an important work to share today because of the tragedy in Bosnia. "I look at this and say 'Why? How can it be again?' "

During the time he created his war and camp works, Mr. Kajetanski earned a living by coating steel sheets for military aircraft. When the Korean War ended, so did the job. A fellow artist and friend living in New York enticed Mr. Kajetanski to move to the city.

Before long, he and his wife were working side by side for television studios. Their job was to create scenes for such popular television cartoons as the Flintstones and Popeye.

Today, the Kajetanski couple, both schooled at The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, have fond memories of their "cartoon days."

Mrs. Kajetanski was employed as what were called "opaquers" and "inkers," jobs which involved tracing the animators' scenes onto cellophane and then coloring them. Mr. Kajetanski's job was as an "in-betweener." The job involved drawing scenes to flesh out the story line created by animators.

"More people know my father for his work on Popeye than they do for this," the artist's daughter, Eva Skrenta, jokes.

The studio and home are jammed with the artist's paintings. To walk through the apartment is to be treated to a mesmerizing display of art. It virtually fills every wall, even the bathroom. Taking up an entire wall of the dining room is an oil painting depicting a castle and river in a small Polish town.

Other walls are testament to Mr. Kajetanski's artistic depth and range. Soft impressionistic works and lively abstracts hang side by side.

Missing from the home are the artist's early works. They were destroyed when the Kajetanski's home in Poland was blown to rubble by Nazi bombing.

Today Mr. Kajetanski works in a small studio in his Columbia home. He paints at his preferred work hour, 3 a.m. It's here that he keeps his recent frenzy of work, pastels depicting the lakes, barns and tree-lined roads of Columbia. A sampling of the pastels will round out the retrospective.

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