Father's journey continues in paintings

Jerzy Kajetanski's art education ended with WWII start, but not his art

May 21, 2010|By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

The retouching on the black-and-white photograph is a giveaway.

The good looks of the suave young man peering out from one of Warsaw's Academy of Fine Arts student passbooks rival those of a movie star. The confident gaze, hint of a smile and darkroom-perfected complexion were all characteristic of portraiture in the 1930s and 1940s.

Next to the headshot, a red ink stamp pinpoints the date first hinted at by the portrait's signature style: Oct. 31, 1939. That was the last time Jerzy Kajetanski used his bus pass in his native Poland, two months after the Sept. 1 opening salvo of World War II that shut down the academy and forever altered his future.

What makes this well-preserved record of a life interrupted so remarkable is that its unfilled spaces seemed at first to solely represent a dream demolished with no warning by Germany's invasion.

Ultimately, the passbook came to mean much more. It now serves as the last tangible evidence of a dream deferred but not lost, thanks to an artist's perseverance and a daughter's devotion.

A personal odyssey

The dining room table in Eva Skrenta's Wilde Lake townhome sits in the eye of a hurricane of activity. Her father's 6-foot-square abstract painting titled "Celebration of Color" fills the adjoining living room. Other pieces of Kajetanski's art grace the curved stairway and most of the walls.

Skrenta, who immigrated with her parents to the U.S. in 1950 when she was 9 years old, has been caught up for many years in the pursuit of recognition for her father's art, as most of life's less-pressing aspects twirl about her.

Kajetanski, who lived in Wilde Lake for 11 years, worked in many media and his creations range from scratchboards to oil pastels to collages and more. Just as importantly, his works number more than 3,000 pieces. An abstract expressionist who also painted war scenes and landscapes of Wilde Lake, he built his body of work over six decades.

"My father digested everything, and it all came out in his art, one way or another," said Skrenta, a 36-year resident of Columbia. "He used to joke that he didn't really want to be famous and just wanted art students to have to learn his name, but I'm not convinced of that."

Skrenta has tasted both success and failure in her mission to find a museum home for her father's work, much of it created in his so-called spare time and continuing until his death at age 86 in 1999.

Forty-five scratchboards of wartime scenes, an oil painting of a concentration camp, three pen-and-ink drawings and one self-portrait in oil pastels are on exhibit in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

But the National Museum in Poland, which she visited in 2008 and pursued for many months, finally declined this year to include Kajetanski's work in a section of Polish contemporary artists, claiming his personal style "was not unique enough," Skrenta said.

Despite handing down that rejection, the curator contacted three other museums, a move that at long last brought Skrenta to the end of a personal odyssey.

Torun University, which is in a centuries-old town near Warsaw, not only expressed interest in his work, in March the institution asked Skrenta for everything she could give them in order to show his development as an artist.

"The paintings by Jerzy Kajetanski significantly enrich the Collection of the University Museum, which gathers works of art by Polish artists living abroad," wrote Miroslaw A. Supruniuk, director of the university's library and museum in Torun, in an e-mail.

"His paintings are soon to be exhibited at the Museum and are later to become research matter for art historians," he noted.

Determined to create

Kajetanski was 26 years old when his life as a second-year graduate student in fine arts was abruptly snatched away from him. Two years later, he married Halina, a fellow artist, then joined the underground and soon after became a father — all in 1941.

After a three-year stint as a soldier and a year in a labor camp with his family, Kajetanski took them to America and soon was making rolls in a Pennsylvania bakery instead of painting in a studio.

Five years later, the family moved to Manhattan, where both of Skrenta's parents worked as artists for Paramount Studios, helping to create Popeye cartoons. Around that time, Halina began to step back and allow her husband's talent to take precedence in their lives.

"My mother decided to be the custodian and the critic of my father's art," Skrenta said. "He was a rebel who chose not to be disciplined. Art was freeing for him."

As an abstract expressionist, he was heavily influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand Leger and Pablo Picasso, she said. But he was also profoundly moved by world events, so it was no surprise that in 1960 he painted his vivid memories with scenes from the war.

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