Stefan Knapp: A Visionary Artist Who Worked
from Volume 18, Number 3, October 1999
Stefan Knapp was a 20th century artist with great vision, a
keen sense of color and design, and an innovator driven with
boundless energy. He
broke traditional boundaries and took the medium of enameling on
metal to places it had never been before, and to some extent,
since. His enameled mural (above) for Alexander's Department store in
Paramus, New Jersey was considered the world's largest painting in
1960. Imagine an
enamel mural 200 feel long and 50 feel high!
Few artists have impacted the medium of enameling on metal
as Stefan Knapp did. Cathy Knapp excerpted information for this article from the
Stefan Knapp Retrospective 1921 - 1996 with additional information
provided by Cathy Knapp.
Stefan was born on July I1, 1921, in Bilgoraj, a small
country town situated in the south east of Poland.
Growing up in the little town, surrounded by rivers and
forests provided idyllic and secure child hood memories that
anchored and sustained him all through his life.
Stefan's artistic ability was recognized at an early age.
Inspired by his surroundings, he would 'borrow' household
paints and bits of old board to paint on.
Religion was also an influence as
he served as a choirboy in his Catholic church and also observed
the practices of his family's Jewish neighbors.
He was conscious of the Byzantine influences and colorful
folk art, which are a part of Polish culture.
Nature, trees and the rivers of
his childhood recur again and again as structures and organic
forms throughout Stefan's work.
He described himself to be a country boy at heart and had a
deep understanding and appreciation of the forms, rhythms,
patterns and properties of the materials with which he surrounded
1939, as an unsuspecting 18-year-old student returning to college
in a Poland that was being divided up into Russian and German
territories, Stefan was arrested and sent to Siberia.
At first he thought of the journey as an adventure.
He described vividly in this autobiography the horrors of
the train ride and the ‘processing’, which he and millions of
other innocent people were subjected to.
His journey began after three
months internment in Cherson Prison Camp and took seven or eight
months. He was
transported in crowded railway carriages, cattle trucks, barges
and on foot. On
arrival, the prisoners who had survived were faced with an arctic
waste in which they had to build their own camp.
With a natural gift for
understanding his fellow man and a strong instinct for survival,
Stefan soon learned to use his artistic abilities to stay alive.
He discovered how to tattoo, using fish bones and a dye
made from candle soot. He
made playing cards using a paste obtained from chewed bread and
used the same paste to sculpt chess pieces and portrait pipes.
He printed forged ration cards using pieces of potato.
When his eyesight began to fail because of vitamin
deficiency and he fell sick, a guard who had been amused by his
productivity gave him some onion. Taking a little every day helped to restore his sight.
The Russians made good use of
Stefan's talents and put him to work painting slogans:
‘Who does not work, does not eat’ and ‘One man, Two
norms’; every man must surpass the norm or expected workload. He
was given three coloring crayons, blue black and red, and some rag
used for bandages on which to produce portraits of the prisoners,
which were pinned on the walls of the barrack square where the
daily roll call was held.
In August and September 1941, Stefan was one of a small
group who were called out and told they had been released and were
now free citizens of the USSR.
Russia was now allies with the British.
Stalin and Churchill had made an agreement.
The British were desperate for new recruits and Russia
needed arms. Stefan
was released from the labor camp after having survived for two
years and made a long journey south by foot, train and ship.
He traveled through Russia, Persia, around India and South
Africa before eventually arriving in Scotland.
For years after the war was over,
Stefan suffered nightmares and was unable to sleep.
He painted out many of his haunting memories in an attempt
to exorcise his mind. His 'Gulag' paintings also reflected a restless
experimentation with different techniques and materials in an
attempt to express his feeling.
This continuous search for new methods of working remained
a characteristic throughout his life.
His innate sense of survival, awareness and accurate
observation had been sharpened at an early age.
His arrival in Great Britain was a
time of excitement and exhilaration in direct contrast to the
misery from which he had escaped.
Although confused by the British support of Stalin's
Russia, he volunteered to join the air force.
He and his fellow Poles were given thorough medicals and
aptitude tests before the different training courses for pilots,
navigators and air gunners were explained.
They were then asked which group they wanted to join - 1, 2
or 3? Understanding
practically no English, he opted for number 1, thinking it was
likely to be the best. It
turned out to be the Pilots course!
He then rapidly began to learn English.
After learning to fly, the visual
imagery, seeing objects from a different dimension, the patterns
of fields, the lines of rivers and patches of color and texture
excited him, and distracted him from flying.
"First and foremost flying was a visual pleasure.
It opened up a breadth of landscape that often caught me by
His elementary training in Tiger
Moths completed, Stefan had to decide whether to become a bomber
or fighter pilot. "My
instructor advised me to go in for bomber training - I cannot
think why. My mind is
not the type which can co-operate with other minds.
It never occurred to me to follow the advice. I became a fighter pilot without a moment's hesitation."
All his life Stefan had the
ability to make instinctive decisions and know exactly what he
wanted. These were
gifts, which later enabled him to successfully develop his
artistic career and work so prolifically.
As soon as Stefan had been awarded
his wings, he applied to be posted in the Far East.
The ship he traveled on got as far as Naples, Italy, where
he was disembarked by mistake.
A period of inactivity followed, but Stefan was able to
make use of the time by studying Naples architecture, landscapes,
the bay, sea and volcano, all indelibly imprinted on his mind.
When Stefan finally arrived in Cairo the action was
receding from Egypt. He
had time to see the pyramids, murals and canals but was less
impressed by the contrast between the very rich and very poor.
Stefan found himself back at the
Naples base in December 1944.
"Here two Spitfires flew together on every mission,
one was the leader; the other's job was to protect him.
Every mission took us far behind enemy lines.
We went down very low, almost to the ground, to
investigate, check or correct certain messages brought by
task was considered important and dangerous."
All this experience provided
Stefan with a vast personal store of visual images and a new way
of seeing. "Our
Spitfires carried the ordinary fighter armament, plus oblique and
vertical cameras to photograph objectives.
The oblique cameras snapped them from around the periphery
of the picture - the vertical took long strips of them.
The fascinating part of it was that it was an all-absorbing
visual exercise, almost like the composition of a painting."
One had to learn to decide what was worth photographing,
learn to analyze the value of color and to read the landscape.
When Peace was declared in 1945,
Stefan was in the air, unaware of what had happened as his radio
had gone dead. His
feelings at that time are described in his autobiography - The
Square Sun. "Flying
taught me one thing - Frontiers are fiction.
The world is one from 40,000 feet.
There are no boundaries between France and Germany; Italy,
Austria and Yugoslavia have no imminent reality either.
It seems pretty futile to chop up the Alps and call one
part one thing and another part something else.
I have never been a politically minded man and extreme
nationalism has always repelled me; now it moves me to disgust and
realities are these hills, plateaus, the harbor in the river
ranges soar and meander across the face of a continent.
The river springs up in the mountains, winds its way down
the plain and flings its arms wide before it dies in the sea.
It is the same range, it is the same river.
It is the same sunset in the silver sky.
How foolish, how petty to try and split the grain of the
granite, to etch a line across the running waters, to clutch at
one slanting ray and claim it as your own."
After the war Stefan opted to take
unpaid leave from the Air Force to enroll in the Central School of
Arts and Crafts in London. After
a year of 'starving very thoroughly' he was awarded a grant for 18
months. It was at
this time that he painted his 'horror' or 'Gulag' pictures,
relieving his emotional conflicts and stresses through his art.
He attended Central School for two
years, and also enrolled at the Slade, taking the full time
curriculum and attending both simultaneously. His grant was coming to an end and he decided to learn
commercial art to provide income so that he could study pure
After many small jobs he received
a commission for a life-size portrait for which he was paid three
times the asking price! He
also managed to improve his financial situation by teaching skiing
in Switzerland during the winter break.
Having learned to ski through necessity as a child, he put
this skill to profitable use with the post war popularity of the
His art became, on the one hand,
the vehicle through which he found temporary release and means of
expression, but on the other, he began to experience the torment
of the creator, the cruel, agonizing experience of battling to
develop a highly personal pure art which was worthy of his
understanding of the world and the standards he set for himself.
With his imagination at fever
pitch, the very materials Stefan used were subjected to every
possible form of experimentation.
Just as he had managed to find different materials to work
with in the labor camps of Siberia, now the luxury of oil paints.
Stefan's portfolio was full of
tireless and imaginative experiments in all manner of painting,
printing and plastic mediums.
Having had some formal training in sculpture, he became
preoccupied with tree shapes.
"It led me to the contemplation of natural organic
forms, especially the convolution of tree roots and branches.
For some six or seven months it became an absolute
obsession, so much so that it very nearly landed me in gaol.
Every moment of my free time was spent in the many London
parks. My imagination
was churned to fever pitch by the infinite variety and complexity
of root formations and I came away limp with nervous exhaustion.
Soon I knew every public park in London and most of the
private ones; I hung across the walls or peered through hedges
into the gardens of unsuspecting folk; like a maniac I kept
searching and searching for unusual roots."
An exhibition of his 'bits of
wood' was held at the London Gallery in 1947 and received
favorable critique in many newspapers.
Stefan was less than happy with his painting at that time;
he felt it was too strongly influenced by his academic training,
Gaining his diploma from the Slade became synonymous with survival
and he was taught and expected to produce, 'diploma pictures', He
stopped portrait painting feeling he hadn't the right temperament
for the job.
By 1950, his studies completed,
the problem of survival stared Stefan straight in the face, as did
the disquieting knowledge that he still had to find his own voice
in the world of painting, He managed to rent an unfurnished studio
at 396 Kings Road, Chelsea which he kept for over 30 years.
Stefan ordered a large number of
canvases, boards and materials, and for eighteen months, he locked
himself in his studio, He broke all social contact, stopped
shaving and ordered food to be delivered to his door.
By the end of eighteen months
Stefan felt he had reached a climax. "I knew my own
mind, I knew what I wanted. It was this. I had rather
devote my artistic career, the whole of my life, to doing
something, a very little thing, of my own, than achieve a great
deal in the footsteps of someone else, I had rather paint one
small picture, a mediocre, indifferent little thing which was
truly mine, the reflection of my own self than do a string of
highly successful pictures in styles borrowed from others whether
contemporary artists or the masters of the past."
By sheer determination and
obstinacy, which was part of his character and enabled him to
survive, he had achieved what he set out to do; he had created his
own language of forms.
The early symbols he used
originated from nature; man, animals, water and trees, the things
he felt close to. Later
he began to rely more on forms he invented from his experiences in
the increasingly modern scientific and technological world of
which he was a part. Yet
always, there is an underlying organic connection and balance
between his shapes, combined with a vibrancy, joy and
understanding of color that gives life and mystery to all his
Stefan gradually emerged from his
hibernation, stopped scrapping what he had done and began working
towards an exhibition.
Within six months he had not only
come up with two inventions for suction shoes and magnetic filing
systems but had also produced a large number of pictures.
The Hanover Gallery agreed to give him a one-man
exhibition; it was a great success.
He had achieved recognition and approval, sold 26 paintings
and been offered two commissions for murals A glowing article
appeared in Time Magazine. Another
exhibition was fixed for the following year at the Tooth Gallery,
and another in Paris, which brought more success and acclaim.
One of Stefan's social engagements
which was to have a significant influence on his career was with a
young lady who had 'borrowed', without permission, a Limoges
enamel brooch from her father's collection to wear for the
evening. Stefan asked
if he could examine it more closely and dropped it, cracking the
enamel. The girl was
horrified and Stefan, full of guilt, undertook to repair it.
After several months which involved traveling to France,
Switzerland and Austria he was unable to find anyone willing to
risk the repair. Eventually, he persuaded Slade School of
Art to let him spend the weekend in their Ceramics Department and
set to repairing it. He became so excited by the intensity
of color and the potential of this medium that he couldn't wait to
experiment further. He started off working on copper using
jewelry enamels and rapidly became a self taught expert.
A second successful show at the
Hanover Gallery in 1956 provided the funds to realize another of
Stefan's dreams He had always wanted to bring his two dimensional
works to a third dimension. He
set to working on a series of sculptures that embodied his
symbolic forms. They
were cast in bronze in Paris and shown at the Pierre Matisse
Gallery, New York in 1957, along with a collection of enamel
paintings and works on canvas.
It was the first time he had shown his work in America and
the exhibition was an enormous success.
New York in the late 1950s had
taken over from Paris as the center for contemporary art.
Stefan influenced and was influenced by it.
He made many new friends; artists, architects, musicians,
lawyers and businessmen. His
future seemed bright. He
accepted the offer of an exhibition in the Galleria De Arte,
Caracas, the following year. However, he refused the invitation to set up a studio in New
York, always maintaining that he felt more at home in Europe.
America was going through a
building boom, with new, taller skyscrapers daily changing the
to England, Stefan imagined how architecture could be transformed
by colored murals and sculptures that could be placed inside or
outside buildings. He needed a studio big enough to house a kiln, where he could
develop his ideas and produce large-scale work. He found a studio where he immediately set to designing a
kiln that would take panels up to 10 feet in length and 4 feet in
In 1958, Stefan was commissioned to produce 17 murals for
London's Heathrow Airport. He
had already experimented and discovered a way of adapting
enameling methods so that steel could be used instead of copper.
Mrs. Knapp states: "Stefan
was able to produce work on such a large scale because he
experimented with enameling on steel instead of the traditional
copper and was able to transfer his techniques.
His earliest method was to wash the copper substrate in a
weak solution of nitric acid and water.
This was rinsed off and then the surface was rubbed with
old enamel powder, great care being taken at this stage to avoid
finger prints, which would create a greasy surface and prevent the
enamel adhering. He actually used this fact to his advantage in
some works, drawing his design onto the metal surface with a
solution that worked as a form of wax resist.
“Originally most of his
transparent colors were bought in slab form and ground in a ball
mill to 100 mesh. (The
resultant powder was usable for underpainting.)
The finely ground enamel powder was then mixed with gum
tragacanth and water into a suspension the consistency of thin
cream. The gum
tragacanth was important as it was this that helped the enamel to
adhere. The solution
had to be constantly agitated (stirred vigorously) to stop it
settling. He used jug
shaped pots, which made pouring easier.
At first the colors were applied by brush but he soon
evolved a 'spooning' technique and later on used special spraying
"By 1957 Stefan had discovered that
zero carbon steel could be used as a substitute for the more
expensive and much heavier copper.
He cleaned the steel chemically, then washed it and quickly
sprayed it with a cobalt enamel grip coat.
This was a pale grey biscuit color before firing but after
an initial firing at 820 degrees centigrade became a shiny black
color. He then poured
a coating of opaque white enamel over the panel and when it was
dry would draw his cartoon, sgraffito style, if he was working on
a large mural he would arrange each panel in position to ensure
the continuity of his design.
By the mid 1980’s he was able to order shaped panels,
which were already grip coated.
" Through working closely
with enameling companies he began to consider the potential of
industrial quality or porcelain enamel.
By the mid 1980’s a much wider range of colors were being
produced and increasing health restrictions were being put on the
use of original jewelry enamels due to their lead content.
Stefan began to use these lead free enamels far more, they
came already finely ground and he was able to achieve the pure
bright colors he loved to use and which worked so well on a large
As Stefan became more involved in
the process and began to work on larger panels, so he became
absorbed with the nature of the material. He found beautiful effects could be achieved by using
combinations of transparent, opal and opaque colors and by
applying them so that they took on their own free-form shapes,
creating exciting secondary colors.
By working on an arrangement of any number of panels, ho
could easily produce murals of unlimited dimensions.
He found his style of painting was changing and becoming
more abstract as he worked in a faster and freer way and became
carried away with the possibilities of this fascinating medium.
Added to this it had permanence; he had found a means of
making a lasting statement. His
colors would remain bright. After
all, history had shown enamels could last for thousands of years.
Rapidly becoming established in
America, in 1960 he attracted the attention of George Farkas, the
head of Alexander’s Corporation, who were expanding their chain
of department stores in New York.
An entrepreneur, George saw the potential of Stefan’s new
techniques and as both men thought big, they agreed on a mural
that would be 200 feet long and 50 feet wide to adorn the facade
of the new store being built in Paramus, New Jersey.
Thousands of people would pass it every day as it was not
far from the new JFK airport and it would be the largest mural in
the history of the world!
Stefan hired an aircraft hangar at
West Drayton and gathered a team of willing assistants on what was
to be his most ambitious and exciting project yet.
He was photographed working on skis he had adapted to avoid
damaging the panels and using enormous mop-sized brushes.
Newspapers all over the world reported the progress of this
record-breaking mural, which was made up of 280 individual panels
and weighed 250 tons. Realizing
the publicity it was attracting, workmen hid one of the panels in
order to demand a higher rate for the job.
Having mastered the technical possibilities of the medium,
he exploited it mercilessly to intensify the beauty of color.
He rejected any notion of harmonies, using instead violent
contrasts to provoke the eye; force it’s attention and demand a
response, so that all the wonder, beauty, and conflict he saw in
the world would ring out.
The work was completed and
installed within 18 months. George
Farkas, more than happy with the result, commissioned three more
murals. However, his
son had already approached Salvador Dali regarding one of the
stores, and as both artists had signed contracts with different
members of the family, a famous breakfast meeting took place.
Dali demanded his payment for the contract but had no means
of producing work that could stay outside and proposed that Stefan
enamel his design. Stefan refused to do anything but his own work on principle.
Eventually, Dali had to be paid off and Stefan produced an
enameled relief made up of spun steel domes on square based for
Alexander’s New York store on 58th Street and Third.
This was the first of many reliefs
using a simple circle design and domes on a square (usually white)
background. Color was
applied in a controlled way so that it sometimes diffused with its
neighbor. It heralded
the end of Stefan’s period of energetic free exploration of
color and materials and the beginning of a new, quieter and more
In 1967 he completed his last
mural for George Farkas. Again,
it attracted considerable newspaper attention.
This time, he produced the longest mural in the world for
Alexander’s White Plains store.
It was 1500 yards long and made up of 450 panels.
It had to be photographed by helicopter.
Stefan changed the lives of many
of the art teachers and students who worked with him as
assistants. He became
a source of inspiration, always exacting and demanding, yet
encouraging, generous, considerate and capable of creating an
almost magical atmosphere. He
impressed them all with his tremendous capacity for problem
solving, concentration and sheer energy.
Stefan continued to travel
frequently to America and Europe and held exhibitions in places as
diverse as Peru, Amsterdam, Detroit and Linz.
Between 1954 and 1968 he showed at least once a year.
He had nineteen one-man shows in international museums.
In 1970, Stefan was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to make
further studies into the origin, development and practice of
murals and enamels in Mexico, Guatemala, Japan, India and Iran.
His love of travel and adventure and his imagination were
“Stefan worked in oils, acrylics
and sculpture as well as enamels throughout his life and although
his style and imagery never ceased to evolve, his methods of
working and basic techniques for applying enamel colors remained
the same. He
frequently used precious metals, earlier on he used sheets of gold
leaf adhered with gum tragacanth, later he was able to buy liquid
gold and platinum which was suspended in oil to prevent burning
off during firing and was more suitable for fine detail.
His final works were a family of enameled sculptures to
compliment his vibrant murals and in which he was able to marry
his love of three-dimensional form with enamel.
interest is now being shown in the large scale enamel works of
Polish-born, London-based artist Stefan Knapp (1921-1996) who died
three years ago this fall. To
accompany a new biographical catalogue of his lifetime work, a
major retrospective exhibition was held at the Polish Cultural
Institute, London, in January, which had record attendances and a
second was held at Whitford Fine Art, Duke Street, St. James’,
London, in September. His
work was the central focus of this summer’s Bletchley Park 60th
Anniversary exhibition of the Enigma Codebreakers and his enamel
‘The Battle of Britain’ was chosen as their commemorative
artwork. This autumn,
a 25 foot high enamel pyramid sculpture by Knapp will welcome
visitors at the entrance to the British Art Fair being held at
London’s Royal College of Art.
His work is also making a large and colorful contribution
to Surrey’s ‘Vivartis’ sculpture trail which is being held
at King Edward’s, Witley, the school both his young sons attend.
"Boston Museum of Fine Art
has acquired a 30 foot pyramid for their inner courtyard.
Pole Mokotowskie Metro Station in Warsaw installed a three
piece mural on the subject of the Battle of Britain that the
artist completed only 2 days before he died and Surrey University
have just purchased a 25 foot mural painted in 1987, which will
accompany another of a similar size from the 1960s that they have
enjoyed for many years.”