Karpeles, Eric. “Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Jozef Czapski”, New York Review, of Books, 2018.
A Man of Many Lives
Józef Czapski (1896–1993) lived many lives during his ninety-six years. He had been a student in Saint Petersburg during the Russian Revolution and a painter in Paris in the roaring twenties. He was a Polish reserve officer fighting against the invading Nazis in the opening weeks of the Second World War and he was taken prisoner by the Soviets. He was one of the very few excluded from Stalin’s sanctioned massacres of Polish officers. He never returned to Poland after the war. Instead he worked tirelessly in Paris to keep alive awareness of the plight of his homeland that had been overrun by totalitarian powers. Czapski was a major public figure, but painting is what meaning to his life. Eric Karpeles shares Czapski’s full complexity, pulling together all the threads of this remarkable life.
Today Czapski remains a little-known artist and writer who was on hand for some of the 20th century’s major events. A central episode in Czapski’s life was his internment in Russia before being allowed to go to British territory. He wrote about this in “Inhuman Land” which was just published by NYRB. In it, Karpeles sheds abundant light on this, giving us a nuanced portrait of a man of parts. A Zelig-like figure, Czapski is, by Karpeles’ account, ‘largely unknown to American readers and artists.’
Czapski was quite a man. He was a soldier, diplomat, aristocrat, writer, intellectual, and an artist. As an artist himself, Eric Karpeles, his biographer, is able to grasp him on his own terms. The result is that Karpeles’ engrossing book is part biography, part intellectual history, part personal memoir—and a “confrontation across time and across canvas of one artist with another.” Karpeles has written a beautiful and essential book.
Czapski’s story is epic and brings together “the brilliance and cruelty of the twentieth century with a steadiness of vision. Józef Czapski was a beautiful human being and one who was always ready to help friends and strangers. When his goodness came together with his artistry and intellectualism, we get a rare combination. He was an exceptional man living at a time of historical brutality. Czapski’s writings were witness to twentieth- century history. Now we in the English-speaking world have a chance to get to know him.