Poland can be a cold and unforgiving place, were it not for the people whose hearts are warm enough to melt the winter ice and snow. The country was established as a political entity some thousand years ago, and its borders have often been as fluid as the seasons that change the landscape so markedly every year. The name Poland comes from a tribe called the Polians, or "dwellers of the field." While the Polish on occasion have played a direct role in influencing the course of history, in recent centuries they seemed more victims in the crosscurrents of the struggles amongst their more powerful neighbors. At the same time, they exercised an ingenuity and a tenacity throughout their history that has come to be admired by the rest of the world. Their culture has remained intact in spite of the many attempts by neighboring nations in the last two centuries to stamp it out.
Poland lies at the very north end of central Europe, with a small portion jutting into the Baltic Sea. To the immediate west lies Germany, and to the northeast, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, the small countries which are equally remarkable in their determination to survive over the centuries with distinct cultures. On its eastern border is Russia, and to the south, lie Romania and the Czech Republic.
The earliest roots of Polish culture are difficult to trace before the 9th Century. But a political organization began to amalgamize around that time, and by the 10th Century, a kingdom had been formed. The earliest Polish monarch that history records is Mieszko (King Mishko), a descendant of the Piast line. This remarkable and beneficent politician was instrumental in the Christianizing of Poland, and his descendants ruled through the late 1300s.
The Piasts were succeeded by Ladislas Jagiello (King Yagewo), whose line remained monarchs of greater Poland through the later part of the 1500s. This line evolved into a democratic republic with a king at the helm, but such a forward-looking government structure was unable withstand the international pressures that were always tearing at the nation's borders. It was at the end of the 1700s that the dismemberment of Poland by rival powers to the west, east and south left its people without a formally recognized nation for the first time in 800 years. This historical moment of sadness for the Polish people is thus of relatively recent origins, and, in view of its long history, it is not surprising that Poland was reunified, albeit under the most dire circumstances, immediately after World War I.
It was on a cold fall day in 1896, in the village of Sohaczew, not far from Warsaw, that Paul Shya (some documents have an alternative spelling of Sheie) was born to Ludwik and Magdalena Rosenfeld. As an artist and an interior decorator, Ludwik had carved out a flourishing practice among the wealthy families of Warsaw and environs, through which he was able to support his family. Because Poland generally had a favorable policy toward Judaism, its Jewish population grew over the centuries, and Jews from the neighboring countries often moved there to escape persecution. In the meantime, the Russians, who occupied the territory that included Warsaw, were intent on erasing Polish culture and heritage from the minds and hearts of the people, and this included the Jews, who had assimilated well into Polish society. Use of the Polish language was banned, and it was forbidden to teach Polish history in the schools. While an undercurrent of defiance smoldered under everyday activities, the Polish, Ludwik included, had learned to exercise a passive, rather than an active and violent, resistance, in order to allow their culture to function and flourish, if only in the privacy of each home. And flourish it did. During the 19th Century, Poland produced some of the most well-known artists and scientists shaping much of the cultural life of the Western world. They include Nobel Prize-winning scientist Marie Curie, and the renowned pianists, Chopin and Paderevski. Vladimir Pulaski (Koshiusko) helped America's struggle for independence during the revolutionary war. Within late 19th Century Poland itself, or at least among the people who would call themselves Polish, there was a general love for the arts that created a market for what artists, performers, musicians, actors, and dancers could produce.
As an accomplished painter, Ludwik worked in a medieval style and had a reputation for producing accurate copies of the masters that were in demand in wealthier homes. Ludwik moved within the highest circles of Polish society, and as his son Paul entered the early years of childhood, he was undoubtedly influenced subconsciously by the accomplishments of his father and the society he kept. This would put him in good stead as his professional career developed much later in life. He began scribbling images while he was still practically a toddler. He was particularly fond of drawing animals, and had an intense curiosity about the natural world that would remain with him throughout his life. In fact, for a number of years, his interest in science seemed to crowd out his artistic impulse. But as he entered his teens, Paul became interested in drawing once again. One day, a Russian teacher stopped him on the street. "I saw the way you hold a pencil," the teacher said. "You have something that the Lord gives to very few people."(1) Of that teacher, the artist was was later to comment: "He made it possible for me to go on and cultivate my eye, to develop for the glory of God, who gave me these gifts." (2)
Paul Shya Rosenfeld embarked on a rigorous four years of study, during which time he graduated from freehand drawing of simple geometric figures to more complex shapes. Still, the trials of living in an occupied country, first under Russian domination, and later, under Germans, persisted. In 1915, a year after the beginning of World War I, Paul completed his secondary school training and enrolled in the Warsaw Technological Institute, where he took up engineering. Around that time, he finished one of his earliest portraits, that of a Jewish man praying.
This portrait, which would eventually find its way to America, could very well have been a study of his father. Paul Shya's fine draftsmanship startled teachers, one of whom observed that he was "devilishly gifted." "I was a top student excelling in mathematics and the other theoretical subjects requisite for an engineering career--a brilliant one was prophesied for me," the artist would claim later. "But my interest was in painting."
Alongside his technical studies, he continued to pursue a career in art. He enrolled in courses at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Warsaw, studying under Stanislav Lenc, director of the institution and an accomplished portraitist. Lenc told the young artist that he did not need to study much, since his talent was already sufficiently well developed, but Paul's self-criticism got the best of him. "Although I could easily fool others, I could not fool myself. I knew that there was much to learn," he would later remark. (3)
During this time, although Poland enjoyed more freedom under German occupation than it had under Russian rule, the movement of troops through the artist's country had taken a personal toll. His boyhood home was destroyed, it is said, and at one point, his efforts to evade conscription came to the attention of the authorities. For a time, he was confined by the German military, which intended to execute him. Thinking it would be his last act on earth, Paul took a pencil in hand and quickly sketched one of the German guards. He then boldly presented the sketch to its subject. Deeply moved by his talent and overwhelmed by the depth of his portrayal, the guard, at the risk of his own life, took Paul with him and hid him in his home. Thus, the artist came within a hair's breadth of death. After that experience, Paul learned to draw quite quickly, and his portraits in many cases were said to have been executed with unusual speed.
The armistice of 1918 ended wartime hostilities. As the entire country breathed a sigh of relief in unison, Paul set up a studio in Warsaw and began showing his paintings in formal exhibitions. Among the subjects of his portraits at that time, besides the wealthy and famous, were performers on the stage, whose society he cultivated out of a curiosity for their way of life and an interest in drama. But the promise of immediate success was not enough to keep Paul in one place. He had the travel bug. After showing his work in 1919, he left Warsaw for Paris, where he took courses at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and continued to paint portraits. Through his coursework, he hoped to test his theories of painting alongside the rigors of academic instruction. But he found himself more attracted to German than to French art, since the later initiated the Impressionist movement that was, in the artist's view, the catalyst for the unraveling of Western art in the 20th Century.
Paul finally left Paris to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin under Erich Wolfsfeld, hoping that there he would find the ideal for art that had already infected his heart and soul. Wolfsfeld was also Jewish, and would later escape the dangerous escalation of fascism under Hitler by emigrating to America. But for the time, he continued to produce sensitive portraits in Berlin, in a style far more sympathetic to Paul's artistic taste than the more avant garde material emerging at the time.
Of the Western world's great artists, Paul was particularly captivated by Albrecht Durer, the prolific Renaissance artist who epitomized two centuries of progress in three-dimensional portrayals with realistic details in his prints. Durer capitalized on the relatively recent invention of the printing press to promulgate his works, and was a great success in his own lifetime. But what led Paul to prefer Berlin over Paris was another Renaissance artist, the sculptor Viet Stoss, a contemporary of Durer's who took up residence in what was at that time the Polish capital, Krakow. Assuming the Polish name Wit Stwosh, Stoss specialized in the crafting of polychromed wood sculpture. His work was incorporated into many churches of his time, a fine illustration of which is said to be that comprising the altar of the Church of St. Mary's in Krakow.
Paul arrived in Berlin, his head still in the clouds and obviously expecting an environment that would cultivate his love of classical painting. But the artist met with an abrupt cultural shock: one of the most radical movements of art ever to descend on the Western world had chosen that city as one of its main spawning grounds. Dada, which was born out of movements of impressionism, Art Nouveau, fauvism and German Expressionism, was now providing an impetus for the future of what we know as "modern art." German expressionism itself was a highly stylized art form that grew out of the evolving graphical style of the Art Nouveau. While evoking the mood of its time, expressionism took on in its German form a dark undercurrent that reflected the pessimism and cynicism bred of World War I and its aftermath. Exaggerated features that were more caricatures than portrayals lent body to the sarcasm in these works.
In the meantime, Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky had ventured into abstract art, which had no apparent content other than the juxtaposition of colors and geometric shapes. This movement grew in tandem with cubism, which sought alternative ways to portray three dimensional reality in a two-dimensional medium, in direct contrast with the spatial perspective that had dominated western art since the Renaissance. But so-called "nonobjective" art was a new trend, and its progenitors, Kandinsky, Klee, and Rudolph Bauer, among others, settled in Berlin and associated themselves with the Dadaists.
Dada was more an art of the absurd, and matched anything produced today in terms of its anti-establishment defiance. Der Dada, one of the many Dada-inspired magazines flourishing throughout Europe, made its debut in Berlin in 1919. The Dadaist publications lent weight and cohesiveness to the movement, which had a literary as well as a visual component. By the time Rembski arrived in Berlin in 1920, Max Ernst and George Grosz, were playing a prominent role in art circles there. They organized an exhibition called "Dada Spring Awakening," and among the works shown was one by Marcel Duchamps of a urinal that was marked as a water fountain! It is said that the same or a similar work, which had made its way to New York, was deliberately dashed to pieces by famed American artist William Glackens, ending a controversy over whether or not it should be exhibited at the famed 1913 Armory show.