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Past Articles from Glass on Metal

Stefan Knapp:  A Visionary Artist Who Worked In Enamel
from Volume 18, Number 3, October 1999


     Editor's Note:  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 himself. 
     In 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 the throat..." 
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. 

Organic Landscape

     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 intelligence.  The 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 exasperation.  The realities are these hills, plateaus, the harbor in the river delta.  Mountain 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 painting. 
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 sport. 
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.

Red Landscape

     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 paintings. 
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 landscape.  Returning 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 width. 

Dissected Form

     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 equipment.
     "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 scale."
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.

Albumini Rendevous

     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 controlled style.
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 well indulged.
“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.
"Increasing 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.” 


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