The Artwork of Antoni Rząsa
Born in February of 1919 in Futoma, a village located at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, Antoni Rząsa was a Polish sculptor whose works were inspired by native folk art. He was born in an area where Catholic churches, having been erected since the sixteenth-century, were later surrounded by Orthodox temples. The art of creating both practical and spiritual objects from wood was a common and flourishing tradition in Poland’s Subcarpathian Voivodeship.
Attracted by the characteristics of wood and its carving, Rząsa carried on local tradition and began combining the religious experience with the folk art of the region. His work presented to the viewer an uncharacteristic understanding of faith, suffering and humor. Rzasa’s figures of weeping Marys and Crucified Christs captivated both priests and atheists with their gestures and openness to more than one interpretation. In addition to his iconic figures, Rząsa also created figures drawn from family experiences and a series of carved chairs and benches with elements of flora and fauna.
Antino Rząsa graduated from the High School of Fine Arts in Zakopane, a southern Polish town in the region of Podhale. In 1938, he studied at the city’s School of Wood Industry under Polish sculptor Antoni Kenar, who was reforming the educational system by placing an emphasis on traditional folk art and its connection to contemporary art. In his own work, Kenar combined elements of the Podhale region with influences from Cubism and Art Déco.
In 1939, Rząsa’s studies were suspended with the outbreak of World War II. He joined the local guerrilla group in 1940 within which he served as a messenger runner. During his war service, Rząsa received notice that his mother had died in 1941. He returned to Zakopane in 1948 and resumed his studies under the guidance of Antoni Kenar at the School of Wood Industry. Rząsa graduated in 1952, the same year his father died. Invited by Kenar to teach sculpture at the school, he taught and lectured there until 1973. During his tenure, the school was renamed the Antoni Kenar Art School Complex after Kenar’s death in 1959.
Antoni Rząsa created the majority of his work through the creation of multiple series revolving around themes both secular and religious. His first series was the “Days of War” which covered a two year period from 1956 to 1958. In 1960, Rząsa started the one-year “Saint Annes”cycle and also began a twelve-year cycle entitled “The Pietas”. The most prolific of his series was “The Cycle of Crosses” which include six cycles created over a period of thirteen years from 1962 to 1975.
Rząsa’s first group showing was the 1952 “Utility in Art” exhibition held in Zakopane. Other group exhibitions followed regularly In Berlin, Geneva, London, Warsaw, Shanghai and Beijing. In 1963, Rząsa had two solo exhibitions: the Artist and Viewer Gallery in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park and Kraków’s PAX Gallery. Other solo presentations included an exhibition at Warsaw’s Gallery of Sculpture in 1966, two shows in Zakopane in 1968 and 1973, and a 1972 solo exhibition in Chester, England. Polish directors Anna Micińska and Grzegorz Dubowski premiered their short 1973 biographical film “Portret Antoniego Rząsy (The Portrait of Antoni Rząsa)” at the Kraków Film Festival where they each were given a bronze award for their directorial work.
In 1974, Antoni Rząsa with his wife Halina and son Marcin began construction of a home and gallery on Bogdańskiego Street in Zakopane. The next year, he showed his new work at a solo exhibition in Kraków’s Gallery of Contemporary Art. In 1976, Rząsa began his last Cycle of Crosses entitled “The Women of Ravensbrück” in honor of the one hundred and thirty thousand, mostly female, prisoners at that concentration camp. In July of the same year, the newly opened Antoni Rząsa Gallery on Bogdańskiego Street had its first exhibition.
On the twenty-sixth of January in 1980, Antoni Rząsa died and was buried in the Cemetery for People of Merit at the Pęksowy Brzyzk Cemetery in Zakopane. He was survived by his son Marcin and wife Halina Rząsa, who died on the fourteenth of December in the same year. Rząsa’s work is included in the collections of the Polish Army Museum; the National Museums in Warsaw, Kraków, and Poznań; the Reconciliation Chapel of the Ark of the Lord Church in Kraków-Fieńczyce; and in private collections in the United States, Denmark, Belgium, France, Italy and the Vatican. The Antoni Rząsa Gallery is currently managed by Marcin Rząsa and family.
The Antoni Rząsa Gallery website contains images of Rząsa’s work, testimonials from his friends, and contact information. The site address is: https://antonirzasa.pl/en/
Top Insert Image: Krystyna Gorazdowska, “Antoni Rząsa”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Antoni Rząsa, “Thoughtful”, 1960, Wood, 67.5 x 29 x 21.5 cm.
Third Insert Image: Antoni Rząsa, “Pieta Tobruku”, 1960, Polychrome Wood, 121 x 81 x 45 cm
Bottom Insert Image: Antoni Rząsa, “Pieta Tobruku”, 1960, Reverse, Polychrome Wood, 121 x 81 x 45 cm