A note on JÓZEF CZAPSKI: an observer of the world

A major influence for the direction my work is taking – not necessarily in the visual aspects of his work, but rather the processes and habits he developed over the course of his life.

I’m not even sure where to start with explaining the influence of Czapski on my thinking and approach to art. I guess the primary thing to consider is his level of admiration and commitment to the observation and documentation – the degree of which I don’t often find in artists which I research

throughout his life he created over 270 journals; always had one by his side – always observing, documenting and investigating – always curious

This is the aspect of Czapski’s work that I would like to focus on in my studio practice – because I find that it is more relevant and applicable than his actual painting technique (although, I wouldn’t say the same for his journaling and sketch-booking practice) – I would like to develop similar practices and habits that would support my own artistic practice – to develop a more observant eye to details and experiencing the world around me

What is essential in the understanding of Czapski’s work is his history as a historical witness – a survivor of the mass execution of Polish officers in Katyń – and what followed years of searching for the concealed truth about the events

An example of geographical displacement – life in excile – impact of that on his sense of identity – this uncertainty can be analysed in his brushstrokes as well as way of working

I see his practice of self-portraiture as a means of re-connecting with himself or finding himself – he also takes the same approach with the world around him, explores and attempts to comprehend it through careful and regular observation – ever since looking at his practice of active observation I began trying to begin similar habits – which is still difficult due to my perfectionism – I find that it is also mood dependant

Because of Czapski I considered incorporating my own image into my work – observing myself in order to tackle the issues of identity, trauma, belonging and disassociation – an attempt to ground myself through observation, which I guess is also a way of meditation too – interested to see how the marks I make could have a direct link to the way I perceive myself – my relationship to myself, and the relationship to my past as well – finding similarities between myself and the people in my life – how I am connected to them in physical aspects – how marks can translate our subjectivity

Studying oneself with drawing allows for intensity that will not be the same when observing other people – allows for a whole variation of emotions and approaches – there is probably no one else that you can treat in the same way – be as honest with and therefore self-portraiture could be an effective way of self-discovery

It has the potential for dealing with memories – the present and the past – giving one a space to allow memories and associations to pass – to explore and acknowledge them – to investigate their meaning

And perhaps with time the practice of self-portraiture would allow oneself to find some form of truth – to identify certain truths about their being – about who they are



Czapski, J. and Karpeles, E. (2018). Lost time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Union Prison Camp. New York: The New York Review of Books.

Gray, J. (2019). Józef Czapski: painter, prisoner, and disciple of Proust. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].

Karpeles, E. (2018). Almost nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski. New York: The New York Review of Books.

Karpeles, E., Karpiński, W. and Zagajewski, A. (2019). Józef Czapski – An Apprenticeship of Looking. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Eric Karpeles – The Quest for Czapski. (2019). New School Commonwealth: Youtube.




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