This week’s piece is a large oil painting by the Polish artist Zdzislaw Ruszkowski. It was donated to Scarborough Art Gallery in 1984 by local hotelier Tom Laughton, brother of famous Hollywood film star Charles Laughton. Tom collected a wide variety of artworks to display in his hotels for the enjoyment of his guests, this included The Royal and Pavilion, but the Ruszkowski pieces were mainly for his own delight.
Zdzislaw Ruszkowski was born on 5 February 1907 in Tomaszow, Poland, but grew up in Kalisz from the age of two. His father, Waclaw, was a professional artist and art teacher who had a great influence on his son’s early artwork.
Ruszkowski’s early life was disrupted by conflict with both the First and Second World Wars forcing him to escape danger. During the First World War the Ruszkowski family were forced to flee to Russia before they were able to return to Poland in 1918 after the Germans retreated.
From 1925-1929 Zdzislaw studied at the Krakow Art Academy. After leaving the Academy, Ruszkowski also left the principles he had learned there behind in an attempt to discover his own way of working. He became particularly interested in the works of Vincent Van Gogh and spent the early 1930s painting in Warsaw before leaving Poland for Paris in 1935. A small inheritance left to him following the sudden death of his father in 1934 funded his move to France, but after the money ran out Ruszkowski experienced extreme poverty and tried to alleviate his hunger and discomfort by painting. While in Paris, Ruszkowski became fascinated by the work of Paul Cézanne and in 1936 travelled to Aix-en-Provence, in southern France to explore the landscape in which Cézanne had painted.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Ruszkowski joined the Polish Army, which had gathered in France after Germany invaded Poland. After the invasion of France, Ruszkowski escaped to Spain on foot across the Pyrenees Mountains. He then travelled to Portugal and Gibraltar before finally re-joining his unit in Scotland. There he met his wife Jenifer McCormack and they married in 1941. The UK became Ruszkowski’s base for the rest of his life.
However, Ruszkowski spent a great deal of time travelling around Europe creating artworks inspired by what he witnessed and experienced in other countries. He often relied on the kindness of friends inviting him to stay at their homes and offering him the opportunity to concentrate on his art free from money worries.
Ruszkowski divided his post-war artistic development into five phases. From 1963 onwards he entered the fifth phase where he chose to paint areas of brilliant animated colour with patches of calming grey. Boys Watering Horses is the product of several studies spanning almost 50 years, which reveal his changing ideas and artistic development over the years. In Michael Simonov’s 1982 book, The Paintings of Ruszkowski, the artist himself explains the process behind the final work.
“Naked bodies with horses have always interested me as a painter. Lacking the necessary background to paint such a subject in classical or mythological terms I resorted to painting this scene, which I had witnessed several times in Poland, and taken part in myself during military service in the Polish Horse Artillery. I attempted the subject in Poland, Paris and London, but never reached beyond the stage of sketches (now mostly in Tom Laughton’s collection). A visit to Greece and the Parthenon frieze of boys on horses encouraged me to try this subject once again. It resulted in the largest canvas which I have ever painted. Three figures are isolated, but bound by the rhythm of their shape and by the trees behind them. The orange horizontal of the sandy bank and the moving reflections of water at the bottom complete the unity.”
This piece is part of a new display at Scarborough Art Gallery to mark International Museum Day. Join us at the Gallery on Thursday 18 May for the launch of the display and a Q&A session at 12.30pm where we will be discussing Ruszkowski’s life and work, particularly how he identified with his Polish roots. Traditional Polish refreshments will also be available to enjoy.