Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute

Józef Czapski's self portrait. Image links to event page.



Between Ellipses: Rediscovering the Life and Art of Józef Czapski
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2023 marks 30 years since painter and writer Józef Czapski passed away at the age of 96 in Mesnil-le-Roi, outside of Paris. On the wall of Maison Kultura, home of the Instytut Literacki and the journal Kultura, where Czapski lived and worked since the 1940s, hangs a bronze death mask of his angular face, and another cast of his hand–the essential tool of this émigré artist and writer, who recorded his life and work in 250 some journals, countless essays and several memoirs, and over hundreds of drawings and paintings. This symposium invites a new audience to discover Czapski–intellectual, activist, historical witness, and “queer hero.” We seek to go beyond the pre-ordained narratives about Czapski’s contributions to Polish culture and discover what lies “between ellipses.” We will discuss the evolution of his reception in Poland (from persona non grata to national hero) as well as the recent translation and publication of his work in the United States by the New York Review of Books. Join us and participate in an afternoon of panels covering the life, writing, painting and translation of Czapski’s oeuvre. We will discuss new interpretations of his work, framed through translation and queer studies, and will be joined by scholars, editors, and translators of this 20th century cultural icon. 


Friday, September 15, 2023

12:00-12:45 pm | Lunch

12:45 – 1:00 pm | Introductory Remarks

1:00 – 2:30 pm | Panel I: Czapski Uncensored: Rediscovering and Queering the Polish Artist and Writer

Moderator: Christopher Caes

Last year Próby publishing house in Warsaw published the first unabridged, uncensored version of Czapski’s journals, Dziennik wojenny 1942-1944 edited by Mikołaj Nowak-Rogoziński, allowing a full look at Czapski’s personal writing during his time in the Polish II Corps under General Anders. A significant development in this publication is an uncensored look at Czapski’s homosexuality, and his writing on desire, which Monika Zaleska will address in her paper on the volume, “I Love X: Proustian Code and Queer Desire in the Wartime Journal of Józef Czapski.” This volume and research builds on Eric Karpeles’ extensive biography of Czapski, Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski, which covers his personal and public life as a painter, writer, intellectual, and important political figure. This panel asks, what parts of Czapski’s life have been left unexplored until recently and why? How has the publication of uncensored texts exploring his sexuality shifted the conversation around Czapski’s work–and his cultural and political impact in Poland and the United States?


3:00 – 4:30 pm | Panel II: Czapski in the U.S.: On the Translation and Reception of his Oeuvre

Moderator: Monika Zaleska

This panel will discuss the discovery and reception of Czapski by American readers. How is Czapski being read in the U.S. and by whom? Joining us in this conversation will be Professor Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Editorial Director of New York Review of Books Classics series Edwin Frank, who has published several volumes of Czapski’s work in English, and translator of Memories of Starobielsk Alissa Valles. How does Czapski’s writing “translate” for new audiences? What are the stakes of expanding his published works in English? How does his published work in English intersect with his artworks, and what new avenues of understanding does it offer for scholars and the American public?