Feliks Topolski (1907-1989)

                              - Illustrations for "War and Peace"

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Illustrations for "War and Peace" 1 (Page 319 of Folio Society edition)

Three irregularly-shaped drawings arranged within 44.7 x 28 cm window of mount, longest/shortest width 21.5 cm/8 cm, pen and black ink on paper. The drawings have been mounted on a new conservation-standard lay-out sheet, while retaining the old lay-out board beneath and allowing the original signature in pencil to show through the new mount. In an ebonized reeded wood frame. Price: £420

Illustrations for "War and Peace" 2 (Page 842 of Folio Society edition)

Five irregularly-shaped drawings arranged on 50 x 31.5 cm mount, longest/shortest width 27.3 cm/7.3 cm, pen and black and sepia ink on paper. The drawings have been mounted on a new conservation-standard lay-out sheet, while retaining the old lay-out board beneath and allowing the original signature in pencil to show through the new mount. Unframed. Price: £380

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These two sets of drawings formed part of Feliks Topolski's illustrations for the 1978 Folio Society edition of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

 

Both feature in the printed book as full-page groups of drawings - arranged in the same way as on these signed lay-out sheets (except for a reversal of the top and bottom drawings in Illustrations for "War and Peace" 1).

Illustrations for "War and Peace" 1 (Page 319 of Folio Society edition).

Shown in frame.

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The drawings offer an insight into the artist's working methods because the source material which served as the starting point for the compositions can to a certain extent be traced.

 

All three drawings on the first sheet (Page 319 of the Folio Society edition) appear to have been inspired by images in an illustrated album devoted to Napoleon published in Warsaw in 1911. The book, by Ernest Łuniński, is crammed with monochrome reproductions of paintings, drawings, portraits and memorabilia relating to Napoleon and his commanders, with particular emphasis on the Polish officers and generals who fought on the French side in the key battles of the period.

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How Topolski transformed 19th century Napoleonic imagery into modern illustrations for Tolstoy's novel

Topolski was not, of course, "copying" in the conventional sense of the word because in all of the drawings the source images are freely reinterpreted and metamorphosed by his expressive wiry line. And it is because his drawings are rooted in authentic historical imagery that they form a convincing and accurate visual accompaniment to Tolstoy's narrative.


Significantly, Topolski reveals - in his obliquely impressionistic writing style - that he possessed a copy of the same book much later in London: "This must be my earliest, most intense germination in visuality: a compulsion towards art of enigma mostly buried neglected, quickened now, when this grand oblong Napoleonic album, glory of my childhood, found in London, is in my hands, perhaps - why not - even the same copy."


All three of the source images are to be found within 35 pages of each other in the Łuniński album, suggesting that - in his quest for suitable material to illustrate War and Peace - Topolski was systematically deriving ideas from the pages of the very book that had exerted such a formative pull on his young imagination 65 years or so earlier. 

Front cover of Ernest Łuniński's "Napoleon: The Legions and the Duchy of Warsaw" published in Warsaw in 1911

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A childhood fascination

How can we be sure that the book by Łuniński was the inspiration for the three drawings, and that Topolski did not find reproductions of the same paintings elsewhere? 


The clue is to be found in the artist's autobiography, Fourteen Letters, where in a description of his Warsaw childhood Topolski reminisces how he had fallen under the spell of a picture in a book about Napoleon. Although he does not identify the full title or author, a reproduction of page 60 of the Łuniński volume is printed next to this passage. What had captivated the imagination of the future artist was the way in which the head of a marching soldier merged with a dark patch of background landscape in the painting The Crossing of the Alps by Jan Rosen. As a child, he had been fascinated by the "inexplicable weirdness" of the unintentionally "sur-real" (Topolski's spelling) optical illusion that made an elongated patch of ground appear to be - as he put it - tugging at the soldier's head and pulling him out of the marching ranks.

Illustrations for "War and Peace" 2

 

Topolski seems to have undertaken a similar process of scouring reproductions of 19th century paintings and prints for suitable iconographic material when compiling the second sheet. For instance, the figure of Napoleon with right arm pointing away from the viewer (5th drawing from left below) is reminiscent of Napoleon's pose in two paintings and a sculpture by Piotr Michałowski, also reproduced in the Łuniński album (pp. 72, 73, 75). The central horseman with his flamboyant attire and plumed hat undoubtedly represents Marshal Joachim Murat and has echoes of the famous equestrian painting by Baron Gros in the Louvre (the main differences are that Gros has Murat's head turned sharply to his left and his horse's front legs dramatically rearing). The drawing of the horse and moustached groom (4th from left) seems to have been inspired by a painting of the same subject by Piotr Michałowski (collection: Royal Castle, Kraków), the difference between the two being that Topolski's groom has acquired a cap. 

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Feliks Topolski, Illustrations for "War and Peace" 2 (Page 842 of Folio Society edition) (details)

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING

  • Feliks Topolski, Fourteen Letters. London: Faber and Faber, 1988, pp. 3-4.

  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, transl. Rosemary Edmonds, ill. Feliks Topolski. London: Folio Society, 1978.

  • Ernest Łuniński, Napoleon: Legiony i Księstwo Warszawskie: Ilustracje podług obrazów, portretów, rzeźb, rycin, pamiątek i t.p. Warsaw: Tow. Akc. S. Orgelbranda Synów, [1911].