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Feliks Topolski

Portraits of Britain's Twentieth-Century Literary Greats

September 5, 2006 – December 31, 2006

Feliks Topolski (1907-1989), painter, caricaturist, illustrator and muralist, chronicled many of the twentieth century's most significant people and associated historical events. Born in Poland and centered in London his entire creative career, Topolski embraced modernism's inventive freedoms but worked at the edge of its mainstream, thanks in part to his bold expressionist style that brought both acclaim and controversy.

"An artist reporter with the interests and powers of observation of an anthropologist and historian, Topolski traveled the globe, his 'mania for drawing' resulting in an astonishing body of work that as the 'Twenty Greats' reveals is at once satirical, affectionate, and psychologically penetrating," said Dr. Larry Carver, director of the Liberal Arts Honors Program at the university and co-curator of the exhibition.

Combining figurative and abstract elements with layered gestures of incandescent color, Topolski's artwork—particularly his portraits—have been described as rhapsodic, vigorous, volatile and even explosive.

The Ransom Center acquired Topolski's full-length portrait of George Bernard Shaw in 1960 and shortly thereafter commissioned the artist to paint a portrait series of great living British writers and playwrights. The commission of "Twenty Greats" eventually included the portraits of W. H. Auden, John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Ivy Compton-Burnett, T. S. Eliot, William Empson, E. M. Forster, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNiece, John Osborne, J. B. Priestley, Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell, C. P. Snow, Stephen Spender, Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Rebecca West, John Whiting, Arnold Wesker and Shelagh Delaney.

When the portraits were complete, the Center planned to exhibit them and publish a catalog, but many of the sitters objected to Topolski's work, and the exhibition and publication were never realized.

Years later, F. Warren Roberts, then director of the Center, wrote consolingly to Topolski that the reaction of the sitters "was probably more of a compliment to your talent than anything else, because you seem to have a unique ability to extract submerged character traits and present them graphically. Perhaps one day we can take up this idea again."

Fulfilling Roberts's wish, this exhibition brings together, for the first time, all 20 stunning and controversial paintings from the original commission. The artist's large portrait of Shaw, illustrations for Shaw's plays and select broadsides from Topolski's "Chronicle" are also included in the exhibition.

"Portrait commissions are not uncommon, but the scope of Topolski's makes it unique," said Peter Mears, curator of the art collection at the Ransom Center and co-curator of the Topolski exhibition. "Viewed as a portrait unto itself, the commission of 'Twenty Greats' provides insight into subject-artist-client relationships and, with the passing of time, an opportunity to reconsider it as a significant cultural event for the university. Considering this perspective, let's now see how these controversial portraits fare in the twenty-first century."