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Frans Krajcberg


Frans Krajcberg was a Polish-born sculptor, painter, engraver and photographer who assumed Brazilian citizenship. His work explores elements of nature and stands out for its ecological activism, associating art and environmental protection.

The Exhibition

The show Frans Krajcberg: Nature as Studio consisted of 25 works produced between the early 1960s and late 80s, including a painting and sculpture in burnt wood exhibited at the 2016 São Paulo Bienal. There was also a solitary “Ballerina” surrounded by exceedingly rare works from lesser-known phases of his career, such as the “Relevos” (Reliefs), specifically those in minerals glued on plywood panels produced in Ibiza, Spain, in 1961, when the artist was still living between Rio de Janeiro and Paris, and those in pigment and sand on craft paper produced in the 70s, when he decided to settle once and for all in Nova Viçosa, Bahia. Concerning the reliefs in beach sand and minerals on palm leaves, the Rio-based critic Frederico Morais remarked: “Krajcberg didn’t invent the relief, but he was the first to create reliefs out of a direct relationship with nature.”

Mr. Kraj

Walter Salles


Winter 1994, Paris, Montparnasse. Frans Krajcberg organizes his work at the atelier that now houses a museum that bears his name. There are works from different phases: his first attempts to break from the canvas, produced in Brazil in the 1950s; his Ibiza “impressions” and reliefs, created in the 60s; and the “gordas" (fatsos) from the 80s and 90s, sculptures in calcified wood from the Amazon and Mato Grosso coated with natural pigments from Minas Gerais. One day, his neighbor Roger Pic, a close friend and photographer who documented some of the most significant political and cultural movements of the 20th Century, stopped by his studio to say hello. They chatted about a range of subjects: the ins-and-outs of international politics and the increasingly close ties between art and the market—which both detested. It was that same day that he showed me a letter he’d received from Socorro Nobre, an inmate at the women’s prison in Bahia, who’d come across his work while leafing through a weekly magazine in her cell. “Look at this incredible letter”, says Krajcberg. “I really connected with you”, wrote Socorro. “Your sculptures give new life to what was destroyed. Our lives in here are calcified too. In fact, calcified is a word I didn’t know, but I learned now, from the magazine”. Socorro calls Krajcberg “Seu Kraj” (Mr. Kraj), a nickname we incorporated into the film we made of their meeting, in 1995. Socorro Nobre captured the resonance of Krajcberg’s  work, its rare capacity to echo with different audiences. At the retrospective held at Grande Halle de La Villette in 1996, over 300 thousand people came to see his art. A woman I didn’t know turned to me and said: “It’s my fifth time here, I can’t stop coming back”. A year earlier, a similar turnout visited his retrospective in Curitiba. On the first documentary I made about Krajcberg, back in 1987, something became immediately clear to me. If there is an oeuvre that defies classification, it’s his. As Frederico Morais wrote in an enlightened piece, his work is more than an aesthetic project: it’s an ethics. Morais recalled a phrase by Paul Valéry: “What’s the point of a work whose creation doesn’t transform me?”. I think Krajcberg would have expanded this a little, asking “What is the purpose of a work that does not transform me, and does not transform others”. Perhaps that’s the source of the empathy both he and his art generated, and continue to generate, in people of all walks of life. It’s life he’s dealing with, not just its representation. Krajcberg lived each of his lives intensely, and they are all inseparable from his work. At the age of 18, as the Nazis invaded Poland, he had to flee his native Kozienice on foot. He fought alongside the Soviets to liberate his country, where his entire family had been decimated in the concentration camps. From his mother, leader of the Polish Trotskyist party put to death in 1939, he retained a dread of nationalisms, but also the surety that some ideals are worth living and dying for. “There is nothing more beautiful than that”, he said, during the filming of "Socorro Nobre”. His first rebirth came in 1945, thanks to his studies under Willi Baumeister at the Fine Art School in Stuttgart. Straight out of the Bauhaus, Baumeister saw in Krajcberg an usual talent and experience. In one of the many letters that would mark his student’s life, Baumeister introduces him to the painter Fernand Léger, who, in turn, put him in contact with Marc Chagall in Paris. And it was Chagall who paid his fare to Brazil aboard an Italian vessel. “I was tired of so much war and suffering. I wanted to go to a country where there were no men. And I was told Brazil was a place where there were no men”, said Krajcberg, with a twinkle in his eye, during the Socorro sessions. Brazil was somewhere he could start afresh, and he embraced its lush nature and extraordinary biodiversity. But it was not an easy adaptation. When he arrived in Rio and traveled from there to São Paulo, in 1948, he went hungry, and slept on park benches. He worked as a hired hand on the assembly of the first São Paulo International Bienal, and on the factory floor of a cellulose plant in Paraná. It was during those years that his first dialogue with nature took hold in the series “Samambaias" (Ferns). In the mid-50s, Krajcberg moved to Rio de Janeiro, where he shared a house with the sculptor Franz Weissmann. Skirting the frontier between abstraction and figuration, in 1957 he received the Best Painter prize at the Bienal. It was the beginning of a path that would lead through the negation of the canvas in pursuit of the invisible that complements the visible. Upon his return to Paris, Krajcberg saw how Tachism had run its course, and he turned to New Realism, which the art critic Pierre Restany defined as “a fundamental gesture in the appropriation of the real”. In Ibiza, he began to use Japanese paper to create reliefs inspired by the unpredictability of soils. “Krajcberg did not invent the relief, but he was the first to create reliefs out of a direct relationship with nature”, wrote Morais. This “flip-side of the canvas” had a major impact. At Galerie du XXe Siècle, his Ibiza “impressions” were exhibited alongside work by Fontana and Gilioli. Yves Klein, Cesar and Arman were also part of the new realist movement, the originality and independence of which Krajcberg admired, though he never decided to join himself.  The errancy that marked his personal life is also reflected in how freely he flitted among different “isms” without ever fully embracing them. In the words of Restany: “Frans Krajcberg belongs to that rare breed of individualists who are also extremely generous in their solitariness. The trials of war left an indelible mark on him. The Brazilian forest was at once medium, theater and agent of a veritable redemption”. Krajcberg’s extreme singularity and his refusal to bend to the market explain why so few collectors own works that are representative of his sweeping development. The reliefs and sculptures Paulo Kuczynski has gathered here attest to the keen eye of someone who saw in the artist one of the most important exponents of his time. The reliefs made in the 60s and 70s show at once the incessant search and cohesion of Krajcberg’s aesthetic gesture. Many of these works featured in the “Art et Revolte” exhibition held at the Museu de Montparnasse in 2003, and they are given fresh life here in São Paulo.  


Krajcberg, The Art of Living

Maurice Dubroca


He had seen the world and madness of men, the flood of fire and scorched earth, the hatred in the other’s eye, and the piles of corpses in the death factories of Poland. And from all of that he took away an intransigence, a deep rage and visceral revolt. But what was most surprising about Frans Krajcberg was that, despite it all, he knew how to keep the child inside alive. His sudden smile would light up his face. He had an incredible capacity to be wowed by life and the beauties of nature. Anyone who was ever fortunate enough to accompany him on one of his botanical outings will have witnessed that. Every day, wherever he happened to be—Paris, Brazil, or elsewhere—, he would head out to explore the flora around him. It was his daily ritual. “One day, out in the forest, I saw a marvelous flower. The sunlight was falling on it in such an incredible way”, said Frans. “So I called my friend Pierre Restany and said, Come over here, Pierre. Come see this flower! By the time he reached me, the sky had clouded over and the light had died. Everything had changed. That’s just how it is! You never see the same thing twice in nature. That’s why I take pictures, record everything nonstop. It’s so I don’t lose that vision before me.” His search: to seize those fleeting moments, highlight their beauty and also their fragility. Through the lens of his Leica, he could capture a shadow, a shaft of light, the folds in a bud, the velvet relief of a petal, or even the backlit nerves running through a green leaf unfurled like a banderole of the world’s oxygen. Krajcberg was a master in the “art of seeing”. Armed with an eye trained by years of observation in the field, he had a unique sense of framing and composition, and we find that expressed in his work. Long bean stalks, the topography of leaves, tableaux of stone and earth, calcified trunks or bark…he would cut, crop, cobble together slivers of nature, which he reworked into something he could exhibit in a luminous scenography: the black and white of shadow cast by a vine delicately burnished to reveal its lines and orthographic projections…A mural bouquet of “wooden flowers” in the intense reds of annatto and pigments from Minas Gerais….Krajcberg was a sculptor of light and shade. If nature was his source of inspiration, it was also his respiration. After the dark years of a youth charred by the horrors of war, Krajcberg decided to flee mankind. He withdrew to a forest in Paraná to paint and explore the splendor of Brazilian nature. Dazzled by the vibrant beauty of various shades of green, he recovered his will to live and create. “I was born again there”, he would say. Later, indeed, he moved into a treehouse in a sturdy souari, surrounded by birdsong and the hum of the ocean, with the Milky Way spread out overhead. In harmony with the cosmos, he knew that solitude is a treasure for those who want to be free. There, he could watch the trees he’d planted grow in size and exuberance. But when faced with the forest fires in the Amazon and the destruction of his beloved nature, it sickened him: “It made me unbelievably sad. I often cried. I would say to myself: there it is. Here comes war again. It made me want to scream!  But if I had gone screaming in the streets they’d have said: he’s nuts. He’s sick. He ought to be in hospital. So I scream through my work instead!”. His “conjuntos” (sets), theatrically arranged mini-forests of calcified palm trunks, are emblematic, a cry against human barbarity and the devastation of nature. Against inhumanity. In Krajcberg’s work, biography and art blend and turn toward the artist’s own past: “I am this burnt-out trunk”, he says. When we went to the South of France to present the film we made together, “Retrato de uma revolta” (Portrait of a Revolt) I had the privilege of accompanying Frans on a meeting with the great botanist Francis Hallé, a specialist on tropical forests. The artist and scientist struck an immediate connection. They spoke about communication among trees, about the volatiles they issue to catalyze water condensation and so make it rain on the Amazon. I saw the botanist become, at that moment, a poet. Frans, as always, was streets ahead. Science was just confirming what he had already intuited about the life and intelligence of the world of plants. It was confirming all the reasons he fought to save the forests and the planet. Through his work and his engagement, Krajcberg was warning us about the state of the world. He was teaching us to open our eyes. Visionary as ever, he had taken the side of Nature, and was beating a trail for us to follow. Frans Krajcberg was a guardian of our world.


Frans Krajcberg, the Artist and the Cause of the Tree

Calude Mollard

Frans Krajcberg is no longer amongst us. From here on in, we will have to learn to live with the artist only, without the friend. From now on, his story converges upon his legacy, upon a Krajcberg without Frans. With him, we have lost a fraction of his work, because life was part of his work. He was a work of art himself. That photogenic face, ravaged by cancer, turned his body into a sculpture. Over the years, like sculptors themselves, his surgeons carved and re-carved his features. Like Orlan, Krajcberg became an artwork, an involuntary effect on that delicate being who couldn’t bear to see a tree wounded. Coherent to the end, actually going to live in a tree was his personal manifesto. Frans Krajcberg was a sort of tree that aged without ceasing to restock its bough with each passing spring. The hardships of life gave him plenty of brushes with death. I once received news that he was at death’s door, that it was only a matter of hours, but he “resuscitated”, as he had before, in Russia in 1940. While his bride and his comrade in misfortune both died by his side, luck protected him from the fires of war.  But, in Brazil, the fires devastating the forests of Paraná burned down his house. And if Frans Krajcberg was a tree, his new house in Bahia was a nest perched in the fork of a thousand year-old tree. And at the top of that fork, the architect Zanini built him a nest tailor-made for his species of wandering Jew. Today, Krajcberg's ashes lie in the hollow of that souari tree. By taking up residence in the wood of the tree that held up his house he began, as it were, his transformation from man into tree. And perhaps he lives on in its grain, where the sap once ran, the blood of nature. Krajcberg was the first artist to make the tree the pillar of his oeuvre. And he fathered a whole generation of tree artists. He respected them, honored them, resuscitated them, giving those burnt trees a new artistic and cultural life. With each rebirth, his totems were a victory over death, over the razing fire. He inaugurated this line of artists who respect trees. He cut nothing from them. He attached wooden flowers, roots and branches from other species, creating sculptures by adding woods of varied origins, creating hybrids that carry a message of hope. Krajcberg’s tree-sculptures enrich the vocabulary of contemporary art. Sometimes he would apply natural coatings to the trunks, as if to protect the wood, covering them the way the Indians do, only with layers of black manganese and red iron oxide. These tree-totems, protected by their symbolic hides, are ready to re-enter the fray. A standing tree is an immense sculpture in its own right, and a lung that allows humankind to go on breathing. It was thus that Krajcberg moved from art into ecology. From the 80s on, he fought against the arboreal holocaust, and this turned him into an artist eco-activist. With his strong, slow voice, he denounced the madness and barbarity of humankind bent on destroying the planet. He was a free man. This old Polish communist, taught by his mother, a heroine of the anti-Nazi resistance, always refused to succumb to market domination over artistic creation. For a long time he lived between Paris and Rio de Janeiro, forming a bridge between the continents. He was discovered by the art critic Pierre Restany, who founded new realism in 1960. With his tree and leaf reliefs on paper or canvas, he embarked on the adventure alongside other artists and authors. In 1978, on the banks of the Negro River in the Amazon, he and Pierre Restany penned their Integral Naturalism Manifesto. In 2013, I joined him in publishing a New Integral Naturalism Manifesto, confirming his ideas and warnings from 1978. Krajcberg was always ready and willing to cry out for the planet, and his final cry came at the Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro in 2015, during COP 21. Like many forerunners, he was too right too early, which is why we ought to honor him now.


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