Perhaps the most powerful art made by Walter Krawiec (1889-1982) were the cartoons drawn for the front page of the Polish Daily News in the 1930s and 1940s, as Chicago’s Polish community read about their homeland crushed by competing totalitarian armies. Nothing could be more tragic, and his dynamic line and compositions were equal to the task. But those abilities did not vanish when he directed attention to less ponderous events, and the main events that interested him took place beside the big tops of the many traveling circuses that passed through Chicago. “Forty tons of elephants” the barkers from Cole Bros., Hagenbeck Wallace, or Russell Bros. circuses would shout.
As Chicago’s then-great art critic C.J. Bulliet wrote: “Krawiec has the instincts of a Brueghel when it comes to composing a picture out of multitudinous, conflicting elements, blending them into a superb unity.” And that is what is so remarkable about him. On the one hand, there’s a delicious observation of the detailed activity of man and beast, and on the other, it’s all pulled together into deep, spacious, sweeping compositions. Eventually his observations would become the paintings that gave him a career as a gallery artist as well as an editorial cartoonist, but before the painting came the sketch—and the vivid on-site sketches, now on display at Richard Norton Gallery, are really what are most memorable. Everything comes to life: the horses, dogs, lions, even the laundered tights of the acrobats, hung out to dry. There’s nothing glamorous about the backstage areas of a circus, but he saw nothing ominous or sleazy about them either. And the day always seemed bright, sunny, and carefree—filled with the buzz of people at work or play—with an American flag usually fluttering in the breeze above the tents. In an era of grim ideologies, it’s pretty clear what this Polish immigrant believed in: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Chris Miller)
Through October 29 at Richard Norton Gallery, 612 Merchandise Mart Plaza.