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Along with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and Zbigniew Pronaszko, Leon Chwistek is the main theoretician of the group of Formists who comprehensively analysed the theoretical fundamentals of art and tried to implement the theories he elaborated. Cubism and Italian Futurism were of significant importance in his paintings.

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Along with Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and Zbigniew Pronaszko, Leon Chwistek is the main theoretician of the group of Formists who comprehensively analysed the theoretical fundamentals of art and tried to implement the theories he elaborated. Cubism and Italian Futurism were of significant importance in his paintings. Similar to other Formists, from Cubism he derived rhythmisation, geometrisation of forms as well as uniform colours and the conviction that a work of art must be independent from nature. Nonetheless, his paintings are far more remote from the postulates of Cubism than works by other Formists. In his art, he employed the achievements of Futurism, including an interest in the modern city, imaginary architecture, and dynamics and movement on a far larger scale than the remaining members of the group.
Due to its dynamics and the possibility of analysing individual stages of movement, the theme of fencing became one of his favourite motifs, frequently repeated in watercolours and oil paintings.
In Szermierka [Fencing], movement is precisely measured and the gestures and the arrangement of the figures reveal a thorough knowledge of fencing arrangements. The range of colours, composed of violets and yellows, underline the flashes of light of the weapon.
There were more than purely artistic reasons behind Chwistek taking on this subject. In his youth the artist practiced fencing and could boast of numerous achievements in this area. What was loudly echoed in the Parisian press in 1914 was his victorious sword duel with Wacław Dunin-Wąsowicz, fought in defence of his fiancée’s honour.

Elaborated by Światosław Lenartowicz (The National Museum in Kraków), © all rights reserved

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The story of a certain duel

The events took place in Paris, near the famous big wheel – a huge Ferris wheel – called La Grande Roue (later immortalised in the picture Fencing). It was Sunday, 6 April 1914. At 11:15, Leon Chwistek and Władysław Dunin-Borkowski faced each other, along with peers and colleagues from their studies at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. They had both found themselves in Paris to continue their studies: Chwistek – drawing, and Borkowski – painting. Both were also involved in the activities of the Paris-based paramilitary division of the Polish Riflemen’s Association, which was the basis of the Polish Legions of Józef Piłsudski, which they both soon joined.

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The events took place in Paris, near the famous big wheel – a huge Ferris wheel – called La Grande Roue (later immortalised in the picture Fencing). It was Sunday, 6 April 1914. At 11:15, Leon Chwistek and Władysław Dunin-Borkowski faced each other, along with peers and colleagues from their studies at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts. They had both found themselves in Paris to continue their studies: Chwistek – drawing, and Borkowski – painting. Both were also involved in the activities of the Paris-based paramilitary division of the Polish Riflemen’s Association, which was the basis of the Polish Legions of Józef Piłsudski, which they both soon joined.

The duel was marshalled by a Frenchman, Georges Dubois, the author of one of the world’s first textbooks on martial arts and an authority in the field of honourable skirmishes. Two physicians were also present, according to the rules of the art, as well as two seconds for each party. One of the seconds to Leon Chwistek was Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski, the future adjutant of Marshal Piłsudski and the hero of countless anecdotes from the social life of the Second Polish Republic. However, what aroused the greatest sensation in Paris at that time was the choice of weapons. The French used epees in duels. Meanwhile, Chwistek and Borkowski were to face each other – according to Polish custom – using sabres. This fact had also attracted journalists to the venue of the duel. It is to them that we owe our knowledge of the details of the event, as well as to a fascinating picture taken on that day, whose artistic interpretation took the form of the painting Fencing by the culprit behind all that confusion, Leon Chwistek.

Duel of Leon Chwistek (on the left) and Władysław Dunin-Borkowski, 6.04.1914, Paris.
Author unknown. Public domain.

“You can believe me; when the Poles are fighting, they are fighting well! They fell out over private matters. They fought in a Polish way. Using sabres. The Warsaw Code was applied, which forbade thrusting. The duellists had bandaged necks, a breastplate, and a glove protecting the forearm was allowed”, as was reported on the first page of the “Le Petit Journal” the following day.

In turn, we owe the daily “Echo de Paris” the description of the duel progress, minute by minute:

“(...) the order of the fight was as follows – the first clash – a minute, a break, and the next clashes after two minutes, with such breaks. The parties agreed that the fight could be ended only by a decisive statement from the doctor. After each encounter, the fighters were to go back to their starting positions. At the marshal’s signal, they clashed so violently that Prof. Dubois had to separate them with his walking stick. In the position en garde, they started another clash. It ended with a slash made by Mr. Chwistek, called coup de figure à gauche. Borkowski was struck in the temple. The sabre cut through his artery and cut off his ear. The doctors, after examining the heavily bleeding wound, were opposed to any further fighting. The seconds gave in to this decision and persuaded the fighters to shake hands.”

In this romantic way, one of the most famous Polish painters, as well as a philosopher and mathematician, and the main theoretician of formism, fought for the honour of his beloved – Olga Steinhaus – then his fiancée and soon-to-be wife of Leon Chwistek. The reason for the duel was the public insult to Olga, expressed by Władysław Dunin-Borkowski, who – without mincing his words – voiced his opinion on the Jewish origin of the wife-to-be of the author of Fencing, which was written five years later.

Elaborated by Kinga Kołodziejska (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Bibliography:
Stanisław Mancewicz, O honor ukochanej Olgi, “Gazeta Wyborcza”, 13 lipca 2012.
Karol Estreicher, Leon Chwistek – biografia artysty 1884–1944, Warszawa 1971.

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Painting “Fencing” by Leon Chwistek

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