The Cybis porcelain studio produced five remarkably different style genres during the first 30 years of its existence. Three of them belonged to the same decade (1940s) which was also the studio’s first. These genres can be loosly grouped as follows: Papka and early porcelain; Cordey/Cybis retail; spatterware reproductions; atypical early 1960s; and post-1950 retail (which can itself be subdivided into pre- and post-1960 pieces.) The post-1950 retail genre is the one shown in most of the Archive; this is the first of four posts that examine those other styles.
So what was “papka”, anyway? In the Polish language it refers to something resembling gruel or a thin porridge. Boleslaw Cybis applied the term to the wet clay mixture he developed for the purposes of sculpting. The 1971 museum exhibit catalog Cybis in Retrospect also refers to this as “fresco” sculpting:
Cybis fresco sculpture (Cybis Art Productions) began…with a burst of papka fantasy. Artists painted individually sculptured objects in the wet, al fresco style, and they included birds, flowers, angels, mermaids, horses, candlestick holders, and large wall decorations in pink, blue, mauve and yellow
And indeed there is a separate catalog section headed “Fresco Sculpture” wherein most pieces are described as “Papka composition, pastel fresco decoration” ….so it appears that in this context “papka” refers to the clay medium while “fresco” refers to the paint technique. Unfortunately the catalog was produced in black and white and so there is no indication of how the colors actually looked (with one possible exception which will merit its own post later on.) The actual color of the papka material appears, from written accounts, to have been a pale cream or ecru. What ‘ingredients’ actually went into Cybis’ formula is anyone’s guess. What did the finished product look like? Here are a few examples.
This Angel with Flowers is described in Retrospect as a “prototype” papka piece, an indication that there may have been only one exactly like it although there may have been others created later of similar design based on this piece. Supposedly created between 1940-1942 and 12″ high, the colors are described as being “fresco decoration of soft pink, blue, mauve and yellow.” The extremely malleable nature of the wet clay formula is very obvious in the construction of this piece.
The same construction is seen in Bird on Rose Tree which is also described the same way as the angel; it’s also the same height (12″) and has similar coloration. This general style would be seen in the Cordey retail pieces as well, even though those were not created in papka.
This one of a kind piece is one of the earliest papka figures because it was created during the time when Cybis was painting the murals for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Despite the impression of heaviness it is only 7″ high (although the museum book does not clarify whether that included the wood base; my guess is that the height probably refers to the sculpture only) and is titled Medieval Horse in that book.
On the opposite end of the size spectrum is this massive papka Angel, seen here being created by Marja Cybis; notice the much smaller version on the upper shelf behind her right shoulder!
This bust is described in the catalog as being a papka piece even though the smoothness of the face is more suggestive of typical porcelain; it may in fact be a hybrid but we’ll take the book at its word. The majority of the figure certainly is papka. The colors were sadly not specified; it is cited as being a prototype and the dating is given as “circa 1941.” The overall height is 14″ including the base, with the bust itself being 10″ high. I am listing this as Woman’s Head with Flowers to differentiate it from the one below.
Cybis in Retrospect is a bit murky with its description of the medium for this bust, described as Woman’s Head in “composition, green patina, 14″ high, circa 1940, by Marja Cybis.” I have no idea whether the omission of the word ‘papka’ from the description was accidental or not. Although the book photo is in black and white, the one shown above was sold at auction twice: once in Poland in 2013 for 10,000 PLN (Polish Zloty) which equated to about $2500 USD at the time; and also in 2014 by a Pennsylvania auction house at a hammer price of $600. From all appearances it was the same bust in both auctions. Is this the same one that was photographed in 1971 and listed as being in the studio’s own collection? The painted date is uncertain other than being in the 1940s, although the USA auctioneer plumped for it saying “1948” rather than “1940”. I personally think it could be either! That same auction described it as being the head of a young boy, by the way. (The presence of a copyright symbol, which was not used during the 1940s, is explained later.)
This bust is titled Head with Harvest Wreath and is specifically noted as being a prototype from 1940-1942. Like the “with flowers” head, it also has the pastel ‘fresco’ painting. Both of these busts foreshadow the studio’s nascent Cordey retail line in style and feeling. The height is given as 14″ with no clarity as to whether or not that includes the wood base shown. Was the base itself produced at the studio? It’s very possible, because Boleslaw Cybis did work in wood when creating furniture pieces for his film and stage productions.
Another papka bust which is mentioned, but not pictured, in the museum catalog is a Braided Head which was only 7″ high. Dating from 1940-1942, it was a prototype in the pastel decoration.
A papka piece called Classical Motif was also an unpictured prototype of about the same size (8″ high) and date range. The color was cited as being a combination of soft pink, blue, mauve and yellow.
This 7″ high Pegasus Candlestick is also fashioned from papka. An advertising illustration of its porcelain non-candlestick counterpart can be seen in the 1940s Retail post.
This long-necked creature looks like a short-legged giraffe (covered in Cheerios?!) to me, but according to Cybis in Retrospect this is a papka Baby Sheep! The further notation “fresco decorated” suggests that it was in pastel colors. It is 8″ high and dates from 1942-1945.
Several other Archive posts also include photos and listings of these 1940s papka sculptures belonging to specific genres. There are several in Early Birds as well as in the Angels and Giftware posts.
1940s Studio Wall Decorations
I’m a bit uncertain as to whether these next few examples were made entirely of papka or were a kind of style hybrid between the soft wet papka mix and a more traditional porcelain medium, so I’m grouping them under an arbitary heading of “papka hybrids.”
This wall hanging no doubt came from one of Cybis’ first studio locations (probably the one on Church Street) and combines a papka drapery with a traditional smooth body figure. This was a part of a lot of three such architectural elements; sadly the auctioneer did not provide dimensions for them individiually but only as being “Ht 21″, Width 18″, Depth 11” without specifying which piece those apply to! So it’s a tossup between this putti and the group of three heads shown next. Wall mounted putti figure seems a fair choice for a name.
This Wall mounted triple female heads group again has that combination of soft papka material and smoother plaster-type faces. What’s particularly interesting about this item is the similarity of the papka “hair” to the Cordey dipped-lace effect and also the two flowers: the dogwood is the same flower mold that was used for the 1963 Wood Wren with Dogwood, and the other flower appears to have been used in the 1965 Christmas Rose but with a different center (stamens instead of a narcissus cup)!
These same three heads appear in the photo below, which was taken at the Church Street studio and appears in two 1970s Cybis catalogs.
Notice that there were no flowers on these heads originally. Undoubtedly these were among the items taken from the old building when the Cybis studio moved to their present location, and the modern-day flowers were added to the group before they were sold (probably during the 1990s) to a customer.
The third piece in the lot was this Animal head wall decoration and I won’t even try to hazard a guess as to intended species! Judging by the group photo from the auctioneer this may be a bit shorter than the others; perhaps about 19″ or 20″ from top to bottom. The flat back of the top piece goes against the wall, as does the back of the neck and possibly the head as well. This was no doubt the same situation as other two pieces above (removed from the 1940s studio and then later sold.) Boleslaw Cybis also created full-figure bodies topped with animal heads, in the style of the ancient Egyptian gods such as Anubis, Bast, and Osiris.
Update, July 2017:
In June 1982 the semiannual Cybis party at Brielle Galleries included the presentation of a special Cybis bowl award to actor Tony Randall. A recently discovered photograph of the presentation by Joseph Chorlton and Dorothy Kaminski (seen in entirely in the Giftware post) also shows the special stage that was created for this event. All of the decorative elements other than the latticed and solid backdrop ‘wall’ are pieces from the original Church Street studio which were given a fresh coat of paint for this purpose. Detail images of the items appear below.
The Body Cast with Bird Head was originally taken from life (we have no idea who the model was!) and was one of several that Cybis was fond of creating during the 1940s. A glazed porcelain version of the bird head, sans crest, appears in the next section of this post. By the way, the open areas of the backdrop were mirrored, which makes it appear that each of the plaster pieces are ‘duplicated’ on the other side.
Here is a grouping of several male and female heads and masks. The assemblage at the top left is very similar to the trio of female heads with the flower decoration (shown earlier) but this group is decorated with at least one bird instead. The bird is the same mold that is seen on the Madonna with Bird and also the female Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher retail pieces. Note the cutout eyes and mouth of the lowest head which is, like the ones to the right, actually a plaster mask.
This may be the main portion of the same female head wall candelabra pictured in its entirely in situ at the Church Street studio in the first Cybis Studio Locations post, i.e., with the ‘candelabra’ arms missing. If not the same one, then it is another quite similar. It may be that the original arms had become irreparably damaged in storage or in transit.
All of the cursive decorations on the stage display originally adorned the Church Street studio’s walls and ceilings; see the Studio Locations post for additional photos taken during the 1940s.
Early Porcelain ‘Fantastiques’
The pieces below are described in Cybis in Retrospect as being porcelain, with no mention of papka as the medium, and listed on a single page under the heading “Fantastiques.”
Bacchus is described as “porcelain, glazed and decorated, 14″, circa 1946. Individually created sculpture for a Cybis art film.” I’m going to assume that the height refers to the bust only (not including the wood base). It’s interesting that much of this piece resembles the female-bust papka figures despite having been done in porcelain. The open (“empty”) eyes of Bacchus are also intriguing.
This Beaked Bird Head is shown in the 1979 Cybis catalog and appears to be the one described in in the museum catalog: “porcelain, stained glass decoration, 5″ h x 11″ long. Circa 1943. For studio decoration representing ‘Air’, one of the four elements.” Unfortunately no particulars were given in the 1979 catalog regarding this illustration.
This is described as Woman’s Head, terracotta decorated, in the pages of Cybis in Retrospect; listed as 13″ high, it is closer to 14″. According to that book it is circa 1949.
This piece and the two that follow bear markings that at first appear to indicate that they were made after 1960: the addition of the copyright symbol and the letters A.P. meaning artist’s proof. No Cybis pieces made before the 1960s were originally signed in that way (the first piece that they copyrighted was in 1962.) However, I’ve since discovered that when the studio began selling directly to consumers in 1991, they also offered some of the original 1940s pieces for sale as well….and when they did, they added the Cybis signature, copyright symbol, and AP designation in paint. So although the piece itself is from the 1940s, the signatures/marks on it were added in the 1990s. (The designation A.P. is a bit of a misnomer in these cases; “prototype” or “sample” or “one of a kind” is more accurate.)
This bearded man’s head is extremely similar to the Bacchus bust shown above… even to what look like the same cutout/open eye sockets. His headgear reminds me of a Greek or Roman helmet. It is 17″ high but that includes the wood base. The terracotta/bronze/polychrome finish is similar to the Woman’s Head, and the unusual open top is similar to the “brickman” piece currently shown in the Unusual 1960s Cybis post (although the styles could not be more different!)
He is marked in the same way as the Woman’s Head, indicating that this too was an “archival item” that was signed and offered for sale by the studio decades later. This one even has the ‘number’ symbol added!
Another modern-marked piece is this one which I’m calling the wood nymph bust with birds. The auctioneer cited it as being 16″ high. This piece was sold twice during 2013: first in June in the USA in the same sale as the previous two, and then a mere five months later by the same Polish auction house that sold “Brickman.” This too had modern markings. Note the open eye sockets just like Bacchus and the Bearded Man. It’s likely that whoever bought these from the Cybis studio in the 1990s later consigned them (or their heirs did) to Kamelot in a group, and then some made their way to a Polish auction house afterward.
The following three are mentioned but not illustrated in the 1971 museum book.
Vulcan from 1943 was done in white bisque porcelain and was 15″ high. Like Bacchus, it is described as an “individually created sculpture” and it was probably similar in style (perhaps in purpose also.) Did Vulcan have the “empty eyes” as well? Were both of them intended to look like masks without actually being one?
Woman with Rose Buds was made between 1941-1943 and was 14″ high in stained-glass finish porcelain. Listed as an “individually created sculpture designed to test color and experiment with various decoration techniques.” The same OOAK description was applied to Woman with Birds, differing only in the height (15″) and the dating (ca. 1943); because it doesn’t say whether this is a bust or a full figure, it’s possible this may actually refer to the “wood nymph with birds” shown above. The materials description was simply “bisque decorated” meaning that it was not glazed, and that color was applied.
Listed under ‘Miscellaneous’ rather than with the ‘Fantastiques’ is a white bisque porcelain Man’s Head that was neither pictured nor displayed at the exhibit. Sixteen inches high and circa 1947, it is described as an “experimental one of a kind sculpture” within the studio’s collection. But coincidentally it is the same height and material as what I have informally dubbed the “brickman bust” which appears in the Unusual 1960s Cybis post, and I may yet end up moving that piece (provisionally) here!
In addition, a very large pair of papka bird-and-flower pieces is shown in its own post.
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