Although the studio always emphasized Boleslaw as its founder, his wife Marja Cybis was a talented artist in her own right and no doubt contributed just as much to its success as he did. Unfortunately she has gotten short shrift in Cybis studio literature, usually relegated to a brief mention in a description in a timeline. Today, on the 60th anniversary of her death, it’s time to remedy that omission.
Boleslaw Cybis was a forceful and often erratic personality and so it’s not surprising that most of the attention (then and now) was focused upon him. We know very little about Marja other than her maiden name (Tym) and that she was born in 1906, probably in the second half of that year. We don’t know her parents’ names or where she was born, other than the 1940 U.S. Census record that gives her birthplace as “Poland”. However, that doesn’t mean that her birthplace was actually in Poland in 1906; only that in 1940 the location was considered to be in that country. For example, although Boleslaw’s birthplace is also given there as “Poland”, during his birth year that village was geopolitically in Ukraine… specifically, Crimea.
Marja had an older brother, Casimir (also spelled Cazimir and Kazimier) who in 1950 emigrated to the US with his wife and settled in the Trenton area. She also had a sister who remained in Poland and whose name is unknown. It’s possible she had other siblings but by 1958 only those two remained.
A quick note about her name: it was originally Marja, but when the couple decided to remain in America she altered the spelling to ‘Maria’. A few online accounts spell her name as “Marya” but that is probably just a phonetic spelling of her given name pronounced as mahr-yah.
The first “official” mention of Marja is in Cybis in Retrospect, which indicates she was a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw during the early-to-mid 1920s. We can deduce this from the timeline entry saying that 1926 Boleslaw “married Marja Tym, a talented fellow artist and student at the Academy.” She would have been twenty years old then, and so if it was typical for the Academy to take students at the age of 18 or so, she may have started there in 1924. Boleslaw Cybis was purportedly there from 1923 to 1925, which means they married after he (and possibly she) graduated.
Marja accompanied her husband to Italy (Rome and Florence) and then to North Africa (Libya) in 1928 and 1929. The timeline in Cybis in Retrospect is slightly off, because it claims they were in Libya in 1932; this is incorrect, as will be explained below.
Stone Garden Sculptures (1930-1939)
According to research done by the Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture in Warsaw, who mounted a 2016 exhibit of stone statuary by Marja and Boleslaw Cybis, upon their return to Warsaw in 1930 the couple established a home and garden in the Placówka neighborhood, which abuts a large cemetery and is not far from the Vistula River. The artists decorated their garden with more than twenty stone sculptures and decorations of various types, three of which were attributed directly to Marja in the 2016 exhibit.
This frieze topped an entranceway and shows a group of eight children in various poses: One boy lifts a girl who is frightened by the approach of a friendly dog, another girl stands with hands on hips in a challenging attitude, and a shy girl covers her face and body with both hands.
The almost ancient-Babylonian style of this female sculpture is heightened by the flat back section making the outline appear very squared/geometric. Depending on how tall that garden wall was, this may have been a very large sculpture indeed! Unfortunately no dimensions were given in the website ad for the temporary exhibit.
This equally large figure of a woman and male child includes elaborate hair braids that strongly evoke the Cybis works from their African sojourn.
These Cybis 1930s garden sculptures will be examined more fully in a future post. In the spring of 1939, Marja and Boleslaw left Placówka to travel to New York in order to work on the commissioned Worlds Fair Polish Pavilion murals. The house and garden were temporarily (they assumed) turned over to the care of family members during their absence.
The earliest photo I have found of Marja is this one from 1939, showing the couple putting finishing touches on one of the Worlds Fair murals. She is 33 years old.
Papka Sculptures (1940s)
After finishing their Worlds Fair commission the Cybises embarked on an extended trip to the American West and Southwest; it is during this time that Boleslaw creates the Folio One drawings and becomes enamored of the Native American people and culture. They failed to return to the east coast in time to make their originally scheduled boat departure for Poland, and then the war in Europe broke out before they had a second chance to depart. The couple found rented quarters in Astoria, Queens County, not far from the Worlds Fair site.
It was in this early-1940s first studio, within the Steinway Mansion, that Marja created many – perhaps even all – of the papka angels in various sizes. She is shown here sculpting a nearly-life-size model in either clay or papka; notice the small version on an upper shelf in the background.
Marja also created all the members of the Angelic Orchestra; examples of three of the six styles are shown here. A half-dozen other papka angels are mentioned in Cybis in Retrospect and it is likely there were more.
Two charming little Marja Cybis fairies were profiled in the previous Archive post.
Sculptures and Art at the Cybis Home
Marja continued to be a partner in the retail operations (Cybis Art Productions and Cordey Fine China) on Church Street, as well as Boleslaw’s pet projects including costumes and makeup for the private theatricals staged at their newly built home/studio in Princeton.
Here Marja assists Boleslaw with a clown character’s theatrical “greasepaint.” This photo probably dates from the late 1940s.
The 1978/79 Cybis retail catalog includes this photo of a classical figure “gracing the grounds” of the Cybis house/studio on Greenhouse Drive. However, it’s not known whether this figure was actually sculpted by Marja or Boleslaw, or merely acquired by them.
Maria Cybis Signatures
Two kinds of Marja/Maria Cybis marks on 1940s and 1950s pieces are straightforward and easy to identify; the third is a bit murky. Keep in mind that some pieces may also have either a Cordey or a Cybis mark/stamp on them as well, but not all do. None of the papka pieces will have a Cordey or Cybis mark.
The basic mark is a simple MC, for Maria Cybis, as shown on the bottoms of these papka figures.
This dual mark on an Angelic Orchestra French Horn Player leaves no doubt as to who created her! The “Maria Cybis” can also appear as a stand-alone, without the accompanying MC signature.
The slightly wonky mark is the one that reads M. B. Cybis. I have always assumed that M. B. stood for M(aria and) B(oleslaw) Cybis, and the odds are that it probably does… but what if Marja’s given middle name began with B? In other words, did “Marja B. Tym” become “Maria B. Cybis”? On one hand, social convention during the 40s and 50s was that when a couple’s name is written, the woman’s name is usually written first, e.g. “Mary and John Smith” rather than “John and Mary Smith.” [This is one of the few instances in 1950s culture where the woman was given an advantage.] On the other hand, Boleslaw’s ego was such that leads me to think he’d rather have put his initial first. So the exact meaning of M.B. must remain a mystery.
However, we also find pieces that are dual-signed MC for Maria and M.B. Cybis which lends credence to the fact that M.B. indicated meant a joint creation effort. Yet for some reason Marja felt the need to emphasize the fact that she had a bit more to do with that particular piece than her husband did; and good for her, I say! But what’s puzzling is that the M.B. Cybis mark is on a Mandolinist papka angel which was probably made by Marja with little or no input from Boleslaw.
So what kind of porcelain items did Marja put her signature to?
Porcelain Retail Items (1940s-1950s)
Maria’s signature can be found on 1940s and 1950s retail pieces bearing the Cordey and/or Cybis imprint but also on items with no other designation on them. These were all glazed and decorated; I have never seen an all-white item with Maria’s mark on it.
Here is a lady-bust lamp in lavishly decorated, gilded and glazed porcelain that has many attributes of a typical Cordey piece… but instead of being marked Cordey, it is only signed M. B. Cybis. This reminds me of one of the 1940s papka sculptures and so if pressed I would say it could be either a Boleslaw OR a Marja design. But if I hadn’t seen a photo of the signature I’d have said “it’s a Cordey.”
Here’s a non-lamp lady bust that is also signed M. B. Cybis with not a Cordey mark in sight. Both lady bust pieces are very similar to the mid 1940s ad from B. Altman shown here. Notice these were described as being “by the artist Cybis” without a first name.
This elderly Asian gentleman is extremely interesting because it was cited as having two marks: MC and and also 5094 which is a Cordey-format design number…..but there’s no Cordey name anywhere. MC clearly means Maria specifically. I love the “Cheerios necklace” and this wise old fellow’s expression; too bad I only discovered the listing after it had been sold.
Here’s another case of Marja not being credited at all in Cybis literature. This Mosaic Head of Christ is physically noted as “M. Cybis – 1946” on the reverse, and is listed in Cybis in Retrospect as a verified item (complete with year!) yet it is not disclosed in the book as having been by Marja…. merely as being a product of the studio. A matching companion plaque, Mosaic Head of Virgin Mary, was also cited but I have not found a photo of one. Both items were listed as being the property of the Cybis studio at the time of the exhibit (1971) and so apparently this was one of the legacy items that the studio sold off during the 1990s. One wonders where the companion plaque is.
I am certain that quite a few of the 1940s items listed in that museum catalog had MC or Maria Cybis signatures on them even though credit was not given to her in their description.
Death of Marja Cybis
Marja / Maria Cybis died on June 14th (Flag Day) 1958 at her home. She was 53 years old. This notice appeared in the June 22-28 issue of the local Princeton weekly paper, Town Topics:
Although the wording of the article describing the event as having occurred “last Saturday” may be confusing, it would have been typeset on the 21st (the Saturday following her death.) It is not known why she chose that date, although Boleslaw had also died on an American patriotic holiday (Memorial Day) the previous year. The circumstances of the discovery of her body are not known, nor the date of the service or initial interment. Boleslaw had been cremated and so it is very likely that the same was done for Maria.
A recent chance find in online back issues of Town Topics was an ad for an auction sale of the contents of the Cybis home. It is unusual because the sales were not conducted until almost a full year after Marja’s death.
The first session took plate on May 19th and 20th, 1959 and is odd because the sale was not held at the Cybis estate at #38 Greenhouse, but rather a bit down the road, at #46. This (and the delay) may be been due to a delay in emptying and selling the Cybis property; whether this was done by Marja’s brother Casimir or by Marylin and Joe Chorlton, is not known. The property may not have been sold until the spring of 1959, at which time the contents would need to have been moved. Perhaps a friend lived at #46 and offered space for the auction to be held.
Reading through the list of (supposedly) 2000 items, I find it hard to believe that they all came from the Cybis estate; there are too many Americana antiques mentioned. Items that I do think probably belonged to Marja and Boleslaw are the luncheon, salad, and cup plates depicting eagles (because these are known Cybis retail repro items; see Historicals); hundreds of Cordey figurines; tapestries; a Florentine palace chair; a carousel horse; carved columns; and display cases. It may well be that the auctioneer supplemented whatever items came from Marja’s home with others from one or more small consignments into one large event.
The second part of the sale occurred the following month, on June 16th; almost exact a year after Marja’s death. I found no other notices, and so whatever may not have sold that day probably went back into the Chorltons’ keeping; some of them may have remained to decorate the walls of the Church Street studio and later been removed to the new studio on Norman Avenue.
Marja and Boleslaw were interred together at Princeton Cemetery on June 29, 1959, shortly after the second estate sale. It’s not known whether either were previously interred but if both were cremated that would not have been immediately necessary. This historic and very large cemetery is on Greenview Avenue; the Cybis plot is in Section 3, Block 09, Lot 019C. Marja’s brother Casimir died in 1990 and was interred in the same plot.
It is sad that Marja ended her life so soon; perhaps she would have blossomed into a recognized artist in her own right. I wish that we could know more about her, as a person and an artist, than we do.
[If you have any information about Marja Cybis (nee Marja Tym) that you would like to share, or signed examples of her work, there is a contact form at the link below. I would be happy to add your information or photos to this page.]
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