Forgotten master

By Alidor Aucoin on September 4, 2008

Roman Catholic who was incarcerated in a series of Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War, Christo Stefanoff’s signature works have enduring political value because not only do they depict the Jewish Holocaust, but Christian suffering as well.

Few painters have captured first hand the heartbreak and the horror of Gross-Rosen, Nordhausen-Dora and Bergen-Belsen as vividly. His iconic paintings, including “The Uprising”, of the first Warsaw Ghetto Uprising are said to be the only eyewitness accounts of the Jewish and Polish undergrounds tragic struggles against the Nazis in 1943. Even though helping Jews in occupied Poland was punishable by death, Stefanoff was a member of the Zegota, (the Relief Council for Jews in Poland).

Stefanoff came to Canada in 1951.While he was alive much of his work, especially his portraits and his landscapes, was highly regarded. Samuel Bronfman bought one of his canvases of the Warsaw Uprising, which now appears to have been lost.  Stefanoff did a portrait of Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde and was commissioned, but never paid, for his portrait of Cardinal Paul-Emile Léger that is included in the recently discovered trove.

After Stefanoff’s death in 1966, just as the Canadian art market began to flourish, his widow, Irena Pludowska, kept his work under lock and key, out of public view. Only recently has his nephew, Robert Pludowski, attempted to spark renewed interest in what remains of Stefanoff’s output. “He was considered by European critics as one of the great masters,” said Pludowski, “We have to do everything to see that he is remembered, to make him great again. It will be a challenge, but it will be well worth it.”

Pludowski’s lawyer Aaron Markovka, who has worked ceaselessly on the Stefanoff collection over the years,approached The Métropolitan’s publisher, Beryl  Wasjman, who also heads the Institute for Public Affairs. After a tour of the artist's studio, Wajsman agreed to support the effort to refurbish the artist¹s reputation. “Stefanoff`s work is iconic to so many as the pre-eminent artistic representation not just of the horros of the Holocaust but of man’s faith and redemption as well. I`m not an art expert, but the ideas and emotions of his work need to be disseminated to a new generation as much as any history or poetry of that era,” Wajsman said.

Montreal fine art dealer Alan Klinkhoff agreed that the paintings are good, but  there is no commercial market for them.

“Stefanoff is so entirely off          the radar,” said Klinkhoff.  “To create a market takes a lot of work. An artist has got to be out there,  he has to have  exhibitions to create an identity so people think the paintings are in demand.”

Now, a compact show is being put together in Montreal, with the help of Wajsman and the Garceau Foundation working in concert with the Pludowski family and Markovka. The exhibit will try to put things in perspective. Its focus will be about two dozen of Stefanoff’s paintings from the 1940s through to the 50s and 60s when he immigrated to Canada.

Stefanoff was born in Bulgaria in 1898, and studied painting in Sofia. He was  one of several artists who worked on a panorama depicting the heroic 19th century battle of Stara Zagora, one of the first major engagments of the Russian-Turkish war in 1877, in which 15,000 civilians died.

Stefanoff then apprenticed with the Hungarian-born, British  painter Philip Alexius de László, who made his  reputation doing portraits of European aristocracy and royalty.

Stefanoff became an itinerant painter who travelled Europe            in search of commissions and exhibited in the United States. In 1934 he settled in Warsaw, where he executed portraits of Benito Mussolini, Greta Garbo, and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

When the Second World War began, he joined the Polish underground. In 1943 he and his wife were arrested,  separated, and shunted around various concentration camps. For four years neither he nor his wife knew each other’s fate, and each presumed the other dead. After the war, he did a major painting of the Battle of Monte Casino that hangs in the gallery at Breda, in The Netherlands. European critics praised him as “a bold master of the palette knife, a master of light and colour, renowned as a portraitist, but no less genial as a landscape and still life painter.”

Stefanoff and his wife came to Canada in 1951 and settled in the Laurentians where Stefanoff painted rich landscapes, designed the stained glass windows for the church in Ste. Agathe de Monts, and restored the cyclorama of Jerusalem at Ste. Anne de Beaupré after the building housing it collapsed in the 1950s.


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