Maria Piechotkowa - commemoration
Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka published "Wooden Synagogues" in Polish in 1957 and in English in 1959. The English translation introduced international readers to the wooden synagogue, its beauty, history, and significance. Compared with their later lavish books, this volume, issued during Poland’s communist period, was a modest publication. Its impact, however, was extraordinary, and that was thanks to the English translation.
In 1970, when Frank Stella, one of America’s greatest contemporary artists, was in the hospital, his friend, the architect Richard Meier, happened to give him a copy of "Wooden Synagogues". No doubt Meier, as an architect, would have found the book of interest, but he could hardly have anticipated Stella’s response. Stella did not just read the book. He took inspiration from the illustrations, both the photographs and the meticulous architectural drawings made by the Piechotkas on the basis of earlier documentation. Those drawings reconstructed in detail the complex structure of these spectacular buildings.
Stella, who is Italian American and Catholic, responded as an artist. Inspired by the wood construction, he created a series of more than 100 abstract works between 1970 and 1974 for what became known as his Polish Village series. He named each work for the town whose synagogue was the basis for it: Zabłudów, Jabłonów, Piaski, Lanckorona, Mogielnica, and Nasielsk, among others. As he explained in a lecture delivered in Havana in 2016, "These synagogues were destroyed during the war and there were two things interesting about them. One was that there was a kind of geometry in the construction, the wooden construction, which I would call interlocking-ness: interlocking parts that are interesting as a kind of geometry.” The second was “modernism’s constructivist line, [which] can be traced from Moscow to Berlin via Warsaw; this path is mirrored in reverse by the course of the Nazis who ruined these sacral sites.” ("Artforum" 2016)
The works that Stella created on the basis of "Wooden Synagogues" represent a major development not only in Stella’s oeuvre, but also in the history of American modern art. The Polish Village series redefined “painting”: as Stella explained, these works were constructed, not painted in the conventional sense. They were on the wall, but not flat. They were in relief, angular, and architectural. They were inspired by carpentry. All in all, the "Polish Village" series inaugurated Stella’s “’maximalist’ period of formal experimentation,” as described by the Lévy Gorvy gallery, which exhibited some of these works in 2019.
In 2016, POLIN Museum mounted a temporary exhibition that brought together, for the first time, a selection from Stella’s "Polish Village" series and the original documentation upon which Wooden Synagogues was based. Maria Piechotka advised us on this project, and a video interview with her was included in the exhibition. It was a truly historic moment to witness Frank Stella and Maria Piechotka meet for the first time, almost 50 years after "Wooden Synagogues" appeared in English and 40 years after Stella first opened the book. Imagine how she felt to see the impact of this book on the history of American modern - and at POLIN Museum, where the wooden synagogue has pride of place at the very center of the Core Exhibition.
Not long after the fall of communism, the Piechotkas began publishing greatly expanded studies of wooden synagogues, lavishly illustrated and large format volumes ("Bramy nieba: bóżnice drewniane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej", 1996) and of masonry synagogues ("Bramy nieba: bóżnice murowane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej", 1999), both of which have been translated into English, with more books to follow.
Years after Stella created his Polish Village series, "Wooden Synagogues" and the volumes that followed inspired architectural historian Thomas C. Hubka to write "Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Community", which appeared in 2003. This book was dedicated to the wooden synagogue that once stood in Gwoździec, today in Ukraine. It was through Hubka’s book that Rick and Laura Brown, founders of Handshouse Studio, an educational non-profit in Norwell, Massachusetts, discovered the work of Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka and became their lifelong devoted fans.
The Browns were so inspired by wooden synagogues that they decided to "build" one, starting in 2006 with the "bimah", the platform from which the public reading from the Torah scroll takes place. They chose the "bimah" that once stood in the center of the main sanctuary of the Gwoździec synagogue. This synagogue is the best documented of the hundreds of wooden synagogues that once stood across the length and breadth of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Ronald S. Lauder Chief Curator of POLIN Museum’s Core Exhibition, was introduced to Handshouse Studio in 2007 by Michael Berkowicz. At their first meeting, the Brown’s desire to reconstruct a wooden synagogue found its perfect partner in POLIN Museum, which was planning to include part of a wooden synagogue in the Core Exhibition.
Handhouse Studio brought their truly exceptional approach to historic structures to this project, consistent with their mission “to recover lost objects.” As they explain, you can never recover the original object, in the sense of the original material, but you can recover the knowledge of how to build it – using traditional tools, materials, and techniques. The Piechotkas had begun the process of reconstruction. They had gathered and analyzed the documentation made between the 1890s and the Holocaust, during which the Germans destroyed all the wooden synagogues still standing, and they had made precise architectural drawings of their sophisticated timber-frame structure. Now, for POLIN Museum, Handshouse Studio proposed to take the recovery process a step further by actually building the structure – the timber-frame roof and painted ceiling of the Gwoździec wooden synagogue and to do so with a team of about 300 volunteers and experts.
Meetings with Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka were most memorable, especially once we had competed the project. Maria was present when we reassembled and hoisted this 25-ton structure – and she actually helped hoist it. We marveled at the thought of her witnessing this reconstruction, which owed so much to her work and to that of her late husband, Kazimierz, who passed away in 2010.
Maria was always an honored guest at POLIN Museum, and her presence graced so many of our events. How fitting that she was presented with the Taube Philanthropies 2016 Irena Sendler Memorial Award under the painted ceiling of the Gwoździec wooden synagogue in POLIN Museum’s Core Exhibition. In honoring Maria Piechotka on this occasion, Distinguished Benefactor Tad Taube cited her "historic vision of a multicultural Poland and its profound and long-lasting impact on Polish society, which helped to preserve Poland’s rich Jewish heritage.”
- "Bóżnica drewniana", 1957
- "Wooden Synagogues", 1959
- "Bramy nieba: bóżnice drewniane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej", 1996
- "Bramy nieba: bóżnice murowane na ziemiach dawnej Rzeczypospolitej", 1999
- "Heaven's Gates: Wooden Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth", 2004
- "Heaven's Gates: Masonry Synagogues in the Territories of the Former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth", 2017
- "Oppidum Judaeorum: Żydzi w przestrzeni miejskiej dawnej Rzeczypospolitej", 2004
- "Krajobraz z Menorą: Żydzi w miastach i miasteczkach dawnej Rzeczpospolitej", 2008
- "Landscape with Menorah: Jews in the Towns and Cities of the Former Rzeczpospolita of Poland and Lithuania", 2015