Volume 13, Number 1, Jan. 1991, pp.26-28
Driving through Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution became a reality to us. Before our entry, we had not been able to identify any brushmaking activities in Czechoslovakia, but our excitement was high. Prague and Wenceslas Square were mental images we were looking forward to experiencing first hand.
Contrary to our expectations, the roads were in good repair, and the trip from the German border to Prague was delightful. We were somewhat transported back in time by the many horse-drawn vehicles and their traditionally dressed occupants on the road, but that was offset by the traffic of trucks and new construction along the way. The road signage was so clear that we had no problem finding our way.
Prague is a magnificent city. Perhaps one of the most beautiful we have ever visited. The people we met were warm, outgoing and helpful. Most of them spoke English and were very pro-American. We were able to spend a little time in Wenceslas Square, absorbing some of the impact of the memorial and feeling a tremendous empathy with the valorous people who gave their lives there. It is a city to savor, and the time we didn't have to explore it was sorely regretted.
From Prague through the lovely rolling hillsides, picturesque forests and villages to the industrial hub of Czechoslovakia, the city of Brno, was like going from beauty to the beast. The approach was memorable because of the formidable vista of blank- faced, cement high-rise buildings housing the industrial workers. Through our hotel window, we heard a stream of streetcars, jammed with commuters and sounding like a series of deep, low hiccups. While exploring the city we found ourselves in a huge square, on the fringe of a political rally, complete with speech-making from a balcony to at least a thousand people, cheering, chanting, booing and clapping. As Americans, it was a different exposure for us.
The original theory on which we based our trip had to do with a postulation that brushmaking was brought to Europe from Russia, through Poland. Back on the track of brushes, the vaunted Polish brush museum, and making our way to the Polish border generated a new kind of stimulation.
Before we left Los Angeles, we had contacted the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago. He sent us a list of brush manufacturers, each of whose names ended with Invalidow. As a result of World War II, there were countless numbers of disabled people in Poland who desperately needed employment. In order to attempt to address the problem, the government established a law that called for all brushmaking plants to employ a minimum of 75% handicapped people, so the word Invalidow was appended to each name. Brushmaking, in this sense, covers all tools used as brooms and mops, and brushes to use for teeth, hair, cosmetics, currying horses, industry, house painting--as well as artists' brushes.
We selected six that appeared to be manufacturers of artists' brushes and wrote to them advising of our project and possible visit. None of them replied.
A friend in the brush industry gave us the name of one of the Polish cooperative companies for foreign trade, representing most of the government operated brush manufacturers. This cooperative was the key to our first encounter with Polish brushmakers. The woman I was able to reach by phone at the cooperative in Warsaw dealt valiantly with the language barrier. We agreed that the company that might have been able to best offer historical information was in Bielsko-Biala, close to our border crossing point into Poland.
Bielsko-Biala was about two hours by car, on the road to Krakow, the nearest major city, and where we were able to make hotel reservations. On our arrival in Krakow, we again telephoned our cooperative contact, who offered to make an appointment with the manager of the factory and to arrange to have an interpreter present. It took two trips from Krakow to Bielsko-Biala, but finally it was done.
We spent several hours with Arkadiusz Spratek, the accounting manager for the company and a young man whose English was comparatively easily understood. He gave us a copy of a booklet, in Polish, published in celebration of the 110th anniversary of the factory. He went through about five pages, slowly, translating most of the historical material while making helpful explanatory and expansionary remarks as he went. His patience and graciousness were remarkable. Sadly, he told us that the factory was suffering for lack of orders and would possibly be laying off a number of workers soon. When we left, we were presented with samples of some of the brushes they now produce. They are utility brushes like hair brushes and house painting brushes, although some might be used by artists for very large works. The fibers most often used are Chinese bristles, however, they use some Polish bristles, Tynex (Japanese) for toothbrushes and Polish nylon for car, clothes, shoe and hairbrushes.
F.Y.I.: Below is a segment of the history of Polish brushmaking, gathered from the information we have so far. It includes additional material which paintings conservator Aneta Zebala was able to provide after her visit to Poland in September. Aside from Aneta's native ability with the Polish language, she also has the makings of a sleuth. We thank her for her efforts.
Bielsko-Biala is a city between the Polish-Czech border and Krakow, and it is the location of a brushmaking factory established in 1876 by two brothers named Sennewaldt. Biala was part of Austria at that time. Specialists from Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were brought in for a short while to teach the brothers and their employees the techniques of hand brushmaking. Although their primary manufacture was utility brushes, the Brothers Sennewaldt firm supplied the whole territory of Austria-Hungary with its products. Under the name "The Tradesmen to the Royal Court in Vienna," they also made artists' quality brushes. Through many transitions the company continued to make some artists' brushes until 1960.
In September of 1939, Hitler's troops entered Bielsko. For one week the Sennewaldt factory was closed, and upon reopening only Germans were employed. Later, some Poles were also employed as menial workers. When the Russian army entered the city in January of 1945, they took over the factory and a Russian officer vengefully destroyed many documents and archives written in German, and Polish state management took over the factory. (From a conversation between a worker and Aneta Zebala.)
A second brush company in the area, Sanax, owned by a Jewish family whose background in brushmaking we have yet to uncover, was in existence from 1930 to 1939. They included artists' brushmaking in their factory. With the impending German occupation, the owners fled the country. From 1939 to 1945, under German orders, this factory was operated by a previous employee of the Sennewaldt Brothers, who was reputed to be a Nazi collaborator. In 1944, he bought the plant from the German authorities, and just before the Russians arrived he fled to Germany. After the invasion, the Polish Ministry of Industry took over the plant and the name, Sanax, remained.
In 1947, the Board of Directors of the Local Industry in Krakow merged the two companies naming the new entity "The State Factory of Brushes and Paintbrushes, Bielsko-Biala." Through the cooperative they export to the U.S.A., England, Finland, Albania and Cuba.
After the turn of the century, technology changed the manufacturing methods radically. Due to the small market for quality artists' brushes, compared to utility brushes and brooms, their commercial manufacture began to dwindle. Artists' brushmaking is a hand craft, and many of the steps are rarely suited to mechanization. Skilled craftspeople are a requirement. The displaced, qualified hand brushmakers retreated to cottage industry, and today in Poland they are probably the major suppliers, directly to artists.
At Bielsko-Biala we were told of a privately owned small firm in Lublin, about 177 miles from Krakow. From our hotel in Krakow we made arrangements, by phone, to visit the owner, Mr. Koslowski, whose wife "speaks English." By the time we arrived in Lublin, we found that Mr. Koslowski was out of town, and had appointed his wife (a practicing pediatrician), his two children, his wife's friend who was visiting from the U.S. and was to be our translator, and his mother who had been trained as a brushmaker. Our disappointment abated when we were privileged to be invited to his mother's apartment, fed wonderful Polish pastries and treated to the story of her family's life in the world of brushes.
Mrs. Koslowski's husband had been trained by a master brushmaker in Lodz, and at one time worked in a large brush manufacturing plant there. When the Russians came into Poland, he was a member of the resistance movement. He began to write anti-communist political articles and left brushmaking to become a journalist. In 1950, he and his new bride left Lodz to escape capture by the secret police and hid in a small village for about three years. When he felt it was safe, he went to Lublin and became a soccer coach.
They had three sons. In order to augment his income and support his family, he began to make brushes at home, in the same very small apartment where we were being entertained. The family became a part of the brushmaking cottage industry. The boys and their mother were trained as hand brushmakers, and as they grew up, they continued to practice their craft. Following the pattern we found in Germany, today each of them has their own small, independent and competitive business. Not only are they dealing directly with consumers, but they are exporting. It's impossible to assess the quality of their products because we have yet to have them in hand, but we have seen one of their catalogs that pictures art, craft and cosmetic brushes.
The earliest historical Polish historical brushmaking we were able to trace so far was 1876, and in the effort to find the museum and earlier material, we decided to go on to Warsaw to visit the cooperative itself. We were told there was one man in Warsaw who was probably the most knowledgeable in the field, and that someone employed at the cooperative would try to arrange an interview. So we took off again, in our trusty little red car, for another 85-mile trip escapade.
At the cooperative, Coopexim, we met with an English-speaking young woman in their export sales department. Our first question was concerning the whereabouts of the Polish brush museum. She knew of none, but since they represented many Polish brushmakers, she suggested that we visit the showrooms of the cooperative, in North Carolina. That was a low blow. She did arrange a meeting with the gentleman we had heard about, however, and that was considerably more productive.
Jan Sakowicz was the president of a government operated brushmaking company from 1962 to 1980, when he retired. He is especially qualified as a technologist for the design of large machinery for the trade. Included in the books he has written is one designed as an aid for handicapped workers. With the patient help of our translator, he supplied some fascinating information about the trade in Poland.
Before World War II, 80% of the bristles used in Polish brushmaking were from Polish pigs. He told us that at that time, there were 40 companies exporting Polish bristles. Presently the hides and the meat are much more commercially important than bristles. The pigs are bred and raised in a controlled environment, specifically oriented to the production of more saleable products. However, young pigs in that kind of habitat do not produce the quality of tough, long bristles suitable for brushes. So now they are almost all supplied by China.
The restrictive budgetary structure of the communist government controlled the purchasing of artists' tools and materials. There was a limited incoming supply from Winsor and Newton, Rowney and Talens. But when we went to an art materials store and asked for brushes, we were shown not more than a dozen, of miserable quality.
We were hoping that Mr. Sakowicz could supply us with contacts with older hand brushmakers who might have more historical facts. Our time was limited at that point, but he promised to arrange meetings for us if we returned to Poland. He had trained his wife to make artists' brushes at home, and he was trying to help her sell them. So he presented a group of her brushes to us together with three of his books as a gift when we parted.
From Warsaw through East Germany on our way back to Frankfurt, where we were to board our plane for home, was a long drive. It was impossible to find a hotel in Dresden to break our trip, so even though we slept in the car in a roadside rest area, we were happy to be near the end of our trip.
It has taken from April to December to absorb even this much. And while we were ruminating over the notes, we were planning for our next jaunt to Belgium, Holland, France and England. Who knows when the next segment will appear in the WAAC Newsletter? I certainly can't predict. But we're still in search of the tale.
about the author:
Zora and Edward Pinney are researching the history of artists' brushes. This column presents what they learned about brushmaking in Poland. Their travel took place in March, 1990. ZORA'S COLUMN in an earlier WAAC Newsletter reported what she and Edward learned from a master brushmaker in Germany, and what they saw at the Deutsche Pinsel und Bursten Museum, a museum in Bechhoven devoted to brushes (WAAC Newsletter, v.12 n.2, May 1990).