Dante Elsnerwas born in Kraków, Poland, in 1920 and died in London, at the age of 76 in 1997.
Elsner’s practice combined both painting and raku pottery. His life as an artist cannot be separated from the turmoil of the 20th century in central Europe; in many ways it represents a series of personal responses to the upheavals of his time. In 1942, at the age of 22, he survived the rounding up of Polish Jews that led to the deaths of his parents and his only brother. In 1944, at the liberation of Poland by the Soviet Army, he entered art school in Kraków – a chaotic but invigorating moment when the young were desperately committed to making up for the lost years of their early youth during the war. However, he felt deeply limited by the totalitarian compulsions of the new communist government in Poland. In 1948, as a promising artist, he was allowed by the Communist government to go to Paris to further his art education.
In Paris he pursued the life of the artist in the garret. Though with very limited means, often painting on his own vests, he immersed himself avidly in the European artistic tradition - finding meaning in his daily scrutiny of great works at the major Parisian museums. In moments of despair, including an occasion where the losses he suffered in the war turned him to thoughts of suicide, he found healing in the experience of art.
In 1958 he moved to London and in reaction to the materialism of post-war Western Europe, became influenced by the teachings of the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff (which he came across in Paris in the early 50’s), aspects of Sufism (through the works of French spiritual writers like René Guenon), esoteric Christianity and mystical Judaism, the Indian teacher Krishnamurti and Buddhism (most especially Japanese Zen). From these he developed a distinctive and personal practice involving meditation that preceded his daily move either to painting or to making pottery.
In both his painting and his pottery, he prized above all the qualities of spontaneity and honesty in relation to form, line and colour. In his pottery, he was decisively inspired by the Raku technique that had been developed to make the tea bowls used in the Japanese tea ceremony. Raku allows the artist to fire a pot individually, withdrawing it from the kiln (at about 1000 degrees centrigrade) to control the chemical reactions that affect the glaze.
He also drew and painted on Japanese mulberry paper on which any brush stroke made by the artist was an instantaneous commitment that could not be covered up. He saw this as a direct confrontation with his own honesty and skill as an artist, and ultimately rejected oil painting because he saw it as a form that allowed the painter to ‘lie’ by covering up and repainting any error or mistake, which cannot be done when drawing in ink or watercolour on Japanese paper.
Although his painting style and technique was quite unusual by the standards of French and British artists in the second half of the 20th century, he was committed to a kind of existential conceptualism that governed the themes of many of the works he made. In pottery, he was inspired by the Japanese turn of British ceramics in the wake of Bernard Leach’s (1887-1979) friendship with Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), but he also pursued a more modernist European line – especially in his experimentation with forms – that might be more closely related to the work of such emigré potters as Lucy Rie (1902-1995) and Hans Coper (1920-1981). In painting, he adopted the technique and to some extent the styles of Japanese ink and brush painting; but he used these in pursuit of his own conceptual themes – whether spiritual, social commentary or inspired by literature.