Stefan Knapp is best known for his vibrant enamel murals which can be seen in many museums and public buildings all over the world.
Knapp was the first to experiment with fusing enamel onto steel (1954) His discoveries enabled him to work on a massive scale and he continued to pioneer the medium for the next 40 years.
Born in Bilgoraj, a small country town in the south east of Poland, he was arrested in 1939 and sent to work in a labour camp in Siberia. In 1942 he was released as a result of the Churchill-Stalin agreement and made his way to England. He trained as a Spitfire fighter pilot and worked in reconnaissance until 1945.
These experiences made a huge impression on his artistic development. For years after the war he suffered nightmares, unable to sleep he used painting to exorcise his mind. His art became the vehicle through which he found temporary release and means of expression but he also began to experience the torment of the creator needing to develop a highly personal pure art, worthy of his understanding of the world and the standards he set himself. The ‘Gulag’ series of paintings from the 1940’s show his restless experimentation with different techniques and materials in his attempts to express his feelings.
After the war Knapp enrolled at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and later the Slade. He won several prizes for his paintings and inventions that enabled him to withdraw and paint until he had developed a personal style. In 1954 he had a sell out exhibition at the Hanover Gallery and showed in New York at the Pierre Matisse gallery the following year.
During the late 50’s and 60’s he received many commissions including one for Bentall’s stores that stretched the entire height of the store, a series of 17 enamels for Heathrow terminal and many for Alexanders, the enormous mural on their New Jersey building became a landmark for JFK airport. It was the largest in the world, its progress closely followed by the worlds press featured in Pathe newsreels and on the front of Time magazine. He became more involved in perfecting his technique, his style was evolving as it did throughout his career. He worked tri-angularly with subject matter and technique in painting, enamel and sculpture each discipline informing and influencing the development of the other. His natural inclination to experiment, push boundaries and work with pure colour was perfectly suited to the medium of enamel. He also worked with Rowneys to develop Cryla a new acrylic paint that suited his fast working techniques.
His reputation rapidly grew and he worked on projects for the Seagram and Shell buildings with Rothko, Dali and Pollock. Between 1954 and 1968 he showed at least once a year, with nineteen one man shows in galleries and five in International museums in places as diverse as Peru, Amsterdam, Detroit and Linz.. He travelled frequently to America and Europe and in 1970 he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to make further studies into the origin, development and practice of murals and enamels travelling to Mexico, Guatemala, Japan, India and Iran.
Above all it was very important to him to be taken seriously as a fine art painter and especially in the very medium he invented. Nobody before had ever produced such large murals that could last for thousands of years. His international status, free spirit, prolific output, the sheer scale and diversity of his work made him one of the unique entities of the post war art world. In enamel Knapp realised the dream of the ancient Greeks who searched for a suitable medium in which to preserve polychrome colour for perpetuity.
In the last 70’s Knapp finally settled in the countryside with his wife Cathy, where he had already constructed a large furnace for firing and continued to paint and experiment with enamels and sculpture. He also spent several months of the year in France drawing and working in acrylic on canvas. It was here he produced some of his most peaceful and reflective work.
On 12th October 1996, 2 days after overseeing the re-installation of his 1960’s Heathrow murals in the Richard Rogers Terminal 4 transit building and three days after he completed The Battle of Britain Mural for the Warsaw Metro, Knapp suffered a massive heart attack in his studio.
His last mural was unique in that it embodied all the power of his early work through the juxtaposing of large blocks of pure and graduated colour and yet used symbolism that almost verged on representational art.
Working on the New York Mural
The Finished Mural