In September 1939, 17 days after Germany invaded western Poland, the Soviet Union counter-attacked the country from the east. Over the next two years, half a million Poles – one in ten Polish men – were imprisoned by the Russian army, among them Andrzej Kuhn’s father, while a further one-and-a-half million were deported to the wastes of the USSR.
Kuhn was just 10 years old when, with his sister and his mother, he was transported first by cattle-wagon, then ox-cart, over 1,500 miles to a camp in Kazakhstan, along with 300,000 Polish citizens from the annexed eastern territories. After six months in captivity, Kuhn’s mother managed to escape with her two children. They fled for ten days before the family were caught and their mother sentenced to ten years in a labour camp, where she died.
In a move of calculated arbitrariness, typical of the Soviets’ reign of random terror, Kuhn’s father was then released and, by a quirk of fate, reunited with his children, who had been interned in a state orphanage. Together, the three trekked from refugee camp to camp, exiled in pilgrimage through the Middle East to Egypt before alighting by boat in England in 1947.
After six years of labouring, a stint in the merchant navy, and a studentship at the Chelsea School of Art, Kuhn left London for a coastguard’s hut near Boston, Lincolnshire, overlooking the salt-marshes of the Wash, which he named Atlantis. When he arrived, the surrounding panorama was utterly flat. Planting a ring of trees around the house, over the years a small grove grew around him and his garden, where he sat wooden sculptures of warrior kings and mystic prophets made from carved timber, wood scrap, strung with beads and armoured in empty shotgun shells.
This is one such wooden sculpture; the first, I think, of any of Kuhn’s work to have featured in our quarterly magazine. Most that arrives between issues are the paintings; and most of these promptly sail off to new homes before any chance of singing their praises here.
I have written the above for those who will not know of Andrzej Kuhn’s story: not as an explanation for the work (which he would be reluctant to give), much of which conjures wanderers from far-off, imagined lands; but to affirm that its human generosity – contemplative, glorious, sensitive, melancholic, and enriching as it can be – came from a more than superficial understanding of the power to uplift and console.
His sculpture, like the Sumerian carvings he invoked on canvas, is votive; an offering. Capsuled within it is a spirit of wit and warm-heartedness that was the soul of all that he made.