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Karolina Grodziska

Cracow, Scientific Library of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Polish Academy of Sciences


This paper is a presentation of the biography of a forgotten Polish sculptor, Janina Reichert-Toth (1895–1986). One of the first female students of the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, a student of Konstanty Laszczka, in the interwar years in Lviv she successfully created portraits, works of sacred art and monumental sculptures. Her promising career was interrupted by the outbreak of war. Following repatriation to Cracow in 1946, in the new realities of politics and life, she was no longer able to recover her pre-war status and artistic forms.

Keywords: sacred sculpture, monument sculpture, Cracow, Lviv, Janina Reichert-Toth


In the year 1978 the St Brother Albert Award for lifetime artistic achievement in the field of sacred sculpture was awarded to over 80-year-old Janina Reichert-Toth, a sculptor who had fallen into relative obscurity at that time, whose greatest artistic achievements and success in life was associated with Lviv. Obviously, being unaware of the deliberations of the jury, it may be assumed that the primary aim was to commemorate the work and achievements of the artist, unjustly forgotten due to events of the war. The award, which did justice to the sculptor, could not have an influence on the development of her work; the winner could not even receive it in person because of her poor health. The last bright moment in the artist’s life was soon overshadowed by the illness and death of her husband, Fryderyk Toth (1896–1982), also a sculptor and from 1935 the co-author Janina’s great monument projects, the declaration of martial law, hard everyday existence, and finally, a failed attempt at securing her own and her husband’s legacy by donating it to the city of Nowy Sącz, promising their own exhibition space, which from today’s point of view turned out to be a loss of nearly 100 works of sculpture.

In 2009, the forgotten artist gained a monograph written by her sister’s granddaughter, the author of these words. The basis for the monograph was Janina Reichert-Toth’s set of personal papers (documents, contracts, correspondence on artistic matters, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, photographs, glass negatives) kept by the present author and then donated to the Department of Special Collections of the PAU (Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences) and PAN (Polish Academy of Sciences) Academic Library in Cracow (manuscripts 11 605 – 11 635), as well as the literature collected during a query.

Published in Cracow, the book Zapomniana rzeźbiarka Janina Reichert-Toth (1895–1986) i jej twórczość (Forgotten sculptor Janina Reichert-Toth (1895–1986) and her work) consists of three parts: I. Lwów (Lviv), II. W okupowanym Lwowie (In the occupied Lviv), III. Kraków (Cracow), corresponding to subsequent, distinct stages in the artist’s life. Part I contains the chapters: Home, family, friends; The beginnings of the artistic way; Great monuments; Great hopes. Part II is the chapter entitled The years of fear and coercion. Part III contains the chapters: Postwar monument sculpture; Participation in exhibitions and smaller sculptures; Postwar sacred works. The final part (Addenda) consists of the artist’s autobiography written for the St Brother Albert Award Committee, the list of works donated to the city of Nowy Sącz (stored since 1986 in the attic of Nowy Sącz town hall), a list of sculptures in the collections of Polish and Ukrainian museums, the bibliography and the index of persons. The book is enriched with 160 images, in many cases unique, because the original sculptures have been either lost or destroyed (the altar figures from Tarnopol and the church of St Elizabeth in Lviv, monuments in Brzeżany, models for casting monuments in Lviv).


The artist’s biography shows, among other elements, her family background (the Lviv intelligentsia in the first or second generation), with a deep conviction of the necessity for higher education. All of the four daughters of legal advisor Józef Reichert (a peasant’s son from Königsau, a settlement founded in the late eighteenth century as part of Emperor Joseph II Habsburg’s colonisation campaign) undertake university studies. Janina gains entry in the first year when women are admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow (in 1918). Konstanty Laszczka is her master and sculptors Natalia Milan and Olga Niewska are among her colleagues. However, she does not graduate due to illness and because of her apparent difficulty finding her place in Cracow; in 1921 she returns to Lviv, starts working as a teacher and sculptures at the same time [fig. 1]. The first exhibition in 1926 turns out to be a great success for the artist, allowing her to devote herself exclusively to artistic activity. Among the works created at that time are sacred ones, including the heads of Madonna and angels, Madonna in the clouds, and two versions of the Pietà, which are characterized by the then art critic Władysław Kozicki as: “The majesty of the pain of maternity, expressed in the leaning of the martyred head against her dead son’s chest in a very moving and sculpturally dramatic way”. That period also sees the creation of the figures of angels for the altar in the church of Mary Magdalene in Lviv as well as beautiful wooden altars (the main one with the Virgin Mary, a side one – with the figure of Christ) for the church in Polanka near Krosno (1928–1929).

In the following years the artist simultaneously undertakes monumental projects (Lviv, Brzeżany) as well as those of a religious nature. In collaboration with renowned architect Wawrzyniec Dayczak, she creates figures for the church of St Elizabeth in Lviv (Saints Elizabeth, Stanislaus, Jacob Strepa and angels, 1929–1935) [fig. 2] and in Tarnopol (angels in the altar, the Throne of Grace and 8 figures of angels with hussar wings, before 1933), followed by a break of several years in this domain of art, first caused by a distinct turn to large-scale monumental sculpture, then by the events of the war.

In the late 1930s, Janina Reichert-Toth, in collaboration with her husband, Fryderyk, successfully enters competitions for the monuments of Piłsudski and the Silesian insurgents in Katowice as well as the monument of Piłsudski in Lviv and Vilnius. The first place won in the latter competition was not a guarantee of implementation, but at that time the artist had already received two orders in her home town of Lviv: for the monuments of Konopnicka and Bishop Władysław Bandurski. Both were transported to Warsaw in summer of 1939, only to be destroyed shortly after the bombing of the city.

The period of the war, spent in Lviv, brings few works in the spirit of socialist realism (figures of athletes) and an unrealized design of a monument of Pushkin. In mid-1946, the Toths decide to leave Lviv and their house with a studio, built just before the war. They settle in Cracow, where they are employed for the conservation of the altar by Veit Stoss and reconstruction of the monument of Adam Mickiewicz. Janina creates two monuments for the Red Army war cemeteries in Sierpc and Bolęcin and in 1954 a monument of the fallen in Nowy Sącz, which shows a use of the pieta motif that is bold for its time, being an official commission. It is this very monument – the last large-scale work of the nearly 60-year-old artist – that creates her great fondness for Nowy Sącz and the unfortunate record in her last will in the future.

At the same time, after a long break the artist returns to sacred works. Certainly in the 1950s she takes part in the work on the sculptures for the facade of the church in Niepokalanów and angels for the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Holy Family in Częstochowa (in collaboration with Zygmunt Gawlik). Then she sculptures in wood the Stations of the Cross for the chapel of the hospital in Tomaszów Lubelski (1958–1959) [fig. 3]. A large commission comes from the town of Żory, where the Gothic parish church of Saint Apostles Philip and James is being renewed after destruction brought by the war. The artist creates the main altar there, designed by Zbigniew Wzorek (a ceramic bas relief sculpture divided into nine fields) and side altars: the Holy Family and Saints Barbara, Catherine and Hedwig [fig. 4], both in linden wood (1961–1962). The following sacred works are plaster models of figures for the churches in Limanowa and Nowy Sącz (on the basis of which wooden figures were made by ​​Mieczysław Bogaczyk) and six monumental statues for the facade of the Franciscan church in Jasło, erected thanks to donations from the Polish community in the USA. These are almost 3.5-meter-high statues of Saints: Cunegonde, Salome, Francis, Bonaventure, Jacob Strepa and Blessed Maximilian Kolbe (1966–1967) [fig. 5]. Simultaneously, work is being conducted on the altar for the church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Nawojowa near Nowy Sącz (1965–1968): 3 three-dimensional figures and a series of bas-reliefs. The last commissions include the statues of Our Lady, St Catherine, St Barbara and St Cunegonde for the church in Sahryń in the diocese of Lublin (1973–1974). Photographs of the sculptures of several saints and Our Lady of Sorrows, remaining in the artist’s legacy – unfortunately, without dates and locations – show that some of her works are still unrecognised.

In conclusion, it must be said that while the works of sacred art appeared throughout Janina Reichert-Toth’s life, it did not become a dominant feature of her artistic expression and does not qualify this artist in the group of creators of exclusively religious art. Yet the sculptor has left a number of works, positively received and affecting the imagination despite the passage of time and the changing trends in the visual arts. It is worth quoting a simple but important statement made by the artist in 1979, in an interview with Ryszard Zielinski after receiving the St Brother Albert Award:

“Sacred art? I cannot tell you why it has become the essence of my life… Maybe it’s because in this domain of art success is not just about creating beauty but above all about a massage to people. A stone or wooden saint who does not, even for a moment, create in people a tiny desire to follow him or her even a few steps is not a well-sculptured saint…”


Translated by Agnieszka Gicala

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