Stefan Knapp’s Needle of Knowledge Obelisk is amongst the new additions to the Warwick University Collection. Needle of Knowledge Obelisk is a large-scale outdoor sculptural piece. Seven metres in height it stands at the back of the Ramphal building and in front of the side of the Materials and Analytical Sciences Building.
It was completed between 1993 and 1994, donated by Eric and Jean Cass through the Contemporary Art Society, and installed on campus during October 2012.
A polish painter and sculptor, Stefan Knapp specializes in enamel painting on steel. He invented his own method, which he used for many of his works. This technique, fired enamel on steel sheet (as opposed to the traditionally used copper) fuses colored glass with large areas of metal, which results in a weatherproof surface. 1
The viewers’ attention is at first held by the sheer large-scale of the free-standing piece. Approaching the work, bright colors encourage you to make sense of the geometric shapes. The shapes overlap the four triangular frames, prompting viewers to interact with the piece by walking around and observe the three-dimensional object from all sides.
Like the majority of his other abstract works, it makes use of vivid primary and secondary colours. Reds, blues, greens, whites, yellows: all of high saturation. The strong continuous line gives a strong sense of silhouette. Its title in mind, we could interpret the obelisk shape as an abstract representation of the point of a needle. In Mrs Knapp’s words:
The early symbols he used originated from nature; man, animals, water and trees. Later he began to rely more on forms he invented from his experiences in the increasingly modern scientific and technological world of which he was a part. By the mid 1980s a much wider range of colours were being produced, and increasing health restrictions were being put on the use of original jewellery enamels due to their lead content. Stefan began to use these lead free enamels far more, they came already finely ground and he was able to achieve the pure bright colours he loved to use and which worked so well on a large scale. And colours would remain bright. 7
The enamel medium proves to be exceptionally durable. ‘In enamels Knapp realized the dream of the ancient Greeks who searched for a suitable medium in which to preserve polychrome colour for perpetuity.’ 2
Stefan Knapp’s ‘early life [was] dominated by the social and political unrest of our time’. 3 Knapp led an extraordinary life, some of which he documented in his autobiography The Square Sun, on life in the Siberian gulag. Born in Bilgoraj in Poland in 1921, he was arrested at eighteen and deported to a labor camp in Siberia. Released in 1942, by foot, road, boat and train, he made his way via Russia, Persia, India and South Africa to Scotland. Here, he, along with many others, volunteered for the Royal Air Force and served as a Spitfire pilot until the end of the war in 1945, when Peace was declared. He took up art the same year as a means of dealing with the trauma of his experiences before and during the war. His formal art training was carried out at St. Martin’s School of Arts and Crafts and later the Slade School of Art. 3 By 1950, he had attained his Diplomas and possessing some formal training in sculpture, started experimenting with enamel painting and sculpture.
Knapp first encountered enamel when he accidently broke a lady’s enamel brooch, (she had borrowed it without the owners permission) asked to repair it, and did so, unable to find anyone else to. He persuaded the Slade School of Art to use their Ceramics Department. This early encounter with enamel was most probably the starting point of his infatuation with the medium. Initially, he used the traditional technique: jewelry enamels on copper, and swiftly progressed to enamel on steel. Knapp received many commissions for murals, including seventeen murals commissioned almost fifty years ago for Heathrow Airport, and the worlds largest mural, (now in storage) approximately 60 x15 metres. 4
Knapp suffered from insomnia for years after the war and so used his work as a temporary release, as well as a means of self-expression. He experimented restlessly with different techniques and materials, experiencing the artist’s desire to create a uniquely individual art form. 5
Many exhibitions were set up in Europe and America, including New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Milan, Caracas, Dusseldorf, Munich and Los Angeles. International recognition grew rapidly as more and more successful displays were set up in significant venues. 12th of October, 1996, two days after overseeing the re-installation of his Heathrow Murals in the Richard Rogers Transit building, Knapp died in his studio. The Battle of Britain was his last mural. The Stefan Knapp Project was set in motion in 2011 at the Mid Wales Arts Centre, which provides a site for the permanent exposition of his work. 6
The visual experience Knapp gained from flying had a profound impact on his work. Seeing objects from a different dimension his wife describes “the patterns of fields, the lines of rivers and patches of colour and texture [all] distracted him from flying… First and foremost flying was a visual pleasure [for him].” 7 It provided Knapp with a readily accessible store of a vast range of visual images. He writes: "Our Spitfires carried the ordinary fighter armament, plus oblique and vertical cameras to photograph objectives. The oblique cameras snapped them from around the periphery of the picture - the vertical took long strips of them. The fascinating part of it was that it was an all-absorbing visual exercise, almost like the composition of a painting." One had to decide what was worth photographing and to learn to analyse the value of colour and to read the landscape.
In 1950, Stefan ordered a large amount of canvases and materials, and for eighteen months, he locked himself in his studio, broke all social contact, and ordered food to be delivered to his door. 7 At the end of eighteen months. He said the following:
I knew my own mind, I knew what I wanted. It was this. I had rather devote my artistic career, the whole of my life, to doing something, a very little thing, of my own, than achieve a great deal in the footsteps of someone else, I had rather paint one small picture, a mediocre, indifferent little thing which was truly mine, the reflection of my own self than do a string of highly successful pictures in styles borrowed from others whether contemporary artists or the masters of the past. 7
Needle of Knowledge Obelisk is a piece through which he was able to wed his love of bright enamel paint, and three-dimensional sculptural forms.
1.New York Times, “Stefan Knapp, 75; Created Big Mural” New York Times, October 20, 1996.
3.Stefan Knapp: paintings on metal, sculpture, Pierre Matisse Gallery, 1957 (New York, N.Y.).