A Russian who was born in Poland and grew up in Germany and the United States, Swietlan Kraczyna was inspired to move to Florence by Masaccio’s murals. From humble beginnings, supporting a family on just 100 dollars a month in the Santo Spirito area, he has become an internationally renowned artist who has had 148 one-man shows on five continents.
Kraczyna, born in Russian-occupied Poland in 1940, spent his early childhood there, but when the Germans invaded, he and his family found themselves on the western side of the front, constantly fleeing westwards to escape the fighting. They couldn’t stay because ‘Stalin believed that whoever survived the war must have been a collaborator, so he didn’t take any prisoners. He just killed everyone. We got to Berlin and then were on one of the last trains to leave for Bavaria before the city was bombed.’
When Germany was divided, his family found themselves just six kilometres to the western side. They lived in a refugee camp for six years, until, in 1951, they were sponsored by a church organisation in New Haven, Connecticut, to move to the United States. After schooling in the States, Kraczyna returned to Europe just after the Hungarian Revolution, to ‘repay his debt’ by volunteering in Hungarian refugee camps in Austria.
Kraczyna always wanted to be an artist: ‘Even in the refugee camp, I was always drawing things.’ He first came to Florence in 1962 on a scholarship and was bowled over by Masaccio’s The Tribute Money in the Brancacci Chapel. ‘It made an enormous impact and changed my whole concept of art: [Masaccio] had everything that I knew about abstract art, plus the human figure.’ So, after returning to America to complete a master’s degree, during which he met and married his wife, Amy Luckenbach, he came back to Florence with his seven-month pregnant wife to ‘spend more time close to the Brancacci chapel’.
‘We found a cold-water flat on the rooftops near Santo Spirito, and that’s where we were when the flood came in 1966. That evening I heard this enormous roar outside the window and went onto the terrace and saw a huge rush of water. At daybreak, I went down to the lungarno, where the water was just beginning to spill over into the street. I had a tiny, cheap camera, and because we were living on a very tight budget I could buy only one roll of film at a time. So, I had only 16 frames to shoot. When I went out, the water was up to my shins, but by the time I came back, it was over my waist. I was the only fool walking around taking photographs at that time, and so the photos I took are very well known.’ His photographs won him the prestigious Florentine fiorino d’oro award the following year, and two books have been published of his photos that, in addition to the moments of the flood, depict people dealing with the aftermath of the flood as the city tries to recover.
‘One of the questions that people often ask me is if I was afraid [during the flood]. Not at all: it was so stimulating. Nature, when it presents itself in such a forceful way, is not frightening; it’s exuberating. The only thing that I thought about when I was trying to make my way back home was that my personal history and the history of Florence were coinciding at that moment.
One hundred dollars a month didn’t stretch far for a family of four (his second child was born the year after the flood), so ‘the only art supplies I could afford were the paper that fish is wrapped in and 5-cent ballpoint pens. If I found a piece of wood on the street I could make a woodcut.’ His fame grew, however, and he is now one of the world’s masters in multi-plate colour etching. He set up the print department at Villa Schifanoia’s Rosary College Graduate School of Fine Arts in 1969, where he taught for 16 years. He also co-founded Il Bisonte, Florence’s International School of Advanced Printmaking (see TF 176), where he still teaches. ‘It’s a very important institution; 90 percent of printmaking teachers have studied there.’ Many of his students have gone on to be well-known printmaking artists in their own right.
Kraczyna now teaches at Syracuse University in Florence and for the Sarah Lawrence College Florence programme. He lives in Ghirlandaio’s house in the hills of Colleramole, to the south of Florence, which he and Amy fixed up in exchange for rent. After the construction of 60 metre-high ENEL electricity pylons—giant red and white structures that ran through the hills near his house, destroying the landscape—Kraczyna dedicated five years of his life to getting them taken down again. From organising Save the Hills of Florence committees in dozens of towns, to protesting high up on the pylons themselves, his campaigning ended in victory in 2002, and ENEL has now promised to run many of the cables underground.
While there have been many books published on Kraczyna’s art, his latest publication focuses not on him but on his wife, Amy. An internationally well-known puppeteer, she created soft sculptures, full of character, that are designed to move to music. After her first puppet performance in 1976, Where the Wild Things Are, which was staged in several piazzas in Florence, she went on to perform around the world, winning the UNIMA (world organisation of puppeteers) award at the International Puppet Festival in Bulgaria in 1979, and collaborating with renowned international puppeteers, musicians and poets.
After Amy passed away in 2009, Kraczyna compiled a photographic story of her life and work, using photos that he had taken of her performances, puppets and creative work. He will present the book at Syracuse University (piazza Savonarola 15) on May 16 at 6pm. Free and open to all, the event will include a video of Amy’s work and a presentation by Kraczyna. It will be a great opportunity to find out more about this fascinating couple, their work, and their lives in Florence and around the world; email email@example.com or call 339/7577623 for more information.