Czesław Słania 100th birthday

(Originally posted on czeslawslania.org as the official 100th birthday anniversary article – thanks to Vicente Lopes for hosting.)

October 22nd 2021 marks an important day for philately enthusiasts: the 100th birthday anniversary of Czesław Słania, the world’s most esteemed and prolific stamp engraver.

 

Throughout his 55 year career, Czesław made over 1000 stamps for 32 postal administrations and 42 banknotes for 10 countries. He also completed many private projects and designs of high profile figures including John F Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Queen Elizabeth II, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon, Cassius Clay (later known as Muhammad Ali), and Winston Churchill.

 

Today, six of the countries Czesław worked closely with release official stamps to commemorate his centenary. Sweden, Poland, Monaco, Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands have created their designs to honour Czesław’s name, to introduce him to new audiences and to applaud the undeniable, everlasting impact which the most-sold Scandinavian, if not global, artist of all time has made in the fields of philately and engraving, with billions of his images circulating worldwide.

Although considered by many as a historical figure and household name within the world of the arts, Czesław Słania, to this day, remains an enigma to even his biggest fans who have devoted decades of their lives to collecting and analysing his work. Stories about ‘the Master of Burin’ wining and dining with kings and queens, actors and popstars, and tales of him forging documents during WWII, saving countless Jewish lives, have been told around the world for many years. Yet nobody except those few closest to him know the real story of the man behind the legacy. Numerous books featuring Czesław’s work have been published, most including a paragraph or two about his life, but for those who admire his genius, this has never been enough.

 

Because of this year’s 100th birthday anniversary, the interest to know more about Czesław the man has been gradually rising. Although always very private about her father, on this occasion daughter Liv agreed to record an informal Q&A with me via webcam to share some stories and tell us what he was like as a parent (see below). She also teamed up with Swedish illustrator and designer Arvid Steen, best known for his work as Animation Director for the Academy Award-winning documentary ‘Searching For Sugarman’, to create a set of three stamps in a commemorative folder to be issued on the day of her father’s birthday. Their approach to the design and presentation has been rather different from the other anniversary releases. 

In reference to the designs, Liv commented:
“All six countries pay tribute to my dad as an artist, so we decided to focus on him as a person. Because he was unparalleled in the art of engraving, we chose to honour him visually in an alternative artistic form. A long time ago I asked him what his all-time favourite stamp folder was. He pointed at a single white sheet of gummed paper lying on his desk. There were three stamps in the middle. I recognised the Monaco set of Prince Louis, Prince Rainier and Villa Milaflores as dad’s engravings. “But there’s no folder,” I said. “Exactly,” he replied, “Let the image speak for itself.” His response stuck with me.”

As the centrepiece of their design, Liv and Arvid chose a self-portrait Czesław drew in pencil when, as a teenager, he needed a photograph for his ID card, but had no money to pay for a professional photographer. It represents a symbol of the poor miner’s son who dared to dream big, despite adversity, and who never gave up. 

The other two stamps and folder play supporting roles to the self-portrait and feature the two most important countries in Czesław’s personal story. The stamp on the left was created by Liv and Arvid as a tribute, captured in one image, to Czesław’s time in Poland, and on the right, a representation of his days in Sweden. Together, the trio of images form a short, visual biography of three key chapters in his extraordinary life story.

In reference to the process, Liv said:
“In philately, the paper is as important as the design. Therefore, we set ourselves a challenge to create images which look good printed on all types of paper. We played around with it, tested different fonts and applied various placings of the motifs and letters to achieve the perfect balance between images and text.”

Speaking of the experience, Arvid commented:
“It was an honour to take part in this project. I’ve known Liv for many years, we’ve collaborated before on two music videos, and she is someone I deeply respect. She obviously knew her father better than most, and hearing the stories about him straight from her was immensely inspiring. The actual work was fun and rewarding, and the whole experience very humbling, as this inevitably meant that my work would be viewed in relation to the great Czesław Słania.”

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In conclusion, Liv said:

“With these three stamps, both Arvid and I hope to have created a fitting tribute to the life of the astonishing individual I was lucky to call dad whose pieces continue to amaze 100 years after his birth, and whose legacy will live on forever.” 

Here is the interview: