Impasse broken on memorial to slaughter of Poles


Baltimore's lame-duck Art Commission didn't like it, but Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did. And that's what counted.

The Polish-American sponsors of the proposed Katyn Memorial near the Inner Harbor have received a long-delayed go-ahead for their sculptor's design, apparently breaking an impasse.

Soaring as high as 46 feet above a traffic circle in a waterfront development tract south of Little Italy, the abstract bronze memorial by sculptor Andrzej Pitynski would honor the memory of 15,000 Polish army officers slain by the Soviet secret police in 1940.

It is called the Katyn Memorial because the tortured bodies of 4,500 of the victims were found in mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in western Russia. The jagged, outstretched, embracing wings of the sculpture -- which would rise against the sky, 30 feet from a 16-foot granite pedestal -- are intended to symbolize the irresistible forces of liberty.

Although the City Council formally designated the site, the five-member Art Commission withheld its required approval of the sculptor's design, prompting alarmed members of the National Katyn Memorial Committee to meet last month with Mr. Schmoke and other officials at City Hall.

The mayor was asked to intercede. The committee said that models and photographs of the rejected design were being used to stimulate national fund raising for the project. A bronze copy is ready for presentation to Pope John Paul II on Oct. 8.

Speaking for the committee, Highlandtown lawyer Edward B. Rybczynski gave Mr. Schmoke a spirited defense of the artist, his proposal and the reasons for the design's selection. The mayor, saying afterward that Mr. Rybczynski was "very eloquent, extremely persuasive," promised to prod the Art Commission.

"I believe they will support this design," said the mayor, who apologized for "the red tape" and succinctly told the Katyn sponsors, "We'll cut right through it."

The artistic controversy may not go away. Whether the monument is abstract or consists of recognizable forms as the Art Commission wanted, few people believe it will please everyone. Sheila B. Richardson, who chairs the commission, acknowledged this in May when she told the Katyn committee, "We realize that no design will have unanimous public approval."

But Ms. Richardson said the Art Commission "would like to feel certain that the design that is selected will have the general approval of the public." The sculptor's proposal falls short of this objective, she said.

As first summarized to the Katyn committee last October, the commission's reservations are:

* "The spirit and intent of the memorial would be better served with a design that is more figurative or representational than the abstract design proposed." Peter Doo, an architect on the commission, said a review of samples of Mr. Pitynski's monumental sculpture led the members to conclude that his more representational work is better than his abstract work. The Katyn committee was urged to consider hiring a different sculptor.

* "The proposed size of the memorial . . . is too large for the surroundings." A total height of 30 feet including the base, rather than 46, was suggested. Asked about this recently, Ms. Richardson said the size of new buildings planned for the vacant lots immediately surrounding the sculpture site at Aliceanna and Albemarle streets had "not really" been discussed.

Tylden W. Streett, a Baltimore sculptor and Maryland Institute faculty member who is not on the Art Commission, often has criticized it for not seeking advice from artists before making decisions. While his work is mostly representational, he said he believed Mr. Pitynski's abstract proposal was appropriate to the subject.

Mr. Streett also said that the proper height of the sculpture would depend on what surrounds it.

Ms. Richardson, a member of the city Board of Recreation and Parks who represents that body on the Art Commission, acknowledged she is a homemaker with no artistic background, but she noted that two of the other four commissioners have art credentials. They are, she said, Clair Zamoiski Segal, paid director of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture (MACAC), and Jephtha Drachman, who represents the Peabody Conservatory on the commission.

Mrs. Segal said that, as the mayor's representative, she has instructed the Katyn sponsors to proceed with their plans for a quarter-scale, 7 1/2 -foot-high model of the abstract design, which will be resubmitted formally to the Art Commission.

Another member of the commission is businessman Samuel Hopkins, who represents the Maryland Historical Society. Two vacancies on the Art Commission have not been filled, administration officials explained, because under a revision of the City Charter the commission will go out of existence next year.

At an Aug. 18 meeting in the mayor's office, Mr. Rybczynski said the Katyn project was being held up by "lay persons like ourselves." If those five commissioners had ever been asked to pass judgment on Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, he told the mayor, "they would probably have said, 'Get that silly smile off that lady's face.' "

"Our group spent several years seeking a sculptor," Mr. Rybczynski said, and the man chosen -- the "internationally famous" Mr. Pitynski -- not only is uniquely qualified but is donating his time and talent.

Examples of his outdoor sculpture can be seen in New York City; Trenton, Bayonne and Jersey City, N.J.; Doylestown, Pa.; and Boston, where his 34-foot-long rendering of gaunt horsemen titled "Partisans" was unveiled to cheers on the Boston Common in 1983.

"Leave it to the sculptor," said Mr. Rybczynski, who cited the Washington Monument in the nation's capital as a mammoth abstraction that successfully honors a person's accomplishments. "We believe the effectiveness of the design will be in the eye of the beholder," the lawyer said.

In an earlier interview, the Polish-born sculptor, whose studio is in Mercerville, N.J., said that creating such a monument to the sacrifice of fighters for Poland's freedom had been a personal, deeply felt goal since his childhood.

Mr. Pitynski's parents and uncle were part of the Polish underground in World War II. As an infant shortly after the war, he was in his grandmother's arms when she was shot fatally by Soviet police. He later was imprisoned by the Communists for a time.

"This is a gift from me," said the sculptor, who was trained by the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland, and the Art Students League in New York. "I feel it is my duty to do it."

Until 1990, when then-Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev acknowledged his nation's responsibility, Moscow had blamed the Nazis for the Katyn deaths and the similar executions of some 10,500 additional Polish leaders at two other locations. In 1993, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin issued a public apology.

Support for Baltimore's Katyn Memorial comes from beyond the Polish-American community. Honorary chairpersons include Mayor Schmoke, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and U.S. Senators Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes. City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, who was at the Aug. 18 meeting in the mayor's office, has enthusiastically backed the project.

Last year, Baltimore's Associated Jewish Community Federation donated $36,500 toward the estimated $350,000 cost of making the monument a reality. Among the slain Polish officers it would honor were an estimated 700 who were Jewish, including the chief rabbi of the Polish army.

Alfred B. Wisniewski, chairman of the Katyn committee, said it has raised $82,000 in cash and $6,000 in pledges.

Sitting on Mayor Schmoke's desk recently was a 17 1/2 -inch-high version of the abstract design executed in bronze by Mr. Pitynski as a gift for Pope John Paul II. The mayor promised the Katyn committee that he would present it to the pope during the Oct. 8 Baltimore visit.

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