Stefan Knapp is best known for his vibrant enamel murals which can be seen in many museums and public buildings throughout the world. Knapp was the first artist to experiment with enamel on steel especially on a large scale.
Stefan Knapp was born in a small country town in the sough east of Poland in 1921. In 1939, when he was eighteen, Knapp was imprisoned and sent to a labor camp in Siberia. This episode, as well as his experiences as a RAF Spitfire pilot between 1942-1945, was to have huge effect on his artistic development. For years after the war he suffered nightmares and was unable to sleep – he used painting as a way to exorcise his mind. His art became on the one hand the vehicle through which he found temporary release and means of expression, but on the other – he began to experience the torment of the creator to develop a highly personal pure art, which was worthy of his understanding of the world and the standards he set himself. His series of paintings entitled Gulag, done in the late forties show his restless experimentation with different techniques and materials in an attempt to express his feelings.
After the war, based in London, Knapp joined the Central School of Arts & Crafts, and later the Slade. As a student, he experimented with all manner of painting, printing and plastic mediums as well as sculpture and enamels. Following the Slade, one of his first major commissions was for a ser of seventeen murals for Heathrow Airport, followed closely by a commission in America for an enamel mural (200 x 50 ft), the largest he ever made, for the Alexander’s Store in Paramus, New Jersey, which became a landmark for JFK Airport. He became more involved in the process of adapting and perfecting emamelling methods for steel instead of the traditional copper, and found that his style of painting was changing and becoming more bvstract and his colors brighter. His reputation rapidly grew, Knapp traveled frequently to America and Europe and held exhibitions in places as diverse as Peru, Amsterdam, Detroit and Linz.
Between 1954 and 1968 he showed at least once a year, with nineteen one man shows in galleries and five in international museums. By 1970, he was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to make further studies into the origin, development and practice of murals and enamels traveling to Mexico, Guatemala, Japan, India, and Iran.
Above all, it was very important to him to be taken seriously as a fine art painter, and especially in the very medium that he invented. Nobody before had ever produced such large murals, which could last for thousands of years. His international status, free spirit, prolific output and the sheer scale of his work, made him one of the unique entities in the art world. In enamels Knapp realized the dream of the ancient Greeks who searched for a suitable medium in which to preserve polychrome color for perpetuity.
In the late 1970’s Knapp finally settled in the countryside with his wife Cathy, where he had already constructed his large furnace for firing enamels and continued to paint and experiment with enamels and sculpture. He also spent several months each year in France, working in acrylic on canvas and it was here where he produced some of his most peaceful and reflective work.
On the 12th of October, 1996, just two days after overseeing the re-installation of his 1960’s Heathrow Murals in the Richard Rogers Transit building, and three days after he completed the mural The Battle of Britain, for the Polish metro in Warsaw, Knapp suffered a massive heart attack and died in his studio. The Battle of Britain, his last mural, was unique in that it embodied all the power of his early work through the juxtaposing of large areas of pure and graduated color and yet using symbolism that almost verged on representational art.