Topolski's 'Memoir of the Century'
Tucked inside a South Bank bar is an epic expressionist chronicle of the 20th century.
From the outside, Topolski might look like just another South Bank bar, but venture inside and you’ll find parts of what may be the most ambitious work by Polish artist Feliks Topolski, his “Memoir of the Century,” an epic chronicle of the key events and figures of the 1900s.
Feliks Topolski was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. After completing studies at the Warsaw Academy of Art, he traveled across Europe and eventually settled in London in 1935. His skill as an artist was quickly recognized; he was soon designing costumes and sets, and during World War II Topolski was hired as an official war artist, even sketching the Nuremberg Trials.
Throughout his life Topolski traveled extensively, visiting India, the Holy Land, China, and the United States, where he rubbed shoulders with many influential and famous faces of the 20th century, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Alec Guinness, and Laurence Olivier. His travels and meetings were documented in Topolski’s Chronicles, a collection of broadsheet-style drawings produced on cheap brown paper.
The artist began work on Memoir of the Century in his railway arch studio in London in 1975, painting on 15-foot-tall hardboard panels. The mural depicts the key events and figures of the 20th century, all in a fluid and expressionist style—which can make it hard to identify some of the subjects! The piece took Topolski nine years to complete, and totaled 600 feet in length.
Topolski donated his work to the U.K., resulting in the Topolski Century Gallery, situated in the same railway arch studio. Though initially free to visit, the gallery was poorly maintained and suffered damage from damp and defacement. Some £3 million was allocated to its refurbishment, leading to a reopening in 2009, but within 18 months the gallery had closed again due to poor visitor numbers and rising rents. Selected panels were removed to a private studio for conservation, and those remaining were incorporated into what is now the Topolski bar.
Know Before You Go
Topolski bar is located in the railway arches between Waterloo Station and Royal Festival Hall, open daily for drinks and food.
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