by Roderick Conway Morris

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Joseph Natanson at the studio-house he designed in Trevignano north of Rome

An Artist's Life

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME, Italy 22 November 2003


Joseph Natanson, who has died in Rome aged 94, began life as a Surrealist painter before being recruited in 1947 to do the special effects for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's film The Red Shoes. The picture won an Oscar for its designs, but Natanson vowed never to become involved with such a project again. Yet he went on to provide the illusionistic art work for some of the best-known directors of the second half of the 20th century. In the end, he was involved in more than 80 films, the last of them Jean-Jacques Annaud's Name of the Rose.

On viewing Natanson's handiwork at a private screening during the making of Satyricon, Federico Fellini turned excitedly to him declaring: 'Pure Fellini'. The tall, imposing Pole corrected him courteously: 'No, pure Natanson.'

This followed Natanson's move in the early 1950s from London to Italy, where he collaborated with many leading Italian filmmakers, including Vittorio De Sica, Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Franco Zeffirelli, as well as numerous other visitors to Cinecitta, from John Huston to Joseph Mankiewicz.

Joseph (originally Jozef) Pawel Natanson was born in Cracow on January 3 1909, the third child and only son of Stefan Natanson, an activist in the struggle for Poland's independence and a talented pianist; Josef's mother was an accomplished painter. During the First World War the father's political activities took the family into temporary exile in Switzerland, where Josef was sat upon the knee of Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Nobel-prize winning author of the novel Quo Vadis?

Having studied at the Warsaw Academy of Art, in 1934 Natanson worked his passage on a yacht sailing from Gdynia and made his way to Paris. He studied Art History at the Ecole du Louvre, where he also earned a certificate in Museography, and continued to paint. His modest student existence was enlivened by invitations to the grand houses of his Natanson cousins, a wealthy Parisian banking family which had emigrated to France in the 1870s to become prominent patrons of contemporary art.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, Natanson made his way to Coetquidan in Brittany - where the Poles were reforming their scattered forces and recruiting new volunteers - and joined the Polish Highland Brigade. This unit formed part of the Allied force mustered to expel the Germans from Narvik, and was landed from French transports south of the town. The brigade was the subject of ariel bombardment and engaged in fierce fighting as it advanced northwards to capture Narvik, suffering many casualties.

When the Allies evacuated Narvik, Natanson returned briefly to France, before reaching Britain. He then collaborated with the writer Karol Zbyszewski to produce one of the most vivid personal memoirs of the war: The Fight for Narvik: Impressions of the Polish Campaign in Norway. Natanson's bold drawings for the book are outstanding for their power and immediacy.

Still in uniform, Natanson found himself detailed to travel around Britain, organizing exhibitions and lecturing on Polish art and culture. After demobilisation he established the Studio of Decorative Arts on the Old Brompton Road, where he and other Polish artists worked in a number of media. Among their activities was hand-painting and gilding wartime utility ware, which was then sold at Harrods. He became a British citizen in 1949.

Natanson's broad knowledge of the fine and decorative arts brought an invitation from Sir Harold and Lady [Zia] Wernher to catalogue and publish their collection at Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire. He subsequently produced two more specialised volumes, Gothic Ivories of the 13th and 14th Centuries (1951) and Early Christian Ivories (1953), which are still standard reference works.

By then, Natanson's painting skills had caught the attention of the film studios. Powell and Pressburger asked him to assist with special effects for their ambitious Technicolor production, The Red Shoes, and he revealed an exceptional flair for this work. His principal task was painting and filming 'matte-shots', miniature scenes and additional elements on glass, that were blown up by the camera to create magnificent backdrops, cityscapes, vistas and details that would have been prohibitively expensive to construct, or impossible to engineer and co-ordinate while shooting the main action.

Natanson was dispatched to Italy a number of times in the early 1950s, to participate in various international co-productions at Cinecitta in Rome, the new 'Hollywood on the Tiber'. He moved there in 1955, but meanwhile had been asked by Encyclopaedia Britannica to provide definitive new entries on ivories. The young English journalist Ann Pearce, who had recently arrived in Rome, answered his small ad for editorial assistance. They married in 1957.

Long before the use of computerised effects, Natanson had ingenious tricks of the trade; for Mankiewicz's Cleopatra, using a castle in the sea near Anzio as a point of view, he managed, with the landscape artist Mary Bone, to create a vast panorama of ancient Alexandria. However, after a delay in filming, when Elizabeth Taylor was indisposed, he noticed that due to a change in the weather, the distant chain of the Italian Apennines, until then shrouded in mist, had suddenly become startlingly visible. The sets were hastily repainted.

On another occasion, when a shot in Marco Ferreri's Marcia Nuziale, showing a naked woman seen from behind sashaying up a staircase, proved too much for the censors, the painter was called in to provide suitable drapery, framed to move in time with the unclad figure.

Although he kept in touch with family members in Poland, Natanson did not return there until 1994, when a retrospective of his paintings went on a tour of four cities. His autobiography, The Creaking of the Gate, was published in Warsaw earlier this year. Joseph Natanson was a congenial and enthusiastic host, both in his Rome apartment and at the studio-house he designed above Trevignano, overlooking Lake Bracciano, where he cultivated vines and olives. He had a great affection for the Italians, and was an amused observer of their foibles. 'Never back your car in Naples,' was one of his many useful tips - some buffoon would be bound to throw themselves on the ground, claiming you had knocked them over.

He died on September 15, and is survived by his wife, and their son and daughter.

First published: Daily Telegraph

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023