A. Pietrasik: Restaging the Avant-garde
Henryk Berlewi's Return to Abstract Art
Henryk Berlewi is a seminal figure of the
Polish avant-garde whose circuitous artistic trajectory, marked
by an abrupt departure from and then return to abstraction,
invites us to pose questions regarding the way in which the
legacy of the avant-garde was constructed, and at the same time
shaped retrospectively, by the modernism of the
1960s.1 Berlewi's practice
began with his commitment to promoting the renaissance of Jewish
culture.2 However, under the
influence of El Lissitzky, with whom Berlewi travelled to Berlin
in the early 1920s, his work changed radically from lyrical
Chagall-inspired symbolism to a specific interpretation of
Constructivism, which was theorised in his 1924 manifesto
entitled Mechano-facture.3 Nevertheless, after
relocating to Paris in 1928, where he would be permanently based
until his death in 1967, Berlewi returned to figurative painting
and the classical style. This period of his practice fell into
oblivion as it failed to fit within the framework of the notion
of "precursorship". The artist spent the Second World War in
France and fought in the Resistance.4 During that time and
throughout the 1950s, he painted portraits and still lifes, and
elaborated on what he called the "theory of the reintegration of
the object" (fig. 1).5 It was not until 1957
that Berlewi rediscovered himself as an abstract artist, arguably
a forerunner of Op Art, once again embracing abstraction as a
mode of artistic expression. Throughout the 1960s, he
participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Berlin,
Paris and Poland (fig. 2), reworked and developed his earlier
works, and in 1962 republished Mechano-facture. The aim of
this paper is to analyse how Berlewi restaged his previous
practice in a world now divided by the Iron Curtain, and how his
renewed productivity can be related to the methodology of art
The year 1957 was marked by two events that were crucial to Berlewi's return to abstract art. The first was the publication of Michel Seuphor's Dictionary of Abstract Art and its complementary exhibition 50 ans de peinture abstraite (50 Years of Abstract Painting), which was held at the Galerie Creuse in Paris and presented works by the artists included in Seuphor's book. According to a review by Julian Przyboś, the exhibition established a linear narrative by showing one painting by each artist from Seuphor's dictionary, and served as a means of illustrating the progression of abstract art towards optical abstraction.6
The second event was the exhibition entitled Précurseurs de l'art abstrait en Pologne: Kazimierz Malewicz, Katarzyna Kobro, Wladyslaw Strzemiński, Henryk Berlewi, Henryk Stażewski (Precursors of Abstract Art in Poland: Malevich, Kobro, Strzemiński, Berlewi, Stażewski) held at the famous Galerie Denise René in Paris in collaboration with the Polish government. It was curated by the aforementioned Julian Przyboś, an active member of the pre-war avant-garde movement and friend of Władysław Strzemiński, along with an honorary committee consisting of Jean Cassou, Marian Minich (director of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź), Willem Sandberg (director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam), Jean Paul Sartre and Tristan Tzara.7
Berlewi's level of participation in the two
events was very different. Michel Seuphor's book did not accord
him any special status, and his short biography is located only
in the dictionary section. The main body of Seuphor's book
focuses on Western Europe and Russia, and there is no mention of
abstract art in Poland per se.8 Berlewi's presence in
the exhibition Precursors of Abstract Art, however, was
far more important, as not only was he one of the central figures
of the exhibition, named even as a precursor, but his text
explaining his theory of Mechano-facture was also
published in the catalogue. A close reading of the two essays
published in the Precursors... catalogue reveals how rigid
and unbreachable the centre/periphery paradigm was at that time.
Jean Cassou, author of the opening text, distances himself from
the notion of the precursor in art, stating, "It is in vain that
one looks for the first inventor of a visual idea like one does
with a scientific theory."9 He writes of a
"cosmogony" of abstract art, not of a history, claiming that
abstraction was a revolutionary and universal idea that was "in
the air", and which had emerged before the First World War
simultaneously and with equal force in France, Russia, the
Netherlands and Germany. Poland was located at the intersection
of these influences, with Malevich seen as the main father figure
of Polish abstraction. In the second text, Julian Przyboś shares
this view on Malevich's role and, like Cassou, emphasises the
Polish nationality of the artist.10 However,
stylistically, Przyboś's text differs considerably from Cassou's.
Its impersonal, rather matter-of-fact tone is quite
uncharacteristic of his otherwise highly persuasive writing
style. While the main goal of the text is to inform the reader
about the avant-garde movement in Poland, it does so without
establishing, or alluding to, a larger network of references that
could potentially be applied to constructing a context for the
artistic practices discussed. Despite their differences, both
texts depict Poland as a "territory of artistic exports"
consisting of French, Russian and German avant-garde
practices.11 However, both authors
celebrate this cultural exchange that prepared the ground for the
emergence of Polish modernist movements such as Formism and
Unism, which were seen as signs of the "renaissance" of Polish
culture in the interwar period.12 At the same time, the
catalogue relies heavily on a nationalistic paradigm, emphasising
the "Polishness" of abstract art, which as Piotr Piotrowski has
noted, is symptomatic of art-historical discourse dealing with
margins: "We are faced with either what is presented as simply
the history of modern art with no local specification or
with all kinds of adjectives specifying the regional […] or –
more often – the ethnic locality (for instance, the history of
Polish, Slovak and Bulgarian art)."13 The result of adopting
such a paradigm was that the art of the centre became a
transparent model, a canonised style that could be emulated, to
greater or lesser success, by artists from cultural peripheries.
But nationalising artistic discourse also served another purpose:
that of proving to the local Polish critics that abstraction was
not merely a foreign export, but that it could be perceived as a
The Precursors… exhibition was shaped not only by the methodology of art-historical writing of the time, but also by politics. The 1957 opening at the Galerie Denise René was made possible by a favourable turn of events on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This period saw a surge of interest in avant-garde practices: in the same year as Denise René held the first retrospective of Mondrian's work in Paris, the De Stedelijk Museum purchased works by Malevich that he had exhibited in Warsaw and Berlin in 1927,14 and only a year earlier Michel Seuphor, who was also a friend of Mondrian, wrote his monograph.15 This enthusiasm for the Polish avant-garde in Western Europe coincided with a relaxation of cultural policy in Poland brought about by the so-called "Thaw" period in Soviet history, allowing discussions about the legacy of the avant-garde to be revived and the first exhibition of work by Kobro and Strzemiński in nearly ten years to be held in Warsaw and Łódź.16
However, to complicate this picture further,
it is necessary to add that around 1957 the wave of optimism and
initial approval that had been generated by the open critique of
Stalinism and the renunciation of Socialist Realism began to
recede. Ludwik Flaszen, a theatre critic, director and later
collaborator with Jerzy Grotowski, described the contemporary
embrace of modernity in a rather ironic tone, observing that the
protagonists of Socialist Realism had suddenly become the zealous
advocates of avant-garde theatre. Flaszen insisted that it was
not possible to continue as if Stalinism had never happened, as
if it were some kind of surreal and distant past. "Did the
unreality of our life not make irreversible shifts? Is it thus
possible to continue?", he asks in his 1957 article.17
Apart from criticising the pervading hypocrisy and constantly fluctuating viewpoints, Flaszen points to a discrepancy between the ambitions of modern art and the "un-modern" reality of the country. Similar issues were picked up by the art critic Andrzej Osęka, who in his review of Kobro and Strzemiński's 1956 exhibition draws attention to the social isolation of the Polish avant-garde and its non-linear development: "There is no connection between the avant-garde movements, no process of resulting from something, as the stimuli for each new impulse comes from artistic events shaped outside the country: […] The artist, in order to go further, needs new space, new materials. His thought requires verification…"18
Osęka laments the fate of Strzemiński's and Kobro's oeuvre, to which he claimed the exhibition at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art had done no justice, as well as the fact that the exhibition was pompously opened by state officials who provided no compensation for the artists, who lived and died in extreme poverty. He concludes with a juxtaposition of the miserable fate of the Polish avant-garde legacy with the glamorous presence of the avant-garde in the "truly modern" West. Rendering the avant-garde in Poland meaningful is regarded as a hopeless undertaking, and he ends with the question: "But can even the most beautiful articles in the newspaper teach modernity to people living in such homes and such cities as ours?"19
What both Flaszen and Osęka address is the discrepancy between the projects of modernisation (economic development) and modernity (aesthetic and social development). This double aspect of modernity was later theorised by Fredric Jameson, and was recently employed by Jan Sowa to analyse the particularities of Polish struggles with modernism.20 For Jameson, the mismatch between the abovementioned notions is not an anomaly but in fact lies at the core of the modernist project. He writes,
"Modernism must thus be seen as uniquely corresponding to an uneven moment of social development, or to what Ernst Bloch called the 'simultaneity of the non-simultaneous', the 'synchronicity of the non-synchronous'(Gleichzeitigkeit des Ungleichzeitigen):the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history – handicrafts alongside the great cartels, peasant fields with the Krupp factories or the Ford plant in the distance."21
However, for Osęka and Flaszen it evoked a
deep sense of unease as they experienced the "embarrassment of
non-simultaneities and non-synchronicities", which
eventually led them to question the legacy of the
avant-garde in Poland was thus marked by a certain anxiety: there
was a feeling of unrootedness and inadequacy in these artistic
practices, and an emphasis on the disconnection of modern visions
from the peripheral and poor condition of the country, a
"struggling with the modern form", to borrow an expression used
by Jan Sowa.23
In this sense, such opinions, although not hostile to the avant-garde, echo conservative critiques from the 1920s. In an article entitled Mechano-rubbish, Antonii Słonimski accused Henryk Berlewi and the Blok group of visual artists and architects of simply imitating foreign trends in Western art, which, according to Słonimski, contributed to making the local art world provincial and parochial.24 The article created a stir and the artist Mieczysław Szczuka, in a rather bold and romantically old-fashioned gesture, challenged Słonimski to a duel. Ironically enough, the same article was reprinted alongside Berlewi's memoir in the journal Życie Literackie (Literary Life) in 1957.25 We can close the circle connecting the pre-war and the post-war periods by adding that Berlewi wrote his memoir following a disagreement with Andrzej Wat, the son of Aleksander Wat, with whom Berlewi had collaborated in the 1920s. According to Berlewi, Wat portrayed the avant-garde as though it "fell down from the sky without any transition and evolution", and as a result, he felt obliged to present its genesis and, in passing, mention his own precursory role.26 It was important for Berlewi to explain here the decisive role of Formism, an art movement active at the beginning of the twentieth century, which, he claimed, paved the way for him to free art from "patriotic-academic traditionalism" and consequently enabled a number of artists to move towards abstraction.27
Perhaps the crux of the issue concerning the local perception of the avant-garde in Poland lies in the inability of critics to move beyond thinking about influence. Indeed, Berlewi himself was shaped first by Expressionism and then by Constructivism, but I believe that to understand the value of his engagement with the avant-garde we must think beyond the idea of Eastern European artists as simply being influenced by something outside their local discourse, as in the case of the previously discussed exhibition of Polish artists in Paris. As Partha Mitter wrote, "influence has been the key epistemic tool, implicitly or explicitly, in the asymmetrical valuation of cultural exchanges between Eastern and Western art", which, however, "ignores the significant aspects of cultural encounters".28 In his criticism of this notion of influence, Mitter follows in the footsteps of Michael Baxandall, who in his groundbreaking book The Patterns of Intention (1985) emphasises the role of the "artist's agency", an engagement that is expressed in his choice of inspirations and styles, and refuses to depict the artist simply as a passive receptor.29 Mitter, in order to rethink the relationship between Western influences and non-Western art, prefers to write about "paradigm shifts", a famous notion coined by Thomas Khun, which he has adapted to his purposes.30
To analyse the relationship
between Henryk Berlewi and the avant-garde, I propose to use the
term elective affinities, which found its way into the
writings of Max Weber via the famous novel by Goethe, having been
first employed as a term in alchemy. Michael Löwy has defined
elective affinities as "not [being] the ideological affinity
inherent in different variants of the same social and cultural
current […]. The idea of election, of mutual choice, implies a
prior distance, a spiritual gap that must be filled – a certain
ideological heterogeneity."31 Elective affinity is
thus an ambiguous bond, which must be actively performed in order
to be sustained. This notion allows art history to break free
from the paradigm of emulation, in which artworks are assessed
based on their proximity to an "original idea". Thinking about
artistic relations in terms of elective affinities in this
particular case invites us to pose the question: What was the
common ground for Berlewi and avant-garde artists such as El
Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy and Viking Eggeling that allowed
them all to engage in abstraction? And once it is acknowledged
that the bond created between these artists was not simply one of
hierarchy, a further question arises as to which activities
performed and sustained such a bond, and what, in the end, broke
this connection? As Löwy wrote, "Influence alone is not a
sufficient explanatory factor. Influence itself must be
One such approach to analysing the connections between avant-garde artists can be seen in a recent attempt at historicising abstract art, namely the MoMA exhibition Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art (2012).33 In the catalogue's opening essay, the exhibition's curator Leah Dickerman asserts that "the development of abstract art is a prime example of the power of network thinking."34 The purpose of the exhibition was thus to trace the exchange between the artists rather than to seek seminal figures or to present abstraction as an inevitable goal of artistic development. The exhibition presented an alternative version of Alfred H. Barr's famous diagram charting the development of abstract art, provided as a visual means of depicting this approach.35 Perhaps the most striking difference between the new diagram and Barr's 1936 chart is its horizontality. This chimes in with the postulate proposed by Piotr Piotrowski mentioned earlier, itself an exercise in horizontal and transnational art history.36 The diagram, in which Berlewi also finds his place, depicts how interconnected the particular articulations of abstraction were and highlights the collective effort that brought about this "paradigm shift" in art. Indeed, in the period following the Second World War, Berlewi and other Polish avant-garde artists felt excluded from the canonised version of their lived history.
Julian Przyboś's review of the show at the Galerie Denise René exemplifies how important and long-awaited the Paris exhibition was. Przyboś stated that the show introduced Polish abstraction to the visual consciousness of the West, and further, remarked that the creator of
"Mechano-facture, forgotten in Poland, […] was listening, touched by the equally moving confessions of Jesus Rafael Soto, who suddenly saw in Berlewi his own precursor. […] Vasarely can claim Berlewi as his predecessor. The idea which certain ignorant Poles have tried to ridicule is fruitful and original. These are not experiments without their practical consequences."37
Przyboś went on to recall the
excitement generated by Kobro's sculptures. Richard Mortensen, a
Danish painter living in Paris, having noticed a layer of dust
covering Kobro's sculptures (Przyboś blamed it on the bad storage
conditions in the Łódź Museum), began to carefully clean them and
exclaimed excitedly, "How much I love this woman!"38 Both images, so
vividly and emotionally recalled by Przyboś, reveal his hope that
the oeuvre of the Polish avant-garde would not only be noticed
and admired, but also actively engaged in – that it would be
introduced into art history not as a mere footnote to the grander
narratives, but integrated into a larger context and given
The two 1957 exhibitions awakened hopes and revived long-abandoned dreams. For Berlewi, they became a turning point in his practice, since he was identified, or interpellated, in the philosopher Louis Althusser's sense of the term, for the second time as the driving force of the avant-garde. Berlewi was recalled in connection with other artists, and responded to that call by recognising himself as a part of the narrative as it was presented.39 Althusser also wrote about the mise en scène of interpellation, a structure of society that echoed the very structure of ideology, in which subjects perform their respective roles. In this sense, the two Paris exhibitions could be perceived as such a mise en scène, placing Berlewi in a particular art-historical context.40 Not only had he earned a place within a larger narrative, but he was cast in the role of precursor. The specific conditions of this act structured Berlewi's subsequent restagings of his avant-garde practice. Embodying the historical figure of a forerunner became, from that moment, his mode of engaging with the present. This explains his later obsession with chronology ("I used to hate chronology at school, now I'm a fanatic", Berlewi wrote in a letter to his friend41) and his compulsion to prove the primacy of his ideas as well as those of the Polish avant-garde.
The fact that he was incorporated into the global narrative specifically as a Polish artist also had a significant impact on Berlewi's later framing of his practice. The artist continuously emphasised his "Polishness", while at the same time marginalising his Jewish roots. In his 1962 article, he wrote:
"I am a fetishist of the Polish language. Mechano-facturewas created in Berlin in 1922 as a reaction against untamed hyper-individualistic painting […]. But only here, in Poland, in Warsaw, in 1923 and 1924, did I perfect my visual system; nowhere else but here could I have created the term mechano-facture. Is not the structure of the word specifically Polish, crystal-sounding, intellectually-logical, and still emotionally-romantic? Did this very linguistic structure not influence the shape of my serial structures, […] rational and yet romantic?"42
Such a statement is surprising
given that Berlewi's original term mechano-faktura
(referring to the use of mechanical means to create texture) is a
rare example of a Polish expression that translates flawlessly
into English (mechano-facture) and German
(Mechanofakturen), without even sounding particularly
different. Surely, as stated above, it was the structure of
art-historical concepts – and their intimate bond with the
project of constructing national identity, which in the Polish
context is oriented to ethnicity – that structured Berlewi's
interpretation of his own practice. Indeed, Berlewi was willing
to go to great lengths to inscribe his name in
history.43 Nevertheless, what
might appear at first glance to be a cynical exploitation of
one's own past can also be approached as a radical readiness to
offer that history to anyone who aspires to make its legacy their
own. In Elective Affinities Goethe wrote that "affinities
only begin to be of interest when they bring about separation",
and indeed this might be true in Berlewi's case, as the most
curious aspects of his practice focus on his attempts to
re-establish his connection with the avant-garde and bridge the
gap that had separated him from the movement over the previous
Berlewi thus began vigorously restaging his avant-garde practice, with the early 1960s becoming the most fruitful period of his career. He undertook building friendships and alliances with people involved in propagating the avant-garde legacy. One of these friends, with whom he engaged in long-lasting correspondence, in which he shared plans, hopes and frustrations, was Anatol Stern – the Jewish-Polish futurist poet and writer, who had, himself, been involved in the pre-war avant-garde.45 Stern was, at the time, regularly travelling to Paris as some of his plays were staged there, and Berlewi helped him publish his books in France. In the aftermath of the success of the Precursors… exhibition, Berlewi and Stern began planning another broader show aimed at contextualising the Polish visual and literary avant-garde. Although their efforts remained largely unrealised, the subject of the exhibition was regularly referred to throughout their correspondence as a potentiality waiting for the right moment to be fulfilled. Another rather implausible idea they shared enthusiasm for was the creation of a Museum of the Avant-garde in Poland.
During the time he spent in Paris, Berlewi kept with him a rare collection of Polish avant-garde books and prints, which he had brought from Warsaw and managed to secure throughout the war. When Yves Poupard-Lieussou was working on his book on the Dada movement, Berlewi acquainted him with these archives and undertook, as he confessed in a letter to Stern, "a tremendous effort to translate Polish Dadaist poetry into French".46 Berlewi was additionally circulating copies of the books to other artists and academics interested in the legacy of the avant-garde. For example, he recalls sending a photographic reproduction of Europe, a book of poetry by Anatol Stern featuring collages by Mieczysław Szczuka, to Stephan Themerson in London (the original was too precious to him to risk losing).47
Berlewi referred to Stern as his "comrade", writing that they were the "last Mohicans of the avant-garde" who must "fight arm-in-arm for the common goal of recognition for the Polish avant-garde".48 In his letters to Stern, who interestingly had not been a close friend in the 1920s, Berlewi relived past arguments and relayed present tensions, including harsh judgements of old friends such as Aleksander Wat, whom he called a "pseudo avant-gardist" because he had proven reluctant in his support for the retelling of their shared history.49 The tone of these letters is often highly emotional, and at one point when his friend Stern procrastinated in replying, Berlewi wrote, "Your stubborn, months-long silence brought various […] even pessimistic thoughts to my mind, leaving me in a state of melancholia. It led me to believe that the last stronghold of our avant-garde was ruined and that the end of our dreams would follow (it sounds romantic, but are we not the romantics of anti-romanticism?)."50 The ardent tone of Berlewi's letters, the mortal offense he had taken when the Blok group failed to credit his ideas in 1924 and the intensity with which he later revisited the past testify to his romantic, deeply emotional engagement with the avant-garde. This is also expressed in his description of his encounter with El Lissitzky, a meeting that turned out to be crucial to his subsequent artistic development, which he recalled forty years later:
"Gradually, as Lissitzky developed his eloquence in order to praise this art not yet known to me, and like a true apostle pledged his support for Suprematism, I felt more and more drops of this poison infiltrating my soul. His fiery and simple words affected me like hashish. He beguiled me with an unknown, magic painting of crystal purity, with the shimmering brightness of the new art. Truly illuminated, possessed with this new 'religion', I vigorously devoted myself to the propaganda of this doctrine conceived in neighbouring Russia."51
By the time of this recollection
Lissitzky was no longer there to promote the avant-garde. Art
institutions instead had taken on this role, and Berlewi now
strove to establish a dialogue with them.
Throughout the early 1960s, Berlewi exhibited his paintings in numerous exhibitions around the world, including, to name but a few, 50 Years of Concrete Art at the Helmhaus Zurich (1960), an exhibition on Der Sturm at the Nationalgalerie Schloss Charlottenburg in Berlin (1962), Das Ursprüngliche und die Moderne at the Berlin Akademie der Künste (1964) and a solo exhibition at the Centre d'Art Cybernétique in Paris (1965) (fig. 3). He also published a text on Polish functional design and, during a six-month stay in Berlin, attempted to translate his theory of Mechano-facture into the medium of film.52 Summarising this period in Berlewi's practice, the Polish art historian Aleksander Wojciechowski wrote at the time that "the works from the last period prove the great vitality of the artist, who had already entered history once, but who was luckily able to return from history to the art of the present day."53
Finally, the greatest highlight of this period was Berlewi's participation in the famous 1965 MoMA exhibition The Responsive Eye (fig. 4).54 "The whole of New York thinks of me as the father of Op Art",55 he proudly announced to Stern in a postcard, and later, when asked about his impressions of New York, he told Stern, "You know it's strange, it seemed to me I could see one of my Op Art compositions."56 Yet despite the enthusiasm for the new movement, Berlewi was somewhat hesitant in his assessment of Op Art. In a 1966 interview with Polskie Radio, he described it as too commercialised, even if it was based on similar assumptions as his own theory.57 Indeed, Mechano-facture easily lends itself to a modernist reading as it emphasises the specific nature of the medium of painting, its flatness, autonomy, and the universality of geometric forms. The theory was also originally intended to be applied in a commercial context, such as via the joint enterprise founded by Berlewi, Wat and Brucz – Reklama-Mechano (Mechano-Advertising) – an agency that produced advertisements for Pluto chocolate. Nevertheless, as expressed in the radio interview, Berlewi argued that the meaning of his theory extended beyond aesthetic considerations, and believed his art to be a form of therapy that would result in a Cartesian rationality and clarity. Such philosophical underpinnings were, in his opinion, lacking in Op Art.58 The cover Berlewi designed for Stern's 1959 selection of prose, entitled Zabawa w piekło (Playing Hell), also testifies to his desire to distance himself from abstraction in the 1960s. Instead of showcasing what he championed at the time, namely avant-garde typography, he chose one of his figurative pictures, Phantom of Lady Macbeth, as the cover image.59
However, in spite of his scepticism, Berlewi seems to have enjoyed and valued the pop aspects of Op Art, and in 1966 collaborated with the Polish fashion label Moda Polska to create a line of dresses inspired by patterns from his paintings.60 A photo shoot of Berlewi surrounded by young women holding his paintings was published in the fashion magazine Ty i Ja, and was even picked up and republished by the German tabloid B.Z. under the provocative title, "Papa of Op and Girls from Poland".61 Berlewi's photographic self-portraits were also often used in his exhibition catalogues, with one design going as far as to insert the artist's head and signature into one of his abstract compositions (fig. 5).62 Such examples embody Berlewi's paradoxical union of history and the present moment, and demonstrate that in his return to the art scene as the forerunner of Op Art, he could also effectively be seen as a precursor of Pop Art – not only in his flamboyantly projected image, but also in his way of operating as a kind of artistic entrepreneur, seizing every opportunity, networking and sharing his history with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. At this time Berlewi often labelled his art work with an auto-presentation, staging his dandyish image together with the oeuvre (fig. 6). "The avant-garde doesn't give up", as the title of a 1962 painting by Asger Jorn tells us.
If we compare the 1960s fashion shoot of Berlewi with the models to the photos of him in the Austro-Daimler Automobile Show in 1924 (which hosted his first exhibition of abstract paintings in Poland),63 obvious differences in style and era aside, we can observe a remarkable similarity. One fetish symbol of modernity, the shiny new car, has been replaced by another: the attractive young woman. Indeed it is interesting to consider that women wearing elaborate Op Art fashion were just as rare in 1960s Poland as new Austro-Daimler cars were in Poland of the 1930s, thus taking us back to Jameson's asymmetry between modernisation and modernism. It is, after all, the nature of the avant-garde to be ahead of its time.
4-1 “Op Art. Zirkus fürs Auge”, Der Spiegel, no. 13, 1965, p. 126. This anonymous review in a German magazine of the MoMA show The Responsive Eye (1965) reproduces the only exhibited work by Berlewi and discusses his ambiguous relation to the Op Art movement (p. 128).
One can also observe many
similarities of viewpoint in the Życie Literackie article
discussed earlier, which Berlewi published in 1957. In it Berlewi
referred back to a dramatic quarrel that had taken place nearly
forty years earlier between himself and members of the Blok group
(Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnower), who did not credit
Berlewi as a member of their magazine's editorial board, despite
having used his ideas and publishing a reproduction of his
Mechano-facture painting. This is a painting which, as
Berlewi wrote, "today occupies an honourable place in the
international exhibition of abstract art of the past fifty years
at the Galerie Creuse in Paris, in the section for precursors
along with Mondrian, Klee, Lissitzky, Larionow, Severini,
etc."64 Thus his return as a
precursor is also seen to retrospectively legitimise him in the
Indeed, to further enact this retrospective justice, Berlewi resorted to the use of legal language rather more relevant to our own era, claiming that Szczuka and Żarnowerówna had not only plagiarised him, but also "infringed [his] copyright".65 Perhaps this is why when he republished his theory of Mechano-facture in Paris in 1962, he placed a copyright symbol next to his name. Moreover, this strategy of employing the language of intellectual property when speaking about his practice was coupled with his self-institutionalisation. In 1961, Berlewi established a one-person institution named The Archives of Abstract Art and the International Avant-garde, of which he was the director. He designed an official letterhead – white paper with a red and black geometric frame, consulting Stern on its layout – and later used it for all his correspondence.66 The Archive stored his collection of avant-garde publications; it was also the official publisher of the reprint of Mechano-facture and undertook plans to republish other key publications. In romancing with the authority of legal, institutional and bureaucratic forms and structures, the "aesthetics of administration", Berlewi embraced the future once again, perhaps unwillingly this time, as a proto-conceptual artist.67
In his fight to defend the legacy of the avant-garde, Berlewi constantly anticipated the future. In a bitter letter to Stern from 1962, in which he expressed his frustrations, he fantasised about a young student "rediscovering from the dust of oblivion these old scraps and writing a thesis on them" – these scraps, of course, being his practice. It is my guess that this is why Berlewi donated the first signed copy of the reprint of Mechano-facture to the Warsaw University Library. The fact that this was the first book on Berlewi I read in undertaking this research, rather than the rare original print of the book from the 1920s, illustrates once again how Berlewi's practice in the 1960s conditions both his art and theory from its earlier iteration in the 1920s, to the extent that the two become difficult to differentiate. Berlewi's strategy was highly effective, and today he functions primarily as a pioneer of avant-garde painting and typography. However, the question that remains for contemporary art historians is whether or not it is possible to incorporate the entirety of Henryk Berlewi's activities into a single narrative? Is it possible to write a narrative that would embrace, all at once, his Jewish identity and engagement in the renaissance of Jewish culture, as well as his avant-garde practice, his flamboyant presence in Op Art, and perhaps even the biography of Berlewi as the devoted son who lived his whole life with his mother Helena Berlewi, who herself, at the age of 79, embarked on her own artistic practice?68
Sources and photo credits
Anonym, "Op Art. Zirkus fürs Auge", Der Spiegel, no. 13, 1965, p. 126 and 128: 4
Henryk Berlewi, exh. cat. Łódź, Związek Polskich Artystów Plastyków, Łódź, Graf. Prac. Doświadczalna ZPAP, 1966, cover: 5
Henryk Berlewi Malarstwo, exh. cat. Zielona Góra, Związek Polskich Artystów Plastyków Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych, Muzeum Okręgowe Lubuskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Muzeum, 1967, cover: 2
© Archives of the Rempex Auction House, Warsaw: 1, 3, 6
1 A version of this text was published in Widok. Theories and practices of visual culture 3, 2013, online: http://widok.ibl.waw.pl/index.php/one/issue/view/7/showToc [accessed 12.08.2014].
2 On the Jewish Renaissance movements in Poland, see Jerzy Malinowski, Grupa "Jung Idysz" i Żydowskie Środowisko "Nowej Sztuki" w Polsce, 1918-1923, Warsaw, Polska Akademia Nauk, 1987. On Berlewi's ambiguous Jewish identity, see Seth L. Wolitz, "Henryk Berlewi i Nieostra Tożsamość: Estetyczne Poszukiwania Autentyczności", in Polak, Żyd, Artysta. Tożsamość a Awangarda, ed. by Jarosław Suchan and Karolina Szymaniak, exh. cat. Łódź, Muzeum Sztuki, 2010, pp. 66-80.
3 For the English translation, see Henryk Berlewi, "Mechano-Facture", in Between Worlds. A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930, ed. by Timothy O. Benson and Éva Forgács, Cambridge/London, MIT Press, 2002, pp. 489-491. On Berlewi's involvement in the avant-garde, see Piotr Rudziński, "Awangardowa Twórczość Henryka Berlewiego", in Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, no. 2, 1977, pp. 205-219; and "Awangardowa Twórczość Henryka Berlewiego Cz. II", in Biuletyn Historii Sztuki, no. 4, 1977, pp. 376-387.
4 This information is contained in a biography written by Berlewi, now deposited in the Henryk Berlewi Papers, Special Collections, Polish Academy of Science, Institute of Art, Warsaw. It is not specified which Resistance organisation Berlewi fought in.
5 Ibid., p. 2.
6 Julian Przyboś, "Maj malarski w Paryżu czyli owies i ryż", in Przegląd Kulturalny, no. 27, 1957, pp. 1-3.
7 Précurseurs de l'art abstrait en Pologne: Kazimierz Malewicz, Katarzyna Kobro, Wladyslaw Strzemiński, Henryk Berlewi, Henryk Stażewski, exh. cat. Paris, Galerie Denise René, 1957. For more information on the organisation of the exhibition, see Andrzej Turowski, Malewicz w Warszawie: Rekonstrukcje i Symulacje, Warsaw, Universitas, 2002.
8 Michel Seuphor, Dictionnaire de la Peinture Abstraite, Paris, Fernand Hazan, 1957.
9 Jean Cassou, "Introduction", in exh. cat. Paris, 1957 (note 7), pp. 7-10.
10 On the issue of the "Polonising" of Malevich, see Turowski, 2002 (note 7), pp. 222-223. Nationalism paired with a promotion of the avant-garde can also be seen in texts written by Berlewi: "Undoubtedly Mechano-facture, which begun today's Op Art, despite its universalism, is a Polish thing". Henryk Berlewi, "Post scriptum", in Poezja, no. 11, November 1966, p. 105.
11 Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Toward a Geography of Art, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 164.
12 See Cassou, 1957 (note 9), pp. 8-9.
13 Piotr Piorowski, "Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde", in Europa! Europa? The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent, ed. by Sascha Bru et al., Berlin, Walter de Gruyter, 2009, p. 56.
14 These were the works exhibited at the Galerie Denise René. Later they were displayed in Amsterdam in December 1957. The previous year, Denise René and Willem Sandber also organised the first exhibition of Mondrian's work. See ibid., p. 223; see also "Anka Ptaszkowska rozmawia z Denise Reneé," in Galeria Denise René sztuka konkretna/ Galerie Denise René l'Art Concret, exh. cat. Łódź, Muzeum Sztuki, 1997, p. 30.
15 Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian, sa vie, son œuvre, Paris, Flammarion, 1956.
16 Katarzyna Kobro Władysław Strzemiński: grudzień 1956, styczeń 1957, Łódź, Ośrodek Propagandy Sztuki, 1956.
17 Ludwik Flaszen, "Rekolekcje 'Nowoczesności'", in Przegląd Kulturalny, no. 17, April 1957, pp. 1-3. (All translations from Polish texts author's own.)
18 Andrzej Osęka, "Los polskiej awangardy," in Przegląd Kulturalny, no. 6, February 1957, pp. 2-3.
19 Ibid., p. 3.
20 Jan Sowa, Fantomowe ciało króla. Peryferyjne zmagania z nowoczesną formą, Kraków, Universitas, 2011, p. 529.
21 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press, 1991, pp. 306-307.
22 Ibid., p. 309.
23 Sowa, 2011 (note 20), pp. 30-34.
24 Antoni Słonimski, "Mechano-Bzdura", in Wiadomości Literackie, no. 13, 30 March 1924.
25 Antoni Słonimski, "Mechano-Bzdura", in Życie Literackie, no. 27, 7 July 1957, p. 5.
26 Henryk Berlewi, "Nieco o dawnej awangardzie", in Życie Literackie, no. 27, 7 July 1957, pp. 5-7.
27 Ibid., p. 5.
28 Partha Mitter, "Decentering Modernism: Art History and Avant-garde Art from the Periphery", in The Art Bulletin, no. 4, December 2008, p. 538.
29 Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1985.
30 Ibid., p. 539. See also Partha Mitter, The Triumph of Modernism: India's Artists and the Avant-garde 1922-1947, London, Reaktion Books, 2007, p. 9-10.
31 Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia, Standford, Standford University Press, 1992, p. 12.
32 Ibid., p. 22.
33 Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925. How a Radical Ideal Changed Modern Art, ed. by Leah Dickerman, exh. cat. New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2013, London, Thames & Hudson, 2012.
34 Ibid., p. 9.
35 Diagram available online: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/inventingabstraction/?page=connections [accessed 11.02.2013].
36 Piotrowski, 2009 (note 13), pp. 56-58.
37 Julian Przyboś, "U Denise Rene", in Przegląd Kulturalny, no. 4, 1958, p. 7. It is interesting that Przyboś mentioned Vasarely. Soon after this, Berlewi felt that Vasarely was becoming a precursor of Op Art at his expense, and expressed his disappointment to the journalist Francois Pluchart who reported it in "Berlewi ou l'Op Art", in Combat, 23 November 1965, p. 9. In the famous 1955 exhibition Le Mouvement, held at the Galerie Denise René, other historical precedents that could cast some doubt on Vasarely's claim to originality – such as Berlewi's Mechano-facture of 1922, and Josef Albers compositions on glass produced at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s and many of his subsequent drawings – were conspicuously absent. See Yves-Alain Bois, "1955 The 'Le Mouvement' Show at the Galerie Denise René in Paris Launches Kineticism", in Art Since 1900, ed. by Hal Foster et al., New York, Thames & Hudson, 2011, p. 380.
39 Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays (trans. Ben Brewster), London, Paris, Monthly Review Press, 1977, p. 178.
41 Letter dated 6 October 1962, folder akc. 14355, Anatol Stern Papers, Manuscript Department, National Library of Poland in Warsaw; Malina Gmadzyk-Kluźniak, "'Trzymam Rękę Na Pulsie Naszej Awangardy'. Z Archiwum Anatola Sterna," in Biuletyn Informacyjny Biblioteki Narodowej, no. 2, 1996, pp. 32-34.
42 Berlewi, 1966 (note 10), p. 105.
43 On the link between nationalism and art history, see Matthew Rampley, "The Construction of the 'New' National Art Histories in the New Europe", in Art History and the Visual Studies in Europe Transnational Discourses and National Framework, ed. by Matthew Rampley et al., Leiden, Brill, 2012, pp. 231-247. On Polish 'ethnic' nationalism, see Krzysztof Jaskułowski, "Western (Civic) versus Eastern (Ethnic) Nationalism. The Origins and Critique of the Dichotomy", in Polish Sociological Review, no. 3, 2010, pp. 289-303.
44 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Elective Affinities, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1872, p. 40.
45 In 1918, Berlewi participated in the futurist soiree "Wieczur podtropikalny użądzony przez białych mużynuw" [A Subtropical Evening Organised by White Negros], hosted by Anatol Stern and Aleksander Wat. Berlewi designed a poster for the event. See W kręgu futuryzmu i awangardy. Studia i szkice, ed. by Andrzej Waśkiewicz, Wrocław, Oficyna Wydawnicza ATUT, 2003, pp. 231-232.
46 Letter, Henryk Berlewi to Anatol Stern, March, 1958, Anatol Stern Papers. Gmadzyk-Kluźniak, Biuletyn Informacyjny Biblioteki Narodowej, no. 2, pp. 32-34. Poupard-Lieussou was most probably researching for the book he co-edited with Michel Sanouillet: Michel Sanouillet and Yves Poupard-Lieussou (eds), Documents Dada, Paris, Weber-Skira, 1974.
47 See Letter, Henryk Berlewi to Anatol Stern, 22 April 1963, ibid.
48 Letters, Henryk Berlewi to Anatol Stern, 27 April 1959 and 6 January 1959, Anatol Stern Papers.
49 Quoted in Turowski, 1957 (note 7), pp. 10-11.
50 Postcard, Henryk Berlewi to Anatol Stern, 30 March 1965, Anatol Stern Papers; Typescript, Difficult life of an innovator/Henryk Berlewi, Anatol Stern, undated, Anatol Stern Papers.
51 Henryk Berlewi Malarstwo, exh. cat. Zielona Góra, Związek Polskich Artystów Plastyków Biuro Wystaw Artystycznych, Muzeum Okręgowe Lubuskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Muzeum, 1967.
52 Berlewi spoke of these attempts in an interview for Film magazine: "Berlewi Henryk", in Film, no. 33, 1958, p. 10. Berlewi's Mechano-facture has been recently recreated in a film by Marcin Giżycki, who was inspired by the 1958 interview. See Marcin Giżycki, Awangarda Wobec Kina, Warsaw, Wydawn. "Małe", 1996, p. 34; Marcin Giżycki, Henryk Berlewi – Kinefaktura, Warsaw, The Museum of Modern Art, 2012, online: http://artmuseum.pl/en/filmoteka/praca/gizycki-marcin-henryk-berlewi-kinefaktura [accessed 12.08.2014].
53 Aleksander Wojciechowski, Henryk Berlewi. Malarstwo, Zielona Góra, salon Wystawowy, 1967, unpaginated brochure accompanying an exhibition.
54 Berlewi made a brief appearance in a short film by Brian de Palma documenting the opening of the exhibition. See The Responsive Eye, directed by Brian de Palma, 1966, online: http://www.dailymotion.com/embed/video/k78x1tHXZ7F3QU2GoEg [accessed 12.08.2014].
55 Postcard, Henryk Berlewi to Anatol Stern, 30 March 1965, Anatol Stern Papers.
56 Typescript, "Difficult life of an innovator/ Henryk Berlewi", Anatol Stern, undated, Antol Stern Papers.
57 "Interview with Henryk Berlewi, the Creator of Op Art," recorded 7 July 1977, D. 12953, Archives of Polish Radio, Warsaw.
58 This raises the problem of the avant-garde legacy in relation to modernism. The topic was debated by Julian Przyboś, according to whom abstract art had descended into decoration and thus needed to be overcome in order to render art meaningful again. See Sztuka ok. 1956: Odwilż , ed. by Piotr Piotrowski, exh. cat. Poznań, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, 1996; and Znaczenia Modernismu W stronę historii sztuki polskiej po 1945 roku, Poznań, Rebis, 1996, pp. 40-90.
59 Anatol Stern, Zabawa w piekło, Warsaw, Iskry, 1959.
60 Edward Hartwig, "Henryk Berlewi for Moda Polska", in Piktogram, no. 16, 2011, pp. 14-20 and cover.
61 Ty i Ja, no. 9, September 1966.
62 H. Berlewi, exh. cat. Łódź, Łódzki Związek polski Artystów Plastyków, 1966.
63 An image from the exhibition and a short description are available online: http://inventingabstraction.tumblr.com/post/43656687782/in-1924-polish-artist-henryk-berlewi-held-an [accessed 12.08.2014].
64 Berlewi, 1957 (note 26), p. 8.
66 Examples of such correspondence can be found in the Henryk Berlewi Papers, Special Collections, Polish Academy of Science, Institute of Art, Warsaw.
67 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions", in October, no. 55, Winter, 1990, pp. 105-143.
68 On Helena Berlewi, see Aleksander Jackowski, "Twórczość późnego wieku", in Polska Sztuka Ludowa - Konteksty, no. 45/2, 1991, pp. 38-40; see also a documentary by Konstanty Gordon, Kwiaty Hel-Henri, 1967.
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