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Henryk Stażewski

Henryk Stażewski in his studio at 64 Solidarności Avenue in Warsaw, photo: author unknown, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
Henryk Stażewski in his studio at 64 Solidarności Avenue in Warsaw, photo: author unknown, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

Polish painter, born 9 January 1894 in Warsaw, died 10 June 1988 in Warsaw.

Stażewski was the pioneer of the classical Avant-garde of the 20s and 30s; representative of the Constructivist movement; co-creator of the Geometric Abstract art movement of the 60s, 70s, and 80s; creator of reliefs, designer of interiors, stage scenery, and posters.

Stażewski studied under Professor Stanisław Lentz at Warsaw's Szkoła Sztuk Pieknych (School of Fine Arts) between 1913 and 1919. He joined the first-ever Polish avant-garde group created in 1917, which was initially referred to as the Polish Expressionists and renamed itself the Formists in 1919. Stażewski debuted in 1920, showing his works with the Formists at the Towarzystwo Zachęty Sztuk Pieknych (Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts) in Warsaw. In 1921 he presented his paintings along with Mieczyslaw Szczuka at the avant-garde Polish Artistic Club. In 1922, Stażewski participated in the Formists' F 9 exhibition at the Salon of Czesław Garliński in Warsaw. In 1923 he participated in the Exhibition of New Art in Vilnius and the International Exhibition of New Art in Łódź. These two events effectively initiated the Constructivist movement in Poland. Stażewski was a founding member of the Grupa Kubistow, Konstruktywistow i Suprematystow Blok (Block Group of Cubists, Constructivists, and Suprematists) (1924-1926) and other groups which built on the Block program, including Praesens (1926-29) and a.r. group (1929-1936). Stażewski also participated in editing the magazines Block i Praesens.

Henryk Stażewski, "Relief 5" (1965),  blacha aluminiowa, drewno, 87,5x77,5 w zbiorach Muzeum Narodowego we Wrocławiu fot. pracownia fotograficzna MNWr
Henryk Stażewski, Relief 5 (1965), 
aluminium plate, wood, 87,5x77,5
photo: courtesy of the National Museum in Wrocław

In 1923 he turned towards designing interiors and stage scenery and presented his avant-garde works at the Laurin and Klement Automobile Showroom in Warsaw. Beginning in 1924 Stażewski traveled frequently to Paris, where he developed close relationships with Piet Mondrian and Michel Seuphor. Stażewski contributed significantly to the history of the world avant-garde both through his artistic activities and his theoretical writings and essays. He became a member of the Paris-based international groups Cercle et Carré (from 1929) and Abstraction-Création (from 1931).

Beginning in 1926 Stażewski represented Polish art abroad in exhibitions organized by the Towarzystwo Szerzenia Sztuki Polskiej wśród Obcych (Society for the Propagation of Polish Art Among Foreigners). In 1928 he designed the covers of MUBA magazine, produced in Paris by the Lithuanian poet Juozas Tysliava; also, as an extension of his Parisian activities, in 1929 he began working with Jan Brzękowski and Wanda Chodasiewicz-Grabowska in publishing the magazine L'Art Contemporain (Sztuka Współczesna).

Stażewski participated in numerous international exhibitions, including the 1st International Exhibition of Modern Architecture (Warsaw, 1926), the Exhibition of Theatrical Art (Paris, 1926), the Machine Age Exposition (New York, 1927), and the Konstruktivisten Exhibition (Basel, 1937). In 1932 the artist exhibited his work with the group Nowa Generacja (New Generation) at Lvov's Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Sztuk Pięknych (Friends of Fine Arts Society) and the Łódź branch of the Instytut Propagandy Sztuki (Institute of Art Propaganda), while in 1935 he presented his works at the exhibition of the Grupa Krakowska (Kraków Group) in Kraków. Stażewski was among the artists whose works were incorporated in the International Collection of Modern Art made available to the public at the Museum of Art in Łódź in 1931. The collection includes the works of a number of other internationally renowned artists, including H. Arp, M. Seuphor, T. van Doesburg, F. Legér, M. Ernst, A. Ozenfant, and E. Prampolini. In 1933 Stażewski was among the co-founders of the Koło Artystów Grafików Reklamowych (Circle of Graphic Artists in Advertising), his credits at the time including numerous typographic designs, most of which were Neoplasticist in style. That same year, the first-ever solo exhibition of the artist's works was organized alongside a presentation of the works of Karol Kryński at the Instytut Propagandy Sztuki (Institute for Art Propaganda) in Warsaw. Almost all of the artworks Stażewski produced before 1939 were destroyed during World War II.

Henryk Stażewski, "Kompozycja 22" (1979),  akryl, płyta pilśniowa, 100,5x100,5 w zbiorach Muzeum Narodowego we Wrocławiu fot. pracownia fotograficzna MNW
Henryk Stażewski, Composition 22 (1979), 
acrylic paint, fibreboard, 100,5 x 100,5, photo: courtesy of the National Museum in Wrocław

After the war the artist joined the Klub Młodych Artystow i Naukowcow (Young Artists' and Scientists' Club) and collaborated with the avant-garde  Krzywe Koło Gallery in Warsaw. In 1965 Stażewski joined with Wiesław Borowski, Anka Ptaszkowska, and Mariusz Tchorek in creating the Galeria Foksal (Foksal Gallery). Stażewski's first post-war solo exhibition was held in 1955 at Warsaw's Klub Zwiazku Literatow (Association of Writers Club). The artist presented his works at numerous exhibitions of Polish contemporary art abroad, including shows in Paris (Musée d'Art Moderne, 1977, 1982; Centre Georges Pompidou, 1983), Stockholm, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Geneva (1959), Venice (1959, 1966, 1986), New York (Museum of Modern Art, 1976), Oslo (1961), Essen (1962, 1973), Stuttgart (1962), Chicago (1964, 1966, 1967, 1972), Bochum (1964), Tel-Aviv (1965), Tokyo (1966), London (Royal Academy, 1970; 1984), Strasburg (1970), Düsseldorf (1974, 1981, 1982), Milan (1974, 1986), Zurich (1974, 1975), Hamburg (1975), Madrid, Berlin, and Cologne (1977), Rome (1979), and Los Angeles (1981). A retrospective of Stażewski's works was organized in 1994 at the Museum of Art in Łódź. The artist received an honorable mention at the 33rd Biennale of Art in Venice in 1966, and in 1972 he was awarded the Gottfried von Herder Prize by the University of Vienna.

Stażewski's membership in the avant-garde was apparent in his first drawings, which referenced Cubism in their structure, and in his decoratively over-stylized portraits and still lifes dating from 1917-23. The works of his Constructivist phase were clearly inspired by the theory of Unism propagated by Władysław Strzemiński, reflected in his textural differentiation of planes on what were otherwise largely monochromatic canvases. The influence of Strzemiński's architectural compositions is apparent in Stażewski's paintings analyzing the relationships figures to their background, and particularly in a series of works in which letters are incorporated into the geometric rhythms of the compositions' structures. Strong links between Stażewski's art and the Neoplasticism of the Dutch De Stijl group are evident in the artist's consistent construction of paintings on a grid of horizontal and vertical lines, as well as in his use of the three primary colors - red, yellow, and blue - and the three 'non-colors' - black, white, and gray (Kompozycja / Composition, 1930). The artist modified these rudimentary structures somewhat by linking distinct color planes through their rounded 'corners'.

Stażewski's abstract paintings of the 1930s and 1950s were free of such structural rigor. In these works biomorphically or geometrically shaped planes of pure color are independent of any of the dynamic lines that traverse the plane. In the early 1930s a figurative vein appeared in the artist's work, one that he would later build on throughout the 1950s. In the decade preceding the war, however, Stażewski produced an abundance of landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. His compositions from the late 1940s and early 1950s lie on the border between figurative art and abstraction. These allude either to still lifes or, in the energy of their wave-like contours, to the wartime drawings of Strzemiński. The works are evidence of the artist's independence from the 'normative aesthetics' of Socialist Realism. Though characterized by a high degree of formal differentiation, the artist's works of the 1960s and 1970s were all very much within the frame of geometric abstraction..

Henryk Stażewski, "Kompozycja figuralna", 1950, olej na papierze naklejonym na płótno, 96 x 96 cm, wł. Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, fot. MNW
Henryk Stażewski, Figural Composition, 1950, oil on paper pasted on canvas, 96 x 96 cm, photo: courtsey of the National Museum in Warsaw

In the second half of the 1950s Stażewski supplemented his visual language with a new element - the relief. This form would supplant pure painterly media in his art for the next twenty years. Initially his reliefs had a very loose structure and were built of colorful, rough-textured elements that referenced organic forms (Relief, c. 1955). His reliefs of the 1960s were characterized by elements covered in 'half-tone screens' that energized their surface by creating the illusion of vibration. The works of the early part of this decade also manifest the artist's fascination for white, which was a manifestation of his reflections on the neutrality of form 'in and of itself' and on its dependence on compositional context. Stażewski's exploration of the infinite potential configurations of a series of moveable, barrel-like elements was a manifestation of his confrontation of the concepts of 'order' and 'coincidence', and fundamentally consisted of creating situations that were possible but had not yet come to fruition (Relief szary i bialy 9 / Grey and White Relief no. 9, 1964).

During his 'white period', Stażewski also attempted to penetrate space in a series of copper reliefs dating from the years 1964-67. Their multi-dimensional nature was the result of thickened and overlaid forms and light reflections that were multiplied on the polished metal surfaces (Relief miedziany 9 / Copper Relief 9, 1965). The reliefs Stażewski painted in the 1970s were made dynamic through unexpected disturbances of their geometric structure and unpredictable negations of the principles of regular compositional rhythm (Relief 2, 1972). In the same period Stażewski reverted to the formula of 'white paintings', which stimulated the artist to reflect on the relationship between art, science, and metaphysics, and constituted a continuation of his investigations into the order-chaos dichotomy.

Henryk Stażewski, "Relief miedziany 28", 1964,  blacha miedziana, drewno, 33x36x3 cm w zbiorach Muzeum Narodowego we Wrocławiu fot. pracownia fotograficzna MNW
Henryk Stażewski, Copper Relief 28, 1964, 
blacha miedziana, drewno, 33x36x3 cm, photo: courtesy
of the NationalMuseum in Wrocław

In 1975 Stażewski created a series of works that analyzed the composition of George de la Tour's paintings and embodied the artist's conviction that geometry is the link between the art of all epochs. This hypothesis on the universalistic nature of geometry was expressed once again in a series of paintings initiated in 1976 titled Redukcje / Reductions. In these works, abstract space represented by the uniform white plane of the canvas paradoxically plays a very active role and is penetrated in various directions by groups of lines, disintegrating lines, lines running parallel to each other or cutting across the place diagonally. This radical limitation of his visual language and its subordination to an ascetic discipline expressed the feelings of a man confronted with infinity, but endlessly trustful of the 'moderation' encoded in the human eye and mind and of the ordering power of geometry. This tendency to subordinate art to the objective laws of science was strengthened in 1968. The colored square is the basic component in the artist's works of this period. Stażewski multiplied it, only slightly differentiating its color, and thus obtained multiple dimensions and intensified chromatic effects. The artist designed these compositions to tame the metaphysical concept of the square.

In 1970 Stażewski once again expanded the scope of his expressive means and enriched his concept of artistic universalism in a work for the 1970 Wroclaw Symposium titled 9 promieni swiatla na niebie / 9 Rays of Light in the Sky, created with the help of beams of light generated by reflectors. In his acrylic paintings of the 1970s, color finally became fully expressive, conquering the restrictive shape of squares, distorting the regularity of their configuration, or attacking them with aggressive 'rays' (Promienie barw / Color Rays, 1980). In the 1980s, colors combined in vibrant play between geometric elements. Intensive, uniform, often glistening planes of color also appeared on slippers and necklaces painted by Stażewski, an activity he treated jokingly. In addition to painting canvases, the artist also created murals, produced graphic and typographic schemes, and designed interiors, stage scenery, posters and ceramics. Beginning around 1974 he began recording his views about art and philosophy in aphoristic texts. In 1980 Stażewski initiated a program of exchanges of artwork between Polish and American artists to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the International Collection of Modern Art in Łódź.

Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Science, December 2001's picture
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Henryk Stażewski


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