Jerzy Bereś was a sculptor and author of happenings, born in 1930 in Nowy Sącz. A student of Xawery Dunikowski, he used his body as one of the fundamental elements of his creative material. He died on 25th December, 2012 in Kraków.
Jerzy Bereś studied sculpture at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts in 1948-50, first under Franciszek Kalfas, then under Stanisław Popławski, and eventually Xawery Dunikowski. In 1954-55, he created a full-body portrait of Dunikowski, which was presented at the National Exhibition of Young Visual Arts Against War Against Fascism at Warsaw’s Arsenal. At the end of 1955 and in early 1956, Bereś took part in another group exhibition, this time honoring Dunikowski, titled Dunikowski and His Students (Central Bureau of Art Exhibitions in Warsaw; the next exhibition under the same title was organised in 1975 – on the 100th anniversary of Dunikowski’s birth). In 1956, he also received an honorary diploma from his master for the sculpture Kołysanka/Lullaby, and moreover graduated from the academy.
The first solo presentation of his works took place in 1958 – at Kraków’s Dom Plastyków. The exhibited sculptures (the above-mentioned Kołysanka/Lullaby, Do słońca/To the Sun, Ewa/Eve, Matka/Mother, Idylla/The Idyll, and Niepokój/Anxiety) were characterised by geometric simplifications of forms, revealing Dunikowski’s influence; they were moreover made out of materials which Bereś departed from soon afterwards: plaster and reinforced concrete. The show became a breakthrough in the young sculptor’s practice: it made him realise his own possibilities, as well as the relation between his personal interests and the latest tendencies; it effectively led to his departure from traditional sculptural work. He wrote about this:
Following a deep reflection [about] the futility of continuing what I had carried away from the decent school, which the academy in Kraków was […], combined with a strong reluctance to pursue the informel trend or Henry Moore’s popularity, which were prevalent at the time […], I consciously assumed the position of an outsider and decided to not exhibit for many years.
During that time, just before 1960, Bereś started using new materials. His first original works were titled Rzepicha (1958) and Bart (1959). These consolidated, stable forms resembled human figures and were mainly intended to be installed in an open space and viewed from all sides. The works, made from wood, which at the time became Bereś’s primary sculptural material, were characterised by attention to form: careful modelling and precise surface finish. The artist, however, very quickly decided against chiseling the detail, limiting it to the minimum. He simplified the form, exposing the wood itself more and more explicitly and distinctly. He also introduced other natural materials: field rocks, hempen ropes, scraps of canvas bags, and leather strings. He did not mask the organic provenance of the elements of his composition – on the contrary: he highlighted their origins, making use of their natural shapes. This simple technique, the application of basic, unrefined tools, coming straight from a lumberjack or rural carpenter’s workshop (axe and saw) rather than that of a craftsman or a sculptor (a chisel), propose a deeply humble, though artistically conscious, boost the seemingly non-artistic matter, instead of a creation aimed at dominating that matter. These activities are determined predominantly by the provenance and character of the material, aimed at bringing out its specifics, and harmonious with it, as opposed to countering it. On the other hand, however, the concreteness and plain non-pretentiousness of those creations does not interfere with their mysterious, metaphorical or magical significance. This impression is certainly created by their odd shapes: neither objects, nor constructions, which fulfil mysterious functions. Many of their titles carry clear references to tradition, with which they remain connected; they include elements such as ploughs, windmills, wagons.
Wooden constructions comprised in the series Zwidy (Hallucinations) constituted a beginning of Bereś’s full, original artistic expression, which found an extension in his later works. Hallucinations revealed the artist’s inventive thinking about materials and his toolset. Even though they are not realistic reproductions of existing objects, his Hallucinations often bring to mind elements of equipment found in rural farmsteads, and can be associated with souvenirs of a material culture whose function is not clear anymore, which wouldn’t even be shown in an exhibition normally featuring objects with known provenance and function, but on its periphery, in a museum’s storage, or a cabinet of curiosities, accessible to the most curious or the initiated. It is, however, worth keeping in mind that ‘producing’ objects which we usually consider to belong to the material culture requires the author having spiritual connection with them. Critics are therefore justified in their inclination to write about the totemic and even magical qualities of Hallucinations rather than solely about their rustic affiliation. The source of these magical tensions is largely the artist’s references to that which exists outside of time, to the elementary and the constant. The succinctness of Bereś’ objects derived from that also indicates a natural human reflex to counter (if possible…) the precision of the products of the technologised civilisation. However, the modest and non-aesthetic form is clearly related mostly to the crudeness of meanings: Hallucinations are a language in which the author applied a unique, exclusive sense to each element. The title of the series emphasises this conscious archaisation, while its rudimentary character is highlighted in the titles of individual works: Zwid Pług (The Plough Hallucination), Zwid Wiatrak (The Windmill Hallucination), Zwid Dzwon (The Bell Hallucination), Zwid Wóz (The Wagon Hallucination), Zwid Żuraw (The Crane Hallucination), Zwid Kamienny (The Stone Hallucination), Zwid Skórzany (The Leather Hallucination). Later, these metaphorical roles were taken over by Ołtarze (Altars) and Wyrocznie (Oracles) – intricate structures whose elements often formed part of Bereś’s happenings or – to use the author’s preferred designation – actions. Before they could play the servient role of accessories, props in this characteristic theatre, the author had to deprive them of their autonomy which Hallucinations originally held.
Nonetheless, in the first half of the 1960s, Bereś created most part of all Hallucinations. In 1962, he showed them in the open air in Kraków’s Planty Park, and a larger selection of them at the Krzysztofory Gallery, upon the invitation of the Second Kraków Group. Hanna Ptaszkowska wrote on this occasion:
Bereś works in real materials. He confronts the most important difference between a work of art and a usable object – a difference that is so often obliterated. […] Blocks of wood processed in a seemingly primitive way are here used as a building material. Their form does not follow a preconceived idea, but emerges form a natural pressure of the material.
Bereś ‘[…] abstains from the fetish of form […],’ in his art, you won’t find ‘[…] the precision of modern technical methods or [the purism] of constructivist art projects. They look as though they are somewhat incomplete. They are almost knocked together, but hold firmly. […] At the same time, they absorbed the entire experience of the sculpture of the 20th century. Due to the fact that they weren’t completely finished, and that a margin of non-authorial contribution has been left – they [nonetheless] became fully modern.’
Many critics appreciated the unique character of Bereś’s works. The sculptor also gained recognition within the art world: for instance, he received awards at the Sculpture of the Year exhibitions in Kraków numerous times. The first, in 1965, came for the work Zwid Żuraw (The Crane Hallucination) – and he also received the same prize a year later for Zwid Wielki (The Great Hallucination).
Bereś is, however, an artist for whom non-gallery spaces act as a natural ally. On multiple occasions over the 60s and 70s, he participated in meetings, seminars, and field trips gathering artists who explored, experimented, and combined different media, such as the 1st Symposium of Artists and Scientists titled Art in the Changing World in Puławy (1966), Koszalin field trips in Osieki (beginning in 1965, when he took part in Tadeusz Kantor’s Panoramic Sea Happening; the next year, he took part in another happening by Kantor, The Dividing Line, realised in Kraków), and the Wrocław’70 Symposium. In Wrocław, the artist presented a specific, very well received idea – a live monument titled Arena – which, given the minimal use of materials, conveyed pro-environmental ideas. He proposed a composition of a fragment of the city’s Sand Island, which was described by Bożena Kowalska as follows:
A big circle outlined on the ground and intersected by a line separating the grassed area from the other half, which is covered with concrete. On the side of the of the earth, a live tree was planted, whereas on the concrete – a dead one, ripped from the ground, and turned upside down. Following the artist’s directions, each year in spring, when the growing tree would begin to turn green, the upward facing roots of the dead tree were to be painted green. A bench for contemplating spectators was to be placed on the border of this theatrically fabricated nature and the area of authentic floral vegetation.
The need to exit the gallery, to directly face the viewer, deeply affected the evolution of the artist’s practice by the end of the 1960s – in 1968, at Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery, he presented his first ‘manifestation,’ which he titled Przepowiednia I (Akt twórczy) / The Oracle I (The Creative Act), in which he used both wooden structures and – for the first time – his own nude body. Contrary to the neutral Hallucinations, from that moment on, his projects started engaging with the issues of collectivity and formally referring to the public life. Oracles, and in the 70s, Transfiguracje (Transfigurations), acted as rituals, ‘mysteries of creation,’ as Andrzej Kostołowski called them. ‘The same material, rawness, elements of the most straightforward folk objects. However, the objects became vehicles, elements of the process of simple actions with a social undertone […]’ Maciej Gutowski pointed out. Bereś uses most of all ‘his own self’:
[…] a shift has taken place here […]. This time, the artist himself, his work, his ‘creative act’ became the object. On the other hand, the audience, consolidated in a passive isolation, also became the object.
These are the kinds of works and projects, often carrying a political and ethical message, raising controversy among critics and audience members, and sometimes even aggression from the latter, which the sculptor created especially in the 70s. They included works with telling titles, often based on Polish-specific puns: Hulaj-noga, Moralnościomierz, Normalizator (1970), Klaskacz, Ping-pong Dyplomatyczny (both 1971).
1972 brought a new proposition – the series Altars, and Bereś immediately created Ołtarz Budzik (The Wake Up Altar) (1972), after which he presented Transfiguracja III (Ołtarz Autorski) / Transfiguration (The Auteur Altar) (1973). In the following years, he created: Ołtarz Piękny – Ołtarz Czysty (The Beautiful Altar – Pure Altar), Ołtarz Romantyczny (The Romantic Altar), Ołtarz Nadziei (The Altar of Hope), Ołtarz Twarzy (The Face Altar) (all from 1974), Ołtarz Ognia (The Fire Altar), Ołtarz Erotyczny (The Erotic Altar), Ołtarz Rozweselający (The Laughing Altar) (all from 1975). The artist also started realising ‘rounds’ (Runda Honorowa / The Honorary Round, 1975), ‘rituals’ (Rytuał Egzystencjalny / The Existential Ritual, Rytuał Filozoficzny / The Philosophical Ritual) – both from 1976; Rytuał kultury / The Ritual of Culture (1977). In all of these projects, he continued to use wooden constructions, often elaborate, involving audience participation. Andrzej Osęka wrote about them:
Jerzy Bereś’s sculptures from 1960-1974 lost their old rural and poetic character; they resemble big wooden toys, in which instead of a wing-flapping bird or a wood-chopping lumberjack – we see an array of contemporary social stances: someone thumps a table with their fist when a stick is pulled; a wooden rattle rattles when a wooden head hits a wooden fist; there is also the Lizak (Licker) – a metaphorical bootlicking device […].
The following decades brought new projects, which the author referred to as ‘masses’; through them, he honored major Polish issues. They included: Msza Romantyczna (The Romantic Mass) (1978), Msza Filozoficzna (The Philosophical Mass) (1979), Msza Polityczna (The Political Mass) (1980), Msza Polska (The Polish Mass) (1984). The others are concerned with the problems of art: Msza Artystyczna (The Artistic Mass) (1978), Msza Awangardowa (The Avant-garde Mass) (1979). To some extent, analogous problems were raised in his projects in the form of ‘dialogues’ (‘disputes,’ ‘arguments’) of the artist with major figures of 20th century art: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Tadeusz Kantor (both from 1991), and Marcel Duchamp (1981, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1995).
During the same period, the artist subjected his own practice to an intense period of self-reflection. In 1978, he published a major statement:
I am not a sculptor. I stopped being one as soon as I graduated from the academy. […] It is hard to divide my practice into periods. We can try, however – through the prism of the criterion of real movement. In the first half of 1960s, I used visual effects without real movement. It was something of a trace of movement and action. […] In the second half of the 60s, I introduced concrete movement. Movement functions as a necessary element of a fact. […] Dilemmas? […] My biggest dilemma is referring to my manifestations as ‘happenings.’ […] I have always insisted on using the word ‘action,’ ‘event.’ The difference between a ‘manifestation’ and a ‘happening’ is huge. My manifestations have a programme, aim, and seminal capacity. An ‘action’ leads to a complete exhaustion and deformation of a previously started object. At the same time, however, a given object is used during an action. And this is where the moment of fusion takes place. Object and action fuse. We achieve a whole.
A number of annotations, including descriptions of performance-actions and auto-commentaries referring to them, is comprised in the publication Zwidy – Wyrocznie – Ołtarze. Szkic Biograficzny (Hallucinations – Oracles – Altars: A Biographical Sketch), which accompanied an exhibition at the Krzysztofory Gallery in 1989.
Bereś’s art has always met with a lively reception from the art critics. They emphasised the specifics of language used by him, the provocative courage to display nudity, engagement in the prevalent problems of reality. Jerzy Hanusek wrote:
‘Bereś’ actions and manifestations move the imagination. However, his goal is not merely to move the imagination, but to provide that movement with a specific direction’, ‘Bereś performs nude, sometimes covered by boards tied around his hips or a piece of canvas used during manifestations. The artist’s nudity fulfils a formal, pragmatic, and semantic function. It is first of all an attempt at harmonising the means of wood’s own presence, which it lacks in its original, natural state. Bereś uses his body in the same way as wooden blocks and fire. […] Bereś’ nudity is not erotic in its nature […]. It is, among others, a manifestation of openness, trust, sincerity, helplessness. […] The artist knows that in his projects, he referred to values which in the contemporary world, saturated with cynicism and pragmatism, become shameful values, exposed to mockery, contempt, and ridicule. […] The artist penetrating these particular areas of cognition, where the intellect turns out to be the enemy of wisdom, pays a high price for his audacity: the borderline between the position of a prophet and of a pitiful victim becomes incredibly thin. The artist not only makes an offering, but also consents to play the role of a sacrifice. It is a price which cannot be avoided.
Ewa Gorządek stressed:
The artist’s nudity is something as natural and primal as wood or fire, which Bereś uses in his art. Body is sometimes objectified – the artist paints on it like a painter on a canvas, writes keywords for actions on it, calls it a ‘live monument,’ then again he presents it as a subject, e.g. in Altars, Masses, and Transformations, he bestows a magical, metaphorical meaning upon it, sacrifices it at ritualistic altars.
Andrzej Kostołowski said, in turn:
Morality and politics are notions which are often represented in Bereś’s art. They represent an anti-totalitarian and patriotic attitude, a constant in his life.
This participatory stance also led to works for the St. Joseph and Our Lady of Fátima Church in Tarnów: side altars – of the Holy Family and Sacred Heart of Jesus (realised in 1964 in collaboration with his wife, Maria Pinińska-Bereś), the Crucifixion group at the Chapel devoted to the Victims of Concentration Camps – comprising a figure of Christ on the cross, Virgin Mary, and a full-figure portrait of Father Maximilian Kolbe in the church (1969). This stance also prompted the artist to join the independent culture movement. He showed his works at big church exhibitions, as well as at the show summing up the 1980s titled What is an Artist When Times are Hard?, which took place at Zachęta in Warsaw (1990/91).
Jerzy Bereś represented Poland at the 9th São Paulo Art Biennial (1967/68). In Poland, he mainly cooperated with the Krzysztofory Gallery (he was the first sculptor accepted by the Kraków Group, and since 1966, he was also its member), Labirynt Gallery in Lublin (later also with the Bureau for Art Exhibitions) and with Foksal Gallery. His works were also featured in the major thematic exhibitions Romanticism and the Romantic in 19th and 20th Century Polish Art (1975/76) and The Self-portrait of Poles (1979/80).
He received numerous awards: multiple times at the aforementioned Sculpture of the Year competitions, he received the Kraków Art Critics’ Award in 1973, in 1977 – a prize at the 7th Festival of Fine Arts (for The Artistic Mass II), in 1981 – 2nd Prize from the Minister of Culture and Art (he did not appear to accept it), and in 1987 – he received an award from the Solidarność Committee for Independent Culture.
Bereś’s retrospective exhibition, Hallucinations. Oracles. Altars. Challenges took place at the National Museum in Poznań in 1995. On this occasion, a comprehensive catalogue was published, including descriptions of works, timeline, list of exhibitions, detailed bibliography, etc.
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Institute of Art History of the Catholic University of Lublin, December 2004; update: December 2012, translated by AM, April 2017