Polish painter, art critic and theoretician; mathematician and philosopher; member of the avant-garde group known as the Formists; creator of the aesthetic theories of "plurality of realities" and Zonism. Born in 1884 in Krakow, died in 1944 in Barvishe near Moscow.
Leon Chwistek was a renowned mathematician and philosopher. In 1906 he obtained a doctorate in philosophy from Jagiellonian University and began teaching math at J. Sobieski Middle School the same year. He taught for twenty years with some interruptions. In 1908-1909 he resumed his studies in philosophy in Göttingen. Between 1914 and 1916 he served in the ranks of the Polish Legions and in 1922 became a lecturer in mathematics at Jagiellonian University. In 1930 he took over as head of the faculty of mathematical logic at John Casimir University in Lviv. He abandoned the city with the withdrawing Red Army in 1941. He settled in Tbilisi, where he resumed teaching, this time focusing on mathematical analysis. In 1943 he moved to Moscow where he became an activist in the Association of Polish Patriots.
Around 1903-1904 he studied for six months at Krakow's Academy of Fine Arts under Józef Mehoffer. During a stay in Vienna in 1910, he became fascinated with Venetian Renaissance painting. While in Paris in 1913-1914 he studied drawing; it was at this time that he also discovered the Cubists. In 1917 he was a co-founder of the Krakow-based group known as the Polish Expressionists (renamed the Formists in 1919) and went on to become its leading theoretician. Chwistek's attitude as a Formist was shaped in a fundamental way by the aesthetics of French Cubism and Italian Futurism, from which he drew his concept of autonomous artistic form as freed of the responsibility to imitate nature. In his compositions he introduced a varied rhythm of geometric and organic shapes that penetrate one another and intertwine to cover the entire canvas. With the Futurists Chwistek shared an interest in the city, stylized visions of which he recreated in his watercolors and oil paintings (Miasto I / City I, Miasto II / City II, Miasto / City, c. 1919). Other frequent subjects included dance and dueling, both motifs allowing him a freedom to create dynamic arrangements (Salamandry / Salamanders, c. 1921). Chwistek used the principal of spatial simultaneity to analyze individual stages of movement (Szermierka / Fencing, c. 1920) and experimented extensively with colors in his paintings, at times applying bright and glowing tones, at other times resorting to more concentrated and aggressive ones. During his Formist phase he also created works for which architectural fantasies were the basic motif. In 1919 and 1920 he published a series of articles in "Formiści" / "The Formists" magazine that showed him to be a proponent of aesthetic pluralism. He expressed this in his theory of multiple realities and their corresponding conventions in painting ("Wielość rzeczywistości w sztuce" / "The Plurality of Realities in Art", 1918 and "Wielość rzeczywistości" / "The Plurality of Realities", 1921). Chwistek distinguished between four types of reality: popular, physical, sensual, and visible. These had their corresponding currents in the visual arts - Primitivism, Realism, Impressionism, and Futurism, respectively. Although Chwistek did not impose a hierarchy on these realities, he nevertheless considered Futurism to possess the greatest intrinsic creative value. In 1922 the artist announced that Formism was in crisis, a crisis that in his opinion derived from the development of excessively strong links between Tytus Czyżewski and Futurism. Chwistek proceeded to devise the theory of Strefizm (Zonism), which was a development on and continuation of Formism, and fundamentally constituted a different formula for anti-naturalistic painting. In accordance with rules devised by the artist, compositions could be divided into zones dominated by a single color and a single, multiplied shape. The zones were not delineated with lines and contrasted only in their arrangement of forms and color selection. In line with the theory of Zonism, the surface of the canvas became autonomous and the painterly space arbitrary, making this theory the first milestone in the development of Polish abstract art. In 1935 the Lódź-based periodical "Forma" / "Form" published a debate between Chwistek and Władysław Strzemiński, which amounted to a confrontation between Zonism and Unism, between Chwistek's program of spirited art informed by concepts of biological vitality and Strzemiński's Constructivist program and the idea of intellectualized and socially beneficial art. In proposing what amounted to anti-Unism, Chwistek propagated creative spontaneity, conceived as a reaction against the ballast of traditional concepts and the emptiness of speculative Abstraction. Chwistek was also a portrait artist, painting images of approximately one hundred personages from Krakow's scientific and intellectual community between 1926 and 1930. Solo exhibitions of Chwistek's works were organized in Krakow (1927) and in Lviv (1934).
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Science, December 2001.
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