Grupa Nowohucka is a Kraków-based artistic group, known at the beginning as Grupa 5-ciu (editor’s translation: Group of Five). Founded in 1956, it lasted until March 1961, when its artists decided to join the Kraków Group.
Grupa Nowohucka (editor’s translation: Nowa Huta Group) consisted of Julian Jończyk, Janusz Tarabuła, Danuta Urbanowicz, Witold Urbanowicz, Jerzy Wroński and, until 1958, Barbara Kwaśniewska (who was later replaced by Danuta Urbanowicz).
Towards the end of 1955, before having graduated from college, the artists decided to found an artistic group. Initially they called themselves Grupa 5-ciu (Group of Five). The subsequent name – Grupa Nowohucka – came later and was linked to the place where most of the group’s members had apartments and studios. In February 1956 the artists filed a document to the regional authorities of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers, stating the formation of their group and the objectives they wanted to accomplish. They stated a desire to resolve artistic problems in a contemporary way, underlined the importance of individual creativity and discoveries in the field of the arts, strengthened by an exchange of experiences and ideas, and put an emphasis on the constant development of Polish Avant-Garde art, promoting it within a new audience – the working class.
Jerzy Wroński reminisced:
We knew that a painting should be a composition of logically linked elements, creating a coherent unity. In such a complimentary formation, every element should serve only its own purpose. That was the fundamental criterion we wanted to implement in practice, as it was especially useful in formal analysis of abstract art, when the painting, freed from its mimetic function, had to defend itself. We considered the stability and sustainability of the internal structure as features of great importance.
The group started to publish a contemporary arts magazine, Szkice (editor’s translation: Sketches), and 3,500 copies of its first and only issue were printed. The editor-in-chief was Barbara Kwaśniewska, and the editorial board included Julian Jończyk, Janusz Tarabuła, Jerzy Wroński, and Andrzej Wróblewski. However, due to lack of financing, the magazine ceased to exist.
Grupa Nowohucka is considered one of the most important Kraków-based group of the Khrushchev Thaw in Poland. The artists inaugurated their work at a common exhibition in March 1956 in the Association of Polish Artists and Designers gallery in Kraków. Their artwork from 1956 to 1961was inspired by the wider-known movement of Art Informel, and experimented with reliefs and textures. Their paintings from the 1950s and early 1960s, with thick layers of paint, sand, sawdust, using ‘poor’ raw materials, were a direct reference to natural materials and to their hidden, cumulated energy.
An important factor of the group’s artistic process was time, which always left a mark in relief painting. For Janusz Tarabuła, it was a reference to matters of transcendence, while Jerzy Wroński was fascinated by the process of the transformation and destruction of artistic materials. But the painters of Nowa Huta weren’t as interested in the form of their artwork as in its expression, derived from the artists’ individual experiences. Piotr Krakowski wrote in the catalogue for their exhibition at the Krzysztofory gallery (March 1960):
It goes without a doubt that their work is a phase of the Informel movement, but at the stage where the artist no longer shows the evocative force and violence of freshly squeezed out paint, spilled plastic, or varnish. The importance of an unforeseen experience, reliant on chance and automatic gestures, is diminished by the growing role of meditation – a factor linking the Polish artists with the Western European artistic tendencies of the time.
The work of the Grupa Nowohucka artists shows great influence from Antoni Tàpies and Alberto Burri, as well as the newly-born minimalist art and arte povera. Janusz Tarabuła wrote:
A real inspiration – though then it was still subconscious – was our surroundings: the cracked, shabby plaster, rotten panels of suburban fences, the Roman rocks of old walls, destroyed elements of folk culture, mud, dust, all these ‘objects of the lowest rank’, as they were called by Tadeusz Kantor.
The prevailing experience of that generation of Polish artists was post-war trauma and destruction, which the artists from Grupa Nowohucka processed using different means than the ones they were taught at the academy (colour and configuration). They chose anti-aesthetic, degraded materials, or made new ones look worn out. The experience of the war and brutality of the world after World War II couldn’t be reflected in the aesthetics of the Colourists, which prevailed at the academy. They youngsters searched for new means of expression. Janusz Tarabuła reminisced:
It was a quest to find painting’s boundaries. Real materials – wood and sand, metal and soil – were a direct reference to nature and a way of expressing the hidden energy inside it. In this minimalist idea, the colour was supposed to be the outcome of differences in materials, based not on juxtaposing different tints, but through subtle differences in textures of the natural materials used in the process. It was a different, substantial type of colour, allowing to forget about rules of contrast and harmony – like leaving the major-minor system in music.
For the Grupa Nowohucka painters, the object and its matter (material) were one of the most important factors in their creative process – matter helped them construct objects of contemplation. Sometimes those objects were ‘taken out’, so to speak, from reality, like Danuta Urbanowicz’s Murek (editor’s translation: Wall) or Brama (editor’s translation: Gate), made of tinware and a metal net. Urbanowicz glued various objects to her paintings, upholstered the edges of the canvas with tinware and ‘darned’ rugged tinware to strengthen the contrast of textures. She added pieces of wood, fabric, decorative cloth, bits of mirrors, license plates, furnace handles, signs, etc., and used plaster and mortar as integral elements of her artwork. The artist said:
I mixed materials to expose their contrast: for example tinware with stiffened lace, which gave the pieces their own, unique quality.
Srebrny (editor’s translation: Silver) – a painting by Witold Urbanowicz – was completed between 1959 and 1960 as the result of a long process: the artist cut canvas into pieces and sewed the pieces back together, which was then glued to a surface and treated with fire. To the surface he attached small elements dipped in mortar: strings, material cuttings, covered the entire composition in silver paint and polished it. Jerzy Wroński on the other hand carved the surfaces of boards with sharp tools, slightly burned them and soaked in wax. The combination of ash and wax together with board scraps formed a complex structure, which the artist sometimes smoothed out or ground down. The artist described his work this way:
In my relief-paintings, as opposed to geometric abstraction, there are no definite boundaries. The neighbouring forms smoothly pass into one another. What’s more, the varied space configuration of the painting’s surface, leads to a modification of the entire piece and its components, caused by a change in the light angle and intensity. Changes in the chiaroscuro also affect the colours of the relief, subtly filling in the dominating palette, which is especially important in monochromatic paintings.
Julian Jończyk created his cycle Wnętrza (editor’s translation: Interiors, 1961) in the process of adding textured elements (e.g., cotton wool) to a black paper foundation, and covering it with white paint. He sometimes destroyed his own works and made new ones using the remains, like his cycle Confetti and Obraz Prawie Zniszczony (editor’s translation: An Almost Destroyed Painting). In some of his works Jończyk also used luminescent elements like fluorescent bulbs.
Grupa Nowohucka organised three major exhibitions: in March 1960 in the Krzysztofory Gallery, in June that same year in the International Press and Book Club (KMPiK) in Nowa Huta during the 7th Congress of the International Association of Art Critics, and in 1961 once again in Krzysztofory, right after the five artists were named members of the Kraków Group. The exhibit in Nowa Huta featured a catalogue in both Polish and French.
The last exhibition of the group was in the Grabowski Gallery in London in 1962. Later on their artwork grew similar to what artists from the Kraków Group were creating at the time. Maciej Gutowski wrote this about the Grupa Nowohucka artists in the 1970s:
Their paintings aren’t easy, and they’re not attractive, just like every piece of artwork that is bereft of superficial explicitness. It is hard to describe, as it’s more ‘plastic’ than literary, and requires slow reception, a state close to contemplation. Its value lies primarily in a serious and earnest approach to various problems, in reaching deep into them, thus denying the demagoguery of short and easy formulas.
In 2000 the Zderzak Gallery organized a monographic exhibition of the works of Grupa Nowohucka, accompanied by a publication Matter Painting 1958–1963: Grupa Nowohucka (editor’s translation), consisting critics’ reviews and other unpublished documents from the time. In 2006 the Pryzmat Gallery in Kraków organised an exhibition of the artists’ works entitled 50 Years Later (editor’s translation).
Members of Grupa Nowohucka:
Article originally written in Polish by Ewa Gorządek, Dec 2010, translated by WF, Nov 2017