Alfred Lenica was a painter. He was born on 4th August 1899 in Pabianice, died on 16th April 1977 in Warsaw.
Painter, author of figurative painting, mainly still life and landscape.
He commenced his higher education in 1922 at the University of Poznań's department of Law and Economics. A year later, he joined the Music Conservatory in Poznań, where he studied playing string instruments. In 1925, he took up studies in the Private Institute of Fine Arts of Adam Hanytkiewicz and J. Kubowicz. During the Second World War, Lenica lived with his family in Kraków, where he made friends with the painter Jerzy Kujawski. Thanks to him, Lenica became interested in surrealism and joined in the activities of Kraków's avant-garde circles concentrated around Tadeusz Kantor.
Lenica's relationship with the Kraków art environment was so strong that it resulted in him being invited to the 1st Exhibition of Modern Art in Kraków in December 1948, and later, in 1965, in his admission to the Kraków Group. His family returned to Poznań in 1945. In the same year, Lenica joined the Polish Workers' Party (PPR) and the trade union of the Polish Visual Artists of the Poznań Region. Two years later, he was elected president of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers (ZPAP) in Poznań. In 1947, together with Ildefons Houwalt and Feliks M. Nowomiejski, Lenica founded the avant-garde art group 4F+R (standing for Forma – Form, Farba – Paint, Faktura – Texture, Fantastyka – Fantasy + Realizm – Realism). In 1956, Lenica permanently moved to Warsaw, where he was an active participant in debates and collective exhibitions at the Krzywe Koło Gallery.
In 1962, the artist was awarded the Main Prize at the 1st Festival of Contemporary Polish Painting in Szczecin.
Lenica's works belong to the collections of, among others, National Museums in Warsaw, Kraków, Poznań, Szczecin, the Art Museum in Łódź, and numerous private collections in Poland and abroad.
Lenica's output was mostly influenced by two major genres of European early 20th-century art: cubism and surrealism. In the 1930s, Lenica was interested in modern painting and drew inspiration from cubism. His figurative paintings (Wiolonczelista / Cellist I and II, as well as Rodzina / Family from 1934) were characterised by strong, flat forms with a strong outline, which the artist set against very geometrised, accumulated elements. Later on, his works began reflecting the influence of symbolism and surrealism, for instance in the paintings Nafta rządzi światem / The World is Ruled by Oil (1938-41) or W Poszukiwaniu Straconego Czasu / In Search of Lost Time (1939), which are very clearly inspired by the art of De Chirico and Salvador Dalí. Just before the Second World War and soon after its end, the artist painted compositions featuring unexpected juxtapositions of various objects, giving them lyrical titles (Kiedy młodość Znajdzie się w Wichrze / When Youth Finds Itself in a Whirlwind, 1948). Lenica gradually moved away from representations of real objects and towards a monumentalised form constructed out of simplified items, which he occasionally placed in a phantasmagoric space and empty landscape.
His stay in occupied Kraków and exposure to the environment of progressive artists such as Jerzy Kujawski, Tadeusz Kantor, Kazimierz Mikulski, and Tadeusz Brzozowski became a turning point in his artistic career. Contact with those artists reassured the artist (who by that time was forty years old) in his pursuit of painting, as well as contributed to his turn towards modern art. After his return to Poznań, Lenica began exhibiting and organising a local art environment. Between 1945-1950, he created many war-related paintings in which the represented events took place against the background of a dead, surreal landscape resembling a theatre set. These works did not depict individual human dramas, but presented them in a symbolic manner. Lenica also began his formal explorations and experimented with such techniques as collage, photomontage, and decalcomania. Lenica's piece Zagrożone Dzieciństwo / Childhood Under Threat from 1948 is an appropriate illustration of his method of working at that time. Photographic elements were integrated into a background painted in watercolours and ink.
This kind of experience resulted in groundbreaking solutions which led to Lenica's first works in the spirit of tachisme. The artist developed his own style and technique, which he then transferred to oil paintings: he covered the surface of the canvas with several layers of different colours of paint and later uncover subsequent colour layers by means of special tools made out of cardboard. He finished off the compositions with black and white varnish spilt directly from a can. Farby w Ruchu / Paints in Motion (1949) is a painting in which the spilt paints streamed freely down a vertically placed support. This method resembled the actions of Jackson Pollock carried out in 1947. Lenica's tachist paintings from the late 1940s are extremely expressive and at the same time conveyed by means of a non-representational painting language. They carry drama, an atmosphere of danger, and are dominated by dark tones, which undoubtedly constitute a reminiscence of the war experiences.
During that period, Lenica worked with the 4F+R group, which combined the achievements of world avant-garde with the social tasks of art. The group pointed to the expressionist traditions of the Zdrój magazine and group from the times of Stanisław Przybyszewski and Emil Zegadłowicz, and considered Jan Spychalski, a metaphorist painter from Poznań, to be its direct predecessor. Artists from the 4F+R group discovered new creative potential in surrealism, expressionism, and abstractionism. The social elements of the group's manifesto were related to the socialist beliefs of its members, who to some extent drew on the patterns conceived by the founders of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde.
In the first half of the 1950s, when socialist realism reigned, Lenica interrupted his artistic experiments, turning towards the politically imposed artistic discourse. Considering his political beliefs, this was a return for him to the socially and politically engaged paintings he created 1930s. He painted such works as Młody Bierut Wśród Robotników / Young Bierut Among Workers (1949), Pstrowski i Towarzysze / Pstrowski and Comrades, Przyjęcie do Partii / Admission to the Party, Czerwony Plakat / Red Poster (1950). He also tried to combine formal experiments with ideologically engaged themes, for instance in the work Tracimy Dniówki from 1953, in which he applied collage and monotype.
In the second half of the 1950s, Lenica continued his work on informal painting and returned to experiments with painting matter. He produced large-format oil paintings, using his previously invented technique (retrieving patches of colour from subsequent layers of paint), which he later perfected and further developed. Lenica was also keen on applying the technique of dripping (uncontrolled spilling and spraying of paint over the base) and also tended to use varnishes and industrial paints. The artist's characteristic fusion of interests in tachisme, informal, and surrealism resulted in a formulation of his own, recognisable style. Bożena Kowalska wrote in a catalogue to Lenica's exhibition in the 72 Gallery that:
Lenica's affinity to tachist painting consisted in the ever-present, accepted, or even programmatic instance of chance; to action painting – in the graphological tracing of gesture of a hand manoeuvring a tool across the surface of the canvas; to surrealism – in a spontaneous, automatic record of psychic states.
Lenica's method of applying smooth surfaces of plain colour in his paintings resembles the technique of the surrealist decalcomania, while the dynamism of forms is emphasised by the calligraphic, dark contour. Lines whirled and the pools of black paint thickened on top of them. His canvases are filled with vibrating, dynamic forms, characterised by vitality and exuberance: Stacja Fauny / The Fauna Station (1962), Silnik Biologiczny II / Biological Engine II (1965), Muza / The Muse (1969). Lenica's paintings were often referred to as biological, as the realm represented in them could be associated, through its vitality, with a mobile, animate matter captured in the midst of a mysterious metamorphosis. This effect was generated by the painted areas saturated with specific dynamics, material density, and exceptional lucidity which Lenica created in his works. Even though at first sight Lenica's painting seems to be a game of abstract, non-representational compositions of colours, patches, lines, and dynamic constellations, the titles he gave to them encouraged more thoughtful interpretation of his artworks: Czyhanie / Lurking, Urojenie / Delusion, Zakładanie Wędziła / Putting on a Bit, Porażony Kontynent / A Paralysed Continent, Smak Gorzkiego Owocu / The Taste of a Bitter Fruit. The artist often underlined that his main goal was to find a way of communicating experiences and emotions which are the most ephemeral and difficult to define, through painting. To him, that was also what made painting similar to music, which was his another life passion. He wrote on the back of one of his watercolours:
A drawing, a line, is the architecture of a painting, and the paint, colour – its the music.
Alfred Lenica moved to Warsaw when he was almost sixty. In spite of that, the Warsaw period of his activity was immensely prolific: a solo exhibition of his works in 1958 at Zachęta initiated a whole series of shows in other cities in Poland and abroad. Lenica travelled extensively – between 1959 and 1960, he stayed in Geneva, where, upon an invitation from the United Nations, he was painting a mural in the organization's headquarters, titled Trzy Żywioły (Woda, Ogień i Miłość) / Three Elements (Water, Fire, and Love). He was in a permanent contact with his native art avant-garde, exhibited together with the Kraków Group, took part in a majority of field trips in Osieki near Koszalin, and participated in the seminar Sztuka w zmieniającym się świecie (Art in the Changing World) in 1966 in Puławy.
Selected solo exhibitions
- 1958 – Exhibition of Paintings by Alfred Lenica, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
- 1960 – Lenica, Galerie Ferrero, Geneva
- 1963 – Alfred Lenica, Arsenał, Poznań
- 1965 – Alfred Lenica, Krzysztofory Gallery, Kraków
- 1965 – Alfred Lenica, The Art Propaganda Centre, Łódź
- 1973 – Alfred Lenica, 72 Gallery, Chełm
- 1974 – Alfred Lenica, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
- 1987 – Alfred Lenica 1899-1977, Silesian Museum, Katowice
Selected group exhibitions:
- 1948 – 1st Exhibition of Modern Art, Palace of Arts, Kraków
- 1949 – 4F+R Group Exhibition, Salon ZPAP, Poznań
- 1957 – Moderna Poljska Umetnost, Municipal Gallery of Contemporary Art, Belgrad
- 1957 – 2nd Exhibition of Modern Art, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
- 1959 – From Young Poland to Our Days, National Museum, Warsaw
- 1959 – 3rd Exhibition of Modern Art, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw
- 1962 – 1st Festival of Contemporary Polish Painting, Szczecin
- 1963 – Confrontations 63, Modern Art Gallery, Warsaw
- 1965 – 17 Polish Painters, New York D'Arcy Galleries, New York
- 1969 – Exhibition of Contemporary Polish Art, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
- 1970 – Five Polish Surrealistic Artists, Charlottenborg, Copenhagen
- 1975 – In the Surrealist Circle. Metaphysical Current in Polish Art, National Museum, Wrocław
- 1987 – Faces of Socialist Realism, National Museum, Warsaw
Author: Ewa Gorządek, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, March 2006, transl. Ania Micińska, November 2015