In 1929 Władysław Strzemiński formed the "a.r." group and initiated the process of acquiring art from leading European avant-garde artists. A year later, the group issued its first official statement: "The »a.r.« group is putting up the fight for modern art in Poland."
The artistic group a.r. (which stands for ‘revolutionary artists’ or ‘real avant-garde’) was active between 1929 and 1936 and became one of the most notable leftist Polish avant-garde groups of the interwar period. It was created by poets and artists – former associates of the Kraków magazine Zwrotnica and ex-members of the Blok and Praesens avant-garde groups.
In order to keep up the fight, these avant-garde artists and poets, members of the most radical group in post-war Poland, set up the foundation of the International Collection of Modern Art of the “a.r.” group – a collection of the most radical and experimental art of their time, and one of the first museum collections of that sort in the world.
Who were the artists and poets, members of the “a.r.” group?
The "a.r." stood for "revolutionary artists" or "real avant-garde". The nature of this group, was quite unique. The artists did not prepare joint exhibitions, but showed their work at collective exhibitions in Poland and abroad. They regularly exhibited at the Warsaw Institute of Art Propaganda and also participated in numerous avant-garde performances. The group primarily focused on organizational activities, publishing theoretical treatises and texts on ideological matters. One of the greatest achievements of "a.r." was definitely the creation of the International Collection of Modern Art at the Municipal Museum of History and Art in Łódź, which today is the foundation of the collections of that museum.
Interestingly, the group remained virtual, as it were: a meeting of all its members never took place, they lived in different places and communicated only through letters. What held the group together was an ideological coherence. Everyone supported the postulate of combining various art disciplines to serve society. The ideological aspect of their creative output and the need to get involved in the life of society was another common belief uniting the members of the group. All were involved in didactic and editorial work, organisational activities, artistic critique, and art theory. This consistency of views could result from the fact that the group was formed when all of them already had a clear vision of art after their artistic experiences.
Władysław Strzemiński – a Polish artist born under Russian rule – was the key figure. In 1918–1919, while in Moscow, he was involved in a debate on the social responsibilities of art and its role in the shaping of the world. In the early 1920s, he was already proclaiming that art ought to have practical consequences. In order to achieve this, a collection of modern art would have to be founded and opened to the public. Strzemiński spared no effort to make it happen, first in Moscow, then in Smolensk, Vilnius and Warsaw, until finally he succeeded in Łódź. In 1929, he formed the "a.r." group whose members included his wife, sculptor Katarzyna Kobro (they cooperated artistically for years), painter Henryk Stażewski and two avant-garde poets – Julian Przyboś and Jan Brzękowski. Since the very beginning, Strzemiński had a clear vision of what the collection was to be like, and the emphasis was largely on abstract art. His choice of works to be acquired showed extreme sensitivity to the most experimental trends in European art at that time.
Strzemiński was held in high regard by the members of the Western avant-garde. His theory of Unism, a radical demand for the unity of the work, preceded by several years the Concrete Art Manifesto signed in 1930 by Europe’s prominent artists. Stażewski was very well acquainted with the latest theories of art in the West and, after several years in Paris, he had contacts in the avant-garde scene there. He had collaborated before in two avant-garde groups with Strzemiński and Kobro, who in turn imported the achievements of Constructivism and Suprematism from Russia to Poland: Blok (1924–1926) and Preasens (1926–1929). Put off by the excessive willingness to compromise displayed by other Preasens members, especially the architects, the three of them left and set up their own group “a.r” in 1929. Julian Przyboś – invited by Strzemiński – joined the group immediately, the two had worked together on previous occasions and both had radical views on contemporary art.
The series of volumes of the a.r. Library was initiated by Strzemiński with the help of Brzękowski and Stażewski, who were in Paris at the time. Published in 1931, it was the second collection –after Hanover – which included the works of contemporary masters. In addition to works by Polish artists, it also included representatives of the radical European avant-garde from Paris.
The first of the series was Julian Przyboś’s volume of poetry, Z Ponad (editor’s translation: From Beyond, 1930), at the time considered the most radical example of poet-artist collaboration. They also published Strzemiński and Kobro’s Composition of Space: Calculations of Spatio-Temporal Rhythm (1930), two volumes of poetry by Brzękowski and two by Przyboś with typography by Strzemiński, and Strzemiński’s Druk Funkcjonalny (Functional Print, 1935). Brzękowski’s volumes contained drawings by Hans Arp (W Drugiej Osobie / In the Second Person) and Max Ernst (Zaciśnięte Dookoła Ust / Around the Compressed Mouth).
The a.r. Statements – published in 1930 – were primarily devoted to ideological issues. The texts were collectively written and presented the group’s views not only on artistic matters, but also on social and political issues. The “a.r” group proclaimed the need for art to collaborate with poetry and a struggle for new art in all the fields of artistic creation. It was also a critique of the artistic ‘delays’ in relation to the leading European avant-garde and an accompanying postulate of the current artistic scene.
Their a.r. Statement No. 2 published by the end of 1932 had the form of a four-page leaflet. It included comments on mass art and gave new possibilities of persuasion, it also discusses its effective impact on society. Moreover,it took up the issue of national art dedicated to a wide audience and analysed formal matters concerning the composition of painting and pure painterly elements such as contrast, referred to in one of the texts as a source of form. Strzemiński examined the issue of distinguishing pure art of a ‘laboratory’ nature which creates forms from art that disseminate into everyday life. The architects were mainly interested in the standardisation of architecture, the furniture industry, and other applied arts. In addition to the thematically broad repertoire included in this small bulletin, it also managed to present the a.r. alphabet project, reproductions, poems, and lyrics dedicated to poetry.
In retrospect, the greatest achievement of the a.r group was creating a collection of the most prominent artists of the European avant-garde presented at the Municipal Museum of History and Art in Łódź in 1928. Władysław Strzmiński used the authorities’ growing attention to art and in 1929 proposed transferring the collection to the museum in the form of a group artistic deposit. The project was finalised in 1931.Throughout this time it was enriched and developed by the artists. Strzemiński and Kobro gathered collections across the country, while Stażewski did the same in Paris. Thanks to his former student, Wanda Chodasiewicz-Grabowska, he gained contacts within the avant-garde enviroment. Although the first results were not spectacular, including Jan Brzękowski in this task, it was undoubtfully an achievement: because he was acquainted with the avant-garde environment through the editorial board of L'Art Contemporain, he began the dynamic process of expanding the set and brought in works by Prampolini, Arp, and Ernst. When the collection was passed on to the Łódź Museum, it consisted of 21 pieces which had been privately transported to the country.
After signing a contract with the museum in 1931, it was possible to finance transport and therefore the collection comprised 75 works, only 15 of which were by Polish artists. In 1939, it reached 111 pieces. The project’s success was largely associated with Strzemiński’s formidable status in Łódź, which stemmed from his personality and charisma, rather than his official obligations.
The a.r. group never officially disbanded, but around the year 1932 its activity in the artistic and theoretical sphere lessened. The a.r. Library’s last publication was released in 1936.
• Andrzej Turowski, Polish Constructivism: An Attempt to Reconstruct the Trend of 1921-1931 / Konstruktywizm Polski: Próba Rekonstrukcji Nurtu 1921-1934, Wrocław 1981
• Andrzej Turowski, Builders of the World: From the History of Radical Modernism / Budowniczowie Świata: Z Dziejów Radykalnego Modernizmu", Kraków 2000
• The Polish Artistic Life in the Years 1915-1939 / Polskie Życie Artystyczne W Latach 1915-1939, Wrocław 1974
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, November 2010. Translated by Sylwia Wojda, August 2011. Updated and enriched with the use of materials from Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, November, 2018