The group was formed in Lviv in late summer or autumn in 1929, and its name (which was proposed by Janish) was supposed to symbolise the idea of integrating all forms of art. Artes’ first exhibition took place in the seat of Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Sztuk Pięknych (editor’s translation: Society of Friends of Fine Arts) in 1930. Apart from the founding trio, other artists also participated: Roman Sielski, Margit Reich, Ludwik Tyrowicz, Tadeusz Wojciechowski. They presented not only paintings and drawings, but also architectural designs. As reviewers pointed out, even though Artes’ members employed various forms in their works, they were in unison in their departure from naturalism and tendency towards modern trends, as well as their fascination with French art, especially the works of Fernand Legèr and the surrealists.
The critics voiced conflicting opinions about the exhibition, some people were even outraged by Janish’s manifesto published on behalf of the group in Słowo Polskie (Polish Word) under the telling title Dlaczego Obecnie Maluje się Tak, a Nie Inaczej? (Why Do We Paint the Way We Do?). In his text, he enthusiastically supported modern phenomena in art, for example, French surrealism, and he also emphasised the importance of an emotional element in art. In fact, the works of the artists didn’t show a strong relationship with the surrealist’s works. Even though they appropriated some iconographic motifs and methods of depiction in their works, they didn’t lay the basic theoretical foundations for the expression of the internal model or the role of mental automatism. In the works presented at the exhibition, the focus was on classicising and ‘naïve’ realism as well as post-impressionism. The architectural designs involved both decorative stylisation as well as careful, moderate constructivism. After the first exhibition, the group was joined by Ludwik Lille, Otto Hahn, Henryk Streng, and Aleksander Riemer, while Wysocki left.
The years between 1930 and 1932 were a work-intensive period for the group. At that time, Artes organised eleven exhibitions: six in Lviv, two in Warsaw, and exhibitions in Kraków, Stanisławów (now Ivano-Frankivsk in Ukraine) and Ternopil. They also started publishing portfolios with lithographic reproductions of the works, the first of which, containing nine illustrations, was published in 1930. The artists also planned a second edition, which was never published. During that period, the group didn’t manage to work out a common artistic programme; it was still characterised by aesthetic pluralism and they accepted stances which veered away from the experiences of the avant-garde. They increasingly used the term surrealism. It was used in relation to Janish’s grotesque and imaginative compositions and Streng’s paintings which featured striking juxtapositions of abstract forms with realistic shapes, as well as photomontages by Aleksander Krzywobłocki, Sielska, and Janish. Undoubtedly, the group’s common denominator was a type of a general anti-aesthetic attitude and searching for inspiration outside of recognised artistic traditions, in the urban iconosphere, painted shop fronts and carefully arranged show windows.
The primitivism which appeared in various forms in the art of first decades of the 20th century and which was associated with various programmes of the renewal of European art strongly manifested itself in Steng’s and Janish’s paintings. Seeking modern forms of depiction, the artists turned to sources which haven’t been yet exploited by culture, for example, children’s art, African art and, in the case of Polish art, folk craft. Since the era of the formists, a group of Polish expressionists, an interest in folklore could be seen not only in content, most of all it strongly influenced the form of the works. The new substance required an adequate language of representation, so the focus turned directly to pictorial sources.
It is clear that for Artes’ members, urban folklore and provincial art were not only a source of iconographic motifs but most of all an inspiration for formal solutions. They consciously infused their compositions with elements and methods of depiction which were supposed to give an impression of deficiency and naïvety of their craft. Additionally, the element of irony and grotesque in their works should be ascribed to the fondness of provincial subjects rather than surrealist art. The combination of the various inspirations gave birth to an interesting type of metaphorical and allusive art filled with references to the everyday life while drawing from various modern trends.
In the 1930s, Artes’ members radicalised their ideological orientation. During their exhibition in Garliński’s salon in Warsaw, Ludwik Lille presented constructivist compositions and he postulated autonomy, logic, and the functionality of artistic means in the catalogue accompanying the show. At the same time, the artists gradually embraced left-wing orientation. In their texts, Henryk Streng and Otto Hahn emphasised the role of the painter as an observer of the reality of society. These views were reflected in the second period of the group’s activity, between 1933 and 1936, however, Artes was markedly less active then. In 1933, the ‘left-wing’ of the association: Hahn, Janish, Streng, Riemer, Krzywobłocki unsuccessfully tried to transform the group into Neoartes. Soon after, the group working under the previous name became integrated with the Association of Polish Artists and Designers in Lviv formed in 1932.
The association’s exhibitions still involved works influenced by surrealist motifs, however, in their workshops, they made their first attempts to overcome this pattern and elaborate a common programme. For this purpose, they announced a survey about ‘new realism’ and the social role of art addressed to all members of the group. Tadeusz Wojciechowski tried to use it to compile a programme of the so-called realistic constructivism. Streng came up with ‘factorealism’ which he described in 1936:
A concrete form of expression doesn’t exist yet. It wants to exploit all the current achievements as long as they can serve the purpose. Its task is expressing a truly new emerging world because it is in it that lies the achievement: new content. For this reason, new realism refers to the forces in the social downside, to the organised masses of workers and peasants, for this class and its assumptions are the avant-garde of a new culture.
Social issues were reflected in the works of almost all members of Artes, they provided cohesion to their activity in the last period of the group’s activity. In 1936, several artists, like the Sielski’s and Wojciechowski veered towards colourism, a movement which at that time was popular in Lviv. In turn, a year later, Lille, a long-term president of the association, moved to France to never come back to Poland. The conclusive loosening of the bonds and the demise of a sense of a community of artistic search brought about the dissolution of Artes in around 1936, even though the group was never formally disbanded.
Originally written in Polish by Magdalena Wróblewska, December 2010, translated by AP, 12 November 2017