Painter and illustrator of Jewish origin who lived and worked in Warsaw and Paris; a representative of the École de Paris, born in 1884, died in 1926.
Painter and drawer of Jewish origins working in Warsaw and Paris; representative of the École de Paris.
Born in Belarus, to a family of assimilated Jews, Zak began his formal artistic education in 1902 at the Parisian École des Beaux-Arts under the guidance of J. L. Gerome. He continued his studies at the Académie Colarossi at the atelier of A. Besnard. In 1903, Zak made a trip to Italy. In the same year he completed his studies at a private school of A. Ažbe's in Munich. After returning to Paris, Zak made his debut at the Autumn Salon; he exhibited his artwork at the Salon of Independents and Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Between 1906-1908 he used to visit Brittany frequently. He joined the Society of Polish Artists in Paris and established bonds of friendship with the artists of École de Paris including Roman Kramsztyk, Wacław Borowski, Leopold Gottlieb, Melania Mutermilch, and Zygmunt Menkes.
Adolf Basler and André Salmon, outstanding art critics of Zak's times, looked after the development of his career. In 1911, Zak's first individual exhibition was hosted by Gelerie Druet. In 1912, he was appointed professor at Académie de la Palette. Between 1914-1916 Zak lived in Nice and Vence. In 1916, he settled down with his wife, Jadwiga Kohn, in Częstochowa, her hometown, where he joined the circle of future Formists.
Zak's attitude towards the past and his desire for exposure to the works of art of the Old Masters were a response to Maurice Denis' artistic call for "return to order", or the pursuit for the formula of modernity through studies on the artistic tradition. Another important source of the artist's inspiration was his fascination with the primitive, the search for cultures and places untouched by civilisation. Since 1905 Zak made several trips to Brittany, a wild and primitive land discovered by Paul Gauguin, where the life and customs of its inhabitants seemed to stay unchanged since the medieval times, and whose severe and wild landscape met up with fantasies about the archaic world. The town of Pont Aven soon became a natural habitat for many painters and a place of birth of Synthetism in the works of Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. Their students and friends used to visit them there in great number, including Polish artists such as Władysław Ślewiński, a close friend of Guaguin's, as well as Mojżesz Kisling, Mela Muter, Tadeusz Makowski, and Roman Kramsztyk. Zak was fascinated by this place, but most of all by the new paining style. A primitive scope of colour and form started to appear in his paintings. The limited colour scheme, simplification of forms and flatness of shape were skilfully integrated with fascination of the works of art of the Renaissance Masters. In these days Zak also started to transform his painting techniques by using special oil paints which gave the effect of matte and clear tones similar to this of tempera.
After moving to Warsaw, in 1921 Zak co-founded the Society of Polish Artists "Rytm" / "Rhythm". At the end of that year, he left Warsaw, first for Berlin, then for Bonn and Cologne. In Germany, Zak worked for a magazine "Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration". Commissioned by an architect F. A. Breuhaus, the artist made a decorative panneau at Breuhaus' residence in Bonn. In 1923, he returned to Paris where he lived with his close friends - Zygmunt Menkes and Marc Chagall. Zak's individual exhibitions were organized in Paris (1911, 1925) and Warsaw (1917). His works were exhibited at Galeries José Dalmau in Barcelona (1912); the Armory Show in New York, Chicago and Detroit (1913); the Venice Biennale (1914); and at the exhibitions organized by Association France-Pologne in Paris (1924). Zak participated in a few exhibitions in Germany including the Berlin Secession (1910, 1912), Free Secession (1914) and Künstlervereinigung in Munich (1912). Zak's artwork appeared in the exhibitions of the Society of Polish Artists "Sztuka" / "Art" (since 1908), the Polish Expressionists in Krakow (1917) and Lviv (1918). After the artist's death, the exhibitions of his works were organized in Warsaw (1926); Düsseldorf (1926); New York (1927); Buffalo (1928); London (1929); and in many Parisian galleries including Bing's (1926), Berheim's (1927), Druet's (1931) and Zak's (1936, 1938).
In his works, the modern was constantly made ancient, and the ancient modern; while by the ancient art one should understand not only Greco-Roman art but the art of the Renaissance as well. This issue also appears in Zak's iconography, in numerous depictions of fishermen and shepherds derived from arcadian and idyllic themes, which appear both in the paintings of the Old Masters such as Poussin, or Lorraine, and in the contemporary paintings of Matisse, or Denise. Around 1919 or 1920, the repertoire of Zak's themes changed; there started to appear wanderers, gypsies, drunkards over a glass of absinth, beggars in front of the church. Dancers dressed up as arlequins or pierrots appeared on his paintings as well. These new themes were juxtaposed with the blue and rose periods in Picasso's career, which may be apt to the extent that in their themes Zak's paintings followed the style of Miserablism common at that time in the European culture. Then, the mood of melancholy or a gentle lyricism identified with alienation, or even fear of life was very characteristic. It was supposed to express the attitude of escapism; the escape from the present into the world of art represented by the lyrical violinists, mandolin players, or dancers.
Zak often depicts arlequins, pierrots and outsiders characterised by a style based on the contour line. These figures are endowed with elongated body proportions frozen in theatrical poses set against flat areas of empty space, which provide a certain depth symbolising desolation (Dans le cabaret, 1919-20). His paintings occasionally resonate with humorous, almost grotesque overtones intensified by the sophisticated pose of his models (Pierrot, 1922; Pijaczka / Drunk Woman, 1923; Marzyciel / Dreamer 1925). Zak's works created between 1924-1926 take on a universal and archetypical dimension obtained through the abstract space into which the depicted figures immerse. At this point of his artistic career, the question of the sense of human existence becomes a major theme in the artist's works. Typically, for Zak's later paintings, forms are accentuated in these works by a subtly-moulded, softly-contoured area of colour, while shapes are enhanced by harsh highlights. At the time, the artist began to explore new solutions in terms of colour scheme, decidedly placing colour above drawing. The lightened chromatic palette took on refined nuances as it was enhanced by a delicate tone grading. The prominent features of Zak's paintings were irregular paintbrush and impasto strokes which used to create diverse texture effects (Wędrowiec / Wanderer, 1924; Chłopiec / Boy,1925).
Author: Irena Kossowska, Art Institute of the Polish Academy of Science, March 2002.
Revised with excerpts from a text by Magdalena Wróblewska on Zak's Dancer.
Translated by: Katarzyna Różańska, August 2010.