Henryk Berlewi was a painter, graphic artist, art critic, theoretician, and a leading representative of the 1920’s avant-garde. He was born in 1894 in Warsaw. He worked in Warsaw, Berlin and Paris, where he died in 1967.
Painter, graphic artist, art critic, theoretician, and a leading representative of the 1920s avant-garde.
Between 1904 and 1909, Berlewi studied art at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. In the 1909/10 academic year he continued his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp; he completed his education at the École des Beaux-Arts and the École des Arts Décoratifs in 1911-12. After returning to Poland in 1913, he studied for three years at the Warsaw School of Drawing under the direction of Jan Kuzik. In 1918-19, he was in contact with Aleksander Wat and Anatol Stern. This period of Berlewi’s life was characterised by close ties to the Jewish community. The thematic repertoire of his paintings and drawings was dominated by motifs derived from Jewish culture; the artist sought to create a modern national iconography. The year 1921 was a turning point in Berlewi’s work; his creative searches and dilemmas were resolved in favour of pure art, free from non-artistic ideology. The change of artistic direction was influenced by a meeting with El Lissitzky, who steered his interest towards constructivism and suprematism.
Berlewi stayed in Berlin in 1922 and 23, where he joined the avant-garde circles; he met Theo van Doesburg, Viking Eggeling, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Hans Richter and Mies van der Rohe, among others. He participated in Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung along with the left-wing Novembergruppe. He also took part in the Congress of Progressive Artists in Düsseldorf, where he established contact with the Polish artists Stanisław Kubicki and Jankiel Adler. His two-colour linocuts, in which human silhouettes shape the homogeneous black and brown surfaces against white backgrounds derived from Cubist geometrisation and fragmentation of forms, are from this period (Female Nude, 1922 Self-Portrait, 1922). These compositions resemble the art of Fernand Léger in their design.
Inspired by the use of non-traditional materials (newspapers, glass, sand, wood) in Kurt Schwitters’ Dadaist collages, and the aesthetics of Russian Constructivism and Dutch Neo-Plasticism, Berlewi developed an original theory of machinofacture in 1923. Its basic principle was the rejection of spatial illusion in painting to emphasise the two-dimensionality of the canvas (Neofaktur, 1923). The artist replaced the effect of diverse textures with visual equivalents: regular lines and planes and schematic arrangements of simple geometric shapes. He drastically reduced the range of colours, using only black, white and red (Machinofacture – Blanc-Rouge-Noire, 1924). In this way he created an innovative, self-sufficient composition independent of the quality of materials and fully corresponding to the nature of painting. To obtain the effect of allusion he used perforated templates. The mechanisation of the means of expression and the new language of abstract forms were meant to match the accelerated rhythm of the quickly changing reality, and to give expression to the union of art and social life postulated by the Constructivists.
In 1924 Berlewi laid out his artistic theory in the booklet Mechano-Faktura and in the pages of the Berlin magazine Der Sturm; the exhibition of the artist’s work displayed in the Der Sturm gallery was an illustration of his theoretical considerations. In Warsaw, Berlewi founded the Mechano Advertising Bureau, through which he promoted the principle of functional printing (advertisement design for Plutus chocolate, 1925). He also undertook projects for kiosk ads together with the architect Szymon Syrkus, and was also involved in set design.
Berlewi represented the most radical trend of Polish avant-garde art of the 1920s; he was a member of the Blok Group of Cubists, Constructivists and Suprematists active between 1924 and 1926. In 1928 he participated in the Warsaw Modernists’ Salon. In the same year he settled down in Paris and dedicated himself to portraiture, moving away from avant-garde aesthetics. He also painted nudes in the style of realism, highlighting the contrasts between light and dark in the models’ complexion with expressive contours. The abstract backgrounds were composed of pure patches of colour applied with loose brush strokes. The static poses of the models make reference to the classical conventions of nude painting. Berlewi returned to the principles of machinofacture in 1957, falling once again in the category of abstract art. The artist is considered to be the precursor of op-art. The verticals and horizontals of the line screen, the circles and their segments, the rectangles and the squares in his late paintings form perfectly balanced compositions (Improvisation – Line Screen, 1962). Berlewi was also an art critic.
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences, August 2002, transl. Bozhana Nikolova, April 2015