The activities of the Kraków Group can be divided into two stages. The first Kraków Group operated in 1933-1937. The second Kraków Group was founded in 1957 and has never formally dissolved.
First Kraków Group (1933-1937)
The first Kraków Group formed in 1929-1931, although its name wasn’t formally introduced to the art world until 1933 – the year of its first official exhibition. The group was initiated by several students who came out of town to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków: Leopold Lewicki, Henryk Wiciński, Janusz Woźniakowski, Maria Jarema, Jonasz Stern, and Andrzej Stopka. Stern reminisced
We represented the province – uncouth, hungry, eager, unspoiled by the bourgeois manners, outside of the network of Kraków’s Olympus.
The above mentioned students, who were soon joined by others, were brought together by their resistance towards traditionalist pedagogical methods at the Academy and Kraków’s conservative bohemia, which clung to the Young Poland’s status of an artist, as well as the common conviction about the necessity to refer to the latest achievements of international and Polish artistic and theatre avant-garde. Stern wrote about the artistic patrons of the Kraków Group years later:
We were hypnotised by their painting – Chagall’s poetics, Picasso’s dramatic quality, Léger’s order, Grosz’s political acuity, and the character and form of modern theatre in Piscator’s art. When it comes to Polish artists, we were particularly interested in the ideas of Szczuka, Strzemiński’s theory of seeing, the architectural ideas of Helena and Szymon Syrkus, or the painting of Stażewski. Leon Chwistek paid frequent visits to Kraków …. Our artistic practice developed under the influence of the ideas of those artists, often very different from one another, but all associated with the socially progressive side and engaged in blazing the trail towards a new world.
The group never formulated a uniform artistic program and its members’ inspiration can be traced to many movements, ranging from expressionism, through cubism, to surrealism.
The founders of the Kraków Group belonged to the Communist Party of Poland, as well as the university chapter of the Communist League of Polish Youth, which, according to Stern, was where the group originally formed. The left-leaning artistic youth became united in the face of repressions from the university authorities, the height of which took place in 1931-1932. It was then that the chancellor of the Academy of Fine Arts, Fryderyk Pautsch, removed the works of some students from the annual exhibition, deeming them a political provocation. Faced with the resistance of the punished students, the chancellor had their apartments searched and seven of the students arrested. Eventually, Leopold Lewicki and Stanisław Osostowicz, as well as Franciszek Jaźwiecki, who was loosely affiliated with the group, were expelled from the university. Other students received formal warnings or were suspended.
As early as November 1932, the three expelled students exhibited their works at the Artists’ House on Świętego Ducha Square, the Cracow head-quarters of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers. It was within that institution that the group continued its work, turning the seat into ‘the meeting place for Kraków’s left, the site of evening discussions and shows’ (Stern). The exhibition was favorably reviewed in Głos plastyków (The Voice of Visual Artists) by Leon Chwistek, who wrote about his fascination with ‘real, simple, and brutal art, the primitive in the most earnest of its forms’. Chwistek, who became the informal mentor of the young artists, helped organize the first official exhibition of the Kraków Group, which opened in October 1933 in Lwów, as part of the autumn exhibition of the local Society of Friends of Fine Arts (TPSP). The subsequent exhibitions, also co-organized by Chwistek, took place in the Krzemieniec Lyceum (1934) and the Artists’ House in Kraków (1935, featuring works by Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro; 1937).
Members of the group combined their artistic work with propagandist, activist, and strictly political activities, which resulted in repressions from the police, or even arrests. They organized discussions and lectures, published manifestos, designed decorations for many events, including an anti-fascist rally in the Stary Theatre. The theatre was another field used by the Kraków Group to promote their artistic and social views. Henryk Wiciński, Jonasz Stern, and Maria Jarema cooperated with the avant-garde social visual theatre Cricot, led by Józef Jarema, for whom they created puppets and decorations. The artists of the Kraków Group also created their own theatre, a political satire series called Szopka krakowska inspired in its form by the Young Poland movement. The texts for the performances, which mocked the right-wing political establishment, the Sanation movement and the international fascist leaders, were written by Adam Polewka. Stern and Maria Jarema worked on decorations and puppets. The shows were staged in seats of different trade unions and enjoyed a great popularity.
It was the underground activities and the political engagement that led to the dissolution of the Kraków Group: in 1937, its artists were removed from the Association of Polish Artists and Designers, on the pretence of not having paid membership dues. As a result, the chief representatives of the Kraków Group left the city.
Members of the First Kraków Group: Aleksander (Sasza) Blonder (AKA André Blondel), Blima (Berta) Grünberg, Maria Jarema, Franciszek Jaźwiecki, Leopold Lewicki, Adam Marczyński, Stanisław Osostowicz, Szymon Piasecki, Bolesław Stawiński, Jonasz Stern, Henryk Wiciński, and Aleksander Winnicki. Artists and literary figures associated with the First Group who were members of, or sympathised with, the Second Kraków Group after World War II: Kornel Filipowicz, Jadwiga Maziarska, Erna Rosenstein, Artur Sandauer, Andrzej Stopka.
Second Kraków Group (founded in 1957)
The Second Kraków Group, which was established after World War II (which, to a certain degree, continued the traditions of its pre-War antecedent) grew out of a series of exhibitions and art groups established earlier, including the Clandestine Experimental Theatre, which operated in 1942-1944 (also known as the Independent Theatre). It was led by Tadeusz Kantor and its collaborators included Tadeusz Brzozowski, Kazimierz Mikulski, and Jerzy Nowosielski. The theoretical framework of Kantor (the moving spirit of the entire clandestine operation), based on the traditions of the avant-garde theatre, moved towards overcoming traditional theatrical forms, a move which drew on the pre-War experiences of Józef Jarema’s Cricot theatre, but also gained an additional significance in the wartime reality. And so, the conventional stage was to be replaced with a real site, and the theatrical prop with a real object. The performances of the Kantor group took place in private apartments, first at Ewa Siedlecka’s place, and then at the home of Magdalena Stryjeńska. The staging of Wyspiański’s Return of Odysseus foreshadowed, as Anda Rottenberg wrote in Polskie życie artystyczne (Polish Artistic Life), ‘almost all elements of Kantor’s subsequent explorations.’ Cricot 2, founded by Kantor in 1955, ‘relied on the annexation of reality, harking back to the clandestine theatre, as its principle and artistic method,’ she wrote.
The Clandestine Experimental Theatre was founded by a group of young Kraków-based visual artists who gathered in the Young Visual Artists’ Group (Grupa Młodych Plastyków, GMP) shortly before the end of the War. The first exhibition of the group took place in June 1945 at the club of the Polish Writers’ Union in Kraków; it registered a protest against the then-dominant colourist painting. The metaphorical and expressive character of most of the exhibited works, often bordering on surrealism, tied them to the tradition of the Clandestine Experimental Theatre. Maria Jarema’s decision to join the GMP proved an important turning point for the Kraków circle of the Moderns; Jarema quickly became a central figure of the group, next to Kantor.
1946, presented the works of Tadeusz Brzozowski, Maria Jarema, Tadeusz Kantor, Jadwiga Maziarska, Kazimierz Mikulski, Jerzy Nowosielski, Erna Rosenstein, Jerzy Skarżyński, and Bogusław Szwacz. The exhibition turned out to be ‘the first … expression of the aspirations of a generation who began their independent work in the new political and social circumstances,’ to use the words of Aleksander Wojciechowski from his later article in Przegląd artystyczny (No. 4-5/1958). The exhibition was also an opportunity for the theoreticians of the Group, namely Tadeusz Kantor and Mieczysław Porębski, to present their views. In a text titled "Grupa Młodych Plastyków po raz wtóry. Pro domo sua" (The Young Visual Artists’ Group Once Again. Pro Domo Sua), published in Twórczość (No. 9/1946), they proclaimed the principle of the so-called intensified realism, which boiled down to the demand for ‘enclosing reality in a definite artistic form, to portray it as intensified and, by that token, universally appealing.’ Kantor and Porębski’s program had a decidedly anti-naturalist character, approaching in its understanding of the language of art, according to Anna Baranowa, the pre-WWI theories of Wassily Kandinsky.
In the early post-War years, the members of the Young Visual Artists’ Group participated in many translocal initiatives, bringing together artists from different milieus (in addition to Kraków, mostly Warsaw and Łódź) who rallied under the call of modernity, albeit understood in many different ways.
March 1948 saw the creation of the Artists’ Club in Kraków (Klub Artystów, KP), which included artists from the GMP, as well as practitioners of other disciplines of art. Its members (according to a non-dated list) included the artists from the second GMP exhibition, as well as painters (Ali Bunsch, Andrzej Cybulski, Zofia Gutkowska, Janina Kraupe, Maciej Makarewicz, Ewa Siedlecka, Jonasz Stern, Marian Szulc, Jadwiga Umińska, Eugeniusz Waniek, Kazimierz Wojtanowicz, and Mieczysław Wejman), art critics (Mieczysław Porębski and Andrzej Wróblewski), writers (Jerzy Broszkiewicz, Kornel Filipowicz, Zdzisław Nardelli, Tadeusz Różewicz, and Tadeusz Kwiatkowski), as well as the architect Marian Sigmund and the musician Roman Haubenstock. Porębski wrote in the Dziennik literacki (No. 22/1948):
In the club meetings, we discuss the need for changing the platform for the encounter between the artist and the audience. Club members agree that traditional salons, organized without an artistic plan, a proper selection of works, or care about the artistic sensibilities of the audience, only worsen the situation. We talked about changing the character of the exhibitions, about making them more dynamic and cutting-edge, as well as increasing their visual impact through a purposeful arrangement of exhibition interiors. We plan on combining manufactured art with mechanically-produced art, such as photography, print, or visual design.
Such were the premises for the biggest enterprise and achievement of the Artists’ Club, the Exhibition of Modern Art (Wystawa Sztuki Nowoczesnej, WSN), which became one of the most important points of reference for any history of Polish art in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as the last display of artistic modernity with the support of the State (the exhibition was funded by the Ministry of Art and Culture), before the institutionalisation of socialist realism as the national form of art. The exhibition opened on 19th December, 1948 at the Palace of Art in Kraków, presenting the works of 37 artists from Kraków (including many representatives of the later Second Kraków Group), Warsaw, Łódź, Lublin, and Poznań. Porębski curated the show, while Kantor designed it, reviving long-lost contacts with people from the previous generation and working in different circles as he prepared for the exhibition:
We started talking to artists from the old Kraków Group [mostly Maria Jarema and Jonasz Stern – A.T.], as well as other, younger artists, including people from outside our circle. I contacted numerous painters in other cities as well, including Stażewski, Łunkiewicz, Włodarski, Bogusz, and Dłubak in Warsaw, Strzemiński and Wegner in Łódź, and Alfred Lenica in Poznań. … We wanted for the exhibition to carry as much artistic prestige as possible, so we tried, for instance, to get Władysław Strzemiński to join the jury.
The exhibition’s didactic element was especially emphasised: audience were led on a path that was designed to facilitate the understanding of the character and problems of modern art. Artists took turns invigilating the exhibition, led tours, and offered technical advice and explanation to museum-goers. Speakers in the main room played music (jazz and contemporary music, including compositions by Andrzej Panufnik), there were readings of poetry, as well as manifestoes, communiques and commentary.
The Exhibition of Modern Art lasted for a month and attracted crowds of visitors and a great deal of interest from critics, as well as lively discussions. Critics analysed not only the artistic objects, including 120 paintings and about a dozen of spatial installations, but also the introductory presentations delivered by Porębski and Dłubak at the opening. Both agreed that the only way for Polish art to develop is to continue the line of experiment and search.
Efforts to move the exhibition to Łódź and Wrocław failed, and so did the plans to organize the Second Exhibition. After mid-1949, faced with changes to the cultural policies (which had been liberal up until that point) and an intensifying Stalinisation of everyday life (featuring, among others, a stronger presence of the socialist realist doctrine), many of the modern artists stopped participating in the official artistic life. This group included Brzozowski, Jarema, Kantor, Maziarska, Mikulski, Nowosielski, Rosenstein, Skarżyński, and Stern. The works of these nine artists (who had been members of the Young Visual Artists’ Group and the Artists’ Club) were shown in the autumn of 1955 at an exhibition hosted by the Kraków Artists’ House, foreshadowing the Thaw period in Polish history. Other symptoms of the Thaw included the founding by Tadeusz Kantor of the Cricot 2 theatre in 1956 (premiering The Cuttlefish by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz). The consolidation of the group of the Moderns following five years of inactivity finally resulted in the creation of the Second Kraków Group, which came to life as an association in May 1957. In addition to the nine above-named artists, who constituted its core, the Group included Janina Kraupe-Świderska, Jerzy Tchórzewski, Adam Marczyński, Andrzej Pawłowski, Karol Pustelnik, Marek Piasecki, Marian Warzecha, Teresa Rudowicz, Daniel Mróz, and Wojciech Krakowski, as well as, later, Julian Jończyk, Janusz Tarabuła, Danuta Urbanowicz, Witold Urbanowicz, Jerzy Wroński, Jan Tarasin, Jerzy Bereś, Wanda Czełkowska, Maria Stangret, Maria Pinińska-Bereś, the composers Bogusław Schaeffer and Zygmunt Walaciński, and others.
The new Kraków Group took as its headquarters the basement of the Krzysztofory palace, which housed a gallery and a coffee house. It was in Krzysztofory that most of the exhibitions of the group took place, starting with the first one, which opened in June 1958, with most works featuring some form of abstract art. However, since the institutional consolidation of the Kraków Moderns into a long-lived group (which has survived to this day) took place at a time when the most important members of the milieu had matured artistically and formed their artistic personas, it was difficult to envisage a return to the unified ‘front for a new art’, which had characterised the avant-garde. Critics attempting to find a common denominator for the Second Kraków Group often referred to surrealism, which missed the mark for many of its members, as one of the shared principles in the Group was a tolerance for diversity and an artistic non-conformity. Members of the Group did, of course, go through various fascinations, including pop-art, the happening, or matter painting, the last one being associated with inclusion of the members of the Nowa Huta Group, which was influenced by informalism, in the Kraków Group.
Membership in the Kraków Group was decided primarily on, as Anna Baranowa writes, ‘a very high criterion of quality and a high morale of the work’ of its potential members. Baranowa also suggested the following description of an ‘ideal exhibition’ of the Group:
It would include Stern’s ‘tables of memory’, laid out of bones; clear and dynamic monotypes of Maria Jarema; elaborate, expressionist vivisections by Brzozowski; Marczyński’s geometric schemes; the metaphoric emballages of Kantor; the encaustic reliefs of Maziarska; the unreal, but also embodied nudes by Nowosielski; Mikulski’s erotic ‘theatre’; Tarasin’s musical abstractions; Tarabuła’s hieratic structures; and so on. The exhibition would also need sculpture: Bereś’s altar-creatures, taking up the space, as well as Pinińska’s metaphors of feminine existence.
The 1980s were a second period of artistic silence of the Kraków Group artists, who joined the boycott of the official cultural institutions. As the key artists of the Group died, including Kantor (1990), Brzozowski (1987), and Stern (1988), its activities have come to be understood as historical.
- Maria Kosińska, "Grupa Krakowska", in Polskie życie artystyczne w latach 1915–1939, ed. Aleksander Wojciechowski (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich: 1974), 610-612.
- Bożenna Stokłosa, "Grupa Krakowska", in Polskie życie artystyczne w latach 1945–1960, ed. Aleksander Wojciechowski (Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich: 1992), 63-68.
- Grupa Krakowska, exhibition catalogue, ed. Marzenna Guzowska, Hanna Wróblewska (Warszawa: Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej Zachęta, 1996).
- I Wystawa Sztuki Nowoczesnej – pięćdziesiąt lat później, exhibition catalogue, ed. Marek Świca, Józef Chrobak (Kraków: Fundacja Nowosielskich, Starmach Gallery, 1998).
- Anna Markowska, Sztuka w Krzysztoforach: między stylem a doświadczeniem (Kraków: Stowarzyszenie Artystyczne Grupa Krakowska, 2000).
- Grupa Krakowska. Dokumenty i materiały z lat 1932-2008, ed. Józef Chrobak, Marek Wilk, (Kraków: Cricoteka, 2008).
Author: Artur Tanikowski, POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, April 2010. Translated by AM, April 2017