Graphic artist, creator of photo montages and political, film and advertising posters.
He was educated in Warsaw’s Municipal School of Decorative Arts, but the bulk of his artistic knowledge was obtained through his own studies. From 1934 to 1937, he was a member of the group Czapka Frygijska. The group had two group exhibitions: one in Warsaw in 1936 and the other in Kraków in 1937. In 1937, Berman received the Gold Medal at L'Exposition Internationale Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris for his poster Bullet and in 1950 he was granted the State Award for his creations in the field of political caricature. In 1971, he was appointed a corresponding member of the Arts Academy of the German Democratic Republic.
His works can be seen in the collections of, among others, the Museum of the History of the Polish Revolutionary Movement in Warsaw, the National Museum in Warsaw, the Museum of Art in Łódź, the Kupferstichkabinett in Dresden and in private collections in Switzerland and Austria. They can also be seen in the publications Book of Memoirs 1919-1939 (with Jonasz Stern, Warsaw, 1960), Mieczysław Szczuka (Warsaw, 1965) and The Red Fitter: Mieczyslaw Berman, the Graphic Artist Who Designed Polish Communism by Piotr Rypson (Kraków 2017).
Mieczysław Berman was one of the most outstanding and most consistent Polish photo montage artists. He began his graphic work in 1927, illustrating the works of revolutionary writers. In that same year, he coincidentally came across the photo montage work of his colleague, Zygmunt Kamiński. He was already familiar with the photo montages of Moholy-Nagy and the Soviet artists Lissicki, Rodczenko, and Klucis and he was an admirer of the work of Heartfield, whose work influenced him greatly. Among Polish photo montage artists, he particularly appreciated the work of Szczuka and Żarnower. Mieczysław Szczuka, in describing photo montage, called it ‘the most condensed form of poetry’, ‘poetic art’ and a ‘contemporary epic’. Within graphic art, Berman was fascinated by German expressionism (Kathe Kollowitz and George Grosz).
Photo montage was introduced to the world of avant-garde art in the 1920s by the German Dadaists and Soviet constructivists. It is the technique of combining fragments of photographs and press illustrations with the aim of achieving a new composition, sometimes with elements of painting or drawing. Artists employing this artistic method sought to link art with day-to-day reality and, in so doing, to contribute to the developing mass culture. They wished to underscore the complexity of modern life and to highlight the role that the illustrated press plays in it, actively shaping life’s image in the consciousness of their broad audience.
Polish photo montage, like German and Soviet photo montage, developed under the influence of the political engagement of many of its creators. In the 1930s, Berman collaborated with leftist journals: 1930, Przekrój 1930, Kuźnia, Ze Świata, Dwutygodnik Ilustrowany, and Głosy i Odgłosy. In 1934, he played a role in creating the scenery of the Experimental Theatre of the Society for the Propagation of Theatre in Warsaw. At that time, he also had the opportunity to get to know many young communist artists, together with whom he would later present his works at exhibitions of the group Czapka Fryjgijska. After 1930, Berman began creating biting, satirical political photo montages in the style of John Heartfield. Notable among these were his 1935 caricatures of Goebbels, Chiang Kai-Shek, and Austrian fascist leaders. He spent the war years in the Soviet Union, where he published his artwork in Red Standard (Lviv, 1940) and New Landscapes (Moscow, 1943-1946), and worked on a series of satirical anti-Nazi photo montages. At that time, he also deepened his knowledge of photo montage and became an outstanding expert in the field.
Berman crafted constructivist photo montages, highly synthetic in form. In them, as in his posters, he made use of shorthand, symbols, metaphors and the element of surprise. Berman’s best-known series include the photo montages Reaction (1944), How It Was (1940), Blood and Iron (1945) and Homo Sapiens (1956). Their composition is clearly subject to vertical and horizontal divisions and the spare fragments of photographs are laid out on a white background. Berman introduced colour to his photo montages in a novel fashion, not as coloured signals, but rather as coloured fields and colour contrasts (During Peace, a Man Dries up; During War, He Blooms, 1944; Ahnentafel, 1944; UPA, 1960).
After the war, he continued producing anti-war, anti-imperialist and anti-fascist photo montages. Tadeusz Borowski, who presented Berman’s photo montage work in 1948 at the Warsaw Young Artists and Scientists Club, wrote as follows in the exhibit catalogue:
Berman’s placards are not only objects at the border of painting and photography, they are not paintings in the sense of a still life of a yellow decanter nor a photograph in the sense of mood-capturing photos (…) Berman’s art is aggressive art (…) It is to art as political commentary is to literature. It is an unexpected juxtaposition of images, an on-target artistic metaphor, a visual commentary which helps a person understand the essence of fascism and deepens his hatred for German violence (…).
Berman was the creator of posters, the best known of which were Sugar Invigorates and National Loans, supporting the propaganda campaigns of the 1930s, and advertisements of that period including Bullet, Lux Brand Shoes, I Play and Win at Wolanow’s, Build in the Spring, Wysoka Cement, Twentieth-Century B. Russel, Spiess Polski Medicine, Laundry Soap, and Albori. On the tourist poster Visitez l’URSS, Berman was the first poster artist to include photographs (1927). After the war, he continued his poster work, creating, among others, Never Again Auschwitz (1955), The Unity of the Working Class (1955) and Communism is Soviet Power Plus Electrification (1956).
In 1960, Berman created around sixty illustrations inspired by Stanisław Jerzy Lec’s Unkempt Thoughts. Many of the photo montages and Lec’s aphorisms were created independently of one another and were only associated at a later date owing to their similarity of themes and motifs. Berman’s photo montages are not illustrations of Lec’s work, they rather constitute its visual equivalent. Lec, in his dedication of his collection of Unkempt Thoughts to Berman, wrote:
To Mieczysław Berman, creator of the X-rays of the epoch.
Author: Ewa Gorzadek, Modern Art Center of the Ujazdowski Palace in Warsaw, December 2006, translated by Yale Reisner.