The Praesens group, bringing together avant-garde architects and artists, operated in Warsaw, with the peak of its activity falling on 1926-1929.
The group gathered: architects – Barbara Brukalska and Stanisław Brukalski, Bohdan Lachert, Szymon and Helena Syrkus, Józef Szanajca, and Józef Malinowski, as well as artists – Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, Henryk Stażewski, Aleksander Rafałowski, Maria Łucja Nicz-Borowiakowa, Jan Golus, Karol Kryński, Romuald Kamil Witkowski, and Kazimierz Podsadecki.
Praesens was the second, after Blok (1924-1926), group bringing together avant-garde artists who supported Constructivism and functionalism in art. To some extent, the collective emerged as a response to the lack of deeper reflection on the architectural issues represented by the artists associated with Blok. Professional architects wanted to deal with more specialist problems, directly related to their creative practice.
1926 was the year of Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, which sparked discussions in artistic circles and bridged the gap between visual artists and architects. They mostly raised the issues of the possibilities of shaping society through conscious creation of architectural forms.
In accordance with the adopted rules of universalism and collectivism, Constructivists came out against any manifestations of individualism and subjectivism in art. This resulted from two fundamental goals. Firstly, the postulate to synthesise all arts in the spirit of social usefulness required a strict cooperation between architects, artists, designers, and producers. Secondly, Constructivists and functionalists countered expressive form of painting with absolute objectivism and rationalism. According to their ideas, a modern work of art ought to be created in compliance with universal laws, and unearthed by artists during an experimental and analytical process. The artistic process was thus characterised by a complete purity and precision of forms. A structure of an artwork was to resemble the logic of machine construction in its simplicity and rationality. The aesthetics were shaped by economic rules operating in industrial production. Treating modern factories as models, Constructivists called for a mechanical production of a work of art, with the use of new, industrial materials. They defined beauty primarily in categories of social utility.
In 1926, in the light of intensifying ideological conflicts with Mieczysław Szczuka’s concept of utilitarianism, Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro, and Henryk Stażewski left Blok. They teamed up with architects from Praesens who propagated functionalism stemming from Bauhaus’s tradition. According to their programme, avant-garde architecture was supposed to be fully integrated into the surrounding space and at the same time harmoniously merged with the painting and sculpture held inside. An architectural project was to be a complex, integral whole. This postulate was repeated after famous centres of new thought in the fields of architecture and design, which – apart from the Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus school – also included the Dutch De Stijl and the Russian Vkhutemas. It was present in the statements of both Szymon Syrkus and Henryk Stażewski, who emphasised the link between geometrical painting and contemporary architectural design. The catalogue of the Polish National Exhibition, organised in Poznań in 1929, reads:
The activities of the Praesens association manifest itself predominantly in a new cooperation between architects and painters […]. Creatively, each of them has their own issues to address: an architect – architectural ones, a painter – painting ones, a sculptor – sculptural ones, while their result – a finished piece – is a coherent whole. These general themes tackled by people working in various art disciplines and realised through each of the arts’ respective means, formed a common artistic platform, leading to self-aware works and to a completeness of each object.
The period of intensified activity of Praesens fell on 1926-1928. 1926 was the year of the group’s first exhibition at Zachęta. It included separate sections of painting, sculpture, architecture, as well as interior design, scenography, and book design. The show was accompanied by a catalogue, most likely edited by Syrkus. From that moment on, the artists and architects strived to outline a common ideological platform and formulate a theory that would support their future endeavours. However, a schism emerged already at the time of their first collective realisation – a design of pavilions and interiors for the Polish National Exhibition in Poznań in 1929.
The artists were to realise the Centro-Cement Pavilion, the interior of the Spiryt Monopoly Pavilion, and the Pavilion of the Ministry of Treasury. Prior to the Polish National Exhibition, presentations of works by the Praesens creators took place during Salons of the Association of Polish Architects in 1927 and 1928. They also exhibited their works abroad. Praesens received an individual room at the Paris Autumn Salon in 1929. The group also presented its works at the Polish Exhibitions in Brussels, The Hague, and Amsterdam.
The radical vision of the artists belonging to Praesens developed in a strict correlation with the leftist political ideology, propagated by, among others, Tadeusz Peiper on the pages of Zwrotnica magazine, published in Kraków. Some of the key postulates of the new art included doing away with boundaries separating creativity from social life, associating social revolution with the artistic one, as well as modeling art after the ‘organic’ structure of society.
The chief role of architecture was its social influence. Authors were to use new technological possibilities offered by the industrial and scientific progress in such a way that would satisfy basic human needs. That is why it was advised to construct widely available, affordable and small apartments in buildings made out of prefabricate elements, with the application of new techniques and technologies. According to Syrkus, architects also ought to strive towards integrating architecture with all of its surrounding space. He listed three main factors affecting architecture: economical and social, technical and constructional, and plastic. He advocated taking them into account in individual projects, each time in a different way.
Strzemiński had a different approach to functionalism, as he did not agree with the individual approach proposed by architects which was related to specific needs of a user, e.g. a family inhabiting a house. He understood function from a total, universal perspective, encompassing the goals of an entire community, and hence impossible to be realised in practical terms. To Strzemiński, function was a category deducted from an analysis of the work itself, a kind of artistic relation which was to affect and shape reality. He thus looked at the role of architecture not through the prism of a specific realisation, an individual building, but saw it as a universal problem of architecturisation of space.
It was a disagreement about these definitions that led to a conflict between Strzemiński and Syrkus during the Polish National Exhibition in Poznań, as a result of which in June 1929, Strzemiński, Kobro, and Stażewski broke away from the group. This was additionally caused by the increasingly noticeable domination of architectural issues over working with ‘plastic construction’ in Praesens.
In the same year, Strzemiński, Kobro, and Stażewski, together with poets Jan Brzękowski and Julian Przyboś founded the group a.r. which shifted the centre of avant-garde activities from Warsaw to Łódź, where it took on the idea of introducing art into social life.
During the second period of Praesens’s activity, after the secession and departure of the three aforementioned artists, technical themes, related directly to architectural craft, took the lead. Painters who remained in the group played a minor role, although their works continued to be featured on the pages of the Praesens periodical. Architects invested in their theoretical activities, publishing their texts outside of their own magazine, in specialist periodicals such as Architektura i Budownictwo and Dom. Osiedle. Mieszkanie. Szymon Syrkus became involved in the activities of international organisations such as CIAM and CIRPAC.
Since 1939, members of Praesens took part in exhibitions and architectural competitions, as well as conducted advanced outreach activities. They shed light on new tendencies and forms in architecture by organising shows (for instance a showcase of films on Le Corbusier), as well as gatherings and debates. Their circles were often characterised as open to new inspirations, predominantly deriving from the Western avant-gardes, as well as from the careful observation of the trends across the eastern border.
- Andrzej Turowski, Konstruktywizm polski: próba rekonstrukcji nurtu 1921-1934, Wrocław 1981
- Andrzej Turowski, Budowniczowie świata. Z dziejów radykalnego modernizmu, Kraków 2000
- Polskie życie artystyczne w latach 1915-1939, Wrocław 1974
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, November 2010, transl. AM, February 2017