His parents were of Julia (Jenta) Offenbach and Roman (Abram Hersz) Szczekacz, owner of the Offenbach Central Bathhouses at 38 Zachodnia Street in Łódź. He came from a circle of Jews who were aware of their own identities and cultural belonging in whose homes both Polish and Yiddish were spoken, and for whom the adoption of Polish culture did not necessitate complete assimilation. Samuel Szczekacz came from a fairly wealthy family, so, in contrast to most of his colleagues, he was educated outside of the traditional Jewish neighbourhood. He finished his schooling and matriculated in 1935. Together with his friend Julian Lewin, he studied in the studio of Maurycy Trebacz in 1934-1935, at the time Łódź's best private sketching and painting studio. In the years 1933-1938, he was the editor of the Łódź avant-garde journal Forma.
The year 1935 was a turning point in the career of Szczekacz and his friends. Thanks to Jankiel Adler, the young artists met Mojżesz Broderson, the poet and co-founder of the Ararat theatrical revue, who recommended them to Władysław Strzemiński. Towards the end of 1935, together with Julian Lewin, Pinkas Szwarc, and Yehuda Tarmu, Szczekacz signed up for private evening courses with Strzemiński, who was then a teacher at the No. 10 Łódź Public Technical School. Avant-garde art was, for these young people, an entirely new discovery and a powerful fascination. At Strzemiński's lessons, they deepened their knowledge of the theory of abstraction and, above all, its application to modern principles of the construction of the image. Strzemiński professed new artistic ideas with reference to the work of Picasso, Malevich, Mondrian, and Arp, and his students, through study of the classic works of the avant-garde, quickly mastered the rules of cubist, suprematist, and neoplastic composition and also the possibility of joining together languages of abstraction at times far removed from one another.
It was a very intensive and comprehensive educational programme, which can be seen in the various works painted in that year by Samuel Szczekacz: unitary, suprematist and cubist. The young artists studied not only drawing and painting, but, in line with the spirit of the radical avant-garde, printing and typography, as well as photo montage, of which Strzemiński was a champion at the time. They also dealt with spatial arts, sculpture, and architectural design. Szczekacz’s first abstract compositions consist of balanced grids of horizontal and vertical lines bisected by arcs. The fields thus created he filled with colours in a reduced scale with varying textures. He built fragments of phrases and letters into the structure of the pieces. His sources of inspiration were French cubism and Dutch neoplasticism.
On 29 December 1936, Samuel Szczekacz (along with his colleagues), despite his youth but with Strzemiński's backing, was made a member of the Professional Union of Polish Graphic Artists (PUPGA) in Łódź. He received his membership card on 24 May, 1937, and, as a full-fledged member, he had the right to take part in exhibitions. He took part in several exhibitions of the Union: in January 1937 and April 1938 in Łódź, in November and December 1938 in Kraków and Lviv and in January 1939 once again in Łódź. In 1937, not yet twenty years old, he showed his work at an exhibition at the Institute for the Propagation of Art in Warsaw, presenting the PUPGA school of Łódź. The works displayed were ones based on the cubist tradition: Composition I, Composition II, Head, and Still Life. Strzemiński selected a few works for the collection of the Łódź museum, but it is no longer known which works exactly. Among them was probably Szczekacz’s Neoplastic Sculptures, now considered lost, but known to us from photographic reproductions.
During his next presentation at the institute in 1938, the artist displayed his architectural designs Schoolyard, Covered Pool, and Suburban Villa. There he also displayed his best-known typographic works, Structure and Studies. Structure is a painting in tempera. On a flat background, characters are situated (m, r, l, o, a, n, i), which are placed in the role of graphic symbols, devoid of any meaning, yet linked in a coherent, geometric form. They are laid out facing the viewer, but in various positions. Similar in form but more varied is Typographic Study, in which the artist used letters of various sizes. Despite this, the structure of the piece is rigorous, clear-cut and precise. The artist also produced lithographic versions of Structure, repeating the composition in a variety of colours.
In his youthful works, it can be seen that Samuel Szczekacz was above all a consistent adherent of Władysław Strzemiński’s theory of unism, which he practised in the fields of easel painting and architectural design. He also adapted the theory directly, which can be seen in his compositions from the flowing, twisting line deriving straight from Strzemiński's works, as well as in the very creative and independent style of which the best examples are his typographic studies. He defined unism as ‘a system of composition of elements at once parallel and interdependent’. In an article published in Forma in 1938, he wrote as follows:
The unity of an image cannot be achieved through a system of contrasting shapes and colours, as dynamic symbols. Unity of composition can be achieved solely by combining parallel and interdependent artistic elements, organically tied to the flat plane of the image and its boundaries.
Towards the end of the 1930s, the career of this young yet very mature artist took a promising turn. At the end of 1938, he travelled to Belgium in order to study architecture. He took with him some works he had painted in Łódź, thereby saving them from wartime destruction. After leaving the country, he still took part in the last pre-war exhibit of the Institute for the Propagation of Art in 1939. He displayed at the exhibition works that had been previously shown in Kraków and Lviv: Unitary Compositions, Cubist Compositions, and Unitary Sculptures. Later, Szczekacz was sent photographic documentation of the exhibit which he placed in his archives, allowing us today to recreate portions of the exhibition. The photos show primarily his bas-reliefs. Their novel form is based on opposing and varied grids of spatial lines and planes, situated horizontally and vertically. The colours of these works stem from the tradition of neoplasticism.
Shortly before leaving Lodz, Szczekacz provided the graphic embellishment of the volume Motorem Słów, a collection of sixteen poems by Władysław Strzemiski, which Strzemiński published writing under the pseudonym Leon Grabowski. One of the two surviving copies is preserved in the artist’s archives. In 1939, after his departure, he designed a new cover for the book’s new edition. This was a more dynamic composition and Szczekacz also added colour: red and blue.
In 1939, he emigrated from Belgium to Palestine and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There he changed his name to Zur. Unable to live on his income as a painter in the late 1940s, he worked as a consumer product designer, a typographer, a sculptor, and an architect, for which he had the perfect training during the time of his studies with Strzemiński. Among other works, he designed the Israeli pavilions at the International Fairs in Brussels and Poznań in 1966. He lived in Tel Aviv. He married Nicole Schpilka, with whom he had a daughter, Michele. In 1983, he travelled to Paris for the exhibition Presences Polonaises: L’Art Vivant Autour du Musee de Lodz at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, where his work was shown for the first time in over 45 years. He died there of a heart attack on September 27, 1983.
Publications of Samuel Szczekacz:
- System kompozycyjny, Forma, No. 6, 1938;
- Teka malarska (16 color lithographs). Łódź, Futurum, 1938;
- illustrations for a volume of poetry by Leon Grabowski [Wladyslaw Strzeminski], Motorem Słów, Press of Public Technical School No. 10, Lodz, 1938.
Selected Individual Exhibitions:
- The Students Organization of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, May 1940;
- Katz Gallery, Tel Aviv, July 1944;
- Samuel Szczekacz: Unistyczna Harmonia Jedności, Center for Modern Art, Ujazdowski Palace, Warsaw, November-December 2009.
Selected works on Szczekacz:
- Janusz Zagrodzki Harmonia Jedności in the book Samuel Szczekacz 1917-1983, ed. Ulrike Graul, Galerie Berinson, Berlin, 2009;
- Zenobia Karnicka, Julian Lewin, Samuel Szczekacz-Zur, Pinhus Szwarc (Pinchas Shaar) in the book Polak, Żyd, Artysta: Tożsamość a Awangarda, Art Museum in Łódź, 2009.
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, July 2010, translated by Yale Reisner, November 2017.