Teresa Żarnower was a painter, graphic artist, sculptor, set designer and co-author of architectural designs. She was born in 1895 in Warsaw, and died in 1950 in New York.
Painter, graphic artist, sculptor, set designer, and co-author of architectural designs.
Teresa Żarnowerówna studied sculpture between 1915 and 1920 in Edward Wittig’s studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 1920, her diploma work Akt was awarded by the Ministry of Arts and Culture. She was associated with constructivist avant-garde art and was a colleague and life companion of one of its leading representatives in Poland, Mieczysław Szczuka. Żarnowerówna was a co-founder of the avant-garde group Blok (1924) and co-editor of the magazine of the same name. After Szczuka’s death in 1927 she published and edited the Dźwignia magazine founded by him. In 1937, she emigrated from Poland and spent the last years of her life in the United States. Her works are kept in the Museum of Art in Łódź.
Żarnowerówna belonged to the interwar avant-garde constructivist circles, and was a pioneer of this trend in Poland. She created sculptures and geometric abstract compositions painted on canvas or made in the form of colour linocuts and drawings. She produced photomontages, typography designs and propaganda posters, and participated in architectural projects. The artist’s versatility was reflected in her statement from 1923:
The most comprehensive field for artistic expression is found in film and theatre performances, where elements of various arts can be combined (painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, music, cinema, dance), and supported by technological innovation (the use of electricity). The means of expression introduced by new art have eliminated randomness, and have added monumentality based on a consistent structure and a unity of harmonious shapes. (New Art Exhibition Catalogue).
Żarnowerówna’s work was influenced by Russian Constructivism and the Dutch De Stijl movement. Like Mieczysław Szczuka, whom she met during her studies, the artist had left-wing views and her posters, print designs and photomontages were a mixture of political propaganda and avant-garde art. Through her brother David, a member of the Polish Communist Party, Żarnowerówna got acquainted with Marxist ideology rather early and she took an active part in promoting the revolutionary movement.
Nowadays, knowledge of her creative output is very limited. In 1923 she made Spatial Construction Sketch, and in 1924 the Typography Compositions and New Compositions series were created. Żarnowerówna’s early paintings are not known, but according to surviving descriptions, they depicted geometric, typographic compositions composed of diagonal lines, which introduced dynamism. Similarly, the artist’s abstract sculptures designed on the basis of the opposition between concave and convex planes have not been preserved.
After 1924, Żarnowerówna was less involved in pure painting and sculpture, as she became interested in socially useful art, such as typography, graphics, book and newspaper design, posters, photomontages and architectural design. In the years 1924-26, Teresa Żarnowerówna and Mieczysław Szczuka designed functional housing estates with the help of architects. While they were never built, the project became part of the history of Polish avant-garde architecture. One of them called Garden Homes in Garden Cities (1927) was an interesting reference to Le Corbusier’s idea of linking architecture with its environment. Another depicted a tall residential house for rich customers: childless couples and bachelors (1926). The architectural projects by the two artists were not so much about the buildings themselves, but about ‘the method of artistic composition (building) in three dimensions based on a certain geometric abstraction’.
Żarnowerówna designed the book cover for the Polish edition of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poetry (1927), which remains a classic example of modern cover art. She combined a photographic effigy of the poet with colourful background and letters, creating an excellent photomontage. Żarnowerówna’s cover design for the volume of Mayakovsky’s poetry was later printed separately as an insertion in the collective edition of the poet’s work published in 1941 in Moscow and in 1952 as an insert in the book Mayakovsky in the People’s Democratic Republics by L. Feigelman. She was also the author of the cover of Anatol Stern’s poetry book Europe (1928) and Szczuka was its graphics editor.
The square of the cover plane is divided horizontally by the artist into two halves. The upper one is black and is crossed diagonally by a wide red belt. On it appears the title ‘Europe’ in big bold letters with white contours. On the left side there is a vignette/photograph of a dancing couple in ballet clothes. In the upper right corner appear photos of gorillas: one of them emerges from the black background and leans on the red belt of the title. The lower half of the cover is divided into two horizontal bands. The upper one includes the inscription A Stern M Szczuka in large red block letters with black contours against a white background. The lower band shows a montage of a series of scenes: marching Reichswehr, guns, a close-up of a sleeping man merging into a photo of dancing legs, groups of Ukrainian peasants retreating before battle, and finally, the famous Dolly Sisters in a hot cabaret performance. (Mieczysław Berman)
The artist was the co-founder (along with Mieczysław Szczuka, Władysław Strzemiński, Henryk Stażewski and E. Miller) of the Blok Group of Cubists, Constructivists and Suprematists (1924-26). According to a statement made by Szczuka, it was Żarnowerówna who initiated the group and the magazine of the same name. She also participated actively in the formulation of its programme and co-edited all its 11 editions. Thanks to her knowledge of several languages, she established contact with representatives of European avant-garde and acquired their programmatic texts, which were then reprinted in Blok. In addition, the artist contributed to the financing of the magazine. Like Szczuka she advocated the utilitarian function of art, emphasised its functional character and wanted new art to leave its mark on industrial production and construction. The ideological differences and conflicts existing between the various members of the Blok group from its very beginning led to the magazine being signed only by Żarnowerówna and Szczuka after its third issue, and then to the actual split of the group. As a result, the magazine Preasens edited by Stażewski came into being, and Szczuka became the editor-in-chief of the left-wing Dźwignia, co-published by Żarnowerówna.
After Szczuka’s death Żarnowerówna edited and published the paper until July 1928. Constructivism’s propagandistic side found expression in the artist’s works for political editorials, which she produced until 1931 and occasionally later. In 1928 Żarnowerówna prepared a whole series of election posters for left-wing candidates for the Sejm, including Vote for the Unity of Workers and Peasants! Another poster from this campaign, the 13- Worker-Peasant Unity is considered the greatest achievement in her poster art. The artistic impact of the poster is very strong: it shows the threatening fist of the workers hitting a prison building. The simple colour scheme is limited to white (the prison), black (the background) and red (the party’s number on the electoral list). The meaning of the poster is reinforced by the combination of realistic elements in the form of photomontage with an uncomplicated graphical drawing. Szczuka and Żarnowerówna were the only artists to engage in political photomontage in Poland at the time. Żarnowerówna was also the author of a title page of the Red Flag, the organ of the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party: in 1931 she designed the front page of this paper on the Three-Ls Day (Lenin, Liebknecht, Luxembourg).
After Szczuka’s death in 1927, Żarnowerówna withdrew from artistic life for a time. She could not find herself a place in Poland and in 1937 she emigrated, first to Paris and Lisbon, then to Canada, only to settle down in New York after the war.
The tragedy of the Second World War prompted Żarnowerówna to once more undertake artistic work. She returned to photomontage in a series of illustrations for the book The Defence of Warsaw, released in the US in 1942. The constructivist divisions of the plane are combined with the dramatic expressiveness of the content. In the last days of the war, the artist began working on a monumental bas-relief called Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, which was never completed. After the war Żarnowerówna had one exhibition in New York, showing gouache paintings with a strong dramatic charge.
Author: Ewa Gorządek, Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, December 2008, transl. Bozhana Nikolova, April 2015