The topic of the Great Depression which hit the United States and Europe after the New York Stock Exchange crash on 24th October 1929 was tackled not only by journalists: it also inspired artists.
Mieczysław Berman was one of the most innovative creators of photomontage in the interwar Poland. This technique was broadly used by the avant-garde artists in the 20s and the 30s – it perfectly suited the of convictions of the radical artists who postulated engaging in the present reality and directing the message at the modern society. The photomontage combined the modern artistic language with scientific and technical achievements. Moreover, it mixed popular culture and applied arts. Above all, it was a great persuasive tool, since it made it possible to create a direct and clear message with the use of simple signs, often taken from the surrounding reality.
In the 30s Berman collaborated with several left-wing magazines: '1930', 'Przekrój 1930', 'Kuźnia', 'Ze Świata', 'Dwutygodnik Ilustrowany' and 'Głosy i Odgłosy'. They published Berman's photomontages referring to the constructivist poetics: they were very synthetic, orderly, and had a clear composition. Berman often applied mental shortcuts, allusions, simple signs and metaphors and reached to the models developed by the German Dadaists. He would introduce the elements of surprise, grotesque, and humour; while tackling politics, he would use irony. He often modelled his works on the works of the German artist John Heartfield. One example of such work is Autoryzowany Przekład [translator's note: Authorised Translation]. It is Berman's commentary to the speech of the prime minister Janusz Jędrzejewicz in which he described the sabre and the vellum as the foundation of the Polish tradition and culture. In the background the artist placed the figure of Benito Mussolini, who said the book and the rifle were symbols of modernity.
The form of the photomontage Bezrobocie [translator's note: Unemployment] derives from constructivist tradition. Its dynamic structure is based on diagonal lines forming wedges and dominating in the central part. The fragments of photographs were juxtaposed with typographical elements: black, simple signs placed in the three corners of the composition. The dynamics of the work is multiplied by presenting different points of view: a part is shown from above and a part from the regular perspective. Moreover, there are significant differences in the scale of particular elements visible: a man's big hand in the bottom right corner is contrasted with human figures of various sizes. Only one of them is working: it is the bricklayer placed on the right-hand side of the composition. The remaining figures, shown separately or among the crowd, are standing in the street, in queues or in front of offices, others are reading newspapers. We can sense anxiety and high expectations.
The Great Depression, which hit the United States and Europe after the New York Stock Exchange crash on October 24th, 1929, hit the agro-industrial countries particularly hard and lasted there until the second half of the next decade. In the case of Poland, there was a price drop in agriculture and a decrease in industrial production, followed by a high unemployment rate, which reached 43% in the most critical moment. For the first time in history, people became aware of the consequences that the country's industrialization (until then generally perceived as a positive phenomenon) had on society, especially in the big cities.
The topic of the Great Depression was tackled not only by journalists but also by artists. The photographs of people queueing for any employment that were being published in press became an inspiration for painters regardless of their artistic and political convictions. Władysław Strzemiński painted Bezrobotni (translator's note: The Unemployed) according to his unistic conception in 1934 and Jonasz Stern created an expressive portrait of a jobless man in 1933. The topic was also tackled by Wojciech Weiss in his painting Ecce Homo from 1934.
Bezrobocie is one of Berman's many works on similar problems. In the constructivist photomontages Czerwone i Czarne (translator's note: Red and Black), Budowa (translator's note: Constructing) and the series Konstrukcja (translator's note: Construction) the artist presented workers and in Prosperity (1930) he focused on the injustice of the capitalist system. He continued to develop his interest for the social matters in the Warsaw art group 'Czapka Frygijska', active between 1934 and 1938, which he co-founded. The members of 'Czapka Frygijska' were leftist artists who often supported the Communist Party of Poland, just like Berman. The group postulated an engaged and agitational art. In their works the artists criticised the existing social system and pointed out the exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie. They tackled topics such as the unemployment, poverty, workers’ strikes, and physical work, using the realist convention to depict them.
- Bezrobocie by Mieczysław Berman
1930, photomontage, 32,5 x 29,5 cm
Property of the National Museum in Wrocław
Originally written in Polish by Magdalena Wróblewska, September 2010, translated by MW, March 2018.