Various experiments led Hiller, a chemist and artist, to create a new technique – heliography – which was supposed to once and for all combine two seemingly incongruent elements.
“Artists have recurrently used photographic paper for creating monochromatic images without the help of a camera,” Karol Hiller (1891-1939) recalled in his manifesto Heliography as a New Graphic Technique (Heliografika jako nowy rodzaj techniki graficznej). Treating the work of László Moholy-Nagy as a reference point in this text from 1934, Karol Hiller – a chemist by education, artist by vocation – praised the formal values of rayo- and photograms, but also noticed their fundamental flaws. The latter included the impossibility of reproducing the same effects on numerous prints and the random nature of the practice.
In heliography, everything depends on one’s creative imagination, while the ease with which it may be implemented, determines it as a technique least dependant on the inertia of material factors, as every part might be readily removed in one pull of a cloth or a finger. – Hiller wrote
His desire to have control over his photographic and chemical experiments did not, however, restrain the artist’s imagination, fuelled by surrealism and theosophy. The experiments he carried out in 1928-1930 led him to discover a new technique, heliography, which was to once and for all combine what seemed like two incompatible elements. This solution is quite visible in one of his abstract heliographic compositions from 1939 – With a Scale – which, on one hand, is based on subtle gradients, and sfumato (typical for Hiller), which added an oneiric and slightly surrealist air to the image. On the other hand, his heliography comprised geometric shapes that resulted from building the composition around the titular scale, and which referenced cubism, or perhaps even constructivism.
From today’s perspective, heliography comes across as a simple idea that combines elements of graphic design, photography, and painting, similar to the inventions of László Moholy-Nagy, Christian Schad, or Man Ray. Hiller, in his experiments which he commenced in the late 1920s, used tempera paint and gouache, drew on transparent celluloid film, applied electricity or unmixable fluids, covered the surface of the film with emulsions and provoked the formation of sediments among chemically active substances. Being knowledgeable in physics and chemistry, Hiller made use of photographic paper's properties, in order to, as he wrote, “revolutionize the matter, reconstruct natural elements and forms of vegetation, and to create new galaxies.”
Karol Hiller’s biography is helpful in understanding his multifaceted invention. Born into a modest family of textile workers, he was raised by his father to be a dyer. He studied chemistry in Darmstadt and Warsaw, but dreamt of going to an art school in the capital of tsarist Russia, Saint Petersburg. Due to the turmoil of World War I, he landed in Moscow, and in 1916 moved to Kiev, where he began to take classes from Mikhail Boichuk, who drew inspiration from Byzantine icons. He left Bolshevik-infested Russia together with his family in 1921, and returned to Łódź, leaving his early works behind. Back in Poland, he worked as a journalist, art critic, leftist activist, and animator of social life of the avant-garde gathered around Władysław Strzemiński, and eventually, in 1929, he decided to devote himself entirely to art. When the German army invaded Łódź, he didn’t try to escape or hide – he considered that futile and disgraceful. He was captured by the Gestapo in November 1939 and executed the next month in a forest near Łódź. After Hiller’s death, his wife tried to salvage his legacy, but most of his works – especially paintings – went missing. Heliographic reproduction of works of paper has allowed for preservation of many of them, and among them, the exceptional composition with the scale.
Author: Adam Mazur, January 2015, transl. A.Micińska