Can a nude be a flagship art manifesto as well as the policy statement of an art group? It certainly could be. It may easily cause a moral scandal, and given the simplicity of its subject and the modality of the form – an aesthetic one as well, like Édouard Manet’s Nana or Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
What if a nude does not aim to provoke but to affirm the beauty of the human body and the artistic form it reconstructs? Such works are less common, especially in 20th-century art, when similar attempts would go down a slippery slope to conservative nostalgia for the art of the old days or equal an apotheosis of strength in the service of one of the totalitarian ideologies.
Henryk Kuna’s Rytm (editor’s translation: Rhythm) does not seem to have a purpose. Its only subject is the beauty of the human body, in this case, a young girl. The sculpture’s exposed composition suggests that the main focus is not the beauty of a blossoming body, but also the beauty of the human body as a harmonious whole. Yet, it is possible to extract one subject of the sculpture, not from its content, but from its form. For Rytm evokes not only the human beauty, but also the beauty of art, and more precisely – the artist’s craft. It is emphasised by the aestheticising, ostensibly unnatural composition (a striking quality in an artwork glorifying natural harmony) and by its modelling, which brings out the features of the texture very sharply. It was his tour de force and a signature, both as a designer and as a sculptor.
His praise of sculpting becomes complete through the choice of the material. Four versions of Rytm exist, which each differ in their material, purpose, and articulation adapted to the materials.
Created in 1922, the first version was made out of ebony, a telling choice. It should be noted that according to the academist tradition grounded in the 19th century the sculptures rooted in classic tradition didn’t have to be hand-crafted by the artist. The sculptor’s participation was limited to the design and clay-model, which was then moulded by bronze- or stoneworkers. The principle didn’t apply exclusively to the academists, but also to the reformers headed by Auguste Rodin. Thus, by choosing wood-carving for his classic composition, a technique which brings to mind the tradition of guilds, Kuna emphasises his craft expertise (as well as by choosing ebony, which is very hard on tools) and his unity of idea and execution. In accordance to the ‘sincerity of the material’ the key idea of modernism at the beginning of the 20th century, an artist was supposed to bring out the qualities of the material, but also the way of creating an artwork through exposing the character of the substance.
The next two versions of Rytm (both created in 1923) were supposed to be representative replicas and, thus, they were cast in bronze. The first one decorated the Polish pavilion at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris, during which the Polish display – a presentation of the official mainstream Polish art – won the silver medal; the second sculpture (generously patched with brass) was placed in Skaryszewski Park in Warsaw in 1929 and it still remains there.
Combining the idea behind the first version and the representative character of the second one, the last version was sculpted in marble. It decorated the hall of the Polish embassy in Paris, thus, repeating the message from the Paris exhibition: this is the direction of art in independent Poland.
How to define the direction of the work? To call it ‘classicism’ would not quite get to the heart of the matter. Juxtaposing Rytm with the Polish sculptures labelled with that term at the time of its creation hinders a comprehensive definition instead of facilitating it. Figuralism and the declaration of fidelity to the antique tradition are essentially the only common traits of Kuna’s decorative stylisations, Edward Wittig’s monumentalism which bears a strong connection to creatively-interpreted academist tradition and August Zamoyski’s harsh, anti-academist sculptures which refer to pre-classical antiquity; however, their approaches to antique and craft were radically different.
The analogies with Paris, the natural point of reference for sculpting at that time, do not provide easy answers. Rytm departs from two main Parisian trends: Aristide Maillol’s tranquil academicising classicism with its strong ties with Wittig’s nudes, and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle’s mélange of harsh monumentalism and cubist elements. Despite the apparent similarities to the style of the latter sculptor, Kuna’s artwork is much more subtle, decorative, and closer to classic standards of beauty than Bourdelle’s archaising art. It seems much closer to the ‘synthetic’, Apollonian classicism of 1920s Paris which was strengthened in 1920 by Picasso’s spectacular conversion, and a little later defined by Jean Cocteau as the “return to order”.
The most characteristic attempt in 1920 at achieving harmony was a return to figuration while simultaneously maintaining decoratively-treated traces of avant-garde art, like linearism and a cubist approach to details. Combining seemingly opposing expectations of the audience which concerned the decorativeness and understandability of an artwork and its coexisting ‘modernity’ brought the calm which was much desired in 1920s Europe after a decade of political and artistic revolutions.
The main Polish groups postulating the ‘return to order’ aptly adhered to the trend: Rytm (named after Kuna’s sculpture) established in 1923 which was chiefly made up of sculptors and painters and its applied-arts counterpart founded in 1929 – Ład (Order). Both of the wonderfully telling names seem to perfectly reflect the expectations of the audience, those going beyond art as well.
Venerating beauty and the joy of life, their ‘manifesto without a programme’ also perfectly corresponded (despite its stronger ties with classicism) to the revolution in the poetic language led by the Skamander poets. Manifestly programmeless, Skamander combined the linguistic energy with the respect for classic poem meters and glorified modernity while defending the principles of verse. Just like Rytm did in fine arts, the members of the formation set the direction of poetry in the newly reborn country.
The passion for synthesising different genres and the simultaneous need for the continuity of tradition is characteristic of Henryk Kuna’s art. Although his first works were in the Young Poland style, he always referenced antique motives in his art. He remained faithful to the antique for the rest of his life, but he also combined it with baroque and Polish folk tradition (Dziewczyna z Dzbanem in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, A Girl with a Jug). His concurrent inspiration from the Middle Ages resulted in astonishing spoofs in the form of ‘live paintings’ designed at the beginning of the 1920s for Leon Schiller’s mystery plays in the Reduta Theatre. The other fruit of Kuna’s inspiration is a splendid series of half-length portraits of the most renowned Polish artists (e.g. Wojciech Jastrzębowski, the leader of Ład and Kazimierz Wierzyński, a member of Skamander) influenced by Medieval wood carving.
Henryk Kuna – a rabbi’s son and a student at a yeshiva who learned Polish as a teenager – made the grand Polish tradition his artistic home. Few were as destined to blend different branches of culture into one synthetic language.
Originally written in Polish by Konrad Niciński, Apr 2011, translated by AP, 23 Nov 2017
Rytm – Henryk Kuna
- First version: 1922, ebony, courtesy of the National Museum in Warsaw
- Second version: 1923, bronze cast, courtesy of the National Museum in Poznań
- Third version: 1923, bronze cast, since 1929 in the Skaryszewski Park in Warsaw
- Fourth version: 1925, marble, courtesy of the Polish Embassy in Paris