Strzemiński started to work on a series of collages entitled ‘To My Jewish Friends’ in 1945. All the works included in the series were drawn with ink on white, grey or beige paper. They are an attempt to combine Strzemiński’s own wartime experience, presented in the drawings, with photographs, which are commonly perceived as the objective representation of war.
In 1939 and 1940, Władysław Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro stayed with the artist’s family in the city of Wilejka in the eastern borderlands of Poland. There he created the first part of the series of war drawings entitled Western Belarus. Soft, wavy lines schematically outlining figures and elements of the landscape would become a characteristic feature of Strzemiński’s other works from the war period.
In May 1940, the couple returned to Łódź, where Strzemiński created a set of drawings entitled Deportations. They were the artist’s response to mass displacement of the city's residents, as illustrated by the titles: Na Bruku, Jedyny Ślad, Wyrzuceni (To the Curb, The Only Trace, The Banished, trans. MG). The human figures in the drawings give the impression of moving away and leaving something behind.
A short time later, another series of works, War Against Homes, was created. The artist grouped abstract forms into blocks, lined up along one line. In 1942, Strzemiński drew another seven works under the common title Faces. The anonymity, impersonality, and absolute disregard for the real image are really striking. The artist decomposed forms and fragmented the faces. Owing to this, the perception of the works is determined by the sense of disintegration, loss of form and expression. In 1943 and 1944, Strzemiński created the last set of drawings, Cheap as Mud, in which he used nervous lines to draft the traces of what was already gone, what does not exist. The contour of forms often remains open, individual elements are not interlinked.
In 1945, Władysław Strzemiński began to work on a series of collages entitled To My Jewish Friends. The series of nine works was then handed over to the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The artist excluded one of the collages from the set; it is currently in the collection of the National Museum in Kraków.
All the works included in the series were drawn with ink on white, grey, or beige paper. Strzemiński used tracing paper to copy some motifs from his wartime drawings, transferring entire compositions or their fragments and rearranging them. Documentary photographs from the ghetto, transports, concentration camp and the uprising, glued on the drawings, are the second important element of the collages. Ink drawings were applied onto the photographs or hidden under them, and sometimes these two forms would simply adjoin each other. The artist introduced colour to one of the works. The Sticky Spot of Crime consists of a fragment of a photograph showing a decomposed body, probably after exhumation, which is accompanied by a drawing from the Cheap as Mud series and an expressive spot of red paint.
The collages are an attempt to combine Strzemiński’s own wartime experience, presented in the drawings, with photographs, which are commonly perceived as objective representation of the war. However, the cracked structure of the works from this series is their most striking feature. Even if the drawn and photographic elements overlap, the compositions evoke a strong feeling of a lack of a deeper, structural link between them. In these collages, the combination of photography and drawing seems clumsy, as if it was forced and unsuccessful. Their incoherent form is a sign of Strzemiński’s inability to create an adequate, consistent form of representing the Holocaust, and to develop an indirect formula between artistic, drawing, documentary and photographic forms. None of the conventions is sufficient. Their combination, however, is significant, although it did not meet the requirements of representation. Their awkward juxtaposition is a place where the feeling of inability, loss and emptiness appear. They are intensified by the titles that Strzemiński put on the backs of his collages. They help to understand the meaning, but first of all they strike with bizarre poetics, their syntax is unstable, just as the structure of the very works: With the Ruins of the Demolished Eye Sockets, Through the Hollow Bones of Crematorium, Vow and Oath to the Memory of Hands (Existences Which Are Not with Us).
Andrzej Turowski noted that Strzemiński introduced the experience of memory to these works, and even made it the axis of the narrative. This should be linked to the incoherent structure of the series. It is particularly significant, as Strzemiński was an avant-garde artist, working on a coherent and consistent language of art, from the theory of Unism, to the series entitled Afterimages. The experience of war and the Holocaust therefore also mark itself with a structural fracture in his artistic biography. In the wartime works none of the languages or forms of representation is able to reflect the experience. This is how the artist reached the limits of the language of artistic utopia.
In his later works, Strzemiński did not return to the subject of the war. The memory of these events was reflected in the novel he wrote at the end of his life, in 1952. The poetics of this text is close to the broken syntax of the metaphorical titles of collages.
Originally written in Polish by Magdalena Wróblewska, Dec. 2009, translated by Marcin Gozdanek, Aug. 2018.
• Władysław Strzemiński
To My Jewish Friends
series of collages, 1945