Wladyslaw Strzeminski 1893-1952

--- To Construct Seeing

"The development of aesthetic culture proceeds as the result of extending the scale of visual content , of becoming aware of the phenomena which take place in the essence of our sight. Each aesthetic form, which dominates in a given epoch in the history of art, depends on the newly gained elements of the visual content." *1

Wladyslaw Strzeminski, the pioneer and the main representative of the Constructivist movement in Poland was a painter, theoretician and organizer of artistic life. He was an artist who made a highly original, and major contribution to twentieth century art. His work is an essential element and of enduring value in the panorama of the world avant-garde. The significance of Strzeminski's contribution to its achievements, stems from his decision to articulate - radically and in all the spheres of his activity - the essence of seeing and the changes which seeing undergoes, and also from the fact that the artist discovered a correlation between his theory of seeing and the visual language of his own art. In his artistic activity Strzeminski took into account social, psychological, aesthetic, ideological, and physiologi- cal transformations of seeing, treated as a whole in perception, as well as in image building.


In the system of Strzeminski's ideas, to construct a way of seeing - by which I mean the introduction by the artist of order into the perception of the surrounding world, and at the same time the search for a language of images that could correspond with this order - was tantamount to "the constructing of beauty". In 1932 he said: "Modern art prevails because it derives a system which includes more elements of beauty made from the observation of optical phenomena Beauty is the accord between the object and the essence of our physiological-visual phenomena. The more phenomena we include in the system of constructing beauty, the more complete and perfect is that beauty." *2 Based on his own investigations, Strzeminski formulated the principles of visualizing the new beauty, although - like other representatives of the Constructivist avant-garde - he believed in the need to build a collective language of the new art.

Wladyslaw Strzeminski worked in various fields of artistic and social activity. His thinking was characterized by the well-grounded assumption that artists can influence the art viewers and their perceptoion by constructing rules of historical-artistic ways of seeing and image building. Strzeminski wanted to have an influence on ways of seeing in an institutional manner - this attitude was typical of the avant-garde, and related to the postulates of the heroic phase of the Russian avant-garde, with whose representatives and institutions he actively co-operated in the late teens and early 1920's. He was one of the first and at the same time one of the few members of the avant-garde who succeeded in founding a permanent Constructivist institution - The International Collection of Modern Art of the "a.r." Group, opened to the public in Lodz in 1931, which forms the basis of the present collection of the Muzeum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Lodz, and functions both as a cornerstone of its identity and a beacon pointing to one of its further duties. For many decades our Museum popularized and critically examined the foundations of its own tradition, laid at that time, particularly since the exhibition Constructivism in Poland 1923-1936. Blok. Praesens. "a.r.", initiated by the former Director of our institution, Ryszard Stanislawski, and organized in cooperation with Dieter Honisch, then the representative of Folkwang Museum in Essen, and Rudolf Oxenaar of Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo; the exhibition was presented subsequently in both of these institutions in Germany and in Holland in 1973.


Exhibitions of Constuctivist art in Poland were shown in many versions and in different historical and artistic contexts, in numerous museums and galleries in Europe and North America. In 1980 the Museum organized a monographic exhibition of Wladyslaw Strzeminski's works - alongside Kazimir Malevich's - in Kunsthalle in Dusselldorf; Jurgen Harten, of Kunsthalle proved to be an enthusia- stic partner of our Museum in this enterprise.

Apart from organizing many other exhibitions of Constructivism in Poland and shows concentrated on the work of Wladyslaw Strzeminski, the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz conducted analytical and comparative studies of the works of the founder of Unism, trying to build a synthetic picture of the whole movement and of the individual work of its leader. His works, and the achievements of other representatives of the Constructivist movement, among which one should mention first the sculptures of Katarzyna Kobro, are the most powerful and the most original voice of the Polish avant-garde in international art of the 1920's and 1930's. The exhibitions, which were organized as a result of the studies of this art, increased its popularity, providing the foundations and the inspiration for further historical-artistic interpretative efforts in this field. The studies concentrated on these themes and included the works of such representatives of Polish museums, universities and art criticism as Julian Przybos, Mariusz Tchorek, Irena Jakimowicz, Ryszard Stanislawski, Andrzej Turowski, Mieczyslaw Porgbski, Janusz Zagrodzki, Zofia Baranowicz and Janina Ladnowska, were complemented by the texts - written in the wake of these exhibitions - of such non Polish scholars and critics as: Antoine Baudin, Dieter Honisch, Yve-Alain Bois, Gladys Fabre, Pierre Restany or Margit Rowell.

The theory, work and artistic attitude of Wladyslaw Strzeminski more and more often became a frame of reference for numerous other artists of successive generations, active in Poland and abroad. Yve- Alain Bois wrote in the 1980's, that the works and texts of Wladyslaw Strzeminski and Katarzyna Kobro: "seem to have directly influenced the art and aesthetics of the 60's". *3

Today we return to Strzeminski's works not only because of a conventional reason: the one hundredth anniversary of his birthday, nor because of the invaluable significance that his personality and vision had for the beginnings and the work of our Museum in the first two decades of its activity. We believe that it is still worth investigating what and in what way the history of creativity mean in our times. One cannot ignore the significance of Yve-Alain Bois's words, which arequoted above, about Strzeminski as a harbinger, especially when seen against the statement made by the artist himself in 1935, in which he said: "Only further development of art can justify the abstract art of today".*4 Strzeminski's work is an important elementof the resonance whichcontinues in 20th century art - the diachronicand synchronic dialogue - to which the Museum keenly listens and for which - apart from being the institution where history is commemorated - the Museum should create an atmosphere of reflection, by making the works of individual creativity available, by presenting them in a critical selection, and creating opportunities to confront its permanent value. The Museum does not perpetuate recognized values in an arbitrary way based on accepted assumptions, but it should become a retort in which values are affirmed or discarded with regard to both time-axes, drawing conclusions from the lessons of the history of art and its contemporary state.

Let us look briefly at history - the selected, most significant moments of Wladyslaw Strzeminski's artistic career in the context of his most complete artistic achievements, but also in the context of the state- ments which articulated his aspirations and artistic and social inten- tions.

Strzeminski studied in St. Petersburg at the Military School of Engi- neering in the years before World War I . After the war broke out he served in the army as a sapper officer. In May 1916 he was seriously wounded (he lost his hand, leg, and the sight of one eye). During convalescence in Moscow he met Katarzyna Kobro - his future partner in life and art, who was then a voluntary nurse. These facts defined Strzeminski's subsequent, unusually active life, possibly they also made him turn towards art, but at the same time they defined his specific perception of reality. Their existential dimension is discussed in this publication by Nika Strzeminska, the artist's daughter, and their consequences for art are analyzed in an essay by Andrzej Turowski. In 1918 Strzeminski studied in the Free Studios in Moscow, he was in contact with Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. From 1919 he was associated with various institutions of art, education and artistic industry in Minsk, Moscow and Smolensk. He joined then the UNOVIS group. Strzeminski's works from that time - paintings and reliefs - started a dialogue between Cubism and Constructivism, presenting his own experiments in different materials. He participated in many exhibitions organized in Moscow, Riazan, Smolensk, Vitebsk. In the turn of 1921 and 1922 he moved to Vilnius. From 1922 he co-operated with the magazine ZWROTNICA, which appeared to be the harbinger of the avant-garde in Poland. In the same year he published there an important article on Russian art, in which he wrote: "Each meaning, each different understanding of the world in general needs a unique and characteristic form. To adapt the old form to the new meaning - the trait typical of Expressionism - is essentially a mistake. The aim of art is to deepen the notion of form in order to achieve new meanings. Meanings are born out of form . This is a reliable, though difficult path. When meaning prevails over form, flimsy form is often used to express this meaning. Art, instead of dealing with pure form, reduces itself to the level of applied form (which is a blasphemy to art!!!). (...) When we analyze the state of the new Russian art during the last few years of the war - we find influential names such as Larionov, Kandinsky, Tatlin, Malevich." *5


In 1922 Strzeminski took part in an exhibition Erste russische Kunstausstellung in Berlin, which testified to his affinities with the Russian avant-garde; these links are often underlined till today, for example in an exhibition The Great Utopia, recently shown in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and New York. In 1923 he was one of the organizers of The New Art Exhibition in Vilnius, which was the first group-manifestation of the Constructivist movement in Poland. In the catalogue which accompanied the exhibition, he wrote: "I define art as a creation of the unity of organic forms, which by their organic character are parallel with nature (.. .)".*6 Though the details were formulated later, Strzeminski presented here the foundations of his idea of unity, which had its conclusion in the theory and artistic practices of Unism. In Vilnius in The New Art Exhibition he showed synthetic, Cubist and Suprematist works. At that time he also painted works which were called Post-Suprematist, in which he departed from Malevich's vision of art and approached his own, more radical formula for a painting. In 1924 he co-founded a group of avant-garde artists of Cubism, Constructivism and Suprematism, called the Blok and a magazine BLOK (1924-1926), and in 1926 he was one of the organizers of the group consisting of painters, sculptors and architects, called Praesens, who published the magazine PRAESENS (1926, 1930). Strzeminski dealt with typography, which indicated how important applied art was to him, then and to a greater extent in later years; of great interest to him were artistic and industrial design, which were subject to the test of verification by means of producing and employing their products. Realizing his other important idea - "architecturizing life and art"- Strzeminski started to paint a series of works called Architectural Compositions, which were studies on the nature of colour, the field of the painting, and numeral proportions. In 1927 he announced his theoretical programme of Unism (foreshadowed three years earlier in an article B=2, in which he gave a critique of Suprematism). Strzeminski saw Unism in opposition to the dualistic conception in art. He postulated "the Unistic idea of a painting", as "unanimous and organic".*7 He formulated and then realized the vision of a painting which was homogenous and flat, in which lines and colours were interdependent. In his theoretical studies he developed this idea: "The flatness of a painting is one of the manifestations of the unequivocal expression of line and colour. Colour is not independent of line any more. Line is the border of colour. Colour does not flow over the line. It is linked with and dependent on it; it creates a unity. To eliminate duality in one direction leads to the elimination of another duality: the duality of the flat surface of the canvas with the voluminal form of shapes painted on the canvas. The painting, developing towards total homogeneity, should be a result of its innate data (flat surface and the quadrangle of its limits). (...) No matter whether in Cubism of the last period, or in Suprematism, or Mondrian's Neoplasticism - surfaces are flat, but the whole is not yet flat. The painter still looks for contrasts, when he paints in a flat way, but he does not understand what consequences this should lead to. (...) The painting should be homogenous and flat. The dramatic quality of Baroque should be opposed by the Unism of painting ." *8

In 1927 Strzeminski with the assistance of the Praesens group co-organized an international exhibition called Machine Age in New York. He supported the idea of co-operation between various representatives of Constructivism and Functionalism. In 1929 he codified the structural principles of Architectectural Compositions, according to the golden section rule and the numerical calculations of rhythms; he applied these principles also to sculpture, and together with Katarzyna Kobro wrote a text called Kompozycja przestrzeni. Obliczenia rytmu czasoprzestrzennego (Space Composition. Time- Space Rhythm and its Calculations), in which one can read that: "(...) the source of harmony is a measure resulting from the number." *9. In the same work Strzeminski and Kobro wrote about the problem of rhythm in a work of art, that: "(...) the basic condition follows: one dimensional character of a potential rhythm and overt rhythm, i.e. the same numerical quality of the rhythm of the projective surface and the rhythm of the whole work of art. The rhythm of the whole work of art is thus a result of potential rhythms, one dimensional with it, of individual projective surfaces. That is: homogeneity of the time-space rhythm in the whole work of art may be achieved provided that all potential rhythms of all projective surfaces have the same numerical quality." *10

In 1929 Strzeminski co-founded a group of painters, sculptors and poets called "a.r." (revolutionary artists - real avant-garde), which functioned as a link between the artists of Eastern and Western Europe, and succeeded in realizing Strzeminski's idea of starting a collection of new art - this idea was realized, as we said earlier, in he foundation of the International Collection of Modern Art, which provided the basis for the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz. This idea was one of the elements of the didactic programme of the avant-garde, and he collection itself was a Constructivist institution actually realized. Strzeminski co-operated at that time with the Abstraction Creation group, active in Paris. He was involved in teaching (industrial design and typography), popularising in an intensive and manifold way the principles of functional printing. In 1932 he received the City of Lodz Art Award. In the 1930's he produced a group of works which had a decisive significance for his conception of the painting - a series of Seascapes based on colour contrasts, on the use of biomorphic shapes and linear contours, shifted in relation to colour patches; in effect he created a retinal trace of the shapes Which influence one another. In 1935 he wrote: "The rolling waves and the undulating line of the seashore join here due to the movement of our eyes from one to the other, create lines with a rhythm which is common to the whole".*11 In the same year a discussion between Leon Chwistek and Strzeminski was published, in which Strzeminski said with regard to Seascapes that "transforming reality and organizing it" is closer to life and is the need of the present time.*12 The experience of seeing, included in the new art, and discovered in the form of the paintings from the Seascapes series, were theoretically summarised by their author. "Each factor of the visible form in nature influences all other factors and transforms them. The movement of the eye, the trace of the sliding sight, and the biological line of contracting and relaxing muscles, are linked with the shape of the elements of form seen in nature, producing the common rhythm of the form. This rhythm is to a large extent the rhythm of autonomous movements, which result from the nervous and muscular systems. It is the rhythm of physiology, which links the contents of individual glances. This rhythm of the declining and rising line of the pulse and he movement which results from the individual and biological reaction of the muscles - subjects the visual content of individual glances transforms it, and creates the ever changing rhythm of irregular symmetry." *13


In 1939 after the outbreak of the World War II, Strzeminski moved with his family to Wilejka and started a series of drawings West Byelorussia, based on synthetic figurative narration, which he continued all through the war. In 1940 he returned to Lodz. During the war he produced a few other cycles of drawings, such as: Deportations, War Against Homes, Faces, Cheap as Mud, Hands which are not with us, and a series To My Friends the Jews, consisting of collages. The drawings of these cycles were based on the use of contour motifs, partly repeated and interlaced (with the patterns produced on tracing paper) , which built the representation of the Drama of the time. Shortly after the war he started teaching in The Higher School of Arts in Lodz, where he lectured on the history of art, the principles of composition, and spatial art. He also organized outdoor workshops. At this time Strzeminski donated his works to the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz. In 1947 he designed the Neoplastic Room in the Muzeum Sztuki, published fragments of his study on the changes of perception and its different representations - the complete text was published only in 1958 as Teoria widzenia (A Theory of Vision). At the same time he studied the problems of the ways in which the phenomenon of the after-image is reproduced in paintings, and produced his solaristic works. In these latter paintings he identified the field of a painting with the retinal image which appears in the eye (he once said metaphorically of "the eye as the end of the brush"). In his artistic practice he had already dealt with similar problems in the series from the 1930's Seascapes. After 1949 he produced paintings and drawings close to realism. In 1948 he wrote: "Realism (...) is not an absolute, but a means of cognition." *14 In 1950 he was dismissed from his post as a professor in the Lodz School of Arts by the Minister of Culture and Arts. He worked in advertising and designed displays in shop windows. In 1951 Katarzyna Kobro died. Wladyslaw Strzeminski died 26 December 1952 in Lodz.

Strzeminski's highly original, self-contained artistic programme, for- mulated primarily in the theory and practice of Unism, is an important and permanent tradition in the history of art and ideas of the twentieth century. Its author created the conception of an autonomous painting, which is built on the basis of the analysis of visual perception and on the assumption that it is necessary to impose order on "visual consciousness" and "the visual contents" on the side of both artists and viewers.

The significance of Strzeminski's work may be understood today independently of his theoretical programme and his artistic doctrine, which in their assumptions and aims were essentially modernist. These assumptions were based on the idea of "unity" and "organic quality" of the work of art; on the utopian project of "art that organizes life and its functions"; they stemmed from the belief in the progress of the accumulating, collective visual experience and in the progressive achievements of all the subsequent artistic formations and generations, as regards visualising of this experience. These new movements were believed to lead to greater objectivity of language if visual arts.

Some works appear too early and make their come back too late" - writes Yve-Alain Bois, touching upon the aforementioned tension in the reception of Strzeminski's work, and then concludes: "their very precocity interfering - and continuing to interfere-with their reception. (. . .) Wladyslaw Strzeminski's and Katarzyna Kobro's texts and works from the'20s and'30s belong to this category".*15

Strzeminski's works have a meaning which goes beyond the historical time in which they were produced. They are an integral synthesis of the essential sources of seeing and a reflection on seeing. Their artistic effect is a fruitful visualization of this synthesis in the painting itself, a projection of seeing which is as flat as a painting. The quality of Strzeminski's paintings: Unistic, architectonic, landscape and solaristic, seems to be more vital than the utopias and ideologies in which Strzeminski's work was intentionally rooted. The basic quality of this work seems to rest on the primary role of sensual experience, the visualization of which is a painter's conclusion of consciousness and the memory of perception, and at the same time, the effect of the will to construct the new way of seeing and the new beauty in relation to the language of images and the principles of aesthetic culture - formulated both in the past and in present times.

Jaromir Jedlinski - September, 1993

--- Footnotes:

  1. W. Strzeminski, Rozwoj jednostki..., FORMA, 1935 no. 3, p. 17.
  2. W. Strzeminski, Sztuka nowoczesna a szkoly artystyczne, DROGA, 1932 no. 3 quoted after: W. Strzeminski, Pisma (ed. Z. Baranowicz), Wroclaw 1975, p. 155.
  3. Y. - A. Bois, Painting as Model, (chapter. Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation), Massachusetts 1990, p. 123.
  4. Dyskusja L. Chwistek - W. Strzeminski, FORMA, 1935 no. 3, p. 8.
  5. W. Strzeminski, 0 sztuce rosyjskiej- notatki, Zwaoirvica, 1922 no. 3, p. 79.
  6. W. Strzeminski, Okreslam sztukg..., in: Katalog Wystawy Nowej Sztuki, Wilno 1923, p. 19.
  7. W. Strzeminski, Dualizm i unizm, DROGA, 1927 no. 6-7, pp. 211 - 225; book edition W. Strzeminski, Unizm w malarstwie, Vlarszawa 1928, p. 10.
  8. W. Strzeminski, Unizm w malarstwie, Vlarszawa 1928, pp. 15-16.
  9. K. Kobro, W. Strzeminski, Kompozyqa przestrzeni. Obliczenia rytmu czasoprzestrzennego, Lodz 1931 , p. 79.
  10. Ibidem, p.61 .
  11. W. Strzeminski, Rozwoj jednostki..., FORMA, 1935 no. 3, , p. 17.
  12. Dyskusja L. Chwistek W. Strzeminski, FORMA, 1935 no. 3, p. 5.
  13. W. Strzeminski, Aspekty rzeczywistosci, FORMA, 1936, no. 5, p. 8.
  14. W. Strzeminski, Realizm w malarstwie, WIES, 1948 no. 47, p. 6.
  15. Y.-A. Bois, op. cit., p. 123.

Strzeminski's Table of Contents

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