Wladyslaw Strzeminski 1893-1952
During the Stalinist oppression, when socialist realism was the only officially accepted movement in art, my parents' works could not be shown to the public. They lay hidden in the cellars of the Muzeum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Lodz. No information about them could appear in the press.
The situation changed in 1956, when the first posthumous exhibition of my parents' works was organized - initially in Lodz, and then in the Warsaw Zachgta Gallery. As years went by, more and more publications about them appeared, and their works were exhibited - in collaboration with the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz - in many prestigious museums and galleries nearly all over the world. Many texts were published: theoretical discussions, dissertations, and essays written by art historians from Poland and elsewhere.
Apart from my book milosz, sztuka i nienawisc (Love, Art and Hate), published in 1991 , and dealing more with the life of my parents than with their work, all publications were only theoretical texts.
It is my wish to change it. My father's biography written in a more personal manner, will show him not only as an artist - this has been done by many theoreticians - but also as a man, whose unusual life till the very last moment was most closely linked with his work.
21 November 1993 is the hundredth anniversary of my father's birth. He was born in Minsk, in West Byelorussia, as the oldest of three children: he had a brother, Walerian, and a sister, Janina. Strzeminski family possessed "a wooden, two-storied house, with a shingle roof, and a field of 1800 square feet, near an orchard at 21, Kozhevienna Street". His childhood free of cares - my father used to tell me - came to an end when he was only 11 . He became a cadet of the Tsar Alexander 11 Military School in Moscow, and then in 1911 he joined the Tsar Nicholaus Military School of Engineering in St. Petersburg. He was not interested in painting at that time, and possibly he put up with the military career which his parents had designed for him. Shortly after graduating, in mid July 1914, he was assigned to a service in the Osowiec fortress. He was an officer of the sappers.
In less than a month the World War I broke out. My father used to talk about winter, marches lasting for hours, mud, dirt, lice, and the constant fear of typhus. In 1916 the military unit commanded by my father was near Pershaye, a small town in the Novogrudek district in West Byelorussia. At that time the eastern front was relatively quiet.
And it was then that in the night from 6 to 7 May 1916 an accident happened. A soldier, getting out of a trench nearby, stumbled and instinctively threw away a grenade which he was holding in his hand; the grenade fell into the ditch, where my father and his subordinates were hidden. The explosion caused a real massacre. The few who survived were taken to the field hospital.
My father lost almost two thirds of his right thigh and more than a half of
his forearm. The whole body was covered with injuries caused by smaller
splinters. He almost lost his sight in his left eye. Till the end of his life with
this eye he could only feel the sensation of light. His wounds did not want
to cure (antibiotics were not known in those days).
My father remembered that he had undergone further medical treatment and recuperation in the Prokhorow Hospital in Moscow. When he went there he was only 22 years old, he had plenty of time to think about his future. Most of the people in his situation would give up any dreams about professional careers. He wanted to start everything again.
Father's conversations with young Katarzyna Kobro, my future mother, who had just graduated from her secondary school, had an important influence on discovering the meaning of his life, on finding new values and a new place for himself. Katarzyna Kobro - just as many young ladies of the so called "good families" - often visited the hospital and looked after the victims of war. Her family was of mixed origins. My grandfather, Nicholaus von Kobro, belonged to a Russified German family. My grandmother, Eugenia Rozanova, was a native Russian. She brought up all her children in the Russian spirit. When my mother met Wladyslaw Strzeminski, she told him (I know this from her own words) that she wanted to study sculpture and that she always found great pleasure in producing works of art. It was then that my father got interested in art.
There must have been an enormous artistic talent in my father, a talent which suddenly exploded. It might have been wasted, if it had not been for the unfortunate accident and his injuries. Because my father was especially persistent in trying to achieve his aims, because he was very ambitious, demanding and uncompromising towards himself and others, he was able to achieve so much in such a brief time.
He spent nearly two years in the hospital. In October 1918 he began studying in the Free Artistic Studios in Moscow. My mother, after the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture was closed, also entered the same institution. They both met there and renewed their contacts which started at the hospital. At that time, though, they did not treat their acquaintance too seriously. My father soon left the Free Studios. Possibly he considered it a waste of time to carry on with systematic education. He had many radically new artistic ideas, which he would turn into works of art. Already in 1919 his Constructivist paintings and reliefs were shown at exhibitions in Moscow, Riazan, and Vitebsk. He was also nominated to the Moscow Council of Art and Artistic Industry (together with Alexander Rodchenko and Kazimir Malevich).
A bit later my father left for his native Minsk, to join his family. He worked for the Regional Department of Fine Arts, attached to the People's Comissariat of Education of West Byelorussia. He presented his works at various exhibitions.
After some time he moved to Smolensk. He lectured in Art School affiliated with the Regional Department of Education. He cooperated with the branch of the Russian Telegraphic Agency (ROSTA) and he designed political posters for Polit-Prosviet. He became a colleague and a close friend of Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, who worked in Vitebsk. According to some sources my father was his assistant. I would like to correct this information. Strzeminski never performed this function and never lived in Vitebsk. Both artists, however, despite the difference in age, were friends for many years. When in the academic year of 1919-1920 Malevich started organizing in Vitebsk a group of artists called UNOVIS (Promotors of the New in Art), my father was one of its co-founders and an active member. In Smolensk a branch of the UNOVIS group was formed, which came under an artistic influence of my parents.
In summer 1920 Katanyna Kobro moved from Moscow to Smolensk for it was a bit easier to live there than in the capital. There was a lively artistic circle in Smolensk. My mother immediately started her artistic work. She produced sculptures, lectured on sculpting in the Smolensk School of Ceramic Art, designed costumes and settings for the Theatre of the Educational House, and designed political posters for Polit-Prosviet. Strzeminski was also employed in that institution.
My parents used to tell me that they worked together and discovered
how much they had in common as regards their views on art and their
creative work. They would spend more and more time together. At one
moment my father saw that Katanyna was not only a sculptress, but
also a very attractive woman. My mother, too, was fascinated by
Strzeminski. She was impressed not only by Wladyslaw's deep, blue
eyes. He impressed her mainly by his personaiity, his creative enthusiasm,
and an uncompromising attitude to life and art. People who met
him quickly forgot his disabled condition. Yet, I am sure that he had
many complexes caused by his infirmity. When they got emotionally
involved with each other, my mother did everything she could to free
him from these complexes.
Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski were married in Smolensk in late 1921 or in the beginning of 1922 - it is hard to give a precise date now. It was a civil marriage. They shared one studio, in which both of them produced their innnovatory works The studio was also the place of many heated discussions about art, in which Kazimir Malevich sometimes participated.
They both directed the Smolensk branch of the UNOVIS (the IZO-stu- dio), till it was closed down in 1922.
It was then that many artists, later world-famous, left Russia. Wassily Kandinsky and Eliazer Lissitzky went to Germany, Marc Chagall moved to France, Vytautas Kainukstis settled in Poland. Maybe my parents discussed with these artists the best possible ways of leaving Russia, thinking perhaps that they could move to Paris and broaden their artistic horizons. That they planned to go to France I learnt from my mothers stories. They never succeeded in this. From her own words I understand that eventually they defected Russia. In order to be taken across the frontier Katarzyna had to give the guide her family jewels.
After crossing the border my parents were arrested by the Polish patrol, they were suspected of acting as Soviet spies. After a few weeks they were released. They settled in Vilnius, where they lived at Strzeminski's mother's house.
My mother was not on good terms with her mother-in-law. She soon left for Latvia to join her father there. At that time my father started collaborating with a journal of the Cracow avantgarde called ZWROTNICA, where he published his innovatory text Notatki o sztuce rosyjskiej (Notes On Russian Art.) He was also lecturing in the Major Lukasiewicz Military Courses in Vilnius, and later taught in the secondary school in Wilejka.
In 1924 my parents settled permanently in Poland, after their church wedding, which entitled my mother to Polish citizenship. At first they lived in Szczekociny, and then in a few other provincial towns: Bneziny, Zakowice, Koluszki. In 1924 they founded the Blok group, the Association of Cubists, Constructivists and Suprematists. Strzeminski wrote many articles for the journal of this group published under the same name BLOK; they included the famous text B=2, in which for the first time he formulated the principles of his theory of Unism announced a few years later.
In 1926 the Strzeminskis left the Blok. They were co-founders of a group of artists and architects, Praesens, and participated in the first exhibition of this group, showing a wide range of their works. My father exhibited his paintings, book illustrations and interior designs, he was also a co-author of the project of the Perskie Oko Theatre and a church in Bialystok. In 1927 he had a one-man exhibition in Warsaw, his works were shown in New York at the Machine Age exhibition, also in Belgium, Holland, and in the Autumn Salon in Paris in 1929. In 1928 Stneminski was for the first time included in the Ilustrowana encyklopaedia (Illustrated Encyclopaedia) published by Trzaska, Evert and Michalski. His Unizm wmalarstwie (Unism in Painting) appeared as the third publication of the PRAESENS Library (the cover was designed by Henryk Staiewski). In 1928-34 my father painted the so-called Unistic Compositions, which depended on the optical unity of an image. All of them had a homogeneous facture treatment, the colour was also applied homogeneously. In his earlier works he used various colours, in later ones - only one colour. Simultaneously, Strzeminski produced Architectonic Compositions, based on mathematical calculations. In 1929 my parents and Henryk Staiewski left Praesens and formed another group "a.r."(revolutionary artists - real avant-garde). They left the group because they differed in their views on the aims and functions of art. Two avant-garde poets from Cracow soon joined the "a.r." group: Jan Brzgkowski and Julian Przybos. The aim of the group - apart from integrating various arts and publishing - was to create the Intemational Collection of Modern Art in Poland. Strzeminski's attempts to organize it in the National Museum in Warsaw failed. It was only after many endeavours that he managed to find support of the Lodz City Council for the "a.r." initiative. Members of the group, inspired by my father, started collecting works of art for the future gallery. In Poland this work was done by Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski, in France by Jan Bngkowski, Stanislaw Grabowski and Henryk Staiewski.
The year 1931 witnessed many events which were important for the
artistic milieu of Lodz and for the Strzeminskis. In mid February the
International Collection of Modern Art was opened. The contract about
the deposited works was signed by the Department of Education and
Culture of the City of Lodz, and Strzeminski, representative of the "a.r."
Almost at the same time a book by Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski, entitled Kompozyqa przestrzeni, Obliczenia rytmu czasopnestnennego (Space Composition. Time-Space Rhythm and its Calculations), was published as the second volume of the a.r. library. It was published in an edition of only fifteen hundred copies, because my parents, working as teachers, could not afford a bigger edition. In Autumn 1931 the Strzeminskis moved to Lodz. Although it was an ugly, dirty city, they had loved it for long. My father knew that he could found here, together with his wife, a lively artistic centre, he even dreamed of founding an art school here, which would be more modern than the famous German Bauhaus. Working in the Public School of Technical Training No. 10 in Lodz, as its director and lecturer, he put into practice his programme of functional printing.
In 1932 when the idea of an Artistic Award of the City of Lodz was established, my father wrote: "I believe that an artist deserving such a reward is the one whose works of high quality and whose artistic activity can exert a positive influence on the development of Polish art in general. Lodz does not have such artists today.
He was much surprised (as one of the witnesses reports) when he learned that this honourable award was granted to nobody but him. The ceremony took place on 25 May 1932 In an inaugural speech Przedaw Smolik, the chairman of the Department of Education and Culture - gave the reasons for the decision to award Wladyslaw Strzeminski. In reply my father said the words to which he remained loyal till the end of his life: "In as much as my strength and power allow me, I will continue to fight for that kind of art which is best suited for our present epoch".
The award granted to my father was used as a pretext to start a brawl by a painter Wadaw Dobrowolski and his supporters during the ceremony. One of the witnesses of these events wrote that there were shouts coming from the gallery "down with Bolshevism in art!", "down with the poisoners of Polish art!", and some hands were displaying slogans which depreciated Strzeminski. Order was restored only after a strict intervention of the usher.
Soon a press campaign against my father started. His opponents alluded to my father's crippled state, and asked: "Is it an award, a grant or a disability pension?". In reply my father launched his own campaign trying not to defend himself but to stand for the artists' right to create and produce modern art. Soon his friends came to suppport him. Julian Przybos published an article, Huculy Sztuki ("Yokels" of Art) , and Leon Chwistek wrote a text Importerzy terroru kulturalnego (Importers of Cultural Terror). During the press campaign against my father Katarzyna Kobro - as she told me later - supported him and insisted that he should ignore the meaningless criticism of the Philistines.
Strzeminski and Kobro belonged at that time to a group called Abstraction Creation, formed in Paris as an initiative of Georges Vantongerloo and August Herbin. My father published his texts in the magazine of this group.
In 1933 he became a member of the Polish Artists' Union ZZ PAP and an inititator of the Grupa plastykow nowoczesnych (Group of Modern Artists) in Warsaw, which consisted of artists dealing with various types of avant-garde arts. The Artists Union published a magazine FORMA. Strzeminski's individuality had a great impact on the character of the magazine. Strzeminski was a member of its editorial board, and Katarzyna Kobro member of editorial staff FORMA published my fathets polemical article disagreeing with Leon Chwistek's views on art, and an article by Katarzyna Kobro, in which she protested against the practices of imposing on artists particular themes for art and against any attempts to limit their inventiveness.
In 1930's apart from the Unistic and architectural paintings Strzeminski painted City-scapes of Lodz and Seascapes - the latter were inspired by his yearly visits to Chalupy on the Hel Peninsula. Strzeminski took part in many exhibitions and published many texts on art.
It may come as a surprise that in 1937-1939 Strzeminski wrote much
less than before. His artistic work was also worse than in the old days.
The avant-garde and the "a.t". group collapsed. Though formally the
group existed till the outbreak of the World War II, it was not as active
as before. In 1937 my father's works were not qualified for the National
Institute of the Promotion of Art (IPS) Exhibition. In the exhibition
organized the following year my parents did not take part, either. One
of the reasons was that art was then dominated by the so-called
Colourists. Another reason was the birth of their daughter, in November
1936, the one who is writing these words. It was mostly my
mother who was busy with bringing up the child, but my father also
had to face more severe conditions, less suited to deal with art.
When the war broke out, my father decided to escape to the Eastern
territories of Poland. From September 1939 till May 1940 we lived in
Wilejka. About this period of their life, I know mostly from my mother's
reports and from her notes she wrote in Russian. "(..) it was minus
45∫C cold - she wrote - and my child was always kept in warmth and
nourished, certainly not for the 300 roubles that Strzeminski earned,
because butter cost 60 roubles for a quarter of a kilo. (...) People would
give me wood, and I would carry it on sledges for three, or five
kilometres. I visited old, paralysed rich women and massaged their legs
in exchange for a plate of pasta for my child. The child had a Christmas
tree, and some gifts, and half a litre of milk each day.(...) I cut the only
sheet we had and made two. Strzeminski slept on a bed with a net, a
straw mattress, and a sheepskin, and covered himself with a blanket. I
slept on iron bars, because the mattress was empty. I covered myself
with a coat. He taught in the secondary school. When it was slippery
under foot, I used to draw him on sledges like a horse".
Living in this sort of conditions, in a small primitive room, my parents spent in Wilejka the first nine months of the war. My mother looked after the necessities of life; my father after his work at school would sit at the table next to the window and paint or draw. He produced a sequence of drawings West Byelorussia. In Spring 1940 my parents tried to return to Lodz. The only valid document that they still possessed was the certificate of their Church wedding issued in 1924 in Riga. It made their return to the Nazi-occupied Poland possible.
First we settled with a friend, a painter Jerzy Krauze, then we got a room with a kitchen (without a bathroom) in the housing estate in Karolew in Lodz. My mother, with the help of Jerzy Krauze and her sister Vera Kobro, managed to save my father's paintings which had been hidden in the cellar of their old house: thanks to her they were not destroyed by the Nazis. Later she found her old sculptures piled in a refuse dump. These works lay safely hidden troughout the war in our cellar. During the Nazi occupation my parents both signed the so-called "Russian list" and were treated as Russians of anti-Communist views. After the end of the war my father applied for rehabilitation and was acquitted of "being a renegade of Polish nationality". My mother, who as a Russian, did not find it necessary to apply for rehabilitation, was sentenced to imprisonment. She was released by the Court of Appeal. During the war my father had a very hard life. Mother made rag toys, animals and dolls, and sold them secretly.
Father painted postcards and portraits based on photos. They both produced bags made of cardboard, on which my father painted flowers, and mother added canvas to them .
My father produced many cycles of drawings at that time: in 1940 - Deportations, in 1941 - War Against Homes (wrongly called now The Civil War), in 1942 - Faces, and two years later - the most shocking of his war drawings series Cheap as Mud.
When the German army left Lodz in January 1945, and the city was liberated, we returned to the flat we used to live in before the war. Life in the city slowly became normal again.
For a short time my father worked in the art studio of The Sea League,
where he designed posters. His stamp for the Sea League designed
at that time is most known.
In 1945 my parents donated their works, which they had saved from the destruction by the Nazis, to the Muzeum Sztuki (Museum of Art) in Lodz. The donation included almost all their works which my mother risking her life managed to save in 1940 and which lay hidden in our cellar throughout the war. Today it is the pride of the collection of the Lodz Museum.
In spring 1945 artists living Lodz decided to found an art college in this city. Its main aim was to deal with the problems of art-industry and applied arts. One of the organizers of the Higher School of Arts was Wladyslaw Strzeminski. He was asked to lecture on "composition and the principles of form", "letterer's craft and the history of art". He was the initiator of the Department of Spatial Arts.
Mother who had to care about our well-being, who had to look after the house and the child, did not have time nor any possibilities to start again her own artistic work. There were many reasons why after the war she did not take up teaching or sculpting (she produced only four plaster nudes and several pastel drawings).
To make things worse, relations between my parents, which were already bad during the war, became even worse and led finally to their separation. Although they disliked each other, and even hated each other, they both recognized their artistic achievements; and in this matter one never said anything bad about the other.
When in 1948 the Muzeum Sztuki was oficially reopened, my mother's sculptures and my father's paintings were exhibited in the same room designed by father, the Neoplastic Room. Their works represented the same type of art and in a way complemented each other.
First years after the war, when artists were still left free to go on with their art, proved especially fruitful for Strzeminski. He wrote and published many theoretical works on art, he painted, produced a cycle of Solar paintings, and devoted all his free time to teaching. Father impressed his students with his commitment in the matters of art, with his individuality and an uncompromising attitude, so rare among mature people, and so characteristic of the young. He could evoke unusual, one could even say: miraculous atmosphere of creativity and discussions. Although he did not have any classes in painting, students of all workshops used to bring their works for evaluation to Professor Strzeminski. His lectures were an inspiration, and more than inspiration, to everyone in artistic circles.
Then the year 1949 arrived. Stalinism ruled in Poland. Socialist realism was becoming the only, obligatory movement in art. Other artistic views were no longer tolerated. Father started producing paintings and drawings dedicated to human labour. Such cycles as Harvesters and At the Looms were produced. They revealed my father's individual understanding of how to realize socialist-realist slogans. He wanted to show that also in this movement it is possible to create valuable works. He published his views on this subject in a magazine WlES. They were not approved of by the people in power. The atmosphere around my father became more and more tense.
In Autumn 1949 The National Exhibition of Art Colleges was organized in Poznan. The Lodz school prepared for this event with great care. But in vain. The policy of the ruling party was presented in Zagadnienia ideologiczne oraz zadania wyiszych szkof artystycznych (Ideological Principles and Objectives of Art Schools) in Poland, a speech delivered by the minister of culture and art, Wladyslaw Sokorski. Soon the school and some of the teachers were condemned and subjected to repressions, my father was one of the most severely repressed victims. His "solar" paintings, also known as After-images ofthe Sun, were accused of "formalism".
The events developed very quickly. The Programme Commission of Art Schools attached to the Ministry of Culture and Art organized on 19 and 20 December 1949 a conference in the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. All professors were invited. The theme of the conference was the evaluation of the results in education and the analysis of the syllabuses, the aim was "(..) to draw conclusions about the programmes and methods of teaching". The conference was requested to prepare in written form directives concerning art, the way of teaching art and presenting the problems discussed during the meeting.
My father, ignoring the dominating tendency, presented his own uncompromising programme. There was not a single word approving socialist realism, nothing that would imply that for some personal interests and profits he was ready to make concessions and change his views on art even slightly.
Early in January a conference was held in the Lodz School with the
participation of party leaders, including Wlodzimierz Sokorski. The
minister attacked my father and informed him that he would be dismissed.
Soon the School office received a letter from the minister of culture
and art, dated 19 January 1950, which said: "I hereby require to dismiss
at once citizen Prof. Strzeminski Wladyslaw (. . .). Considering the good
of the service I order that Prof.(...) be granted immediate leave of
When this paper - so crucial to my father's life - reached the school, he lost overnight his job and means of sustenance. Everything was done according to law. He felt like a lepper, who in great hurry is isolated from other people, so as not to infect others. Nearly at the same time he was dismissed from the Artists' Union, and the doors of the School closed behind him for ever.
After he was sacked from the School, father still lived in a rented room which was equipped only with the most necessary things and devices. He was lucky to get a few hours of teaching in the Printers School. Till September 1950 he designed advertisements and posters for the Public Food Cooperative, and then arranged shop displays. It was difficult for him to move there with his crutches, and so he jumped on one leg. I remember how much I was shocked by the behaviour of the juvenile onlookers, standing on the other side of the shop-window. They all laughed, making indecent gestures and calling out loud : "Lame-leg!". The studio, where my father designed the displays was on the other end of town, in a cold, draughty room.
In October 1951 father on his way back from work fainted in the street. He was taken to the hospital. It was discovered that he suffered from an advanced tuberculosis. There were no proper medicaments in Poland. Julian Przybos ordered from Switzerland Rimifon and PAS. Only temporary improvement was achieved.
In the hospital my father was visited by many of his former students. They used to bring him fruit, food, paper, pencils. Discussions about art were held at his bed. They were a continuation of his lectures, which he conducted at home, after his dismissal from the school, for a bunch of closest listeners. He was also busy writing a study Teoria widzenia (A Theory of Vision), a book in which he collected his lectures delivered at School. The book was left unfinished.
The last work by Strzeminski was a design of the interior of a Egzotyczna cafe. Its wall was decorated with a relief called Colonial Exploitation, showing Africans carrying bags with coffee. He could get his money for the work only after an official approval by a special committee. The sitting took place in December 1952. The supporters of my father's work who argued in defense of the relief, claimed that it was inspired by native African art, they referred not only to the quality of the work itself, but also to Strzeminski's bad health, which grew worse and worse each day - they knew that the artist's days were counted. My father's opponents however said that the sculpture should be destroyed, because it did not follow the spirit of socialist realism. Their opinion prevailed. Soon the relief was utterly destroyed. I could not find out whether or not this happened after or before my father's death.
Father died on 26 December 1952. He was buried on the New Year's Eve in the morning, on the Old Cemetery at Ogrodowa Street in Lodz. I was a teenager then, a ward in an orphanage. My mother had been dead for nearly two years. She died on 21 February 1951 of cancer in the House for terminally ill. In the same time after the decision of the Ministry of Culture, father's paintings and mother's sculptures, as well as all abstract works by other artists, were removed from the exhibition halls to the cellars of the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz. It seemed that this censured movement would be forever forgotten.
But luckily it happened otherwise. My parents' art is widely-known and recognized not only in Poland, but also all over the world. One of the proofs of its significance are the ceremonies connected with the celebrations of the 100 anniversary of Wladyslaw Strzeminski's birth 1993 events.
Nika Strzeminska, Warsaw, 22 June, 1993
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