“Pole, Jew, Artist: Identity and Avant-Garde”

Summing up the experience of the Jewish pioneers of modernism, the artist Henryk Gotlib observed in 1932: “It is not important what Jews became for painting but what painting became for the Jews.” Without claiming to be a survey of art produced by Jewish artists in Warsaw, Lodz, Krakow, Lvov, and Vilna during the interwar period, this fascinating exhibition focused on a number of individuals who defined modernism in the local context, while situating their works in relation to a broader international art scene. Stressing the avant-garde aspects of pieces in various media, the show—superbly curated by Jarosław Suchan and the late Joanna Ritt—avoided presenting the artists either as exotic or eccentric, or labeling them solely on the basis of ethnicity.

The Young Yiddish group—a loose fraternity of Expressionist writers and artists from Lodz named after an art review published in Yiddish in 1919—programmatically defined Jewish identity in art and literature after World War I as a new and distinct phenomenon, with its language and its aesthetics belonging to Eastern European Jewry. The works produced by the group reflected their complex perspective on what constituted “Jewish art” and its representation in the early twentieth century. For example, Marek Szwarc’s Crucifixion, 1917, recalls a primitive religious sculpture, yet focuses on its own artifice instead of realistically depicting an event that for the Jews was often associated with pogroms and martyrdom rather than with Christian dogma. Similarly, Jankiel Adler’s painting My Parents, 1921, portrays his mother and father as religious subjects whose union is signified in a Cubist manner by a piece of parchment with a ksyba (a traditional marriage certificate) hanging on the canvas from a wooden support.

In Warsaw, Henryk Berlewi pioneered abstraction and Teresa Żarnower worked as a Constructivist, but Berlewi continued to make art with specific Jewish themes, while Żarnower sometimes presented hers in Jewish publications. Berlewi made a poster for the Vilna Trupe’s production of the play The Dybbuk in Warsaw in 1921, and he returned to Jewish motifs after his abstract Mechano-fakturas (Mechanofactures) of 1923–24. In the mid-1920s, Żarnower’s political photomontages appeared in the Jewish worker’s almanac Arbeter Luekh and, later, in Obrona Warszawy (The Defense of Warsaw), a book about the heroic struggle in the Polish capital at the beginning of World War II, published by the Polish Labor Group in New York in 1942. The ethos of the Jewish avant-garde conceivably found its culmination in the United States, but Żarnower’s sole American exhibition at the Art of This Century Gallery in New York in 1946, despite Barnett Newman’s praise, remained largely unnoticed. A rare example of her postwar work was included in the show.

Due to the fragmented record of the Jewish avant-garde in Poland, with the loss of works paralleled by the loss of lives, the objects’ historicity cannot be separated from the history of the people of the region—specifically the painful memory of the difficult coexistence of Poles and Jews after the emergence of the Polish state in 1918 and the horrific legacy of the Holocaust. In the magazine Ringen, Berlewi argued in 1921, “The strongest pressure on the idea of the form is put by the idea of the content.” The terrible fate of many of the artists included in this show (and the disappearance of many of their artworks) has subsequently inflected Berlewi’s statement by extending it not only to a particular art-historical context but also to a certain historical consciousness, one far more specific and yet wide-ranging than previously thought. For to speak about the contribution of Polish Jews to modern art requires acknowledging a deep trauma left not only by the wars but also by the nationalism in the period between them.

Marek Bartelik