Karol Hiller is a photographer, painter and graphic designer who perfectly represents an exemplary artist of the early 20th century. This intellectualist, experimenter and social activist was a well-rounded, versatile and exceptionally talented creator of visual artworks. Besides Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński he was one of the artists who made a name for himself in the history of European avant-garde art. Just as Kobro and Strzemiński, Karol Hiller worked in Łódź and was part of the city’s artistic circles. He did not, however, limit himself to the local artistic scene, but drew extensively from international phenomena and trends in visual arts and also gave a lot back to the international artistic community. He studied in Łódź, Vilnius and Moscow. Recently his works were on display at the Tate Modern. Earlier, his works were exhibited at the Centre Pompidou, Musée d’Ixelles in Nantes, Musée d’arts de Nantes and Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Many tragic events eventually led to the disappearance of a huge part of his works, starting from the artist’s own tragic execution by Nazi firing squad in 1939 and continuing with the confiscation of property, the war and the rapid resettlement of his widow from their shared apartment. For these reasons we currently know his works mostly thanks to archives, for example the archive of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź – one of the oldest museums of modern art in the world. A small number of Hiller’s works can be found in museum collections, e.g. at the Centre Pompidou, or in private collections of those who appreciate works and achievements of pioneers in the photographic field from the interwar period. Among such collectors are Hendrik A. Berinson from Berlin, Werner Jerke from Recklinghausen and Cezary Pieczyński from Poznań. Because these works are unfortunately a rarity they are very attractive to private collectors and access to them is limited for the general public. Despite this, I see photographs by Karol Hiller quite frequently during my artistic journeys. Last year I had the opportunity to see his photograms at the Tate Modern and his paintings at the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. Earlier on I saw some of his works in Düsseldorf. This article was, however, inspired by an exhibition at the Olszewski Gallery in Warsaw. I have never seen such an impressive collection of photograms by Karol Hiller before, which is one of the reasons why this collection made a huge impression on me. I already knew some of those works as I had seen their reproductions in catalogues and monographic publications. I consider them genuine jewels. Several works which I saw at the gallery were, however, unfamiliar to me, so I was happy to discover them and look at them closely.
Karol Hiller, Heliographs, exhibition view, courtesy Olszewski Gallery
Karol Hiller, Heliographs, exhibition view, courtesy Olszewski Gallery
At that moment I began analysing what we really know about Karol Hiller. When we think about him, we usually see just a few abstract photogram compositions he prepared using his own, unique heliography technique. Since he studied chemistry for a few years, he knew how to experiment with photosensitive materials. He used the known photogram technique, which was exploited in the 1920s by a number of photographers, including Man Ray, who created so-called rayographs, and Christian Schad, who called his photograms Scdadographs. Hiller decided to refine and improve this technique, which led to the creation of a truly unique quality.
Hiller considered photography an imperfect tool and was aware of its numerous limitations and flaws. As he said, the main disadvantage of photography “besides […] technical issues” was “numerous cases of randomness, which stood in clear opposition to the intended purpose of a creating a photogram as a work of art” – this is what he wrote in a feature published in FORMA magazine in 1934. A camera was merely a piece of equipment to him. He did not consider it as a tool for creating artistic value, but a practical instrument. What he really wanted was to overcome its inherent limitations. Since 1928 he experimented by combining painting, graphics and photography. His primary goal was to transform photosensitive paper into “material useful for graphic reproductions”. In this way he wanted to give works created on photosensitive paper recognition as real works of art. He strived to get rid of accidental effects and unexpected results. Emotional aspects were clearly inferior to him until he managed to achieve the form he desired. What was most important to Karol Hiller was artistic awareness. He used his own method of creating photograms (heliography) in order to gain full control of chemical processes and, thereby, go beyond his role of being subject to the randomness of chemical reaction results. First he used glass and then colourless celluloid as photographic plates. On these plates he painted his abstract forms using white tempera. “The intensity of black and white in a ready photogram will definitely depend on colour density and transparency of paints used as coating on a plate […] Thanks to the fact that a plate is relatively thin we can get a copy at any of the sides, which allows an artist to work without worrying about the fact that the image will be reversed after printing”. This technique gave a real artistic freedom to Karol Hiller. When using it he was able to fully control the picture he was creating. It is worth mentioning that these works were accompanied with drawings and sketches, which we can also see in a catalogue published for this particular exhibition in Warsaw. The pictures on the plates could have been freely corrected. By using paints the artist could achieve certain effects which were not familiar to graphic arts and photography technicians beforehand.
Paints could have been spread with a paintbrush, spatula, fingers, cotton wool or fabric, each technique producing unique results. Moreover, they were perfect for reflecting dynamic effects, shaky hands, and touch, i.e. individual and distinctive artistic gestures. There was even more to it than that, namely unlimited freedom. The artist was free in his creative efforts and it was easy for him to make compositions he intended and present surreal realms which existed only in the artist’s imagination. Abstract forms and light combined into a language he used to present his narratives. As he wrote in his essay “New vision” in September 1934: “[…] new kinds of emotions can be depicted only through forms derived from abstract art which enriches the potential of making an impact”. His works therefore serve as a bridge between abstract art and forms created by nature. The form of his works was limited to the essential elements. Each of these elements is a separate metaphor, a symbol serving as a building block of the entire narration in a given photogram. Shapes vary from sharp cuts, geometric shapes, organic smudges to quasi forms representing fragments of unidentified objects. Each set of shapes in different shades of black and white was thoroughly thought over by the artist and depicts his inner world. This is what he has in common with surrealists. This way of creating images of unique realities was not only characteristic for works created with the heliography technique. When we look at Hiller’s graphics from the 1930s we notice that even in works he created using other techniques he resorted to the same forms and the same specific manner of arranging a composition. When we analyse some of his paintings in relation to photograms and drawings, we come to the conclusion that these were just subsequent, parallel stages of researching the possibilities and limitations of the two-dimensional medium (regardless of whether it is fabric or paper). Each technique has its unique characteristics and using them all brings on its own set of artistic challenges. It is clear that in every technique – painting, photograms and sketching – the artist looked for the “weakest links” – borderlines, stimuli, for an even more avant-garde way of thinking about a picture. He wanted to go much further than what was already known in the field of visual arts. This is, however, a journey deep into the artist’s own mind. This journey took him through subsequent constant elements, i.e. knowledge, but also through variables – associations and emotions, such as fear or anxiety. What we often see in his works is helplessness due to the fact that forms cannot be fully presented with sharp geometric contours, which, contrary to the artist’s intentions, fade into the grey shades of organic surfaces on photosensitive paper. It was only after such condensed form was created that Hiller allowed his strong emotions make a footprint on his works and his feelings related to social issues show through. He was of the opinion that emotions connect an artwork to its surroundings and audience and, thanks to it, such work is important to society.
Immerse yourself in works by Karol Hiller. The reality he created can prove universal and can have a lot in common with current issues, especially when we take into account that our times are often compared with the interwar period. History, fears and tensions are now at similar points to what they were between the wars, proving the sinusoid theory. The creative imagination with its visions and surreal images can transform our current reality… Maybe art can help us avoid repeating mistakes from the past century. Bearing this in mind, we should pay closer attention to works by Karol Hiller.
Written by Dobromila Blaszczyk
Translated by Joanna Pietrak
Proof read by Maggie Kuzan
‘Karol Hiller: Heliographs 1931-1939’
15 December– 15 February 2019