What springs to mind when you hear the term “avant-garde photography”?
The most obvious answer would be the visual experiments of the Dadaists, Man Ray’s in particular, and the surrealist photography in Czechoslovakia. Let me narrow down the question. Name the avant-garde photographers of the postwar period who lived in Europe or –even better– in Poland.
It’s not that easy, is it? Those of you who keep up with the latest art events, festivals and publications would probably drop names such as Witkacy, whose works are regularly displayed at Art Basel and Frieze London; Jerzy Lewczyński, whose works were recently featured in Tate Modern’s “Conflict, Time, Photography” exhibition; and Wojciech Zamecznik, whose graphic designs and posters incorporate and are often inspired by his photographs (an art book dedicated to his photographs won the 2016 Paris Photo Aperture Foundation Photobook Award).
Photography aficionados would add the following artists to the list: Zbigniew Dłubak, Jerzy Beksiński, Marek Piasecki, Zofia Rydet and Bronisław Schlabs. Still, the list seems far from finished…
Lately, I had the distinctive pleasure of viewing a fascinating art show exploring the history of avant-garde photography between 1945-1981 that was accompanied by a large book titled “New Horizons in New Media. Developments in Polish Art During 1945-1981” on the subject edited by Adam Sobota. After I finished reading it, I realised very few authors present a single work of art/period in a broader context, or examine joint initiatives and collectives that brought artists together, gave them a voice to be heard, as well as provided them with support and exhibition spaces. The article is therefore devoted to the groups of photographers operating in 1950s and 1960s Poland, the time of political transition and lesser socialist oppression, which encouraged uninhibited self-expression.
II Grupa Krakowska (the Second Kraków Group) was founded in 1957 by the Visual Artists’ Group (Grupa Młodych Plastyków) to continue the traditions of its pre-War antecedent. Led and inspired by Tadeusz Kantor, who introduced the Western thought and latest developments in art to the Polish art scene by means of multiple publications, theoretical texts and exhibition catalogues, numerous members of the group specialised in a wide variety of mediums and disciplines, theatre performance and painting in particular. Despite the latter medium’s clear dominance, the Second Kraków Group did not shy away from photography. On the contrary, seminal artists, such as Marek Piasecki and Andrzej Pawłowski, defied the conventions of the medium, selected unorthodox subjects and tested the effect time, light, chemical substances and different types of paper would have on the final image. Their experiments in the third dimension gave rise to the new form of an object and the so-called kineform (the spectacle of light and moving image screened with a special projector, which had to be operated manually during each showing). The result was of a highly abstract graphic character, with pictures reminiscent of art informel.
Beksiński-Lewczyński-Schlabs (1957-1961) – the informal group of artists, who abided by the same creative principles, held discussions, exchanged ideas and organised joint exhibitions. Their art practice marks a departure from pictorialism in favour of experimenting with the medium. They – especially Beksiński – championed the view that photography is in a constant state of flux and incapable of capturing the truth. The photographs, which bordered on graphic design, portrayed only fragments of objects and reality that lenses somehow rendered abstract. Furthermore, they were fascinated with photomontage. The group members compiled series of photographs from several or dozens of their own, borrowed and found images, e.g. newspaper cut-outs, and put them all together to create film-like sequences.
Grupa Podwórko (1957-1959) – The Wrocław-based group was founded by Bożena Michalik. Its members included Wadim Jurkiewicz, Ryszard Kulejowski, Zbigniew Staniecki and Edmund Witecki. Despite the proclamations of each member’s singularity of creative vision, Michalik’s highly aestheticised, almost abstract photographs exerted a great influence on the art practice of other members that started gravitating towards the representation of an object that separated it from reality or lack of representation whatsoever. Their radical creative approach to photography caught the attention of other contemporary artists. Their photographs were even exhibited alongside the works of Beksiński, Lewczyński and Schlabs.
Grupa Domino (1957) – the Domino Group was formed by three friends and photographers: Wacław Nowak, Zbigniew Łagocki and Wojciech Plewińki. Since 1968, the group has been known as the Group of Three (Grupa Trzech). Initially, their photographs captured the everyday life of ordinary people. As time passed, the artists’ interests have evolved to include studio photography and the study of the human body. Aesthetically pleasing images encapsulated the physical nature of photography.
Grupa Przedszkole (1950s) – the Warsaw-based Preschool Group revolved around Witold Dederko, whose works exemplified black and white realism. The group members had no coherent programme or formula. Instead, the artists staged exhibitions together, as well as engaged in some debates and local initiatives. In the late 1950s, the lack of a programme the group was widely criticised for, caused a rift between the members. Consequently, Dederko decided to establish the Green Group (Zieloni) that focused on education. Lectures and practical workshops were held in private apartments. Six-months worth of photoshoots were scheduled in the group’s programme.
Kielecka Szkoła Krajobrazu (the Kielce School of Landscape Photography) – Paweł Pierściński led the group of artists closely connected with Kielce and the surrounding region. However, a great number of other artists have been pronounced the school’s pupils, including Wacław Cisłowski, Tadeusz Jakubik, Jerzy Kamoda, Stanisław Lipka, Jan Siudowski and Jan Spałwan. Nature, evocative scenery, small towns and industrial areas were among the main motifs featured in their photographs. As the advocates of Jan Bulhak’s concept of national photography, the artists believed in the emotional aspect of daily life, nature, fields, farmlands and countryside.
Grupa ZERO-61 (1961) – the Toruń-based art group was founded by art students of the Mikołaj Kopernik University as the result of the merger of several smaller art organisations, such as OKO and Pętla (Loop – a students film club). Over time, the size of the group changed. At one point or another, the following artists engaged in its activities: Wojciech Bruszewski, Michał Kokot, Czesław Kuchta, Antoni Mikołajczyk, Józef Robakowski and Jerzy Wardak. The photographs represented a broad range of themes and techniques, such as landscape photography, photomontage, the use of various chemical substances and the incorporation of text, sound and video into a series. However, in the aftermath of the infamous Kuźnia project (1969), several members cut ties with the rest of the group to establish a year later, the Workshop of the Medium of Film (Warsztat Formy Filmowej)…but I think I’ll save the story for the second installment.