HENRYK BERLEWI (October 20, 1894 in Warsaw – August 2, 1967 in Paris) was a Polish artist, graphic designer, typographer, art critic and art theorist. He was one of the leading representatives of geometric abstraction in Warsaw and Berlin in the 1920s. Influenced by Russian Constructivism and Suprematism, he was part of the most radical current of the Polish avant-garde of the 1920s, and belonged to the group of Eastern European avant-garde whose contribution to 20th century art was of eminent importance. Berlewi´s  early works in Warsaw, especially graphic art, were influenced by subjects from Jewish culture. In Poland he was an important figure in Yiddish book design and typography of the early 1920s.
In 1923 Berlewi developed his theory of abstract art, a manifesto which he called MECHANO-FACTURE. He reduced his colors to white, black, and red, while the compositions consisted of circles, dots, squares, straight and diagonal lines and were created by means of a mechanization through raster technology. In the 1950s in Paris, he was rediscovered as an abstract artist, who as a pioneer paved the way for OP-Art.

Academic education

  • 1906-1909 Warsaw, School of Fine Arts
  • 1909-1910 Antwerp, Académie des Beaux Arts (Professor de Vriendt)
  • 1911-1912 Paris, École des Beaux-Arts and École des Arts Decoratifs (Professor Marou)
  • 1913-1916 Warsaw, School of Design (Professor Jan Kazimierz Kuzik)

During his studies in Paris 1909-1910 Henryk Berlewi became interested in Cubism and during World War I. he was influenced by Futurism and DADA. Berlewi, who was born into an assimilated  Jewish family, was active in the Polish Jewish artist scene in Warsaw until 1922. In his works from this period, topics from Jewish folklore dominated. He participated in the renewal of Jewish graphic art and typography in Poland and illustrated Yiddish books. Jewish expressionist and futurist authors, commissioned Berlewi to illustrate their works. Henryk Berlewi also drew portraits of many Jewish artists and writers, including them Uri Zvi Greenberg. Berlewi was a member of JUNG IDYSZ, a group of expressionist writers and artists from Lodz, whose goal was to find a contemporary national form for Jewish art. He worked for the Warsaw theater group VILNA TROUPE (Yiddish-Hebrew theater), designing theater decorations and theater posters.

The year 1921 marked a turning point in Henryk Berlewi’s work: he attended El Lissitzy´s lectures in Warsaw, and was inspired by him and his Suprematism. At Lissitzy’s suggestion, he moved to Berlin.

From 1921-1923 Berlewi lived in Berlin, where he abandoned figurative painting in favor of constructive abstraction. During his time in Berlin, he was a member of the Novembergruppe and exhibited his first mechano-faktur compositions at the Grosse Berliner Kunstausstellung.  It was in Berlin that he founded his manifesto  „MECHANO-FAKTURE“, which he published in 1924 in Polish language in a brochure for his exhibition at the Austro-Daimler Auto Salon in Warsaw. This first exhibition of his Mechano-Factures, was the first exhibition of abstract-constructive art in Poland.

In the theoretical concept of Mechano-Faktur, he phrased a new form of constructivist painting – pictures made of basic geometric elements that could be repeatedly combined to form new pictorial units. He constructed his Mechano-Faktur pictures with technical tools – ruler, compasses and grid templates. Simple colors – black, white, red and the simplest forms – and thus strived for a correspondence between art and the industrial world. The abolition of the third dimension and the establishment of a two-dimensional system in painting as well as the technique of mechanization through the use of grids were the determining elements of his theory. The mechanisation of the artistic expression with abstract forms intended to reflect the accelerated rhythm of modern life and express the union of art and social life. Berlewi’s theory was taught by Josef Albers at the Bauhaus

During his Berlin years Henryk Berlewi met leading figures of the avant-garde art. In 1922 he was chosen, along with Jankel Adler, to represent Jewish artists from Eastern Europe at the Congress for International Progressive Artists in Düsseldorf, where he became acquainted with, among others, El Lissitzky, Viking Eggeling, Lászlo Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

ALBATROS-Zeitung für neue Dichtung und Graphik, a magazine of the Yiddish avant-garde in Warsaw and Berlin devoted to new expressions in poetry and art, comissioned Berlewi with the graphic design.

Back in Warsaw, Henryk Berlewi co-founded the artists’ group BLOK (1924-1926) and continued to work as an illustrator and graphic artist for Yiddish literature and Yiddish theater as a set designer. In 1924 he founded the advertising agency “Biura Reklama Mechano” together with Aleksander Wat and Stanislav Brucz in order to bring his ideas closer to a middle-class audience via the means of advertising. The cover for the advertising booklet for the chocolate factory Plutos from 1925 is still well preserved.

In 1924 in Berlin Henryk Berlewi was invited by Herwarth Walden in Berlin to show his abstract paintings in Walden’s gallery Der Sturm and to publish his Mechano-Faktur Manifesto in Walden’s journal DER STURM.

In 1928, after living in Belgium for a short while, Berlewi moved to Paris for good, settling into a studio in the l’ Impasse Ronsin, a  cul-de-sac in the Montparnasse quarter which served as a studio and residence for around 220 international artists.

Under economic pressure due to the situation on the art market and the world economic crisis, Henryk Berlewi interrupted his experimental work in the field of abstract art and devoted himself to portrait painting. During his travels 1928-1938 through Belgium and France, he made portraits of personalities from politics, literature and society and devoted himself to writing and art criticism.

During World War II, Berlewi interrupted his artistic activities, fled to Nice in 1942 and became a member of the French Resistance. (1942-1943)

In 1947 Berlewi started painting again. In the style of his so-called “Metaphysical Realism” he painted still lifes inspired by French masters of the 17th century with the intention of the „réintégration de l´objet“.

In 1957 Henryk Berlewi was rediscovered as a pioneer of abstract art by the French critic Michel Seuphor, who presented Berlewi’s work in his “Enyclopedia of Abstract Painting”. Through his participation in the exhibition “Précurseurs de l’art abstrait en Pologne”,  at Galerie Denise René in Paris, Berlewi’s mechano-factures became known in Paris and he was recognized as a pioneer of OP-art.

At that time, after 31 years, Berlewi returned to abstract art and resumed work on his Mechano-Faktur paintings. In 1960 he founded the „Archive of Abstract Art and of the International Avant-Garde“ in Paris.

The rediscovery of his experiments in abstract art, lead to a reassessment and recognition of his work and resulted in several solo exhibitions and numerous participations in exhibitions in European cities among them Warsaw, Berlin and Paris. Like other OP-Art artists, he became known to a wider public in the 1960s. In 1965 he took part in the major OP-ART exhibition,  “The Responsive Eye“ in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Berlewi’s first visit to Poland after his emigration to France took place in 1966 on the occasion of his retrospective travelling exhibition. During this time he also cooperated with the fashion label MODA POLSKA for which he created a collection inspired by his works.
In 1966 the French Ministry of Culture awarded Henryk Berlewi the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Photographer: Edward Hartwig

Henryk Berlewi died in Paris on August 2, 1967 at the age of 72.

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