No 4 (100) 2014
October - December

The Artist of the Fall of Utopia

Teresa Żarnowerówna - till lately known merely as the co-founder of the Blok group, the Lever and other avant-garde, involved graphic projects and photomontages - has been forgotten after the war.

Agnieszka Maria Wasieczko

B. in 1974. Art. historian, critic. She publishes texts on contemporary art.

Agnieszka Maria Wasieczko

THE ARTIST OF THE FALL OF UTOPIA EXHIBITION, organized by the Łódź Museum of Art on the 65th anniversary of her death, has been the first comprehensive attempt to bring back the artist's life and oeuvre, in particular - the postwar achievements.

This exposition - being a result of many years research project pursued with a great zeal and inquiring mind by Milada Ślizińska and Andrzej Turowski, the curators - showed the character of Teresa Żarnowerówna  (1897-1949), one of the most outstanding representatives of the 20th century artistic avantgarde, by means of traces visible in her sculptures, collages, photomontages, drawings, gouaches, as well as in her letters, archive photographs, exhibition reviews and documentations, rich correspondence, and works by other artists that had been a source of inspiration for her. Pieces originating from the collection owned by the Łódź Museum have been supplemented with the exhibits, showed for the first time ever in Poland, borrowed from private collections, among others from: Janet, Alex and Anna Luisa Abramowicz (New York), Georges Dobry and Elizabeth Sobczynski (both from London), and materials coming from Polish, German and American archives. Curators gave up a chronological order of the exposition for the sake of the division into overlapping sections that evoked separate narrations and various aspects of creative achievements by the artist, if only her cooperation with Mieczysław Szczuka, Polish constructivism movement, and the prewar Left; further, close links with such artists as Franciszek and Stefan Themerson, Józef Wittlin and Czesław Miłosz.

Teresa Żarnowerówna, born in Warsaw, in the assimilated Jewish family, studied sculpture and painting at the Warsaw School of Fine Arts (later Academy of Fine Arts). This was where she met Mieczysław Szczuka who turned to be her closest coworker and life partner. Being a graphic artist, designer and art theoretician, she was involved in the publication of avantgarde magazines - the Blok and Lever (Dźwignia). After Szczuka's tragic death (1927), she completed publication of the Europe poem by Anatol Stern (1929) - the piece they had been working on together. The book, with typographic layout by Szczuka, had a cover ma-de by her in the photomontage technique. In 1937 Żarnowerówna left for Paris, however France surrender in 1940 made her escape from the war tormented Europe, via Portugal and Canada, to New York. The emigration experiences have left a permanent mark on her art. The artist gave up her youthful fascination with geometry, simplicity and light to pursue disturbing, full of expression, surrealistic - monochromatic or multicolor - gouaches on paper to reveal uncompromisingly her emotions and fears.

These extremely personal works, not known in Poland so far, being an attempt to come to terms with the war drama and tormenting sense of fear, were showed in 1946 on the exhibition in Peggy Guggenheim Art of His Century in New York, where the artist was the first ever female to present her works. "Today (...) in the world that had fallen apart, the pure construction and private tragedy are not enough. Art must have something to say" - Barnett Newman, an American painter wrote in an introduction to the catalogue. - "(...) This very passage from the abstract language to the abstract thought, the interest in abstract subjects , more than the interest in abstract disciplines, have given her art the strength and dignity". Personally, Żarnowerówna had to face problems resulting from living in the breakthrough period when the so far order of the world had collapsed. Thus, she designed photomontages to the Warsaw Uprising album (1940-42), the not preserved relief The Uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto (1944-46), further, she worked on the Warsaw Accuses (Warszawa Oskarża) catalogue (1946), and on the propaganda leaflets addressed to the Polish and Canadian Army (1942).

As the authors of the exhibition have proved, Teresa Żarnowerówna died a tragic death in 1949. She was the European who was looking at the ruins and rumbles of the old world and the fall of the modernistic belief in utopia, regardless whether one sees her as a Jew faced with the Holocaust, an inhabitant of Warsaw who witnessed the destruction of her hometown, or finally - a citizen of the prewar Poland.

"Teresa Żarnowerówna (1897-1949). The Artist of the Fall of Utopia", the Museum of Art (ms1), Łódź, September - November 2014.