Polish Avant-Garde in Berlin

by Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection 290 Pages
Open Access


This book presents a historical panorama of the Polish avant-garde in Berlin from 19th century historical avant-garde until the recent art. Looking at specific artistic strategies and development of modernist paradigm both in the pre- and post-Second World War period from the perspective of the migration experience, this book offers a deep insight into mechanisms, relations and identity programmes of particular artists or groups. It also reveals the dynamics of eventual cultural exchange or alternative forms of artistic transformation and message that Polish artists imprinted in the Berlin’s art scene. Whether historical avant-garde or the neo-avant-garde, the component of novelty inscribed in the term itself ceases to be a sheer, one-dimensional slogan and reveals a whole range of cultural projections that artist-migrants are both creators and the subject of. Here the notion of exoticism, wilderness, but also critical and ironical approach often constitute the perception of Polish art in the Berlin milieu.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia: The Centenary of Polish Avant-Garde in Berlin
  • Chapter I: Center and Peripheries? Mobility and Transfer of the Interwar Avant-Garde
  • Małgorzata Geron: Formists’ Relations with the Artistic Milieus of Munich and Berlin
  • Dagmar Schmengler: The State Academy of Arts and Crafts in Wrocław and the Cross-Border Avant-Garde Network
  • Lidia Głuchowska: Artists from Poland in the International Milieu of Classical Berlin Avant-Garde Die Aktion, Der Sturm, and Die Novembergruppe
  • Chapter II: Transnational Avant-Garde and Migrating Identities
  • Nathan Diament: The Resurrection of J. D. Kirszenbaum
  • Małgorzata Jędrzejczyk: Art as Organization of Life: Katarzyna Kobro and El Lissitzky
  • Chapter III: The Feminine Avant-Garde
  • Anna Dżabagina: Berlin’s Left Bank? Eleonore Kalkowska in Women’s Artistic Networks of Weimar Berlin
  • Teresa Fazan: The Unsaid Presence: Discussing the Absence of the Female Artists on the Polnische Avantgarde 1930–1990 Exhibition
  • Karolina Majewska-Güde: An Atlas of Ewa Partum’s Artistic Practice: Resignifications in Ewa Partum’s Feminist Performances in West Berlin (1982–1989)
  • Chapter IV: Contemporary Art Between Poland and Germany
  • Artur Żmijewski: The 7th Berlin Biennale 2012
  • Monika Leisch-Kiesl: Contemporary Art Between “East” and “West”: Signs • Images • Codes
  • Justyna Balisz: Foreign Relatives: How German is Polish Post-War Expressionism
  • List of Illustrations
  • About the Authors
  • Index of Names
  • Index of Geographical Names

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Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia

The Centenary of Polish Avant-Garde in Berlin

Abstract: From the end of the nineteenth century, Berlin, a city inhabited by numerous migrants, functioned as a paradigm of multiculturalism. For Polish artists who started appearing in Berlin at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Berlin was not only one of the nodes of an international network but also an important place for confronting one’s identity through the migration experience. The experience of Berlin in the life of the Polish avant-garde artists before and after the Second World War is similarly shaped by the polarizing and sometimes canceling senses of familiarity and alienation, freedom (mainly political), and imprisonment (i.e., linguistic). Berlin is a city from which one could return to Poland, or emigrate further, thus it was regarded as a transit point for people and their ideas. The presence of Polish artists in Berlin, and the visible separateness of their art, contradicts the existence of any universalized avant-garde paradigm. Therefore, this publication presents Berlin primarily as a confrontation space of multilayer identity projects and strategies of visually “inscribing” oneself into the city, while seeking to remain separate.

Keywords: Stanisław Przybyszewski, Polish avant-garde, German painters, Jewish avant-garde, experimentation, Berlin, 

Berlin: The City of Migrants and the Avant-Garde

The phenomenon of artistic travels as a way of gaining new artistic experience, learning, earning, and developing a career has long been a part of historiographic descriptions and memories in cultural history. Artistic travel increasingly becomes the subject of theoretical considerations that seek to determine its appropriate methodological framework.1 However, more often one abandons the term “artistic travel” to replace it with the word migration. The latter concept means not only being on the move for a specific purpose and temporary stay in other land but also implies the complex process of transfer, related identity transformation, a sense of foreignness, and simultaneous attempts to settle and familiarize oneself with foreign cultural spaces ←7 | 8→and practices. From this perspective the impact on professional, artistic development is a part of a larger life-changing experience. The concept of migration refers also to the phenomenon of nomadism. Artists did not necessarily have to travel to a specific destination and then settle there, build a private and professional life. In particular, the first three decades of the twentieth century witnessed the nomadic life of artists whose path led through several countries and cities. Artists’ mobility acquired a special dynamism and significance, stimulated not only by career considerations but also by social, economic, and political conditions.

This situation resulted from the changes in the art world and its democratization, which occurred at the end of the nineteenth century and was an effect of modernization processes in European societies. The art world’s openness to new ideas, its movement beyond elite environments, and the abandonment of national frameworks of artistic creation supported the emergence of international networks throughout Europe. Networks of contacts followed artists to different parts of the world, crossing the boundaries of their own culture, and entering new areas of artistic milieus with various consequences. On the one hand, what wandered with the artists was their identity, habitus, and the cultural specificity of their homes. On the other hand, confronted with new recipients, they often developed alternative artistic strategies that also entailed new forms of expression. At first alien, with time they became familiar to the local exotic environment, while their diversity often inspired others, which resulted from breaking the routine of just one cultural code. Their work simultaneously revised not only the world they left at home but also their new home: physical distance and departure stimulated a critical perspective and the need to redefine oneself in relation to the place of origin, not to mention the different valuation of ideas encountered in the “new” country.

“Revision” is an attribute that often occurs among the characteristics of the avant-garde or modernism in general. In turn, the latter two terms increasingly often appear in connection with migration experience. As Majewski, Rejniak-Majewska, and Marzec indicate, experience of migration created “self-definitions and languages for describing modernity.”2 These authors remark that the individual or generational experience of migration generates separate forms of modernism and transforms the idiom of art. ←8 | 9→By specifically referring to the “modernism of exile” – characteristic of the art of the 1930s and 1940s – Majewski et al. indicate the importance of the reason for migration: in this case, the escape of European artists persecuted and overwhelmed by National Socialism. Similar to this conceptual framework, the Polish avant-garde in Berlin constitutes a diverse and specific form of modernist attitudes of Polish migrant artists, diverse in different historical and political contexts, as this book attempts to highlight.

From the end of the nineteenth century, Berlin functions as a paradigm of multiculturalism, as it is inhabited by numerous migrants. For Polish artists who started appearing in Berlin at the beginning of the nineteenthth century, Berlin was not only one of the nodes of an international network but also an important place for confronting one’s identity through the migration experience. Scholars usually associate artists’ migration in the nineteen and twentieth century with a specific crisis situation. This situation results either from a political constellation – the case of the early avant-garde, Polish artists born under Partitions,3 and in the Polish People’s Republic4 – or the disappearance of certain values and attempts to exceed the established, routinized formulas in Polish culture and the will to confront different cultural or national projects (this mostly applies to artists who create after 1989). Berlin’s special position in the migration experience of the Polish avant-garde emerged from its position as a city between Eastern and Western Europe. Berlin was not far enough that a move would result in a strong sense of dislocation and uprooting but, at the same time, sufficiently culturally different – through a thoroughly dissimilar political and social context – to experience one’s own exoticism. The experience of Berlin in the life of the Polish avant-garde before and after the Second World War is similarly shaped here by the polarizing and sometimes canceling sense of familiarity and alienation, freedom (mainly political), and imprisonment (i.e., linguistic). Berlin is a city from which one may return to Poland, or emigrate further. The presence of Polish artists in Berlin, and the visible separateness of their art, contradicted the existence of any universalized avant-garde paradigm. Therefore, this publication primarily presents Berlin as a confrontation space of multilayer identity ←9 | 10→projects and strategies of visually “inscribing” oneself into the city, while seeking to remain separate. Here, the voice of female artists who migrated to Berlin is quite distinctive, both in the case of the historical avant-garde and after the Second World War, especially since the 1980s. A separate chapter of this book concentrates exclusively on this matter.

What forms the key aspect of this book is the bilateral experience that defines the views of individual artists on Berlin: the revision of the feeling of strangeness and familiarity; the facing of its myths as a city of freedom, pluralism, and progress; but also the way in which the German public received their work. This book also revises the position of Berlin as the center that automatically determines the inferior position of migrating artists. When asking about the Polish avant-garde in Berlin, we struggle with a problem inseparably connected with the accompanying feelings of hope, improvement of fate, and personal development. Therefore one of the main questions we might pose would be: Was/is it a real move forward?5 This issue can be applied already to the very beginnings of the presence of Polish avant-garde artists in Berlin marked by creative activity of Stanisław Przybyszewski (1868–1927).

The Ecstatic Slav in Berlin: Stanisław Przybyszewski

Berlin today appears as a city of freedom, a colorful multicultural island on the map of Germany, das Bundesland, that distinguishes itself from other German lands and cities with its hybridity and social space, in which borders – be it national, cultural, or moral – are fluid. Here, even the ignorance of the German language does not interfere with functioning as a true Berliner. We may inscribe the image of Berlin in the postmodernist paradigm through its amalgamous identity that, contrary to appearances, is not far from how the city functioned in the experience and memory of its Polish visitors at the beginning of the twentieth century. First of all, Berlin appeared to Poles to be an axis between the East and the West, a border bridge for many passersby on their way to further destination like Paris or Rome. Polish intellectuals and artists recall Berlin through various expressions, which depends on the social environments they encountered and the ideas they sought. For some, Berlin was a cold foreign nouveau riche town, while others found it filled with signs of Slavic familiarity. The Polish writer Alexander Wat (1900–1967) was inspired by the “red Berlin,” although simultaneously perceived it ←10 | 11→as Babylon, a place filled with decadence and debauchery. In turn, the Polish interwar poet and theoretician Tadeusz Peiper (1891–1969) called Berlin the “laboratory of modernism.”6

The moment the first Polish avant-garde artists appeared in Berlin, its status as a metropolis was still nascent; the city was developing dynamically, which revealed both its creative and destructive power. The former manifested itself in the active social life filled with innovative initiatives: galleries, exhibitions, and manifestos that proclaimed the renewal of society and art. The latter revealed itself in growing social inequalities, crises, prostitution, and addictions spreading on Berlin’s streets and cafes. In the 1890s, Berlin’s artistic life moved from elite art salons to cafes, societies, publishing houses, and galleries. From then on, these were mostly Eastern European migrants that inspired the unusual eruption of avant-garde theories and ideas. Among them, Stanisław Przybyszewski was considered “the discoverer of expressionist art”7 and the first Polish avant-gardist in Berlin.

The way his personality and ideas were perceived by the German milieu is an example of how the “feeling of foreignness”8 contributed to the strengthening of the modernist paradigm and the myth of a migrant-genius in Berlin. One may regard Przybyszewski as a model of an avant-garde Polish artist-migrant in Berlin, whose image was shaped by the colonial viewpoint: the cult of exoticism, savagery, and strangeness that result from ethnic or national differences. To trace the mechanisms of building the myth of the “genius Pole” and the “ecstatic Slav” in German discourse allows to expose the real relationship between Berlin’s homeliness and foreignness in the experience of Polish artists. The analysis of such discourse questions the possibility of the equal functioning of migrant artists in the cultural environment of Berlin and the exchange of artistic thought and authenticity of the message and values that the migrants brought and bring to the culture of Berlin. The analysis reveals the figure of the artist-migrant as an objectified cultural construct whose experience was included in the process of perpetuating the pluralistic image of modernism. This ←11 | 12→process reveals even more complex nature if one realizes that during this time Poland officially did not exist as a state, thus Polish art as perceived by traditional art history in national categories had – among other art streams - rather complicated status. Polish artists were active under the ruling of different partitioning powers, in case of Przybyszewski born near Inowrocław – it was Prussia.

Przybyszewski came to Berlin in 1889, directly after his matura (school leaving exams) at the end of secondary school, with the intention to study architecture, which he then converted to medical studies but never graduated either. In 1892, he joined the socialist Gazeta Robotnicza [Worker’s Daily], and in 1895, together with Otto Julius Bierbaum and Julius Maier Graefe, Przybyszewski founded the art journal Pan. He quickly gained popularity in Berlin’s cultural circles, especially among the regulars of the then iconic Zum Schwarzen Ferkel [The Black Piglet] located on the corner of Willhelmstraβe and Unter den Linden. Thanks to his uncontrollable temperament, oratorical abilities, imagination, and virtuosic performances of piano art to Chopin’s compositions, Przybyszewski was hailed as “der legitimste König der Boheme, den Berlin seit Grabbes9 Tagen gesehen hat,”10 – the legitimate king of the bohemian society since Grabbes.

Przybyszewski wrote his most important works in Berlin, which became an inspiration for both the German and Polish avant-garde, especially the one with an expressionist pedigree: Totenmesse (1895), Vigilien (1895), and De Profundis (1895). In the latter, Przybyszewski expresses his views on art, which were a stimulus for the Berlin bohemian society: “De profundis focuses on manifesting the pure life of soul, the naked individuality, the state of somnambulic ecstasy, or whatever its countless names may be, which all express one and the same fact, namely that there is something other than the stupid brain.”11 Przybyszewski’s new art opposed bourgeois tastes and values. According to his view, the art should represent the internal world, reflect “the hours of hallucination, ecstasy,”12 and express mystical states. Przybyszewski created the foundations of expressionist theories that proclaimed the freedom of artistic emotions expressed in art, the tendency to search for religious beliefs, and the fascination with mystical threads, interpreted among German expressionists as an innate property of the Germanic culture. Many German expressionists referred to Gothic forms in search for the expression of deep states of ecstasy and mysticism. ←12 | 13→Przybyszewski named this inclination already in De Profundis “No race produced so many mystics, namely people who participate in the pure visionary life of the soul as the Germanic race.”13 Years later Przybyszewski distanced himself from his inclinations towards German culture and ironically recalled his fascination with German mysticism on the one hand, and avant-garde trends on the other: “In the thirty years I was featured in the following “isms:” idealism, naturalism, verism, solipsism, decadentism, and satanism. I was influenced by Berlin’s night cafes, I was a mystagogue and a priest at black masses. I absorbed Strinberg and Nietzsche. My ideology grew from a strain of German mystics, especially Novalis.”14

From the viewpoint of Przybyszewski’s participation in creating and stimulating the avant-garde in Germany, we should foreground that he was one of the first propagators of the art of Edvard Munch (1863–1944), with whom he was in close relationships.15 The first exhibition of Munch’s works in Berlin occurred in 1892. However, when mentioning this event, Przybyszewski remarks on the still conservative attitude of the Berlin audience and the criticism that he encountered for favorably reviewing Munch’s exhibition in the magazine Freie Bühne [Free Stage]:16 “Oh Lord! What happened then in Berlin! The name Munch, already popular after the split of German painters in the Kunstverein [Association for Art],17 has now become terribly popular. Throughout the three weeks of the exhibition, all the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ of Berlin laughed, neighed, and roared with laughter in all the existing and non-existent keys.”18 Przybyszewski was keen to have Berlin appreciate Munch’s art. The proof of this is the letters that “Stachu” wrote to “Edziu”19 from Berlin and his home town Węgrowiec: “You, Edziu; ←13 | 14→I thought about it carefully: you have to exhibit all your pictures in Berlin in autumn, we’ll find the money, I will write a wonderful catalogue. It’s going to be a big artistic event.”20 In 1894, there appeared Munch’s first biography edited by Przybyszewski. Besides Przybyszewski, texts were contributed by Julius Maier-Graefe (1867–1935), Franz Servaes (1862–1947), and Willy Pastor (1867–1933).21 A year later, Munch painted a portrait of Przybyszewski. Apparently they both shared the same feeling of being “exotic others” within the Berlin cultural life with all its positive and negative implications.

German colleagues were fascinated by Przybyszewski’s charisma, what they viewed as wildness and unpredictability that they ascribed to specifically Slavic characteristics.22 Przybyszewski recalls the alcohol-filled meetings of Berlin intellectuals, many with socialist views, like Richard Dehmel (1863–1920), and he writes about the amazement his poems inspired: “In general, my German pen brothers were amazed and frightened by everything in me, especially the unheard-of paradoxes I preached, all the á rebours of my life, the salta mortale that I did with their language, the incredible strangeness of everything I wrote, and even the way I was with them.”23 The German writer Julius Bab (1880–1955) describes Przybyszewski as a “mystical-ecstatic Slav … a nervous man and a utter alcoholic”24 with demonic features in his personality along with elements of suffering and nervousness.25 The exoticism of Przybyszewski has been streched to the limits. Matuszak writes that Przybyszewski appears in many memoirs as having a different physiognomy. Maier Graefe describes Przybyszewski as a man with the “head of a Slavic Christ.”26 His wildness and courage in proposing radical and new ideas was linked to his Slavic origin and simultaneously was to bear a glimpse of tragedy, associated with Przybyszewski’s “stateless” and migrant role, which perfectly matched the modernist model of the artist.

←14 | 15→

After several intense years in Berlin, overwhelmed by the events in his personal life, Przybyszewski moved to Cracow, where he began a new stage in life as an editor for the magazine Życie [Life], which was associated with the Polish vein of modernism. During the First World War, Przybyszewski collaborated with the magazine Zdrój [Spring], published by the avant-garde artists from Poznań, later founders and members of the expressionist group BUNT, which also clearly marked its presence on the Berlin art scene. From the perspective of 30 years after he left Berlin, a doyen of both Polish and German expressionists desribed the city as follows: “My stay in Berlin simply became a torment for me. It is interesting that to this day I cannot free myself from this neurosis.”27

“B” as in Berlin and BUNT

Despite visible ideological differences, the creators of the Poznań group BUNT (1918–1920) continued and even radicalized Przybyszewski’s ideas that were born and spread in Berlin.28 This applies to the revolutionary ideas they preached, the desire to exceed moral standards, and the involvement in Munch’s art. Jerzy Malinowski suggests that Przybyszewski could have influenced the anarchist attitude of BUNT, which he learned in Berlin.29 In turn, Lidia Głuchowska indicates that the poster of the first exhibition organized by the group BUNT in 1918 in Poznań constitutes the borderline of Polish-German character of Przybyszewski’s work. The poster had two versions: Polish and German. The figures depicted on the poster are similar to the famous Scream by Munch. The dominant graphic motif of the poster – the Tower of Babel by Stanisław Kubicki (1889–1941) – simultaneously symbolizes the “palace revolution” in Zdrój and the dethronement of Przybyszewski.30 In the Polish avant-garde, there occurred a generational change to which Berlin was also witness. In the same year, members of BUNT exhibited their works in Berlin, and the group remained in close contact with the milieu surrounding Der Sturm and Die Aktion magazines. Other Berlin exhibitions presented the work of individual members of the group: August Zamoyski (1893–1970), Jerzy Hulewicz (1886–1941), along with Małgorzata (Margarete, 1891–1984) and Stanisław Kubicki who then lived in Berlin and had an atelier at Herderstraβe.31 It is this Polish-German ←15 | 16→couple who most vividly inscribed themselves in the history of the prewar Berlin avant-garde, becoming an inspiration and reference point for other artists from Poland. Unlike Przybyszewski, Stanisław Kubicki was an artist well-rooted in German culture. His Polish and German identity were not mutually exclusive or in conflict. His father was a Pole, while his mother – Maria Stark – was a German. Stanisław Kubicki was brought up in Cologne and graduated from architectural studies in Berlin. He had German citizenship, which did not prevent him from operating during the Second World War in the Polish resistance movement,32 for which he was killed by the Nazis in 1942. He was fluent in both Polish and German and wrote poetry in both languages.33 His conflict with Przybyszewski during the creation of Zdrój was based, among other things, on a different opinion about the success in introducing expressionist aesthetics in Polish art. Drove by the negative attitude towards his German experience, Przybyszewski claimed it could not succeed, mainly because it was a “German fashion.”34 In contradiction to Przybyszewski, whose attitude towards Berlin was stricly individual and shaped by the changing amplitude of social interactions, BUNT exemplifies the functioning of the network of avant-garde groups in the transnational environment. Similarly to other artistic communities in Germany, BUNT established its own magazine (Zdrój) and spread its works with this powerful medium. Published in 1918, the special June issue of Die Aktion journal bore the subtitle Polnische Kunst [Polish Art] and depicted graphics by members of BUNT.

The Kubicki couple were part of the avant-garde network of creators who met, among others, at Cafe des Westens on Kurfürstendamm. The milieu included not only visual artists and poets but also actors from Piscator’s theater and the society of Zeittheater, musicians and playwrights, such as the Galicia-born Jewish actor Aleksander Granach, a pupil of Max Reinhardt and the main actor of the most important expressionist ←16 | 17→films like Nosferatu. Stanisław Kubicki also supported the creation of the milieu of Polish migrant artists, who chose Berlin to create outside of the context of a specific nationality. The Polish migrant artists simultaneously had a different experience of the First World War than that of the German artists, which was an apocalyptic event for the Germans and liberating for the Poles, as it stated independence after 123 years of Partitions. However, artists who migrated to Berlin – paradoxically – were not interested in strengthening their Polishness against a foreign culture. On the contrary, they found their homeland for their ideas in the avant-garde projects of artistic experimentation. What was characteristic to this generation is also the experience of multilingualism, which is also part of the migration experience.

Cross-Border, International, Revolutionary

For Polish artists, especially after the First World War, Berlin was the place where they could realize their dreams of international art, free from national divisions and also an outlet for radical artistic and political ideas. At the end of the 1920s, futurist Polish poet Aleksander Wat sought to fulfill his communist hopes in Berlin. The city met Wat’s expectations and provided him with strong impressions, but it also exposed inequality and poverty. These experiences fed into not only his poetry but also his political views.35

A year earlier, in 1927, Berlin was visited by Tadeusz Peiper, co-founder of the Cracow

avant-garde, editor of the progressive magazine Zwrotnica [Rail Switch], and author of the famous slogan of the Polish avant-garde of the second half of the 1920s: “Miasto-Maszyna-Masa” [city-machine-mass]. The task Peiper proposed for poetry was to reflect on modern reality: it was to be precise as the inside of a machine, consist of words piled up like an intricate industrial construction, and be available to everyone. Peiper visited Berlin with the Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, where the two also visited Bauhaus. Peiper retained a distance from the city itself; he wanted to draw inspiration from the art created there but did not succumb to its magnetic charm. As Peiper writes: “Unlike many of my countrymen, I did not visit Berlin or Paris to buy a new fancy idea but to learn the ideological formation of laboratories. And later apply this knowledge in my country.”36 Peiper was critical of the social exclusivity of Berlin, uninterested in any mutual inspiration with artists from Poland and Russia, and more focused ←17 | 18→on short-term fascination with the exotic and radical,37 which appears like the atmosphere that prevailed around Przybyszewski.

The Polish avant-garde in Berlin also hosted a broad range of Jewish artists, who appeared in the German capital during the First World War and shortly afterward. The co-founder of the group Jung Idysz, Henryk Berlewi (1894–1967), arrived in Berlin in 1921. Berlewi met here with Aleksander Wat and the representative of the Soviet constructivism, El Lissitzky (1890–1941). The change of the Warsaw-Łódź avant-garde environment – strongly represented by the Jewish artists – to Berlin constituted an important caesura in Berlewi’s life and work. His views on art became more radical and he ceased seeking a Jewish national style in favor of culturally unambiguous pure artistic form devoid of ideology. In 1923, Berlewi wrote in Berlin the basics of his new theory of “mechanofaktura” (mechanofacture). He co-organized the 1922 Congress of International Progressive Artists in Düsseldorf, extremely important for the international avant-garde.

In the network of the Jewish avant-garde in Germany, together with Berlewi, the co-creator of the artistic program of the group Jung Idysz, Jankel Adler (1895–1949) had been widely aknowledged as a member of the Novembergruppe and Das Junge Rheinland. There also was another artist from the group Jung Idysz, Henryk Barczyński (Barciński, 1896–1941), as well as a graphic artist and sculptor Pola Lindenfeld (1900–1942). From 1916, Rachel Szalit-Markus (1894–1942) also lived in Berlin. Szalit-Markus was associated with the Novembergruppe environment and was extremely active in the local artistic scene. From 1925, Jesekiel David Kirszenbaum (1900–1954), also known as Duvdivani,38 made his presence in Berlin. The Jewish avant-garde in Berlin met at the Romanisches Cafe and in the house of the doyen of Jewish Expressionism, Jakob Steinhardt (1887–1963). Originally from Żerków in Greater Poland, Steinhardt eagerly invited Jewish artists from Eastern Europe. He perceived their work as an expression of authentic belonging to Jewish culture, which many Jewish artists in Germany lost in the process of acculturation. The entries and drawings left by guests in the Book of Minni and Jakob Steinhard (conducted 1920 and 1927) usually oscillated around the depictions of shtetl landscapes and their inhabitants, which confirm the thesis that the migrant fate of Jewish artists from Eastern Europe – forced by the social and political situation – intensified and perpetuated certain iconographic figures: the images of the Wandering Jew or the shtetl everyday came back to live along with the fascination of their ←18 | 19→German colleagues. Juggling these themes provided Polish-Jewish artists with clients because the images they painted were very popular, but unfortunately they did not have much in common with the avant-garde. This also shows that with the westward departure, the Jewish avant-garde in Berlin gathered around Steinhardt gained no audience that would allow it to develop revolutionary ideas by focusing primarily on creating a new Jewish style in the avant-garde spirit.39 In exchange, the iconographic repertoire depicted by an Eastern European brush or stylus provided the German-Jewish public with a contact with something that simultaneously appeared as authentic, exotic and foreign. And for the artists themselves, this style preserved their way of remembering the old life and, thus, led to the positive self-creation as Ostjude (Eastern Jews) – Jewish migrant with Eastern European roots.

A Broken Network

The Berlin atmosphere of transnational encounters during the Weimar Republic began to thicken in the early 1930s. Berlin was still known as a city of multicultural avant-garde, but now in a negative sense. After Hitler’s ascent to power, the Nazi condemned modernist art and used by their propaganda to exemplify the degeneration of humanity. The formal elements represented by the avant-garde – like expressionist deformation or semantic rebuses of the Dada language – along with the ideological elements – like depictions of German street and café life – were perceived as the expression of “foreign” influences in German culture. Thus the exoticism of migrant artist from Eastern Europe, cherished earlier has become a stigma. During the hunt of the avant-garde in Germany, the Nazi especially targeted Jewish artists, among them many from Poland, such as Jankel Adler, whose works appeared on the infamous exhibition of Entartete Kunst, degenerate art. The flagship exposition of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda opened in Berlin at the end of February 1938 and lasted until May 1938. Köpenickerstrasse hosted a warehouse that gathered and stored confiscated artworks labeled as “degenerate.” Many of the valuable works were destroyed, among others, works by Stanisław and Margarete Kubicki, so we know many of their works only from photographs. The banishment of the avant-garde, which often meant the death of the artists, also destroyed the spirit of freedom and buried the myth of Berlin as one of the important centers of the European avant-garde.

←19 | 20→

Between Avant-Gardes

In case of the postwar art, especially from late 1980s and 1990s until today, one has to reconsider the term “avant-garde.” The problem is that the concept itself has escaped the control of encyclopedic frameworks and has entered the realm of dangerous colloquiality. The term is sometimes misused by artists themselves along with art critics, and is used as a synonym for words that define bold and experimental art that undermines established canons. According to this understanding, the avant-garde artist in the context of contemporary art is the one who uncompromisingly brings new values both to the sphere of art recipients and the discourse of social life. Beside epithets with meanings fixed in cultural memory, such avant-garde has nothing in common with the prewar formation. The concept of the avant-garde underwent devaluation and its significance also became blurred. Therefore, the latest attempt to clarify the term increasingly emphasizes the need for a distinction between the “historical avant-garde” created until 1945, the later neo-avant-garde, and in contemporary art even post-avant-garde.40 As Berg and Fähnders indicate, there occurred a postwar canonization of the historical avant-garde, despite the apparent asymmetry between the prewar and postwar avant-garde: “We should perceive the avant-garde after the Second World War as an unbroken continuation of the prewar avant-garde and not as a repetition of an already failed project.”41 The different geopolitical context after 1945 led the artists to produce a new idiom of avant-garde art. There emerged new directions – abstract Expressionism, outsider art, environmental art, and feminist art – along with new techniques of expression, such as media art, performance, installation, and happening. This book distinguishes the two avant-garde trends – still identifying their common ideological basis – by using the term “neo-avant-garde” for postwar art.

The Avant-Garde on the Other Side of the Wall

After the Second World War, Berlin was divided in 1961 into two cities with a separate cultural policy. Additionally separated from Poland by the Iron Curtain, it ceased to be the unlimited space for the intercultural meetings of the avant-garde and became an island of new projections and artistic activities, often devoid of the memory of prewar bohemian circles. The city ←20 | 21→and its inhabitants struggled with difficult war memories.42 The new geopolitical context and the restrictions that constrained the migration of Polish artists to Germany did not mean that the tradition of contacts between Polish artists and the Berlin milieu vanished. However, the intensity of this contact changed – especially after the introduction of the Iron Curtain – along with the intense experience of familiarity and strangeness resulting from the different political context. There was also a sense of transgression that was stronger than in the interwar period not only in the topographical but also in the cultural, social, and political sense. The discourse on Polish artists in Berlin also differed. The notions of “freedom” played now a great role, although – interestingly enough – the models of perception of Slavic immigrants shaped by Przybyszewski’s activities remained in the perceived emphasis of their uncompromising attitude, tendency to irony, and acting outside of the established frameworks of artistic and social habitus.

The latest research on the Polish avant-garde in Germany foregrounds the substantial role of Polish poster art, which enjoyed great recognition in West Germany since the mid-1950s.43 The avant-garde nature of this art was determined by the enthusiastic discourse of German art criticism, which drew attention to joke, jubilation, provocation, and innovation as features different from the prevalent manner of the German artists. The art of Polish poster artists presented in Germany was called the “new wave,” which unambiguously raises an association of complementarity of the words “migration” and “avant-garde.” Regina Wenniger questions the use of the nationally marked term “Polish poster art” to indicate the fact that Polish artists acted in a multinational network, which excludes the possibility to name their art as unequivocally “Polish.”

Wenniger’s doubt concerns the very important issue of the projections and identifications of migrant artists. Confrontation with new environment forces artists not only to reflect on their identity – whether national, ethnic, or religious – but also to confront it in the eyes of others. It is in ←21 | 22→the international environment that migratory identities, and their visual representations appear as multifaceted, ambiguous, and escaping usual categories. The postwar functioning of Polish artists in Berlin was actually a process of constant confrontation of the so-called Eastern heritage with Western culture, of the experience of life in the communist system versus capitalist consumption, and finally, of the deepening hierarchy between the center and the periphery.

After the political thaw of Poland in October 1958, there occurred several Polish art exhibitions in Germany. There was an important exhibition co-organized by the National Museum in Warsaw: Polnische Malerei vom Ausgang des XIX Jahrhunderts bis zur Gegenwart [Polish Painting from the Early Nineteenth Century until Today] which took place at the turn of 1962 and 1963 at the Museum Folkwang in Essen, then in West Germany.44 The exhibits showed a cross-section of Polish modernism. The prewar generation represented Władysław Strzemiński (1893–1952) and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939). The postwar period included Maria Jarema (1908–1958), Tadeusz Kantor (1915–1990), Jerzy Nowosielski (1923–2011), and Jonasz Stern (1904–1988).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (February)
Polish Neo avant-garde Migrant art Polish art in Berlin Gender in Polish art Berlin boheme
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 290 pp., 24 fig. col., 31 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia (Volume editor)

Małgorzata Stolarska-Fronia, PhD, is an art historian, curator and academic teacher. Her research interests include European avant-garde as a transcultural and transnational phenomenon. She initiated and organized several international conferences and published many articles devoted mainly to the art in Jewish culture.


Title: Polish Avant-Garde in Berlin