Henryk Berlewi, Mechano-facture, 1924 – work in MoMA collection in New York.

Henryk Berlewi / ‘Reklama-Mechano’ advertising bureau

The interwar years were undoubtedly a significant, dynamic period of growth in Poland – both economic and technological, but also […]

Author: Anna Palacz – Brzezińska, Translation: Dostępny
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The interwar years were undoubtedly a significant, dynamic period of growth in Poland – both economic and technological, but also considering the art development. The country, which has been recently restored at the world maps, regaining its independence after roughly over a century of ‘non-existence’, was enthusiastically embracing the wide range of overwhelming avant-garde art trends emerging all at once. Hence, however often distinctive, these were somehow bound by a common ground. Whether expressionists, cubists or futurists, regardless of their principles, each art group or formation would put the values behind modernism, progress, future at its core interest. Moreover, reaching the pure essence of what art might be, or become, once seized just resembling the reflection of nature or the old masters’ manner.

Such a melting pot of intellectual and creative influences, was considered essential for the grassroots of Henryk Berlewi’s art career. A painter, graphic designer, art critic and theoretician with an academic background from Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and École des Beaux-Arts and the École des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, who performed expressive art rooted in the Jewish cultural heirloom. The artist was also passionate about the concepts postulated by Cubists. Yet, what had the greatest impact on funneling his artistic research, was the visit in Berlin in early 20s. and the encounter with the Soviet constructivist El Lissitzky who steered Berlewi’s interests into constructivism and supremacism. That is precisely when he commenced leaning towards the concept of art free from ex poste ideologies, focused on formal discipline and reciprocity of intertwined composition. While in Berlin (1922-1923), Berlewi joined the echelons of avant-garde artists working alongside and inspired by Theo van Doesburg, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Hans Richter or Mies van der Rohe.

The abstract art involved working with flat geometric forms, repeatable patterns of composition and colour palette drastically reduced to black, white and red (Machinofacture – Blanc-Rouge-Noire, 1924) and yet became the distinct signature of Berlewi’s work. The artist himself would soon become an ambassador for the most radical art trend of the Polish interwar avant-garde. Between 1924-1928 he was an active member of the ‘Blok’ (the Block) group of Cubists, Constructivists and Supremacists.

Constructivist crusades of Henryk Berlewi greatly contributed to developing his precursory theory of Mechanofacture (1923), which was laid out in the avant-garde Berlin magazine “Der Strum”. Its main principle was based on rejecting the spatial illusion, in favour of accentuating a two-dimensional painting aspect of the canvas. While seeking the extreme simplification of composition, the artist drastically reduced the color range to black, white and red and incorporated patterns of simple geometric forms. Instead of experimenting with textures, these were replaced with rhythmical lines and surfaces. Hence, Berlewi created a texture not relying on the quality of materials, yet, fully reflecting the nature of painting, while still in line with the constructivists’ concepts of bridging the gap between art and social life and addressing the accelerated rhythm of dynamically changing reality. Berlewi was in favour of allusion by using templates and proliferating the concept of functional printing. The artist referred to his artistic revelation as Mechanofacture – while the art he created was aimed at imitating modern mechanical manufacturing methods, it was made to create the impression of distinct textures only by pure patches of colour applied with loose brush strokes. In his pursuit of restoring the ‘two dimensional’ painting, he strongly resembled Strzemiński, the artist, and his Theory of Unism. He would also pay homage to the contemporary industrial development and progressive industralization of the State. He was a visionary to establish the scaffold for some kind of common ground and foster bonds between the world of art and business, so to speak, as a manner of enhancing prospective development for a utopic community of the future.

Berlewi, naturally, even when looked back at from today’s perspective, was definitely a man ahead of his time, standing out in terms of his innovative approach to promoting the art he craved for. The most outstanding display of Mechanofacture was held at the venue of the… Warsaw Automotive Showroom. Such a parlour in interwar period in Poland was somehow perceived as a symbol of modernity and luxury. While some widely criticized the artist, and Antoni Słonimski, the poet, referred to his art as ‘mechano-bollocks”, all in all it undoubtedly generated ‘The Henry Berlewi’ buzz in the capital city. 

The artist also turned out to be a phenomenal ‘marketing specialist’ in a different sphere of his activity.

In 1924 he established a joint-venture referred to as „Reklama-Mechano”, where he was prone to creatively interpret the aesthetics of constructivism into the means of modern graphic design and typography.

To date, the design of his ads are considered iconic, and copywriting of the well-known ‘Plutos’ chocolate campaigns such as the ‘Razzle Dazzle gourmetiere’ („szecherezady smakoszostwa”) or ‘spring enchanted into sugar lumps’ („wiosna zaklęta w cukry”) are still up to date and remain a live proof of the author’s poetic wit and sense of humour. Running an ad bureau, or agency as we would say today, had one more, crucial, non-profit aspect: the artist and his work had definitely contributed to sharing the most up-to-date art trends among the public, not solely entailing the exclusive circle of the avant-garde artist and critics at the time.

Reaching back to the interwar period, both posters and ads, hand in hand, were perceived as heralds introducing the concepts vetted by the top, most-progressive contemporary artists to the ‘wider public’.

What needs to be reiterated, though, is the fact that the early 20s of the 20th century was the signpost of the institutional support for the concept of enhancing tighter bonds between art and industry with business, along with the need to democratize Fine Arts. The Warsaw University of Technology was the pioneer, and first to host the studio of functional design, overseeing the layout and graphic layout of the projects, the means of visualizing infographics, proficiency in sketching, typography and composition management. Also in Warsaw, in 1924, the Academy of Fine Arts (then referred to as School) introduced fonts, lettering and practice in graphic design, soon to become obligatory subjects in the curriculum. The trend of elevating ads, signboards, or posters to the standard of ART, definitely not ‘just art’ was noticeable. On the contrary, the authors claimed it crucial to integrate both, so as to ensure that visual information boards were simply well designed and imbued by artists for the most sophisticated tastes.

Such a concept, although quite new, and still considered experimental at the academic level, was a perfect reflection of Henryk Berlewi’s beliefs. His objective was to prove that applied integration of art and commercial design may be successfully present in public without affecting or deteriorating the creative merits of art. To date – almost a century later – his „Reklama-Mechano” remains iconic and may be considered a benchmark of creative inspiration for designers seeking unconventional solutions while providing business services. As long as the management is prone and ready to embrace the clash once faced with the artist’s vision, obviously.


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