From Surrealism to Abstract Art: the case of Lenica

The interpretative grid that Bretonapplied to modern painting would tolerate nothing more than the metaphor “fantastic”.Consequently, anypurely pictorial approach was rejected out of hand for it ran the dangerous risk of taking modern painting out of the literary field that was Breton’s vital source. Some comfort might be found in noting that it was worse insofar as music was concerned, for, as surprising as it may seem, this “absolute” artpar excellence was simply “proscribed”  by Breton.Thus all throughout the time of the Surrealist epos, Surrealism and abstract painting did not make good bedfellows. In the nineteen twenties and thirties Breton nonetheless felt compelled to incorporateinto the Surrealist Pantheon, albeit belatedly, such pioneers of abstraction as Arp, Klee, and Kandinsky.  T For the followers of his “aesthetic religion” this recuperationof abstract art had but minor repercussions, if any, on the reading of twentieth-century art. To a limited degree, it facilitated the reading of works by Arp,Tanguy, and Matta, without forgetting their legacy in the “psychic automatism” as practiced by the likes of Jackson Pollock, or on Jean Dubuffet’s abstract work  (see, for instance, his “Houroloupe” series),or yet again on certain second-generation European “informels” such as Hartung,Tàpies, Burri, and a good many others.
When it came to reading the purely plastic concepts that inform twentieth-century abstract painting – that in a gist inform our modernity –the “existentialist” language of Parisian criticism in the fifties and sixties can seem today to be a detrimental extension of the emphatic Surrealist discourse that inspired it. And we shall set aside for a moment the example, be it impossible to ignore, of Picasso, another narrative reference, and hence another level of expression, at certain times no less “Meta-Surrealist”  – an artist who, at the end of the forties, had a crucial impact throughout Central Europe, and especially in Poland.
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Beauty will be convulsive or will not be.
André Breton, Nadja, 1928

Tending since the mid-nineteen thirties toward a Surrealist-type creation (with affinities to Arp and Magritte , for instance, but also to German “magic realism”), Alfred Lenica began devoting himself in 1947 to forging a personal vocabulary. This shift in style seems at first blush to be a move away from figurative-literary experiments to models drawn from post-Dadaist references. And indeed post-Dadaist practiceswere very much alive in the visual arts in Poland in the 1930s and 1940s(e.g. Brzeski, Podsadecki) and had a decisive impact in particular not only on the early flourishing period of Polish cinema in the late thirties (Themerson) but also on the immediate post-war cinema production of the such filmmakers as Wajda, Kawalerowicz and even subsequently on the young Polanski.
The “fantastic” (and thus post-Surrealist) direction that Lenica had taken in his work is visible in a series of collages characterised by a highly original poetic impact that already in 1947 heralded a suigenerispop art – before, that is, its existence as such. From this phantasmagoric approach emerged a personal repertory of visual forms, marked by a decisive turn to abstraction that became intimately organic to Lenica’s work in the fifties. This vocabulary soon crystallized into poetic constellations, unique in their genre.In a manner similar to Joan Miró and especially to Yves Tanguy, Lenica instinctively developed a personal vocabulary of forms. And although certain series are very close to Tanguy’s, his French alter ego (their birthdates are quasi-identical: 1899 for Lenica and 1900 for Tanguy), they seem to owe nothing to the French artist despite the fact that his move to an abstract vocabulary occurred a couple of decades earlier (ca.1927–1929).
Therepertory of abstract idioms that Lenica forged in the 1940s and 1950s circulates blithely between the mineral and the biological whereas Tanguy’s tendsinevitably tobiomorphist petrification. This original vocabulary of interlacing – highly complicated at first sight but informed in fact by a clearly perceptible stylistic logic – is to be read as an intuitivere action to the dominance of gestural abstraction as it was being practiced at the time not only in Paris and Milan but also in Warsaw. This post-Kandinsky type of intuitive and at times anxiety-ridden abstraction obstinately sought a colourist horizon freed from any figurative references.The abstract expressionism of a predominately gestural type that Lenica practicedis hard to define in words because, at first glance it appears confused from a formal standpoint and also hard to classify due to the apparent disorderof its lack of figurative references, which should not be surprising during this period of searching and profound existential doubt. Its emergence can be explained as a response to the intuitive existentialismthat led many painters of his generation to dramatic stylistic impasses (Lenica’s Polish colleagues, Tchorzewski and Kujawski, were cases in point as were a good number of Parisian painters, with Georges Mathieu’s willingly offering us a caricature thereof in the 1950s).
There is rgood eason to regard the crystallisation of Lenica’s sequences of obsessional spiralling curves produced from the late 1950s as a legitimate and salutary biomorphist response to the misguided existentialist endeavours of the “informal” movement in which the painter had participated and from which he, like his Polish and Parisian colleagues, had so much difficulty breaking away. By the late 1920s Yves Tanguy and even more André Masson had already reacted with great expressionist effortto the cubist models that Breton began emphasising as of 1924 (the start of his aesthetic dictatorship, thus displaying the conservative nature and limits of his outlook on modernity in the visual arts); twenty years later Lenica had a great variety of Dadaist, Surrealist, and abstract examples available to him, which gave him much more freedom in his formal rush to abstraction. Without prejudging the personal reasons for the reaction of Tanguy, whose rebellion against cubism tended to the “mineral”, Lenica’s, derived as it did from other referents, was situated more naturally in a “biological” register.
To understand the formal development of Lenica’s abstract idiom, we must look at the example of Maria Jarema, a shooting star of Polish abstract art of the 1950s, whose work indisputably marked Lenica’s output. Maria Jarema spent several months in Paris in the winter of 1937–1938, where she had the opportunity to familiarise herself with the Surrealist production of Masson, Miró, Tanguy, and others. In Parisshe also had the occasion to see the great Surrealist exhibition of February 1938 organised by Duchamp and Breton at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts. Several years later, theconsequencesof this stay became apparent in a highly personal abstract output that assumed the heritage of early Western abstract art (Arp, Hepoworth) and also extended Strzeminski’s extremely original bi-dimensional (post-constructivist) work (see his post-figurative “cityscapes”, called “aftersights”).
Jarema’s work seems to have left a decisive imprint on Lenica’s evolution. He may have been all the more sensitive to it inasmuch as during the difficult war years he, like his colleagues gravitating in the labyrinthian meanders of the Krakow “second school”, could nurture his modernist curiosity from the French avant-garde journals available in Krakow at the time. The inspiration they draw from these journals fell on fertileground in the quasi-genetic Francophile cultural climate that characterized Polish avant-garde circles in the twenties and thirties, and no less so after 1945. This generation included such artists as Kantor, Kujawski, Tchorzewski and later, Lebensztein. Their eyes were decidedly turned toward Paris; all of them visited the city at one point or another in their careers and some even settled there (Kujawski, Szapocznikow, and Lebensztein). The difficult socio-cultural interlude of the immediate post-war period was characterised by a burst of neo-Romantic resistance that gave rise not only to the remarkable output of Polish cinema but also to the whole culture of a society that, despite the disasters of the war, never severed its relationship with the modernist tradition of the 1930s, a society that vigorously resisted the new totalitarian oppression (Soviet). To a great extent this was made possible by the connections maintained with the Western scene by the Krakow weekly Przekroj, which could be considered as a highly original “popular university” of post-Surrealist culture and an indisputable “cultural waymarker”. It was published by Marian Eile, one of the very original proponents of thismodernist revolution, who had the opportunity to become familiar with the exotic roots of Surrealism in their Latin-American version.
The dramatic wartime experiences promptedLenicato appropriate and thereby tame the tragic modernity whose doors Surrealism had opened in a premonitory way; and in Krakow, he had the possibility of doing so. The texts of the first avant-garde catalogue that his group 4F+R published in Warsaw after the 1956thaw offers anexplicit evidence of this.
In Lenica’s case, what is no less original was his genuineengagementin the socialist realist excursus, on the road to a new and very illusional social and moral virginity, as attested by his (sincere) decision to join the Polish Communist Party. Due to the aesthetic tolerance of the Polish regime, this politico-aesthetic escapade, which began in the immediate post-war years, lasted for quite some time. And yet during those two decades, Lenica never abandoned his abstract output. Such a paradox was not uncharacteristic of Communist-era Poland where, as the anecdote went, “party members had settled the problem of the Catholic Church … by reserving for themselves the front banks in church”.
And so,throughout these “socialist realist” years, Lenica continued to work under the sway of a Surrealist painting that could not avoid the question of abstraction, informed as it was by a truly modernist engagement that his case illustrates so well. In his practice of post-Dadaist and/or Surrealist collage, Lenica probably unwittingly became a precursor of “pop-art”, which was beginning to blossom at the time in many parts of Europe (take Jiri Kolar in Prague and Peter Blakein London) before exploding in New York and spreading from the irto colonise the international art scene in the wake of the 1964 Venice Biennale. Lenica was a true precursor of this stylistic diapason, as the Parisian Surrealists (MaxErnst, Miró) or their German “comrades in arms” (Schwitters, Hausmann, Hannah Höch) had been twenty years before.


Freed from the old literary demons of Polish painting (Witkacy, Chwistek), Alfred Lenica’s trip to Paris at the end of the 1950s marked the start of a period of creative freedom that typified Polish art circles at the time (the last such period, to be sure, and for a short time). His artistic path from then on was definitively mapped. He asserted his artistic expressionin a fantastic abstract vocabulary that was original, and even unique.Lenica belonged, after this Western escapade (1959–1960), to the rareconstellation of artists who emerged from Surrealist poetics to develop a personal visual language, forge an original visionof imaginary forms, elaborate an immediately recognisable body of work, and, because of their undeniable visual identity, leave a mark on the artistic world of their day. This was the case for the mineral landscapes of Arizona imagined by Max Ernst during the war, for Dali’s biological distortions, painted in the 1930s in Port Ligat, and for the “lunar” landscapes by Tanguy, series started in France and completed in the United States.
Lenica’s fantastic abstract work blossomed in the bio-diversity of exotic vegetation that calls to mind the tropical fantasies of Douanier Rousseau’s extra-ordinary post-colonial visions produced two generations earlier. But it is worth stressing the extent to which the meanders of Lenica’s abstract work remain unique in their genre. They lend themselves to cosmic constructions like the fantastic visions of Matta, another Surrealist painter, from Latin America, with whom Lenica quickly established personal and artistic relations that took him to Cuba and later even to Chile.
Lenica’s pictorial trajectory also brings to mind the indefinitely extendible lyrical vocabulary of forms that Joan Miró elaborated starting in 1924, which leads us thereafter to Kandinsky’s “biomorphic” outputof his Parisian years ( from 1934 to 1944), which drew legitimate praise from Breton, without forgetting a large portion of the work of Paul Klee from the same period, some of which seems premonitory of Lenica’s “bio-logical” work.
Within this perspective of formal comparisons mention should also be made of Maria Jarema’s production of transparencies, and the scale of comparison can thus be expanded to include Arpand, beyond, the New York school of the 1940s (André Masson and Arshile Gorky). The creative output of each of these artists supports Kandinsky’s fundamentally expressionist postulate formulated in Murnau’stime (1908–1914): the personal transformation of forms liberates itself on the road of abstraction from all figurative references; it frees painting from stylistic and/or figurative value systems. Having abolished the reference standard, this new creation escapes any form of critical valorisation. As Kandinsky would assert with great serenity in On the spiritual in art (1912), this new aesthetic attitude simply eliminates art criticism, replacing it with an order of absolute subjectivity, that of “emphatic” aesthetics: the artist is sole judge and reference of his own artistic output. This absolutist individualist approach was already advocated at the start of the twentieth century in Poland by Przybyszewski, to culminate twenty years later under the exasperated pen of Witkiewicz. These are the Polish roots of Lenica. By rejecting the possibility of normative judgment, artists like Lenica – and there were many of them – formulated from 1920 to 1970 a powerful response to the totalitarian ideology that effected the brutally definitive oppression of human beings in the twentieth century. Once more art, as practiced by the Surrealists and their abstract followers, constituted a liberating response with a humanist thrust. And it is not surprising to find one of the most outstanding achievements of this resistance appearing in Poland, a long-suffering country whose culture has always managed to find the strength to resist.

 © Andrei Nakov, 2015

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