The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language

(A Companion to MENDELE)


Contents of Vol. 09.006 [Sequential No. 158]
1 May 2005

1) In this issue of TMR (ed.)
2) Some Comments on David Mazower's article on Henryk Berlewi (Seth L. Wolitz)
3) A Small Berlewi Gallery (Seth L. Wolitz)
4) Quotations from Mechano-faktura (Henryk Berlewi)
5) Coming issue: Menke
6) Coming book reviews

1 May 2005
From: Leonard Prager
Subject: In this issue of TMR

In this issue of TMR, Seth L. Wolitz -- a scholar of Yiddish literature and a longtime student of Henryk Berlewi -- takes the floor to respond to David Mazower's article on Henryk Berlewi in the last TMR (vol. 9, no. 5). Freely assisted by the world wide web, Professor Wolitz adds to his lively and challenging comments a small gallery of the artist's work, including some of his best known and truly remarkable abstractions. We need to thank both Mazower and Wolitz for working towards reestablishing the connection between modernist Yiddish literature and Eastern European Jewish graphic art.

1 May 2005
From: Seth L. Wolitz
Subject: Some Comments on David Mazower's article on Henryk Berlewi

Some Comments on David Mazower's article on Henryk Berlewi

by Seth L. Wolitz

I very much appreciated David Mazower's communication (in TMR vol. 9, no. 5) on Henryk Berlewi, whose accomplishment I uncovered over thirty years ago and on whom I have through the years published a number of essays. I would insist on his importance not only as an illustrator and artist of Yiddish poetry-covers but as an artist central to the entire avant-garde abstract art movement in Eastern Europe between the Wars. Note my allusions to him and to the movements in which he participated in the following publications:

"Between Folk and Freedom: The Failure of the Yiddish Modernist Movement in Poland," Yiddish, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1991, pp. 26-51.

"The Jewish National Art Renaissance in Russia," Tradition and Revolution: The Jewish Renaissance in Russian Avant-Garde Art, 1912-1928, Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, June 1987, pp. 23-42.

"Modernism in der Yidisher Literatur." Yidishe Kultur, No. 2 (March-April 1980), pp. 36-45. Reprinted (without permission) in Folks-Sztyme, Warsaw, 27 June, 1981, pp. 5-8, 4 July 1981, pp. 6-7.

"The Khalyastre (1918-1925): A Modernist Movement in Poland." Yiddish, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1981) pp. 5-20.

Berlewi's masterpiece in terms of Yiddish culture is the No. 3 (1923) cover of Albatros which he created for Uri-Tsvi Grinberg when they were both in Berlin in 1922. Yiddish plastic art accomplishment at that point was equal to the most advanced art in the entire world. The cover is pure abstraction: the name Albatros is made of circles, rectangles and squares shaped on the supremicist diagonal. The cover in Yiddish and German reveals how in twenty years Jewish artists of Eastern Europe had gone from no real art to its most cutting edge accomplishment. Berlewi's cover and his earlier work in cubist two-dimensional human forms inside the volume plus advanced pieces by Lazowick etc. is a triumph of modernist Yiddish culture which alas was never again equaled in Yiddishist circles. Berlewi however went on to greater triumphs.

Fig. 1

Berlewi was well known by 1920 as a brilliant young plastic artist very much involved (like other young Eastern European Jewish artists such as El Lissitzky and Tchaikov, etc) in seeking to define or construct a distinct Jewish art or at least a Style beside Jewish themes or images. Chagall's art was the starting point of this thinking, albeit Chagall never liked to theorize Jewish art or believed in it as something that could be sui generis. Still he encouraged in his days at Vitebsk the pursuit of such a possibility. El Lissitzky was his prized student who did remarkable work in attempting to create a Jewish style [see Sikhes Kholin, Khad Gad Ya , two of his early but remarkable efforts] but by 1919 El Lissitzky had given up on finding a Jewish Style and overwhelmed by Malevich's Supremicist art and cosmic vision passed into complete abstraction with his Prouns.

El Lissitzky arrived in 1921 in Warsaw on the way to set up a Soviet exhibition of art in Berlin and overwhelmed Berlewi by his abstract constructivist art and conceptions. Berlewi abandoned further efforts at finding a Jewish style, having passed in two years through neo-Romanticism, expressionism and formism to now become a constructivist. Unlike El Lissitzky who on commission did a Yiddish cover now and then until 1924 (and contrary to Soviet critics never did abandon Jewish interests but found it wise to be discreet!), Berlewi passed easily from Yiddish cultural circles to Polish ones and in Berlin met all the major new artists who make up what we call today the first abstractionists, Van Doesburg, Moholy Nagy, and all the German Dadaists. As El Lissitzky pursued his star with such brilliant works and new page designs, Berlewi in fact did the same and was recognized by Herwarth Walden, the leading avant-garde art dealer and gallery owner who published in his Der Sturm Berlewi's masterful Manifesto: Mechano-Faktura.

Fig. 2

Composition in Red, Black and White (1924)

This work was the most important expression of the new intention of producing art on mechanical principles and removing the presence of the artist's hand. Berlewi insists on the reality and acceptance of two-dimensionality in art and not the artifice of creating a third dimension. Art was now in service to mankind, not seeking to create beauty but to serve the needs of mankind. He accompanied this manifesto with twelve designs of pure abstraction made of crisscrossing lines and series of dots which today are recognized as the precursor of op art and concrete art.

Berlewi returned to Poland where he continued his experiments in constructivism and formed an advertising agency as his name and fame grew. His one-man show caused a sensation in Warsaw in 1924 when he held it in a automobile showroom with the cars all around. Here was modernism fusing art and the pragmatic, the machine age in all its abstract glory. At the same time he was a leading member of the Polish abstract artist's constructivist group, BLOK, in which he wrote in Polish and took part in their activities. At the same time he was active with the Yiddish Khalyastre and did those splendid covers of Perets Markish's verse collection, Di Kupe and Radyo, etc. as well as a cover for a Hebrew volume, Legion.

Berlewi played such a major role in constructivism and functioned so comfortably with the Polish abstract artists, such as Strzeminski, Kobro and Stazewski that he is always treated as Polish and his Jewish side is downplayed as with El Lissitzky as "his early period." No Polish publication ever leaves his name out as central to Polish abstract art of the inter-war years. The Warsaw Jewish world took pride in his accomplishment and he continued to write theoretical articles and critical ones which were published in Ringen and other Yiddish journals and he never stopped publishing in Yiddish even when he moved to Paris.

He moved in Paris in 1928 for one good reason: he needed to keep body and soul together. He was following what other Polish and Jewish artists were doing. Neither the Polish abstract artists nor Berlewi could really sell much of their abstract art. They made a little money with advertising but not enough. Poles did not buy abstract art and as Chagall complains bitterly in almost every letter he writes, Jews don't buy art. (It seems unreal given the vast Jewish collections of today!) But neither Jews in Poland or anywhere else bought Abstract art. So Berlewi moved to Paris and discovered the bitter truth there that the French had no interest in pure abstraction either. So he turned back to portrait painting.

Where was he during the War? He seems to have escaped with his Mother to Southern France. Who hid him and why remain a mystery. After World War 2 he returned to Paris and eked out a living still doing portraits. Suddenly in 1958, the French artist and critic Michel Seuphor tracked him down for a retrospect exhibit of the first abstract artists of post-World War 1 and Berlewi returned to his mechano-faktura abstractions. He reproduced some of his early abstract art and continued to create new abstractions. One-man shows were given to him in Paris, Berlin Warsaw, London and New York. The Germans and the English recognized in his constructivist works the master of modern typographic design. He has been written up by Neue Graphik and Typographica for his essential contribution to page design and typography . In Europe his art is collected, especially his abstractions.

The recent auction of his figurative drawings to which David Mazower alluded does not do credit to the importance of Berlewi. His figurative art is inferior to his real accomplishment which is abstraction and typography. I have been collecting material on him for 20 years but so much has been destroyed. I am writing a monograph now on Berlewi which will reveal that this artist was one of Jewry's greatest artists of the 20th century. Only Chagall and El Lissitzky are his possible superiors if such silly conceptions still hold sway. He managed to live the life of an artist who was comfortable both as a Jew and a universal man.

Alas the Poles and Western art historians who do esteem him greatly trundle him off into their world and obfuscate his Jewish concerns and interests and accomplishments. On the other hand, the Yiddish establishment has not forgotten him, but is too weak to make any efforts on his behalf. As to the general Jewish world, Israel, and the Diaspora, he is totally forgotten or considered like all the Jewish-born artists who do not paint Rabbis or water carriers as another Akher, a delinquent who left us for Goyish territories and fame. Berlewi deserves to be recognized for what the secular Yiddish culture sought to accomplish in Eastern Europe: create Jewish men and women, artists, etc. who were comfortable with being both Jews and part of the modern world. It has been unfortunately the Jewish scholars of Yiddish and Hebrew cultures in our own time who have let slip by so many Jewish artists -- witness Philip Roth not listed among the key Jewish writers in a recent listing! -- because they did not conform to more parochial thinking of too many obscurantist or ideological Jewish academics.

We must thank David Mazower for having taken notice of Berlewi and having recognized his figurative art efforts. I hope these further few words invite TMR readers to seek out the really great artistic accomplishment of Berlewi in his abstractions. If one should wish to see some of them and the famous automobile show, the best work in English that places him in his rightful place in Eastern- European avant-garde art, see: S.A. Mansbach: Modern Art in Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Balkans ca. 1890-1939, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, pages 124-127.

Seth L. Wolitz
of Texas at Austin

1 May 2005
From: Seth L. Wolitz
Subject: A Small Berlewi Gallery


A Small Berlewi Gallery




fig 3



fig 4

Two compositions from the series Twelve Mechano-Faktura Elements 1924




Fig 5

Portrait 1938







Fig 6

Plutos chocolate advertisement 1926





Fig. 7

Plutos advertisement applying mechano-
faktura theory





Fig 8

Berlewi's cover for Perets Markish's Di kupe (Warsaw 1921), reproduced from the Hebrew University limited facsimile edition (Jerusalem 1982)

["The design is spectacular and purely expressionistic abstract triangles rising form like fire the Hebrew letters of Di Kupe in fierce triangular forms" SLW]


1 May 2005
From: Seth L. Wolitz
Subject: Quotations from Mechano-faktura (Henryk Berlewi)

A selection of quotes from Mechano-faktura, one of the first purely theoretical manifestoes regarding abstract plastic art and esthetics by a Jewish artist.

From Mechano-faktura ( Der Sturm, Berlin, September,1924)

By texture is meant: 1. The surface of the painted canvas itself. 2. The intensity of and density of the color, which depends on the physical character of the paint, the so-called patina. In short, everything that makes up the material side of painting.

Only after the great upheaval in the fine arts (expressionism, cubism, futurism) have the tremendous possibilities inherent in texture become apparent.

Painting, thanks to texture, has come closer to its original function. However, in the process, it has lost one of its specific characteristics, two-dimensionality.

If flatness is considered intrinsic to painting, any three-dimensional (perspectival) illusionism, as well as any actual plasticity, must be regarded as inappropriate and as a violation of the true nature of painting.

If suitable equivalents are found for materials like glass, sand, wood, we will be able to achieve textual effects that are identical with the immediate effect of the texture of the original material.

By consistently pursuing and developing this principle of material equivalents, I created a new and autonomous texture, which is independent of materials, and at the same time, compatible with the two-dimensional nature of painting.

The aims of art today can be defined as follows: a complete break with any imitation of objects, autonomy of form; order; schematization; geometrization; precision ( to permit easy classification of the impressions received from the work). The old technique of painting is not up to this task. It is even less use in the creation of a new schematic textural system. In order to attain this end, mechanical technology derived from industrial methods (which are free of the whims of the individual and are founded on the exact mechanical function of the machine) must be employed. Modern painting, modern art, must therefore, be based upon the principles of machine production. An entirely new creative system will be established with the help of the mechanization of texture and the means of pictorial expression.... Through mechanization of the means of painting, there will be a greater creative freedom and the possibilities of invention will be increased.

(translated by Katerine J. Michaelsen)

Date: 1 May 2005
From: ed.

Subject: Coming issue: Menke

A coming issue of TMR will be devoted to a compendious volume of Menke Katz's Yiddish verse translated into English by the celebrated translator-team Barbara and Benjamin Harshav. Menke. The Complete Yiddish Poems. Edited by Dovid Katz and Harry Smith. Maps by Giedre Beconyte. Published by The Smith: New York 2005, 914 pp. For ordering information:

Date: 1 May 2005
From: ed.
Subject: Coming Book Reviews

Dovid Katz's Lithuanian Jewish Culture (Vilna: Baltos Lankos, 2004, 398 pp), will yet be reviewed in TMR, as will be Nancy Sinkoff's Out of the Shtetl (Providence: Brown Judaic Studies, 2004).

Also scheduled for review is John Myhill's Language in Jewish Society: Towards a New Understanding. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2004



End of The Mendele Review Vol. 09.06

Editor, Leonard Prager

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