top of page

Debora Vogel: Art Critic and Mentor of the Artes Group

Updated: Jul 10

Anastasiya Lyubas presents work by the Artes group (1929-1935) and discusses Debora Vogel's impact as critic and mentor of the avant-garde in interwar Lwów/Lviv


July 21, 2024 3:00-5:00 pm on ZOOM

Our guest on July 21, 2024 is Dr. Anastasyia Lyubas, a leading expert on Debora Vogel's work. She is editor and translator of Vogel's critical essays and poetry into English from Polish and Yiddish. Dr. Lyubas will be discussing Vogel's role as art critic and mentor to the interwar avant-garde Artes group, including special note of its Jewish members.

Get a copy of Anastasiya Lyubas's book Blooming Spaces for a comprehensive introduction to Debora Vogel's philosophy, art theories, poems, essays, and criticism--as well as insights from Vogel's correspondence with Jewish artists and writers and their reviews of her work.

Readers should re/visit the essays and images in Lyubas's book mentioned in this blog. In order to get my own footing for the upcoming session on Vogel and visual media, I noodled around the internet searching for material about the Artes group, the Polish avant-garde, and the Jewish situation in interwar Lwów.

Of course, this path took me (and now you) into the many varieties of modernism that bloomed in the period between World War I and II. Capturing this material in a

brief blog is a tall order and I'm no expert. I can only offer some links, references, and casual observations. But I feel that the effort has been worth it.

The Artes group points us toward an exciting, vibrant field of cultural production after World War I in the newly reconstituted country of Poland. Specifically, it takes us to the city of Lwów, part of the Polish Commonwealth for centuries until 1772, with the first partition of the Polish Commonwealth. As Poland was divided among its imperial neighbors, Galicia was taken over by the Hapsburg monarchy and made part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The German name Lemberg was imposed on the city. At the end of World War I, in 1918, the city regained its Polish identity as Lwów. The German Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939 reestablished the city briefly as Lemberg. The Soviet Russian occupation in 1941 integrated the city into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine as Lviv.

Let me introduce the Artes group, located in post-WWI Polish Lwów, as an exemplar of the Polish avant-garde. This is a subject of growing cultural and artistic interest in both Poland and Ukraine, as evidenced by museum exhibitions and scholarly publications. The Artes group was founded by modernist painters in Lwów in 1929. They were young radical artists returning from studies in the Fernand Leger Modern Academy in Paris and in other European centers. Its most active years were from 1932 to around 1935, disbanding by 1936 

Works by Artes co-founder Jerzy Janisch. Above: Kompozycja (Dwie postacie painting, 1938. Below: Janisch's famous photomontage, Nude and Racecar, 1931.

The recent spate of museum exhibitions devoted to the Polish avant-garde and the Artes group dates from the centennial in 2018 of the Polish Second Republic. A four-part exhibition, "100 Years of the Avant-Garde in Poland," was mounted in Poland in 2016-2018 with Polish governmental and international co-sponsorship. One part was devoted to "Debora Vogel and the New Legend of the City" and took place in the former Lwów, now Lviv. Its curators were Andrij Bojarov, Paweł Polit, and Karolina Szymaniak. They characterize Vogel as "an indefatigable promotor" of new concepts of art and media:

Today Vogel is being rediscovered as an avant-garde writer, critic and theorist of art; and so are her links with the avant-garde practices of the interwar  period, primarily in Poland - with the works of the Lviv group artes, Krakowska Group, and individual artists, among them Leon Chwistek and Władysław Strzemiński. Befriended with Bruno Schulz and Witkacy, Debora Vogel was not only an indefatigable promoter of new concepts of art, an artist who appreciated the theory of montage and photomontage, but also an author of revolutionary attempts to translate the visual experience of avant-garde practice into literary language of Polish and Yiddish.

Of the three exhibition curators, Karolina Syzmaniak is responsible for bringing Debora Vogel's work to contemporary readers. Her full-length study of Vogel reintroduced her as a major thinker and artist, and a proto-feminist foremother. The work in Polish has not been translated yet from Polish to English. But Syzmaniak's lecture in English, "Debora Vogel and her Artistic Milieu in Interwar Lwów," is available See also David Goldstein's video interview on his "Encounters with Polish Literature" with Syzmaniak and Anastasiya Lyubas

An updated publication of Piotr Lukaszewicz's book "artes Group of Artists (1929-1935)" by the Center for Urban History in Lviv appeared in translation from Polish into Ukrainian . Edited by Andrij Bojarov it offers a list of key Artes members, noting that the group intentionally included Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians: "Otto Hahn, Henryk Streng, Jerzy Janisz, Ludwik Lille, Aleksander Krzywoblocki, Roman Selski, Margit Reich-Selska, Tadeusz Woicechowski, Pavlo Kovzhun, Andrzej Pronashko, Debora Vogel, and other artists." I'll mention here that Andrij Bojarov is curator of a show on Ukrainian modernism currently at the Royal Academy of Art in London that will run through October 13, 2024.

A recent dissertation by Karolina Koczynska out of the University of Edinburgh is the first full-length study of the Artes movement in English. Its title "‘Artes’: Mythologising Reality in Interwar Lwów (1929-1935)" intentionally recalls artist and writer Bruno Schulz's essay The Mythologization of Reality, which the Shmoozers read with David Goldstein in May. To remind ourselves, Schulz wrote:

Poetry is the short-circuiting of meaning between words, the impetuous regeneration of primordial myth. . . . In the hands of the poet, the word, as it were, comes to its senses about its essential meaning, it flourishes and develops spontaneously in keeping with its own laws, and regains its integrity. For that reason, every kind of poetry is an act of mythologization and tends to create myths about the world. The mythologization of the world has not yet ended."

Here, I think Schulz refers, like his friend and interlocutor Debora Vogel, to artists in general. The task of artists is to see reality apart from and in spite of the sediment of conventionalized meanings in ordinary spoken language, habitual behaviors, and ways of seeing.

According to Koczynska, the artists of the Artes group travelled individually or together in the 1920s to hubs of modernist experimentation such as Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Moscow before coalescing into a group. In the words of Artes founder, painter and collagist Jerzy Janisch, his trip to Vienna with fellow artist Henryk Streng in the mid-1920s expanded their vision beyond the "Galician gaze."

What did this mean? Leading artists in Lwów, such as the multifaceted Witkacy (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz) were indeed inventing their own Polish modernisms. Was it Witkacy's idiosyncratic and regionalized modernism that the future Artes members wished to depart from? It's a thought, but I really don't know. What I expect, however, is that artists like Janisch and Streng would have rejected Polish chauvinist and regional insularity. Futher, modernist painting, photography and mixed media (collage) were not the only game in town. Polish elites in the Second Republic continued to revere classical academic painting and sculpture, while others promoted the revival of Polish handicrafts and a new appreciation of Polish primitive art.

Not a member of the Artes group, Witkacy was, however, a leading Polish avant-garde artist. 

We could take a moment to consider Polish primitive arts. This was something completely different from the well-known references to the "primitive" by French modernists--specifically, the colonialist (and patriarchal) background to Gauguin's paintings of Tahitian women and to Picasso's appropriation of African mask imagery. The appeal of Polish primitivism was ethno-nationalist, valorizing rural Polish folk art.

From this vantage on Polish primitivism, there is perhaps only a short distance to understanding the Jewish "primitive" style and content of modernist painter Marc Chagall. See Debora Vogel's analysis of Chagall's primitive and modernist perspective in her 1929/1930 essay, "Theme and Form in Chagall's Art: An Aesthetic Critique" (in Lyubas, pp. 40-53, Equally important, also see Vogel's 1937 essay on Artes member, "Henryk Streng, a Constructivist Painter" (in Lyubas, pp. 70-72). You'll find some of Streng's illustrations throughout Lyubas's book, including the cover image, but these examples do not begin to exhaust Streng's iconography and artistic intent. A Jew, Henryk Streng survived the Warsaw Uprising and internment in a concentration camp. After WW II, he continued producing art under his adopted post-WW II name Marek Włodarski and taught art in Warsaw.

Above: Marek Włodarski (Henryk Streng), Self-portrait, 1938, photo: Galeria Piekary/ See images from the 2021 Museum of the Vistula show The catalog describes his work as "disruptive" of easy conclusions about 20th century Polish art: "He is someone who contributes to the decolonization of knowledge about the culture of this part of Europe. He developed an original take on Modernism, before becoming a rather unorthodox Socialist–Realist." Below: Pencil drawing by Streng, Bojkauliczna (Street Brawl), 1934.

Taking a decolonizing view of Polish modernism brings us to the center-periphery problem in the history of modern art. Newly reconstituted as a republic, Poland's major cities were marginal vis-á-vis Paris, Munich, Vienna, and New York. But the networks established by Vogel and the Polish avant-garde reveal these artists' diverse engagements not only to western European movements but also to Russian abstract art such as Supremicism (Malevich) and constructivism (Rodochenko, Lissitzky) centered in Moscow. Koczynska's dissertation is interesting in this regard. She takes an intentionally "horizontal and geographical" rather than a vertical approach, emphasizing qualities of cross-cutting exchanges or fields of artistic experimentation.

This horizontalism can be said to contrast with the vertical orientation of Alfred Barr's historical tracing of art in the 20th century. The first curator of New York's Museum of Modern Art, Barr tries bravely but in a way futilely to construct chronologies of "influences." This approach, so familiar to us now, seems to me a bit obsessed with paternity--i.e. who is the father of original works in a lineage. Which works are original, it asks, and which merely derivative.

Museum of Modern Art Curator Alfred H. Barr Jr.'s famous diagram of cubism and abstract art, 1936.

Alfred Barr's well-known chart can be 'read rebelliously,' however. His intent was seemingly to give a vertical--i.e. chronological--mapping of lineages. But the map itself (reproduced above) also reveals the intricate horizontal web of European modernisms all happening very quickly and even simultaneously in first decades of the 20th century. Barr's mapping of the 1920s-1930s regrettably offers less detail. But scholars Anastasiya Lyubas and Karolina Koczyinska, on the heels of Karolina Syzmaniak, are among those offering a richly detailed and expansive horizontal counter-narrative. Given the difficulty, then, of any sort of mapping, Magdalena Wróblewska in 2010 managed to write a comprehensive overview of the Artes members' "aesthetic pluralism." In the piece, translated in 2020 from Polish to English, Wróblewska wrote:

The years 1930 to 1932 were the period of the most intensive activity for the group. During this time, Artes organised eleven exhibitions: six in Lviv, two in Warsaw, and single shows in Kraków, Stanisławów and Tarnopol. . . .The group did not develop a common artistic programme during this period; it was still characterised by aesthetic pluralism and accepted attitudes far removed from the experience of the avant-garde. The term surrealism was used more and more often. It was used by the artists to describe Janish's grotesque and fancy compositions, Streng's paintings, in which surprising juxtapositions of abstract forms with real shapes emerged, and some photomontages by Aleksander Krzywobłocki, Sielska and Janish.

Maryiska Place, Lemberg (Lviv, Lwów) in 1915.

The aesthetic pluralism of the Artes group was also ethno-cultural and regional. Artistic life in the young state was concentrated in the main cities of Warsaw, Krakow, Lviv, Poznan and Lodz. This brings us to the topic of Jewish presence/absence in the new Poland and especially in Galicia, the region that Poland reclaimed from the scrap heap of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Lwów's population was about a third Jewish in the period between the First and Second World Wars. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia:

There was a significant difference between eastern and western Galicia.... In predominantly Polish western Galicia, Jews numbered 213,173 in 1910 (7.9% of the total population), whereas in largely Ukrainian eastern Galicia there were 658,722 Jews (12.3%). These patterns had originated two centuries earlier and more, when Jews, facing stiff economic competition and discriminatory legislation in older Polish cities in the western part of the province, found a more congenial atmosphere on the vast noble estates and private cities in the east

As we know from our previous reading of Lyubas's book, Vogel's contribution to the avant-garde in Lwów included her interest in stasis and dynamism, as the dialectic played out in contrasts between the relatively underdeveloped and preindustrial economy of eastern Galicia (as in her poetic images of boring fields and ordinary housing structures) and the fast pace and anonymity of cityscapes. She advocated mixing media (montage, photomontage) to create new syntheses and creations of inner and outer realities. Like many others, including Schulz and the photographers of urban scenes, she explored the ambiguous and strangely generative figure of the mannequin. In her poetry, Vogel insisted on using the Yiddish language, which she painstakingly acquired as an adult, to shift Jewishness, a "feminine" and diasporic language, into a modernist and even more cosmopolitan register. Jewish presence in the city was a theme she explored. And the visible Jewishness of some members of the Artes members and their iconography evoked public critiques at group's first exhibition, including accusations of "judeo-bolshevism," as Karolina Koczyinska describes. We look forward then to Anastasiya Lyubas's conversation with us on July 21 to help us to understand more about Vogel's views and her active role in Lwów's interwar, avant-garde arts scene.

Artes group members Wanda Diamand and Józef Tom, ‘The Disappearing Urban Primitive’, Graphics, no. 5 (June-July 1931), 39, from dissertation by Karolina Koczynska. See appendix for images including the above

Gelya Frank, Shmoozamama

July 8, 2024

56 views0 comments


bottom of page