Jerzy Bereś (1930–2012) was a Polish sculptor and actionist. He had learned from the prominent Xawery Dunikowski. The series of his titled Phantoms (1960–1966) – sculptures made from raw tree trunks, poles, rocks, and ropes – is one of a kind in world art.
Seemingly abstract, these works allude to primitive human structures and tools. Over 1966 and subsequent years, social and political commitment – reaction to the Communist regime installed in Poland after World War II – was becoming more and more evident in his pursuits. The output came to include wooden objects, often designed to engage the viewer: their irony, or even scorn, only operated in full upon activation. The Clapper (1970), for instance, was an artificial ovation device, while The Newspaper Puncher invalidated newspapers, which in Poland were synonymous with lies at the time. On account of such criticism, Bereś continually struggled with censors, and for years was unable to exhibit at state galleries. 1968 saw him begin performing actions he called Manifestations, in which the artist dealt with moral and existential issues related to living under totalitarian rule. Appearing naked, he painted symbols, signs, mottos, and slogans on his body, often lit fire, and conversed with audiences about life, art, and ethics. In 1981, on Kraków’s Main Square, Jerzy Bereś performed his Romantic Manifestation, which involved lighting five bonfires among the crowd – of hope, freedom, dignity, love, and truth respectively. All in all, he produced more than 200 sculptures and authored more than 100 Manifestations; his works are held in numerous museum collections both in Poland and abroad.
Jerzy Bereś was born in Nowy Sącz in 1930. He was nine at the time that the war broke out. The shock he experienced, caused by the German and Soviet invasion of Poland, was to cast a shadow over the rest of his life. Half a century later, Bereś admitted that he had contemplated suicide ever since. During 1950–1955, Bereś studied at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts under Professor Xawery Dunikowski (1875–1964), one of the most outstanding Polish artists of the 20th century – a sculptor of international fame. In particular, his very original, simple sculptures from 1904–1906 have gained wide acclaim, and have been considered one of the most interesting phenomena of European art of the early 20th century. During WWII, Dunikowski spent nearly five years as a prisoner of the Auschwitz concentration camp. After the war, as an artist of advanced age, he was cherished by the communist regime, which habitually bolstered its own standing by using the prestige of people such as Dunikowski. At all events, Dunikowski considered it an artist’s duty to satisfy the existing demand and, for that reason, participated in a competition for a monument of Stalin. Bereś’s student days coincided with the period of the worst excesses of the Stalinist regime, but Dunikowski’s workshop became an artistic asylum, where the professor protected the students from the communist indoctrination.
For a number of years after graduating Bereś did not exhibit anything. He felt that it was pointless to perfect the skills which he had acquired at the Academy. The close relationship with Xawery Dunikowski made Bereś feel that it was imperative that he should grapple with all that Dunikowski stood for: both his concept of art and his attitude to reality. On the other hand, Bereś reminisced that he felt a strong dislike towards the then-prevailing fashion for informalism and Henry Moore. From 1960, his reflections came to fruition with Phantoms – monumental, wooden objects, constructed from chunks of rough wood, stone, and leather. This is how Bereś was to reminisce, in 2002, about that period and his subsequent experiments with sculpture:
What I was doing was so far removed from what was understood by sculpture in popular perception that my works first functioned as Phantoms, then as Prophecies, later still as Altars and, finally – as Challenges. Polish art critics, with the possible exception for Anka Ptaszkowska and, to an extent, Marek Rostworowski, considered the work I produced during the late 1950s and early 1960s as totally peculiar.
Meanwhile, amongst intellectual and artistic circles all over the world, an unusual ferment was stirring up. In Paris, works were coming to being produced by artists such as Yves Klein, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, or Cesar; in America, by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Claes Oldenburg; in Japan, by the Gutai group. Pierre Restany has described that period, in numerous interviews, as a time pregnant with possibilities, brimming with unusual potential. It was at that time that Tadeusz Kantor wrote to me from Paris, describing the overwhelming longing for absolute freedom prevailing there. I think that, in such a climate of powerful, timeless reflection, a crack had appeared in which an original individual creation could come into being. And so, that which appeared to art critics peculiar to Poland, behind the Iron Curtain, should in fact be ascribed to the all-pervading atmosphere which prevailed in the intellectual and artistic communities in the world.
As for me, I tried, and I am still trying, not to lose touch with the sphere of timeless reflection, because that has guaranteed my independence and enabled me to conduct my own dialogue with the surrounding reality. At times, it has been a dialogue; at others – a dispute, and it was also the case that it was a big argument with the regime of the People’s Republic of Poland.
The fact that I have put a distance between myself and the so-called new sculpture, or even that I once publicly stated that I was not a sculptor, in no way means that I have become detached from what, to my mind, constitutes the essence of sculpture. On the contrary, I had merely rejected that which was external and anachronistic, that is to say – the statuesqueness of sculpture, so to speak; the entire mastery of the sculptor’s craft – all that which entailed the obligation upon sculpture to be subservient to reality. At the same time, I am against Katarzyna Kobro’s opinion that mass is the greatest con trick of sculpture. I consider this to go beyond the essence of sculpture. Similarly, I consider Malewicz’s suprematism as going beyond the essence of painting.
To evoke Alberto Giacometti’s ultimate experiments before his death, I consider that the essence of sculpture is PURE MASS IN SPACE. Constantin Brancusi and also Jean Arp finally defined the potential for the development of sculpture described as the perfect shaping of mass.
Placing of pure, or unshaped, mass in space opens up further possibilities for the development of sculpture. Such unshaped mass can be discerned in a piece of nature such as, for example, a tree trunk, unshaped by human hand, or a stone, unshaped by man. However, a prolonged relationship with such a piece of nature is required in order to be able to place it in space and for it to result in a particular message. This is, of course, merely my own experience of a number of decades.
Henry Moore, inspired by Indian sculpture, originated another opening for the development of sculpture. The trend in question is aiming at a pure shape, devoid of mass, both internal and external. Maria Pinińska-Bereś followed this route towards entirely original creation. Of course, there remains the option of penetration of pure space; particularly following the experiments by Alexander Calder or Katarzyna Kobro. However, in my opinion, this is beyond sculpture.
Viewing the world through pure mass accompanied also my manifestations. That is why they were neither happenings nor performances. ‘Material documents’, which are created, or finalised, during an action in front of witnesses – the public present – have joined the Phantoms, Prophecies, Altars, and Challenges.
In 1962, Bereś met Tadeusz Kantor in person, and in 1964, invited by Grupa Krakowska, he organised his first individual exhibition in the Krzysztofory Gallery in Kraków. In 1966, Bereś joined Grupa Krakowska, which played a very important role in Polish art. Led by Tadeusz Kantor, it was a haven for artists who, almost exceptionally so in Poland, were able to withstand the diktat of the socialist realism and to maintain the contact between Polish art and European art at a time of strict political isolation. Grupa Krakowska is probably the longest surviving artistic group in Europe, and perhaps in the world: they operated for over half a century.
In 1965, Bereś took part in an artistic symposium and workshop on the island of Krk in Croatia (which was, at that time, in Yugoslavia) and later in the exhibition entitled Forma Viva in the museum in Kostanjevica on Krk. This was the artist’s first trip abroad, to a country which at the time was considered in Poland an anteroom of the free world. During 1967 and 1968, Bereś’s works were exhibited at the IX Biennale in São Paolo.
In the second half of the 1960s, Bereś produced a number of works, in which movement was at first only implied, and which subsequently became a significant element. The message became revealed fully with the participation of the audience, whose task was to put the work in motion. The message was frequently a poignant commentary on the existing situation, which did not shy away from the political dimension. Actions were a natural continuation of the process. The first action took place in the well-known Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, in January 1968. Before that, however, Bereś had participated in the happenings organised by Tadeusz Kantor. From the very beginning Bereś insisted that his appearances were not happenings. Later, equally resolutely, the artist distanced himself from performance art, even though his actions from the late 1960s could be construed as early examples of performance. At the same time, they were also a logical continuation of the concept of sculpture as pure mass in space, as adhered to by Bereś. Put simply, from 1968 onwards, Bereś incorporated in his sculpture yet another pure mass with specific characteristics – his own naked body, treated as an object of artistic activity. From such a perspective, this was not so much the artist experimenting with a new medium, but rather developing further his own concept of sculpture. In order to emphasise that his aim was not exploration of the possibilities of the new medium but formulation of messages via an expanded idiom of sculpture, Bereś called his appearances ‘manifestations’.
The second part of the 1960s witnessed an almost worldwide countercultural generational revolution. In Poland it coincided with political events resulting from the struggle for power between various factions of the communist government, with students demonstrating in favour of cultural freedom in 1968, with the brutally extinguished strikes in the Gdańsk Dockyard and, finally, with the political transformation and the beginning of the so-called propaganda of success, which relied on creating an illusion of a dynamic, modern, democratic state, which was, however, based on falsehood and covert terror.
Bereś’s cooperation with Tadeusz Kantor, thus far close and amicable, in 1969 turned into a fierce artistic and ideological dispute. It was triggered by Kantor throwing out of Krzysztofory a group of hippies, for whom Bereś was a kind of guru. In real terms, the dispute concerned the boundaries which an artist must not cross. Bereś set out such boundaries quite radically, which was to affect many of his future choices. Documents which have by now come to light demonstrate that all the events of that period played out against the backdrop of the activities of the security services, which endeavoured to neutralise all independent factions of society by various forms of manipulation.
The concept of freedom, the chief leitmotif of the countercultural revolution, was fundamental for Bereś. He clearly perceived the differences in the interpretation of freedom in the West as compared to behind the Iron Curtain, in the oppressed countries of Eastern Europe. They wanted to destroy temples of art, and we wanted to build them, he remarked. On the other hand, Bereś rejected the notion of freedom in art as understood by the overwhelming majority of Polish artists during the 1970s – as an opportunity to turn their backs on political reality, after a period of the pressure and propaganda of the totalitarian state. For me, freedom of art means that I can refer to politics if I want to, Bereś stated. In communist Poland, this was a crime; politics was reserved for the totalitarian government; others were imprisoned for concerning themselves with it.
From 1968, problems with censorship and with getting a passport intensified. The manifestation in Foksal had a strong political content, which alluded to the independence of the country. The exhibition which arose out of that manifestation was immediately shut down. This pattern was to repeat over and over again. In the same year, in his action Bread Painted Black, Bereś made a statement about the bloody suppression of the freedom movement in Czechoslovakia. His sculptures were to be frequently removed from exhibitions, and, on one occasion, one of his sculptures was secretly snatched from Krzysztofory by the security service.
At the beginning of the 1970s Bereś exhibited his works at a number of individual shows in Western Europe: Museum Bochum (1971), Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst, Humlebaek (1972), Södertäljie Konsthall (1972), Gruga Park, Essen (1974). During the second half of the 1970s this became impossible. The artist’s name was blacklisted and could no longer be mentioned in the press or on TV, which were under total control of the government. Exhibiting in official galleries also went out of the question. Now Bereś could only show his work in student clubs, whose freedom of pursuit was somewhat larger.
Over that period, Bereś formulated an original concept of prophetic art. His idea was that the artist who carefully observed the social and political changes became a sort of medium through which reality would manifest its future states. To prove the theory, in The Work as Stimulator of Judgement, Bereś enumerated specific examples of his own works which had correctly predicted the future. Today, also Prophecy I could be added to such a list, having raised the topic of independent Poland some 30 years in advance – although, as Bereś himself has admitted, he did not believe that this would happen during his lifetime. Nobody at that time believed that the fall of communism was possible. But happen it did and, in 1989, during a repetition of this action, Bereś was able to write on his body: IT IS BEING FULFILLED.
The scope of issues which the artist has addressed in his sculptures and manifestations is very broad: from the internal problems of art, through relations between art and the external world or the experiences of totalitarianism and democracy, to purely existential matters. Bereś conducts a dialogue with the audience, facing them naked and covering his body with signs. His manifestations are unique and cannot be repeated. In 1979, jointly with Zbigniew Warpechowski and Andrzej Kostołowski, Bereś made a trip round Great Britain, during which he appeared in ten actions. During the short-lived period of Solidarity, he managed to carry out, in December 1981, his Romantic Manifestation on Kraków’s Main Square. Around the central Cloth Hall the artist lit five bonfires, symbolising the most important romantic values. The project of that manifestation had been shelved for a few years as it had not been possible to realise it earlier, in spite of a number of previous attempts.
During martial law, which was a singularly dark time in Poland’s history, Bereś participated in the movement of independent art exhibitions, which played a tremendous part, mainly as a visible sign of the protest against the regime of the generals. In 1987, the artist received the award of the Solidarity Committee of Independent Culture. After Poland regained sovereignty in 1989, Bereś remained an independent artist, unbowed in his opinions and actions. The problem of the redefinition of the romantic position, which in Poland, due to the country’s tragic legacy, has been shaped as both tragic and ironic, became one of the crucial motifs in the artist’s work. In Poland, the loser becomes a hero; he who wins becomes a suspect. But the romantic approach can lead to victory, as the example of Solidarity demonstrates. Should Solidarity have lost, it would have become the object of the national cult. Since it did win, it became systematically the object of attack.
In 1995, a large retrospective exhibition took place, presented in the National Museums in Poznań and in Kraków, in connection with which a catalogue was published, detailing the artist’s work to date. However, Bereś remained outside of the mainstream exhibition and presentation of Polish art, which focused on the artists of the younger generation, who confronted the world art in completely different conditions. Cooperation with Western curators proved more fruitful, as the mechanisms were gradually being developed of incorporating Eastern European art of the second half of the 20th century into the mainstream of Western art. Recently, already in his seventies, Bereś has carried out actions in Japan, Canada, Germany, and Great Britain. He also took part in the great exhibition ‘Out of Action’, shown in Los Angeles, Vienna, and Tokyo, which summed up the action art of the 1949–1979 period, as well as in a number of exhibitions prepared by the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana. In 2002, the book ‘Shame. Between the Subject and the Object’ came out, which was a compilation of almost all the texts ever written by the artist.
In 2008 Bereś performed a demonstration titled The Way of Being in the Kolibki park in Gdynia. Similar in structure to the Romantic Manifestation, it also complemented that project: the artist, dragging the Existential cart, lit bonfires at four stations – of despair, shame, misery, and fear respectively. Later that year Bereś underwent a life-saving surgery, after which he got back to fairly good shape, and remained active in the arts almost until his last days. In 2009 he visited Belfast and performed a manifestation there. He featured in the exhibition ‘Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe’, held at Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig in Vienna. In his final year, before passing away on December 25th, 2012, Jerzy Bereś produced two more sculptures; the latest one, bidding farewell as it were, he titled The Altar of Peace. His last manifestation, The Toast, was performed during the Festival of Ephemeral Art in Sokołowsko, four months before the artist’s passing.
The works of Jerzy Bereś can be found in the majority of Polish museums, most importantly in Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź as well as in the National Museums in Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, Poznań, and Gdańsk, in MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków, the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, the Masovian Centre for Contemporary Art in Radom, the Silesian Museum in Katowice, Museum Kampa in Prague, the Bochum Museum, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Kostanjevica Museum on Krk, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, the Wilhelm-Lehmbruck Museum der Stadt in Duisburg, the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, the Würth Museum in Kunzeslau, and Museum Jerke w Recklinghausen.