Anna Maria Potocka: Jerzy Bereś’s Trinity: Art, Religion, Politics (2007)

(The text was published in exhibition catalogue: „Jerzy Bereś. Art Bend Life”, Gallery Bunkier Sztuki, Kraków 12.06-9.09.2007)


The things an artist reveals, the passions, hysteria, obsessions, or fears he submits to, the symbols he abuse – these things don’t matter. The important thing is the range of reflection that the artist opens, and the way he helps himself and others to come to grips with the reality that torments us.

(quoted from memory)


Creating art is a search for meaning, and it never ends in success. At best, some artists manage to convince themselves that they have found meaning. This applies above all to those who attribute to themselves a gift for discerning the truth. Very often – and this is easy to demonstrate – they are performers. They strike the attitude of critical, inspired visionaries and saviours. Their search for meaning is based on religious rhetoric and ends in their climbing into the pulpit. With some artists, we can trace this kind of evolution from their most innocent, timid beginnings. This enables us to com-prehend in its entirety the intricate, often contradictory process of self-creation.

Jerzy Bereś’s work represents one of the fullest examples of such self-creation. In his work, the traces and documentation of this process exemplify the fascinating course of a “sculptural” shaping of one’s own personality. They even demonstrate the predispositions that guided his beginnings, which penetrated with profound intuition into the primal nature of the things we are made up of. It all began with wood. This is one of the oldest materials at man’s disposal. Contact with the personality of wood – something truly dead, which nevertheless still retains its naturalness and individuality, a material that long recalls its identification – can influence an instinct for discovering the primal. Next came further discoveries in Jerzy Bereś’s art. They all evince a reaching for the beginning, for rawness, for “incorruptibility,” for obviousness. Wood as the primal material, nakedness as man’s first shape, stone as the first tool, the raw canvas as the first discovery. Phenomenology applied not to concepts, but to material. Touching and lightly shaping the primal, Jerzy Bereś first experienced the narcotic of God-like creation.

At the beginning, the sculptures delighted in the material of wood and resembled absurd, monumental tools or totems. These Phantoms were something halfway between finished shapes and raw wood. In many cases, their forms seem to be anthropomorphic-abstract pretexts for “caressing” the wood. This idea-driven, artistic game choked within the studio and looked best at large. Bereś photographed himself beside his works in the open air; in these arrangements, the wooden constructions look like intermediaries between the closed reality of man and the openness of the landscape. However, Jerzy Bereś was not satisfied with the static nature of these objects and their whispered symbolism. He needed a more pointed symbolism, an object that would speak openly to the world. It was still a matter of a fundamental dialogue, of the symbols at the root of our existence. Bereś decided to bring these symbols to the surface and force them into a dialogue. Yet it turned out that the road to these symbols was blocked by conformist acceptance, by fear, by the incapacity to come out in opposition, by cultural-political imperatives. The only way to clear the symbolic field was to fight against the falsehood of existence. This is where the energy of struggle enters Jerzy Bereś’s art for the first time. He brought it in to clear the field, but it largely took control of the field. From that moment on, the artist resorted to provocation in order to be able to protest. He went out looking for a fight. One might even risk the assertion that he picked fights. Fighting is a very attractive thing; it liberates splendid energy and intensifies the feeling of being right. No truths are more final than those introduced on the battlefield. After the “narcotic of God-like creation,” the “narcotic of fighting” provided a new sort of creative energy, and Jerzy Bereś became a master of using it.

Let us return, however, to the moment when the semi-abstract wooden sculptures turned into weapons. At the beginning came such hesitant, ironical-critical commentaries as The Applause Device, The Lollipop, The Morality Meter, Falsehood, The Didactic Rattle, and The Political Stool. They mocked the tawdriness of public acclaim and focused the attention on the object of that acclaim – the falsified, cowering reality of a pseudo-communist banana republic. An unleashing of critical commentary accompanied this shift in focus. From that moment on, the reality of the “totalitarian tribe,” perceived as the generalisation of his private injuries and private enslavement, became Bereś’s enemy. When Hamilton criticised Bereś’s manifestation at the Foksal Gallery (rather unwisely) on the pages of “Kultura” in 1968, Bereś’s next appearance featured the literal and symbolic burning of the magazine; over time. this gesture began to be treated as a protest against the lies told by the press. Art can transform the usurpation of a man into the revelation of an artist. The opposite situation, on the other hand, always leads to political or social drama.

From that moment on, the critical-prophetic intensity of Jerzy Bereś’s work reached such a pitch that not even interactive sculptures were enough. There was no place in the sculpture for the sculptor, for his gesture and the message that he wanted to convey to others. It became necessary, in an exceptionally well-justified way, for the artist to enter physically on stage in his own work. The first manifestations from the late 1960s are a complete confirmation of this necessity. The great Prophecies, richly developed in terms of stage design and meaning, have nothing in common with the hesitancy of his early sculpture. They are masterfully composed and precisely imbued, even packed, with significance. It is plain that the artist has found the path to self-realisation and identified the relationship with reality in which this ought to occur. The symbols are completely overt and amplified, and receive additional emphasis from being involved in para-religious contexts. He uses the visual rhetoric of religion in his manifestations, which also became media events – a gift that every artist dreams of. Bereś was completely open about appropriating the force of symbols developed in other actions and contexts, in a way that was typical of his artistic practice. He did not avoid even the most fundamental terms or props. Altars appeared in his manifestations, he said mass, made the offering, put on the loincloth, and changed wood or bread into flesh, and wine or vodka into the spirit of truth, the artistic consecration and, finally, communion. Enumerating these borrowings makes us aware of the level of risk involved in such an operation. Symbols transferred from the church to the gallery easily lose their spirituality along the way, and become banal. Few are the artists capable of playing on this instrument, but Jerzy Bereś is a virtuoso. His altars, masses, and offerings are as meaningful as those in church. Perhaps this is because we are dealing with a great priestly calling here. Jerzy Bereś has created his own religion, without ever proclaiming it. Perhaps this is because there was never any need to do so, because it is such a simple religion. Art consecrates life, and the artist indicates where the evil is located, and how good, and the truth, reveal themselves. Those who share the artist/priest’s views drink with him the wine blessed with a painted flower or some similar gesture. The artist himself – priest and prophet rolled into one – becomes the most faithful of the faithful, a man filled with responsibility for the significances that he determines. This sense of vocation is accompanied by ethical megalomania: Jerzy Bereś is increasingly convinced that he knows where evil is located and where it comes from, and that he is capable of elucidating this truth and conveying it to others. This private religion has its own “Satan,” in the form of present-day political systems or complexities. Satan surely exists, as shown by the fact that, at the moment, we are incapable of good or ethical politics. The best we can manage is politics that is less venal and mendacious.

The first part of Bereś’s artistic career coincided with the communist regime. The prohibition then in force on speaking about freedom, the prohibition against manifesting freedom and criticising anything, and the mandatory submissiveness to the official propaganda, were a fantastic motivation and provocation for an artist whose right to speak the truth and demonstrate freedom grew with each work. In order to achieve fulfilment, this confrontation required political repression, but, un-fortunately, the repression never came. At most, a local scandal broke out, or a sculpture entered for an exhibition was rejected. In his memoirs and in interviews, he whines, like a victim, about these infrequent incidents where he “suffered for the sake of art.” In fact, Jerzy Bereś would seem to have been well tolerated by the communist regime, rather than been its victim. His art and ethical apostleship required the use of terms, symbols, and rituals drawn from the Catholic Church, and this endows them with the status of a higher message, based on revelation. The religious quotations, along with his exposed penis and the anointing with vodka, make up a single whole. The communist censor saw nothing wrong with this linking of the highest “sacred” and the lowest “profane,” thanks to which Jerzy Bereś had a free hand in the rhetorical-philosophical shaping of his art. In today’s political climate, this would be impossible. No one, let alone a priest with a naked penis, would today be able to enact a mass at the altar, even in private. Such art would immediately be attacked as an insult to religious values, blasphemy, and an assault on the sensibilities of the faithful. The right-wing religious vigilantes who track down “misdemeanours” by artists would hardly pass up such an occasion.

If the present political structure leaves Bereś alone and spares him open, aggressive condemnation, it surely does so in order to avoid looking ridiculous. Jerzy Bereś is one of the best-known Polish artists. He is a modern classic. His works are found in all Polish museums. He is, after Kantor, the standard bearer of the Grupa Krakowska. Additionally, he fought against that same communism that the present political formation treats as the enemy.

Today, Jerzy Bereś is no longer contending against communism. He might even seem to remember it with nostalgia, since it was in those events and times that the values he fights for in his art existed. That moral exaltation, which was the synonym of those times, appears at this moment to have been extinguished.1Quoted from a TV program (Manifestacja romantyczna Jerzego Beresia [Romantic Manifestation by Jerzy Bereś]) from year 2000. Today, bis work expresses enigmatic disapproval (or a perverse love?) of the political fact of the European Union. We might expect his coming manifestations to make more precise the feelings expressed most strongly at present by stamping his penis, painted red and white, on the European flag. This is surely a critical gesture, in which the small, endangered national symbol attempts to mark its presence on the healthy, triumphant symbol of the union. It requires ideological refinement, or it may turn out to be suspended in a state of enigmatic ellipsis.

An artist is under no compulsion to be consistent or to have a coherent ideology. No one has a right to expect an artist to say everything, explain himself, or be logical. Artistic value does not inhere in political, religious, or ethical views, but rather in intricate methods of manipulating one’s own positions, feelings, aggression, and perception. The interesting thing is the way in which art becomes the artist’s lord and master. As everyone knows, this – along with doing good for others – is the only submission fit for a human being.


Transl. William Brand

  • 1
    Quoted from a TV program (Manifestacja romantyczna Jerzego Beresia [Romantic Manifestation by Jerzy Bereś]) from year 2000.
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