Samuel Szczekacz

The Image and Its Limits 1933–1939

Samuel Szczekacz was a member of the last generation of avant-garde artists to debut not long before the outbreak of the Second World War. Compared with the tragic fate of most Jewish artists associated with the Polish and Jewish artistic life of interbellum Poland, whose works were lost irretrievably, the artistic legacy of Szczekacz – and the archival documentation lovingly preserved for years and then made available to researchers – is without precedent.

Seen against the destinies and artistic legacies of his closest colleagues, the case of Samuel Szczekacz is a special one. Most of his works survived the conflagration of the war; the shrewd artist took them to Belgium, where he moved at the end of 1938 with the aim of studying architecture; several months later he went to Jerusalem, where, having changed his name into “Zur”, he began studying at the Hebrew University. Because of this, today we can view even the artist’s earliest drawing exercises from the days of his evening classes with Strzemiński, including exercises in perspective and axonometry, or his sketches of Cubist and abstract compositions attesting to his visits to the Urban Museum.

Communing in the Urban Museum with original works, and in periodicals or teaching aids prepared by their professor with reproductions of works by universally recognised authorities, in a short time the students not only mastered the principles espoused by Strzemiński for creating compositions that were Cubist, Suprematist, Neoplastic or Surrealist, they also encountered the possibility of connecting languages of visual expression that were seemingly remote from each other. Szczekacz demonstrated this, in works such as the Neoplastic/Unistic Construction from around 1937 or the abstract gouache Composition from the same period; he attuned organic forms in the spirit of Hans Arp (still complementing and interpenetrating each other according to the principle of contrasting colours) with a strategy of the consistent use of the entire picture plane that signalled a return to Unism.

This scrupulous implementation of the assumptions of Unism is attested to in such works by Szczekacz as Unistic Composition and Composition No. 6. Both were created around 1937 using oil paints and string. And to both apply the words of Andrzej Turowski describing the essence of Unism in painting: “In a visual homogeneity of figure and ground, top and bottom, centre and edges, in the absence of vertical, horizontal or diagonal directions, in a monochromatic monotony of multiplied colour patches – the picture lost any meaning. Deprived of rhythms, it was a linear continuum, a set of identical points occupying a field. It was an object: a piece of canvas on a stretcher covered with paint”.

The wheel of life came full circle: Samuel Szczekacz-Zur died of a heart attack in his ‘native Europe’ on 27 September 1983 when he travelled there for an exhibition entitled Présences Polonaises. L’Art vivant autour du Musée de Łódź at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. There, for the first time in several decades, his avant-garde works were given a public showing.