The interwar period (1918-1939) was a truly unique time. Poland regained independence in 1918, and that triggered a free development of national culture. It was a time to catch one’s breath, to let in the artistic freshness of Western Europe, and to shape and develop the language of art. Literary life was flourishing and poetic societies were thriving. Various artistic groups brought avant-garde trends to Polish soil and thereby opposed the heritage of Young Poland – the symbolic and patriotic art of the turn of the century.
Trends that glorified progress and civilization and demonstrated construction, geometry, and simplicity attained the heights of popularity. Polish formism was born from the inspiration of futurism and cubism. German expressionism and the poetics of surrealism also gained adherents. At the same time, artists drew inspiration from state-supported Polish folk art. The trend inspired by abstract art, the Polish avant-garde proper, developed in a different way reflecting European trends. The most renowned representatives of the three consecutive groups – BLOK, Praesens, and a.r. (revolutionary artists) – were Władysław Strzemiński, Katarzyna Kobro and Henryk Stażewski. They were fascinated by machinery, believing that a piece of art should, just like a machine, be constructed logically. Still, most influential on the next generation were the Kapists (Paris Committee). Inspired by the works of impressionists and postimpressionists, they considered color to be the main form of expression.
The individuality of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz – Witkacy – a painter, writer and philosopher – stands out from this background. In his works he combines phantasmagorical visions, a theory of “pure form,” and smooth composition.
It was into this diverse landscape of Polish art that someone completely new – Bruno Larek – arrived. We do not know much about him. He was born in 1901 and studied mechanical engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology and painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. He gave up both majors in order to travel to Berlin and Paris. He was killed in a fire in Warsaw at the age of 35. That is all we know. He was in his teens during the First World War, and he did not live to see the Second, so he did not experience this historical and national trauma. It seems, however, that he was at the center of avant-garde artistic transformations. In his works, one may notice a Dadaist influence. During his stay in Berlin and Paris, Larek likely met Hannah Höch, Max Ernst, Raoul Hausmann, Francis Picabia, and John Heartfield. He might even have seen the famous Erste Internationale Dada-Messe in 1920.
Dadaism remained unpopular among Polish artists. Although grotesque and caricature were known in lighter forms – in pictures and press – absurdist and anti-artistic ideas did not fit Polish cultural identity. Bruno Larek, however, quite quickly adopted Dadaism and gave it a personal touch.
The art of Larek can be summarized by two words: experiment and play.
One can see both the pseudoscientific and the pseudomedical interests of the would-be engineer as well as a free imagination and an absurd sense of humor. These can be easily discerned in the series of collages entitled “Mechanical Person” (“Mechaniczny Człowiek”). The analysis of these collages allows for observation of changes in Larek’s approach to this medium. His larger formats with many seemingly chaotically scattered elements were undoubtedly inspired by the works of Hanna Höch. The works from 1923, on the other hand, are characterized by a sense of freedom and a sarcastic, light note of social and political criticism (for instance, the collage presenting church hierarchs in celebratory clothes with the caption “Painted Matters and Low Necklines” [“Malowane materie i najgłębsze dekolty”] or the loaded donkey against the city landscape – “A New MP” (“Nowy poseł”). Later works can be characterized by a simplified, almost ascetic composition, consisting of one or two elements on a clear background. At that time, Larek started to use color and added abstract blue lines or black planes to the paper clippings.
Experiment and fun also characterize objects the artist created. Ordinary things combined with some human element – for instance a vacuum cleaner that sucks in hair (maybe the hair is the only thing left to be sucked…), or a wheelchair with a human-size doll in a gas mask standing in front of it – seem to be cruel jokes. The mysterious “box with sounds” is of quite a different character. It is a Dadaist prototype of a combination of an amplifier, a loudspeaker, and an electrical device to process classical music to make it distorted, dirty, and anti-classical. This processing seems to be exceptionally interesting for Larek. The leitmotif of a machine, camera, musical devices (amplifier, loudspeakers) but also mechanical people (in collages and object), points to a need for changing reality, for tools of sensory reception and the human body. Hence the interest in medicine, as demonstrated by the anatomy atlases he collected.
All these elements scientific and fantastic create the world of the mysterious Bruno Larek, a creator and discoverer who, in a way, brings to mind Frankenstein trying to create a new being. They are also the world of an artist with an enormous sense of humor and a certain distance from the world of art, one whose artistic attitudes seem exceptionally up to date.
Bruno Larek is absent from the history of art. He did not belong to any group nor did he take part in any exhibition. He “debuted” in 2012 at the Polish Institute’s gallery in Dusseldorf. After nine months the exhibition came to Biała Gallery in Lublin. Here, visitors have a chance to encounter his art, but also to meet the artist, since each meeting with a work of art is also an encounter with the artist. The space of Biała Gallery will be as a time machine for us. Whether we allow ourselves to alter time depends entirely on us. If we do, Bruno Larek will exist now, even though he was forgotten in the past. We will be able to say that Bruno Larek is, even though he is the artist that never existed.