Portrait of Uri Tsevi Grinberg. Henryk Berlewi, Warsaw, 1922. The drawing appeared in Grinberg’s book of poetry, Mefisto (Warsaw: Farlag “Literatur-fond” baym Fareyn fun Yidishe literatn un zshurnalistn in Varshe, 1922). (Joe Fishstein Yiddish Poetry Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library)

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Berlewi, Henryk

(1894–1967), painter, graphic designer, typographer, and critic. Henryk Berlewi was a leading figure among constructivist artists in Poland in the 1920s. Though his fame rests on his posters, book jackets, and page designs in Yiddish and Hebrew, he is also known for his advanced constructivist paintings, drawings, and especially his cutting-edge graphic designs based on his theory of Mechano-faktura. He published studies on art in Yiddish, Polish, and German.

Albatros, a journal for new writing and graphic arts. Edited by Uri Tsevi Grinberg (No. 3, Berlin, 1923). Cover designed by Henryk Berlewi. (YIVO)

Berlewi trained at the fine arts academies of Warsaw (1904–1909), Antwerp (1909–1910), and Paris (1911–1912), returning to Warsaw in 1913 to study at the school of design. During World War I, he discovered futurism and Dada and in 1918 met with the futurist Aleksander Wat and the formist Anatol Stern, Jews whose Polish-language verse he later illustrated. Between 1919 and 1921, Berlewi also worked with the Yung-yidish group of poets and expressionist artists determined to create a new Jewish secular culture. In 1920, he designed a poster for An-ski’s Dybbuk that gained him wide recognition. Throughout that decade, the leading Yiddish expressionist poets of the Khalyastre (Perets Markish, Uri Tsevi Grinberg) sought his designs for their verse; a notable example is his 1923 cover of Albatros (no. 3), which he created for Grinberg (see image at left).

In 1921, Berlewi met El Lissitzky and followed him to Berlin, where in 1922–1923 Berlewi abandoned figurative art for pure constructivist abstraction. He also worked with the Novembergruppe in the major modernist art exhibit in Berlin (1922). Returning to Warsaw, he helped found BLOK, an avant-garde abstract group of artists in Poland, in 1924–1926.

In 1924, Berlewi published his theoretical tract, Mechano-faktura (using mechanical means to create texture), in Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm. Its basic premise rejects the illusion of space in favor of two-dimensionality. Color is reduced to black, white, and red, and visual equivalents of images are accomplished by mechanical means using rhythmic arrangements of lines and simple geometrical forms such as circles and squares (see image below).

From Ringen (Rings), January 1921. Illustration by Henryk Berlewi. (YIVO)

Berlewi’s first one-man show was mounted at the Austro-Daimler automobile showroom in Warsaw in 1924. This was followed by the Der Sturm exhibit in Berlin, dedicated to the visual expression of principles outlined in Mechano-faktura. With Wat and Stanisław Brucz, Berlewi opened an advertising agency, Reklama Mechano, where he merged theory with practice in the design of commercial art.

In 1928, Berlewi moved to Paris, as did other Polish and Jewish artists. Here he returned to figurative painting, mainly portraits. During World War II, he lived in southern France, returning to Paris in 1945. Rediscovered by a French critic, Berlewi took part in a major Paris show, “Precursors of Abstract Art in Poland” (1957). Suddenly appreciated again, he also had one-man shows in Berlin (1963, 1964), Paris (1965), Warsaw (1966), Zurich (1974), and New York (1976, 1978).

Suggested Reading

Steven A. Mansbach, Modern Art in Eastern Europe: From the Baltic to the Balkans, ca. 1890–1939 (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 104–131; Eckhard Neumann, “Henryk Berlewi and Mechano-faktura,” Typographica 9 (June 1964): 21–28.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 101, Art and Artifacts, Collection, 18th c.-1980s.