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Wladyslaw Strzeminski 1893 - 1952
In his theory of Unism Strzeminski defined painting as a constant of the artistic discourse and stated that what we can certainly say about a painting is that it is a flat canvas surface covered with paint and limited by a frame. Earlier, dualist art was based on the opposition between form itself and "elements alien to art" that were the source of meaning and expression. Dualism masked the purely formal aspect of art. According to Strzeminski the way to an art "authentic in its very essence" leads through the refusal of dualism to unism, a system that shows painting "such as it really is", in an anti-illusionist unity of form. Space, emotion, narration, and finally illusion should be eliminated from the work. Creation lies in successive reduction aiming towards the unity of a system that in its most extreme form leads to the objective unity of world and art. "Abstract painting does not take its formative means and systems from the outside" , wrote Strzeminski, "by mutually adapting the plastic system and visible nature, but from the inside, out of the laws of its own logic, through observation and the study of the phenomena that link all the elements of a painting, giving it unity and organic quality. Abstract concrete realist painting draws its elements from a concept of plastic art that has the realisation of the painting as its objective". (3)
In its quest for the essence of art within a unified, rationalised system of form, Strzeminski's theory of Unism reached the limits of meaning. Defining the system itself as object, he absolutised its generic and consequently its artistic existence. The objective of a work of art, he wrote, is "absolute construction". Merging the conceptual absolutisation of art with the reification of artistic structure, Strzeminski seized the key problem of Constructivism - and involved himself in a modernist contradiction. Starting from a systematic interpretation of art as a sign, he went on to fuse the representer with the represented and undermined the notion of meaning realised by the symbolic structure. He transposed the discussion about painting as a form that participates in social communication into the realm of utopic considerations and proposed the utopia of an understanding situated outside the system - within the object. (4)
The painter who realised a Unistic painting ceased to be a cosmic medium mediating experiences. Instead he became the constructor of a reified world. Experience, which had hitherto been the groundwork of the creative process, was replaced by "mastery and systematic work" giving rise to the product - the result of constructive operations. This was the path chosen by Rodchenko and a group of Russian Productivists. Having realised the "last painting" they abandoned painting as such - and consequently reflection on form - and sought to find their place in industry as "engineers of production", rapidly becoming ideologists of political power. (5)
. Strzeminski, who did not renounce vision as means of communication, did not go as far. According to him, by losing its symbolic import the painting-object became something like a commodity - but without gaining a clear-cut utilitarian value. Insignificant in the world of signs, in the world of things the painting was an absurd object - an extreme situation, in which this object's purely theoretical status became apparent. It could undermine the entire concept of the painting brought forth by historical and artistic processes. By its extreme nature the Unist painting, as a thing-painting, "simply was". The fact of making apparent this state of being in painted paintings constituted the theoretical practice of the contemporary artist. In his practice as a painter and his strictly related practice of seeing Strzeminski tried to counter the idea of the end of art (presented repeateadly and in various version by Russian analysts of the revolutionary period and to overcome the avant-garde opposition between theory and practice.
Strzeminski belived that the specifitity of art, i.e. covering the surface of a canvas (painting) of situating a mass in space (sculpture) - its pictorial or scuptural character - is grounded in experimental practice. This consists of a permanent actualisation of the rules of vision extreme to all that is visible: rules shaped by the "consciousness of visual content" that developed alongside evolution and history. The history of vision and the corresponding pictorial practice were to reconcile the historic, objectified work with the conceptual absolutisation of art. Or, expressed in the categories used here: to reconcile the physiology of the eye and the abstract character of the mind.