Vladislav Strzheminsky the one-armed artist who invented unism

Cover for a book by Julian Przyboś, Z over
Cover for a book by Julian Przyboś, Z over

Vladislav Maximilianovich Strzeminsky (Władysław Strzemiński; born November 9 (21), 1893 died December 26, 1952) is a Polish-Belarusian avant-garde artist and creator of a style called unism. Vladislav Strzheminsky was a Pole by nationality and spent the second half of his life in Poland, but this painter is considered a representative of national art in Belarus, where he was born. The work of Vladislav Strzheminsky is also seen as part of the Russian avant-garde.

Lodz Landscape
Lodz Landscape

Biography of Vladislav Strzheminsky

Vladislav Maximilianovich Strzheminsky was born on November 9, 1893 (November 21 in the new style) on the territory of the Russian Empire, in Minsk. He came from a Polish gentry family. The boy’s father rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Russian army and hoped that his son would also make a brilliant military career.

Vladislav Strzheminsky, according to the decision of his father, at the age of eleven, entered the cadet corps located in Moscow. After studying at this institution for seven years, the young man went to St. Petersburg and entered the engineering school. Strzheminski’s graduation practically coincided with the outbreak of the First World War. As soon as the 21-year-old engineer second lieutenant arrived in the summer of 1914 at the disposal of his superiors, hostilities began. The fortress in the border town of Osovets, where he ended up, was repeatedly bombed, stormed and gassed.

Sea composition. Venus
Sea composition. Venus

The war left a heavy mark on Strezhinsky’s fate

He received several awards for bravery, but lost an arm and a leg. The misfortune happened during a mortar attack. Vladislav’s eyes were also damaged, and the right one was never completely cured. At that time, the young man was 23 years old. It seemed that life was over, ahead a hopeless existence. But fate had other plans!

Once in a Moscow hospital, Strzheminsky met a young nurse of mercy, who became his wife and like-minded person. The girl’s name was Ekaterina Nikolaevna Kobro (later she would become a famous sculptor). Interestingly, although her father was a Russianized German, and her mother came from the Russian family of the Rozanovs, the woman entered the history of art under the Polish name of Katarzyna Kobro.


The meaning of life was given to Strzheminsky by his love for Catherine and a passion for painting.

He became deeply interested in the advanced avant-garde movements. Fortunately, the right arm was intact, and the vision was partially restored. Vladislav closely communicated with another famous artist of Polish origin Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, and became his student. At first, Vladislav Strzheminsky followed the master, but then he began to look for his own path in art, which eventually resulted in the creation of his own artistic style unism.

Sea landscape, 2 VII
Sea landscape, 2 VII

Studying the evolution of this artist’s work, you can see how his style has changed.

Thus, the painting “Still Life. The plate is severely laconic, there are no soft lines in it. Here the influence of Cubism is clearly felt. Subsequently, more fluidity and musicality will appear in Strzheminsky’s painting.

In 1922, the artist and his wife moved to Poland, because in Soviet Russia, after the revolutionary outburst of avant-garde art, there was a breath of censorship “frosts”. In Poland, he began to develop a theory of his style. For the first time, the ideas of unism were expressed in the Blok magazine, which was published by the group of avant-garde artists of the same name. Strzheminsky’s activity was stormy: he taught, was engaged in painting, graphics and architecture, participated in the activities of several art groups.

In 1928, the painter published one of his programmatic works the book “Unism in Painting”. Four years later, another one was published, written with his wife “Composition in space, calculations of the rhythm of time and space.” Katarzyna Kobro largely shared her husband’s approach to art, and they mutually inspired each other.

Vladislav Strzheminsky’s desire to abandon the “multiplicity of forms” and achieve maximum uniformity of elements in the paintings reached its peak in the late 1920s and early 1930s. For several years he worked in a minimalistic, monochromatic palette, trying to get rid of the “plurality” of colors. A winding line began to play a huge role in his work.

Rhythm became one of the key features of the style.

In 1939, the artist’s family moved again, this time to Belarus, the city of Vileika. This was due to the outbreak of World War II. Here he creates the first drawings from the military cycle the most graphic and laconic, but at the same time expressive and painful. The artist completely abandons color. But after a while the color will return in the painfully bright flashes of the work “People in War”.

In 1940, Strzeminski and Kobro returned to Poland. The years that followed were filled with difficult trials. Due to the hardships of the war, negative emotions accumulated, and as a result, they resulted in family discord.

Landscape, Vladislav Strzheminsky
The next blow awaited the painter after the war.

At first, everything seemed to be going great: for several years Strzheminsky bathed in well-deserved fame. He took up teaching, earning a professorship at the ód High School of Art. In parallel, he created and sought new forms of expression in art. Monotony disappears from the works, giving way to motley colors the artist catches the “afterimage of the sun” (glare remaining on the retina of the eye), devoting another cycle of paintings to this topic. The abstractness is growing.

Afterimage of the sun, Vladislav Strzheminsky
Afterimage of the sun

But in 1949 in Poland, which became one of the countries of the socialist camp, the ideology of socialist realism triumphed. The authorities, following the example of the USSR, began to fight against formalism. What Vladislav Strzeminski fled from Russia in the early 1920s, overtook him in Lodz as well. Abstract painting in Poland also began to be perceived as ideologically unacceptable. In 1950, according to the order of the Ministry of Culture, Vladislav Strzheminsky was banned from teaching.

After that, the master did not live long. December 26, 1952, undermined by adversity, he ended his life. After his death, in 1958 and 1979, the books “Visions” and “Letters” written by the master were published. In 2016, a film by Polish film classic Andrzej Wajda about the difficult life of a famous painter was released. The film, nominated for an “Oscar”, is called “Afterimages”: in honor of the famous cycle of paintings by Strzeminski.

A Sketch, Vladislav Strzheminsky
A Sketch
The most famous paintings by Vladislav Strzheminsky

Vladislav Strzheminsky’s paintings returned to the attention of art critics again with the softening of socialist censorship. In the history of art, he remained a loner: unism is called the style of one artist. This author did not have any serious followers. The most famous works of the master are:

  1. “Post-suprematist composition No. 2” (1923). In this episode, Strzeminsky groped for his own individual style, experimenting with reducing the “number of forms”.
  2. “A unique composition No. 13” (1934). In the work, the artist maximally expressed the principles of unism, bringing them to their apogee.
  3. “Unemployed” (1934). This is an example of the work of Vladislav Strzeminsky, in which Her Majesty the Line becomes the main means of expression. It’s amazing how with her help and skillfully placing color accents obeying the general rhythm, the master managed to create both the plot and the mood.
  4. Landscape of Lodz (1932), part of the cycle of works of the same name, written in 1931-1932. This is one of the artist’s most musical paintings, filled with soft lyricism.
  5. The Woman in the Window (1948). The painting is included in the cycle of the master’s later works, united by the title “Afterimage of the Sun” (literally “Afterimage of the Sun”).
Unist Composition 14, Vladislav Strzheminsky
Unist Composition 14
Unist Composition, Vladislav Strzheminsky
Unist Composition
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