Action artist and sculptor Jerzy Berés was born in 1930, in Nowy Sacz, Poland. From 1950 until 1955, he was a student of sculptor Ksawery Dunikowski at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. In 1966 he became a member of the Cracow Group II.
Next to Tadeusz Kantor, Berés has been known until today as one of the first and most charismatic representatives of early Polish Action art. As to the European Avantgarde and its general orientation, he has been considered an exception. In very unique ways he held on to traditional artistic creation myths, stressed the sacred, ritual character of the artistic creation process, while at the same time making use of the Avantgarde medium of Action art. In the repressive political climate of Poland in the 1960s, Berés attracted attention with Actions that transgressed the taboos of public morality and took a political stand, sometimes in more, sometimes in less subtle ways.
After finishing his studies under Dunikowski, from whose figurative-sculptural work he soon detached himself, wood as material became Berés’ first exclusive artistic medium. He developed his own language of forms in the raw materiality of wood, in coarsely peeled blocks that clearly set themselves off from informal art. Berés was interested in the crafts. In tradition-bound techniques of working wood, he used chisel, axe, and saw, and his techniques remind of pre-modern, even prehistoric models. His bulky, rough, and spacious wooden constructions gain a mystical appearance through unfamiliar additions: He assembled the single parts by using leather, raffia, and coarse string, thereby creating agricultural equipment, such as carts as well as strange wooden signposts. He painted his pieces, wrote on them, and decorated them with scraps of cloth and with amulets. From 1958 on, he called them »dream visions« or »delusions« (Trugbild-Tretmühle, Trugbild-Schwengel,Trugbild-Pflug / Delusion Treadmill, Delusion Handle, Delusion Plow). These monumental pieces of equipment are obviously not functional, yet they refer to a diffuse identity of the »Volk« (people) and to cultural convention. Soon they became carriers of political messages (Weiß-Rotes Trugbild / White-Red Delusion, 1965). The potential of agency that is inherent to the objects, perhaps becomes most clearly visible in the Polnischer Schubkarren / Polish Wheelbarrow that Berés created in 1966 and defamiliarized into a metaphor of Polish historical identity.
Only after the mid-1960s did Berés use the wooden objects as utensils or bodylike agents in his Performances. The Actions – they carried titles like »Oracle, ›Mass,‹ and ›Altar‹ – were geared towards interaction with the public. In order to keep them distinct from a Western European and US-American Happening culture, he called them ›Manifestations.‹ Drawing on religious practices (Orakel I/II, 1968) Berés staged the romantic creation myth using his entire, mostly naked and painted body (Lagerfeuer der Kunst / Campfire of Art, 1976, Romantische Messe / Romantic Mass 1978, Künstlerische Messe / Artistic Mass, 1979; Disput mit Marcel DuchampDispute with Marcel Duchamp, 1990; Dialog mit Tadeusz Kantor / Dialogue with Tadeusz Kantor, 1991). Especially at the beginning of the 1980s, Berés therefore became the main representative of a new ›encounter with the Sacral‹ (trans. from Gralinska-Toborek, in: Inferno, 7, 2003). The aims of this encounter are considered political by curator Janusz Bogucki, a judgment that also takes into consideration the anti-communist orientation of Polish Catholicism.
At the end of the 1960s, Berés also did mobile objects (Roller / Scooter, 1968), or wooden apparatuses that perform absurd and obscene activities and thus playfully generate social activity (Klakeur / Applauding One, 1970; Diplomatischer Ping Pong; 1970, Lutscher / Lollypop, 1971). It is above all these works that closely connect with folk art.
Berés’ sculptures were exhibited at the Musée Rodin in Paris already in 1966. Since they have been shown in the context of group exhibitions in Western Europe, e. g., at the Lehmbruck-Museum Duisburg (1978), at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (1983), at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford (1988), and at the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle Bonn (1994). Solo exhibitions took place at the Museum Bochum (1971), at the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (1983), and at the National Museum Cracow (1995). In 2000, Berés’ work was shown at the Museum Würth in Künzelsau.
Jerzy Berés lives and works in Cracow.
Rottenberg, A.; Szylak, A.: Le XXe siècle dans l’art polonais. Paris 2004
Verteidigung der Moderne. Positionen der polnischen Kunst nach 1945: Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jerzy Berés, Tomasz Ciecierski, Leon Tarasewicz: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Würth, Künzelsau 2000
Art at the edge. Contemporary Art from Poland, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Jerzy Berés, Edward Dwurnik: Ausst.-Kat. Museum of Modern Art Oxford, Oxford 1988
Expressiv: Mitteleuropäische Kunst seit 1960: Ausst.-Kat. Museum moderner Kunst, Museum d. 20. Jahrhunderts Wien u.a., Wien 1987
Présences polonaises: Ausst.-Kat. Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1983
Jerzy Berés: Ausst.-Kat. Museum Bochum, hg. v. P. Leo. Bochum 1971