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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Mieczyslaw Berman’s Polish Prop-Art

While studying graphic design and typography at the School of Decorative Arts in Warsaw, Mieczysław Berman (1903–1975) was attracted to Russian Constructivism. Berman’s own Constructivist collages, started in 1927, also show the influence of László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) and Hannah Höch (1889–1978). Photomontage would become Berman’s primary medium after he discovered the political photomontages of John Heartfield in the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper). As a result of Heartfield’s influence, Berman moved away from Constructivism to use the medium of photomontage politically. With Franciszek Bartosek, Berman co-founded the Warsaw Artists Group (also known as Phrygian Cap)—an organization active from 1934 to 1938, which was affiliated with the Polish Communist Party. The group organized two exhibitions in Warsaw (1936) and Krakow (1937). Berman received the gold medal for poster design at the 1937 Exposition internationale des Arts et des Techniques appliqués à la Vie moderne (International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life) in Paris. He spent World War II in the Soviet Union, where he contributed to the Polish-language Soviet occupation newspaper Red Banner. After the war he published satirical drawings and photomontages in such famous Polish satiric magazines as Szpilki (Pins), and illustrated writings by Stanisław Jerzy Lec.

Piotr Rypson has just published a book (only in Polish yet richly illustrated) titled Czerwony monter. Mieczysław Berman – grafik, który zaprojektował polski komunizm (Red Fighter: Mieczysław Berman—Graphic Designer Who Designed Polish Communism). I asked Rypson to talk more about this relatively unknown (in the U.S.) master of propaganda arts. For more on the book, go here.

What was the status of Mieczyslaw Berman in Poland as a designer and polemicist? Berman was the main designer for Polish Communists before the war (started in 1930), in Moscow (1943–46) and after the war till the 1960s. He was seen as an author of anti-capitalist, anti-Nazi photomontages, and worked for the underground Communist press in the 1930s, later for the group of Communist leaders in Moscow during the war—who finally came to power supported by Stalin in 1945 in Poland. He basically created the visual communication idiom for that group and was very influential in the 1940s–1960s.

I’m curious why I’ve never heard of him or his work. Was he banned during the Communist period? He was never banned, on the contrary! He definitely has belonged to a small group of privileged artists. The reasons his design work is little known are:

1. Neither the Polish Communist party, nor scholars, had interest for promoting this type of work, for various reasons.

2. Communist time heritage was not studied much for the past 30 years—due to an anti-communist amnesia throughout the ex-Soviet bloc countries.

3. Berman preferred to present himself as a photomontage revolutionary artist, not a designer.

4. I also think that sympathetic art historians kept some of his most aggressive propaganda stuff in the shade, in a way protecting the good name of the photomontagist with Avant-Garde roots.

5. And speaking of the Avant Garde (stylistically the starting point for Berman), he was overshadowed by the first generation: Berlewi, Strzeminski, Szczuka, Zarnower.

This is an amazing collection. How did you get all this material? Most of the material comes from my archive and private collections, but also from libraries and museums; many of the pre-1939 books, however, as well as pre-war Communist weeklies, are very rare, some I know in but one copy. Took 10 years of slow and then intense research to amass that.

What would you describe as Berman’s most important contribution to Polish graphic design? He created a clearly recognizable visual communication language of the Polish left, borrowing on the start from Heartfield (who was to become his friend) and Soviet design and propaganda (and others, Moholy-Nagy among them). Both in the 1930s as well as in the 1950s and ’60s, looking at his covers one immediately knew this was a leftist publication.

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