Polish Culture / Culture news from Poland / Helena Bohle – Szacka. Diffusion
Helena Bohle – Szacka. Diffusion

Helena Bohle – Szacka. Diffusion

The world of fashion is most often associated with Paris. Few people know that Łódź, a city in central Poland, closely related with the textile industry since its beginnings, significantly contributed to the development of 20th century fashion. Hard to believe? Then welcome to the HELENA BOHLE -SZACKA. DIFFUSION exhibition at the Central Museum of Textiles in Łódź, open until 20 March 2022, curated by Marcin Różyc.

To tell just one story about Helena is simply not enough – an artist, fashion designer, philanthropist and one of the most important figures on post-war Polish art scene. Władysław Strzemiński, who was her teacher and mentor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź conveyed to her his fascination with avant-garde art and the skill to combine it with fashion and applied design.

As artistic director of the Warsaw based fashion house LEDA, she promoted trousers for women, and in 1964 designed one of the first ever fashion collections for teenagers, a global novelty because until then only collections for adults or children were available. Shortly after that she created a neoplastic collection inspired by the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian. In 1965, Yves Saint Laurent presented similar designs in Paris. However, Helena Bohle-Szacka did not copy the French designer. According to the exhibition curator, the presence of Mondrian squares in her collection was the result of Strzemiński’s personal acquaintance with Mondrian. Together with the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro, Strzemiński had founded the Museum of Art in Łódź in 1931, the first museum of modern art in Europe. The works collected there were most likely the inspiration for her neoplastic designs. Yes, those works, not the YSL designs.

Incidentally, the first designer to bring Mondraian’s neoplasticism to the world of fashion was another lady from Lodz, Leokadia Prusak (Lola Prussac), who contributed to the commercial success of luxury brand Hermès by designing the first collection for women for it in 1929. She was the one who put the well-known squares and rectangles on Hermès bags in the 1930s.

Bohle-Szacka, thanks to her love for abstract art, managed to avoid socialist realism, an ideology-based trend, promoted in Poland at that time. Her designs were contemporary and cosmopolitan. She was the first designer from behind the Iron Curtain, whose collections were presented in West Berlin in 1965.

She also created graphics, lectured on fashion theory, designed excellent graphic logos for Polish companies, and was an acclaimed journalist.

Born in 1927 in Białystok, her father was German by birth but Polish by choice, who renounced German citizenship and took a Polish passport instead after Hitler came to power. Her mother was a Pole of Jewish origin.

Helena spent part of the war as a prisoner in the Rvensbrück concentration camp and survived the nightmare of the death march. However, she only began to talk about her wartime experiences towards the end of her life.

In 1968 she moved to Berlin, where she continued her artistic career and taught fashion theory although she never severed her ties with Poland. In the 1970s and 1980s, she organised exhibitions in Germany for “banned” Polish artists. She was also involved in community work, sharing with younger generations her wartime experience and the message that military conflict, nationalism and the stigmatisation of otherness always lead to human tragedy.

Apart from Bohle-Szacka’s designs, the exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź, also presents the works by contemporary artists who draw inspiration from her artistic legacy.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of design, the history of fashion and the history of the 20th century, as the life of Helena Bohle-Szacka was strongly scarred by it.

The exhibition has been made possible thanks to financial support from the City of Łódź and the Stiftung Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft (Foundation Memory, Responsibility, Future).