"Bio-faktura." The Paintings of Hel Enri

Helena Berlewi produced her first painting in 1952, at the age of 79. From that moment on, she never stopped painting. By the time she passed away at a venerable age of 103, Berlewi developed her own individual style and exhibited widely all across the globe. Her paintings reveal a deep artistic sensitivity and are often compared with works of the twentieth-century most distinguished painters. Helena Berlewi’s paintings will be available for viewing at POLIN Museum at the "Bio-faktura" exhibition held in the Legacy Gallery from 28 June until 16 September 2024.

  • 28 June – 16 September 2024
  • Legacy Gallery, free admission

Helena Berlewi was a Pole, a Jew, a Holocaust survivor, mother of the painter, graphic designer and typographer Henryk Berlewi. However, first and foremost, she is globally recognized as a talented artist in her own right, working under the name Hel Enri.

Her life story is truly extraordinary. Berlewi pursued her passion despite many cultural constraints. As a Jewish woman born in the Polish lands in the 1870s, she did not obtain proper education. She dedicated several decades of her life to running a household and raising children. When she finally discovered her artistic calling aged almost 80, her latent talent suddenly manifested itself. Hel Enri’s paintings testify to her great artistic sensitivity and are often compared with works of the twentieth-century most distinguished painters.

Helena Berlewi produced her first painting in 1952, at the age of 79. She entered her son’s studio and picked up a paintbrush:

"It was snowing outside, I was alone. […] I felt that I needed to occupy myself with something. And as I sat, deep in thoughts […] my eyes lingered on a vase sitting on the table with beautiful, yellow mimosas. I thought to myself—what a great motif for a painting! Only I cannot paint, I don’t know how, I never learnt. I thought again—why not try, where’s the harm? If it works—great, if not—so be it! I'm not risking anything. [...] As soon as I started painting with that small brush, the entire world disappeared. I thought of nothing else, I was absorbed in painting with my whole body and soul, looking at the flowers as I transferred them onto the cardboard, my hand acquiring a life of its own…"

From that moment on, Helena Berlewi never stopped painting. As she reached the venerable age of 103, she was able to develop an individual style and to exhibit widely all over the world. The work of Hel Enri was often presented in the context of naïve art, popular in the second half of the twentieth century. However, many critics distanced themselves from this line of thinking, focusing on her mature, refined artistic culture.

Enri painted primarily on small-format paper, using watercolours, pastels, and markers. The leading motifs of her paintings were flowers and other plant motifs, which she transformed towards abstraction, consciously experimenting with form. Saturated with colour and light, her compositions fill arabesque shapes and contours meandering in an undefined space.

Hel Enri’s "bio-faktura" differs significantly from the interwar “mechano-faktura” of her son Henryk Berlewi. And yet, they were both close to Henryk’s theories on the spiritual foundation of art. In Helena’s oeuvre, one could find spiritual kinship with the work of Henri Matisse (building space with flat patches of colour, employing organic forms), Chinese painting (the subtlety of drawing, empty spaces), or the art of Georgia O’Keeffe (transforming a realistic motif from nature into an abstract landscape).

Hel Enri herself referred to her works as Herbariums. She used to say that by painting flowers, she recalls her memories of places and people from the past:

"In the old age, one feels increasingly alone, and that is when memories keep flowing in with doubled force. My flowers, wilted flowers, are precisely that—memories."

Indeed, Enri’s floral forms oscillating between abstraction and reality seem to combine the beauty of the flower with the drama of the roots. Considering the artist’s age and her complicated fate, it is almost obvious that it is the richness and depth of her life experiences that underpin the subtle yet sophisticated form of her works.

Meetings about the work of Hel Enri and painting workshop au plein air →

Helena Berlewi was born in 1873 in Warsaw as Chaja Leja Szrajber. At the age of 18, she was married off to Izrael Berlewi. The couple resided on Tłomackie Street. Helena spent most of her life as a homemaker, taking care of her family. The Berlewis had three children, including the eldest Henryk (b. 1894) who was to become a pioneer of Polish and Jewish avant-garde in the interwar period. In 1928, already a widow, Helena emigrated to France, following her son Henryk. During the Nazi occupation, together with her daughter Stefania, she was held in a transit camp. She managed to avoid being deported to an extermination camp and later hid in the south of France. After the war had ended, she lived with Henryk in Paris. In 1952, at the age of 79, she produced her first painting, which marked the beginning of her artistic career. From then on, she continued to paint without cease under the name Hel Enri. By 1970, she had had more than thirty exhibitions worldwide, including two exhibitions in Poland, in 1958 and 1966. She passed away in 1976 in France.


"Bio-faktura." The Paintings of Hel Enri exhibition was organised by POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in cooperation with the Art & Modern Foundation. Enri’s paintings presented in the exhibition belong to the Wejman Gallery collection. 

  • Curator: Tamara Sztyma
  • Design: Piotr Antonów
  • Production: IKG/Aleksander Sieklicki

Logos of partners and organizers of Biofaktura exhibition