The Cursed Paintings of Zdzisław Beksiński
A decade after his brutal murder, Zdzisław Beksiński’s paintings hold the world spellbound. Is the universal fascination they evoke the result of their author’s own gruesome tragedies, or did Beksiński simply succeed at capturing the unsettling underside of human consciousness?
Decay and Darkness
During his long career, Zdzisław Beksiński worked in many fields of art: sculpture, photography, graphic art, drawing, and last but not least, painting. All of Beksiński’s paintings are untitled – he wanted to avoid any metaphorical interpretation of his paintings. As an artist, Beksiński was fascinated with death, decay and darkness. But those weren’t his only fascinations. He was also known his interest in eroticism, abstractionism and Eastern mysticism. From the mid-60s onwards, he was very popular in Poland. In the 80s and 90s Beksiński’s paintings were exhibited abroad, amongst others in France and Japan, and he became an internationally recognized artist. His style is sometimes compared to that of Hans Giger, the Swiss painter who designed the extra-terrestrial creatures for the famous 1979 film Alien.
Beksiński, who was born in 1929, completed the Faculty of Architecture of the Kraków University of Technology. After working in construction, he started to work in his hometown, Sanok, as a bus designer for an automotive factory. In the 50s he became active as a photographer. Some of his photographic works are described as surrealistic-expressionist. One of his most famous photos, Sadist’s Corset, shows Beksiński’s liking for sadomasochistic themes. He eventually gave up on photography in the early 60s, because he grew disappointed with the limited possibilities of altering the images he captured. Photography seemed to constrain his imagination, so he turned to drawing and painting, fields which offered the possibility of ‘photographing dreams,’ as he put it. Before he devoted himself to painting and drawing, he also sculpted for a brief period. In this capacity he created several abstractionist reliefs. Painting would prove to be the medium best suited to his personal vision. After having had his first successes as a painter, he was fired from the bus factory in 1967. Afterwards he worked exclusively as an artist.
Dreams and Obsessions
Beksiński paid little or no attention to trends in art - he had no intention of becoming a favourite of the critics. Instead he remained faithful to his dreams and obsessions, which in the end won him great popularity. In the 60s he created a number of sadomasochistic drawings. From the end of the 60s to the mid-80s he began working on his most famous period – his ‘fantastic’ series. The predominant themes in these oneiric works are hellish landscapes disturbing, nightmarish figures and grim, unearthly architecture. These made him a household name in Poland and brought him recognition abroad. After the so-called fantastic period Beksiński’s style changed and he entered a period he described as ‘gothic.’ The paintings from the gothic period represent deformed heads and less dreamlike figures, which display a specific plastic harmony. When computer editing of images became possible in the 90s, he was granted his wish of being able to add surrealistic alterations to photographs, and his career came full circle as he returned to his first medium.
Beksiński lived with his wife Zofia and their son Tomasz in Warsaw, where the three of them had moved from Sanok in 1977. In the capital the painter led a rather uneventful life – he spent most of his time at his apartment working, listening to music and watching movies. He didn’t like to go out, socialize or travel. Yet the series of misfortunes that befell Beksiński and his family caused the story of his last years to become very well known. In 1998 his wife died of cancer. A year later Tomasz, an esteemed translator and popular music journalist, aficionado of gothic rock, committed suicide. In 2005 the painter was stabbed to death at his apartment by his cleaning lady’s 19 year-old son. Beksiński, who knew the killer, had refused to loan the teenager money. Understandably, his tragic last years were often linked with the grimness of his art.
Many have been inspired by Beksiński’s art. In Poland his works influenced many rock musicians, and lately the creators of the point and click adventure video game Tormentum. The noted Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro, who directed the Oscar-winning film Pan’s Labyrinth, is a known admirer of Beksiński’s works. A Polish film focusing on the family’s life after 1977, entitled Ostatnia Rodzina / The Last Family is set to premiere in 2016.
Author: Marek Kępa, Summer 2015