The Polish Fates of the Quay Brothers
The Quay Brothers during production of the film Street of Crocodiles, photo: courtesy of MoMA
The U.S. twins bound their private and artistic lives to Europe. At the end of the 1960s, they left for London to study at the Royal College of Art – and as a consequence, avoided being drafted to the army and serving in the Vietnam War.
The Brothers Quay lived in Belgium and Holland, and travelled across Europe until settling for good in London. Their first visit to Poland took place in 1974 at the invitation of Andrzej Klimowski – who had been born in the U.K. and resided there. At the time, however, he was a student at the poster workshop in Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, under the supervision of Henryk Tomaszewski.
Since then, the Brothers Quay encountered Polish culture on a regular basis, and not only as mere spectators but also as active participants.
The Polish School of Posters
Poster for Alban Berg’s Wozzeck by Jan Lenica
The Brothers Quay first experienced Polish culture while studying at the Philadelphia College of Art. One of the graphic design magazines at the school reprinted Jan Lenica’s works, such as the posters advertising Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck and Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead. "You could say that Polish posters sent us telegrams from our own future", they later said in an interview with Kuba Mikurda and Michał Oleszczyk, "along with its dark paths within literature, cinema and music".
"There is a clear anti-aesthetic attitude here, a rejection of all ‘prettiness’, an intentional use of shock effect; the spectator, in a forced attempt to produce a polite smile, hoping to see something seemly, is about to get a bloody good (graphic) hiding." These words by Zygmunt Kałużyński describe Jan Lenica’s vision – but they can equally be applied to the twins’ work. They also both knew and valued the oeuvre of Roman Cieślewicz, Franciszek Starowieyski and Wojciech Zamecznik.
Walerian Borowczyk, photographed by Juliusz Zamecznik / the Archaeology of Photography Foundation
Making animated films is an incredibly laborious and time-consuming process, and the necessary materials are often costly. At the outset of their creative endeavours, the Quays earned their keep in different ways – even by washing dishes. They were also involved in graphic design: book illustrations, covers and posters. Stumbling upon Borowczyk’s work turned out to be a sudden fix: just like them, he started out as a poster designer and ended up as an outstanding director of animated and feature films.
"Borowczyk was a decisive influence on our work", the brothers said in the interview with Mikurda and Oleszczyk. "His smooth transition from the closed, isolated world of animation to the confident, perturbing parable of his first feature film, was an epiphany to us". In a subsequent interview with Culture.pl, they picked his Les jeux des anges as the film with the most interesting musical arrangements, composed by Bernard Parmegiani.
Line 3 tram on a street in Kraków, photo: National Digital Archive
The tram became one of the main modes of transport used by the Quay Brothers in Central Europe. Trams had already begun to disappear from U.S. urban networks by the 1940s, and met a similar fate a few years later in the U.K. Unnerving tram journeys often feature in the Quays’ animations. Scenes from their first film, Nocturna Artificalia, with Zygmunt Konieczny’s music, are among the most characteristic. Their most recent production, KwartetSmyczkovy, included shots recorded on 8mm tape during their first trip to Kraków – and what do we see but the notorious tram passing by a Kraków park. Nothing like today’s modern, silent machines, those old vehicles are immortalised in the Quays’ films.
Bruno Schulz, Self-portrait
Schulz really does reach the mystical density of matter. He introduces the reader into the arbitrariness of his linguistic land. Only a few days ago someone told us that Schulz’s language is so rich that you can read one page a day, not more. To us, reading each page is equivalent to drinking the heaviest of that sweet Tokay wine.
The Quay Brothers created the film adaptation of Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. The author became one of their most prominent literary influences, along with Franz Kafka and Robert Walser. One of the leading motifs from Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies – seen as the epitome of Schulz’s metaphysics – has always accompanied them: "dead matter does not exist". Street of Crocodiles is the first film they shot using the "serious" 35mm tape; and for some time there has been talk of a Quays Brothers feature based on Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass, which was adapted by Wojciech Jerzy Has over 40 years ago.
Wojciech Jerzy Has
During the 2010 Polska Year! in the U.K., the Quay Brothers prepared an installation entitled The Quay Brothers for Has. Their work was based on Has’s famous portrait, which shows the director surrounded by objects from his films. "The director, much like Faust grappling with matter and spirit, the alchemist bent over his life’s work in that mysterious study, contemplates yet another startling strategy" , wrote Agnieszka Szeffel about the installation. The artwork is a kind of 3-D poster composed of stills and fragments from Has’s films, and all this takes place in the director’s constant presence.
The Quay Brothers got used to a specific work pattern; it is outlined by music, which they call the "secret scenario". "Music defines the film’s nature, the way we perceive and grasp it", they said in their interview with Culture.pl. One of their favourite "screenwriters" is Leszek Jankowski, a composer with a primary interest in music for the theatre. They all met in 1981 during a London performance by the Teatr Ósmego Dnia. The Quays, captivated by the music they heard, invited Jankowski to collaborate on Street of Crocodiles. Jankowski had already worked on the music for another Bruno Schulz project (which was never completed), and so sent them his sketches and tapes. In the end, they cooperated on many other projects – some short films and their first feature-length film: Institute Benjamenta, now a cult classic.
Konieczny was another "secret screenwriter". He composed film scores (for Wajda, Konwicki and Jan Jakub Kolski among others), theatre music and songs. Nocturna Artificalia, the Quay Brothers’ first film, begins with his Deszcze / Rains. In Poland, this song is associated mainly with Ewa Demarczyk, who sang it to the words of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński’s poem bearing the same title.
JChrzciciel Lampi, Jan Potocki and the Pyramids, 1804, oil on canvas, Łańcut Museum, photographed by East News
An important link between the Quay Brothers and Polish culture was Prince Jan Nepomucen Potocki, the first Polish archaeologist, expert on the Kabbalah, politician, member of the Knights of Malta and writer. The twins looked for Potocki’s ghost in his family residence at Łańcut castle, now a museum. It was there that they filmed Inventorium of Traces, where they study the lives of the museum’s objects. Those objects take on the role of observers, having seen both astonishing historical events and today’s museum guests, apathetically staring at the old items.
To us, this effort of the imagination is transformed into the obsessive dream to accept the object’s point of view – to recognise and adapt its sensitivity and then show it to the spectator.
A still from the film Mask
In 2010, with the support of the animation studio Se-Ma-For, the Quay Brothers embarked on an adaptation of Lem’s short story Mask. The story really spoke to the artistic vision of the Euro-American filmmakers. The language is anachronistic and the narrator, a creature who initially refers to itself as an "it", is the product of an alchemical experiment and resembles a praying mantis. In a certain way, Lem’s intentions from back in 1974 are realised by the Quay Brothers:
The formally romantic setting and atmosphere were meant to demonstrate that you can insert new, rational content into the ancient, mysterious, "gothic" form of a novel. I made use of a few motifs from this classic model – "fatal" love, love at first sight, jealousy… And yet I strove to give each of these motifs another, non-literary raison d’être, that being the possibility of introducing and explaining it with the backing of our cybernetic knowledge.
Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki
The Quay Brothers are well versed in the classics of Polish contemporary music. Penderecki’s music featured in Mask and the entire KwartetSmyczkovy is based on Lutosławski’s String Quartet. The filmmakers never interfere in the compositions they use – be it by turning the volume up or down, or cutting out unfitting fragments. To them, music is an entirety and the director has no right to stand in its way.
The String Quartet leaves a lot of room to the imagination. It’s very important, because when images are too closely bound with music, there emerges excess. It’s like being tired after running too quickly.
Sources: The quotations have been taken from an interview the Quay Brothers gave to Culture.pl in September 2013, and from the book Thirteenth Month: The Cinema of the Quay Brothers (edited by K. Mikurda and A. Prodeus, Cracow 2010). It was published at the same time as the Quays’ retrospective at the Era New Horizons International Film Festival 2010.
Author: Filip Lech, October 2013, translation: Ewa Bianka Zubek 7/10/2013