Set designer, theatre director, playwright, theatre theoretician, painter and graphic artist. Born in 1922 in Rzeszów, he died on June 24, 2008.
Szajna was a prisoner at the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps during the World War II occupation of Poland, an experience that strongly influenced his art.
He obtained degrees in graphic design (1952) and set design (1953) from the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, where he began teaching in 1954 immediately after completing his studies; he stayed on as an instructor for the next nine years. In 1972 he became a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he remained until his death in 2008 as head of the set design studio. However, he was still professionally active as an artist throughout this period. Between 1955 and 1963 he designed sets for productions like Myszy i ludzie / Of Mice and Men, based on the novel of the same title by John Steinbeck, and Dziady / Forefather's Eve by Mickiewicz. Until 1966, he acted as the managing director and artistic director of the Teatr Ludowy (People's Theatre) in Nowa Huta, where he also directed a series of plays. He also worked with the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) in Cracow, the **in:Teatr śląski*in_te_slaski_katowice** (Silesian Theatre) in Katowice, the Teatr Współczesny (Contemporary Theatre) in Wroclaw and the Teatr Polski (Polish Theatre) in Warsaw. In 1971 he created the Teatr-Galeria (Theatre Gallery) at Warsaw's Centrum Sztuki Studio (Studio Centre for the Arts - formerly the Teatr Klasyczny / Classical Theatre). There, he tested out his own educational theories through his singular method of popularizing various artistic genres – primarily through theatre, but also through other artistic approaches. He resigned the directorship of the Centre ten years later when martial law was declared in Poland.
Szajna produced paintings and prints, designed sets, directed theatrical productions, wrote the scripts to original shows and was a theoretician of the theatre. He was perceived primarily as a man of the theatre and creator of his own, personal formula, what Zbigniew Taranienko described as "visually narrative theatre" (otherwise known as "visual theatre", "visual artists' theatre" or "theatre of visions"). The emphasis in this type of theatre falls on visual expression. Unlike artists such as Leszek Mądzik, however, Szajna never rejected the actor, the actor's individual gestures or the spoken word. Nevertheless, the starring role in his theatre was undoubtedly awarded to visuals and imagery, often through expansive scenery and grotesquely over-sized props. Szajna himself was quoted as saying, "I transform life into images", a thought that accurately reflects his intentions. This innovative concept of visual theatre was realized most fully in his productions at the Teatr Studio (Studio Theatre), but it also defined most of Szajna's artistic experiences outside of the theatre. In his original morality plays (including Replika / Rejoinder in 1973; Gulgutiera in 1973; Dante, based on The Divine Comedy, in 1974; and Cervantes in 1976), Szajna combined literary texts saturated with his own personal reflections with his trademark visionary organization of the stage and inventive, intense, expressive performances from his actors.
The artist began painting and producing prints during the 1950s, the same decade during which he began working in the theatre. These works demonstrated the artist's fascination with the Art Informel that was dominant in Poland at that time. Szajna initially produced collages, flat images made up of materials such as worn pieces of leather, chunks of rubber and fragments of fabric (Obrazy-Dramaty / Image-Dramas). Then in the 1960s he began channelling his efforts towards assemblage, accenting textures in his compositions and adding in pieces of found objects (like mannequins, for example). The objects in these artworks – or rather pieces of them – were not treated as fetishes or "everyday votive items"; instead, they carried dramatic content and the traces of past traumatic experiences (see Postać V / Figure V from 1962, and Dwoje / Two, circa 1966). As a result of Szajna's need to visualize his own experiences and to find an artistic medium that would best fulfil this need, he created entirely new spaces, an example of which is the environment-like project entitled Reminiscencje / Reminiscences (1969). He also strived to commemorate Polish artists who had perished in concentration camps, incorporating "mementoes of the past" – the remains of small objects, photographs and concentration camp "props" – to help lend truth to his message. His paintings from the 1980s and 1990s also reference tragic events, drawing on both the techniques of figurative art (as in the series of ominous, primarily black-and-white paintings entitled Mrowisko / Ant Colony, 1978-88; and Gnom / Gnome, 1991), as well as abstract expressionism (as in Zamęt / Confusion, 1989). The spatial arrangement Drang nach Osten - Drang nach Westen (1987) was yet another expression of the artist's continued efforts to come to terms with the barbarity of totalitarianism, both fascism and communism.
Szajna represented Poland at events like the Venice Art Biennale (1970 and 1990) and the Sao Paulo Biennale (1979 and 1989). He owed his global success primarily to his activities as a theatre artist. He was a member of numerous artistic associations and was repeatedly honoured for his achievements in a number of ways, both in Poland and abroad. He gained particular renown in Italy, where he received several of the country's most prestigious cultural awards (such as the Gold Medal of the Accademia Italia delle Arti e del Lavoro in Salsomaggiore Terme in 1981). In 1975 the theatre at the Slavic Cultural Center in Port Jefferson (in the United States) was named after Szajna, and in 1997, in celebration of his 75th birthday, an attic theatre in his hometown of Rzeszów was specially adapted to house a permanent exhibition of his works. This retrospective collection of paintings, drawings and spatial compositions (from the stage productions Replika / Rejoinder and Dante) provides a glimpse into the artist's subjects and his own personal aesthetic.
Noteworthy publications on Szajna include Jerzy Madeyski and Andrzej Żurowski's book "Szajna" (1992); a catalogue published on the occasion of a solo exhibition of the artist's works on his 75th birthday, at the Centre for Polish Sculpture in Oronsko (1997); and a book by Janusz Szajna entitled "Józef Szajna i jego świat" / "Jozef Szajna and His World" (2000).
Author: Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak, Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin, Faculty of Art Theory and the History of Artistic Doctrines, January 2003; updated in June 2008
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