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Wiesław Dymny

Wiesław Dymny, photo: fot. Wojciech Plewiński/ Forum
Wiesław Dymny, photo: fot. Wojciech Plewiński/ Forum

Dymny's talents would suffice for several lives - visual artist, actor, screenwriter, playwright, poet, prose writer, restless spirit. First and foremost, he was a cabaret artist, a co-founder of the legendary Piwnica pod Baranami in Kraków and its most original satirist.

Born in Połoneczka (now in Ukraine) in 1936, he studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. A list of important events in his life has to include meeting the actress Anna Dziadyk, who would become his wife. She was just out of drama school, delicate, subtle, Grottger-esquely beautiful - as another Piwnica contributor, Jan Adamski, so aptly put it, referencing the Romantic-era painter who died too young. Dymny, divorced and older than she, had the disposition of a rebel consumed by constant fever - an impulsive, unpredictable militant.

"Many myths circulate about Wiesiek", Anna Dymna reminisces about her husband:

The things widely known about him are just the shell in which he enclosed himself to function in this world. Even so, he couldn't cope. That's why he fled this world so quickly. [...] Our families were from the east and I think we had similar upbringings. [...] There was even a physical resemblance, only he had heavier features: slanted eyes, a wide jaw… Many people tell me even now, 'Oh, I knew your brother', or 'I knew your father'. People's memories get confused with time.

Endowed with many talents, he built his life with deep passion, though in an unusual way. Dymny's output is hard to systematise - his stage and screen accomplishments, winning perhaps his greatest recognition for his literary work. And his achievements in visual arts include paintings, sculpture, posters, drawings in the satirical magazine Szpilki, the walls he once painted in the basement of the former Jazz Club in Świętego Marka Street in Kraków. And photos, and stage and costume designs for Piwnica cabaret premieres and for films.

Anyone who has seen Słońce wschodzi raz na dzień / The Sun Rises Once a Day directed by Henryk Kluba must remember its sophisticated black-and-white shots, among the most beautiful in Polish cinema, and the enchanting mood created with visual, screenwriting, and poetic sensitivity by Dymny. His collaboration with Kluba had already yielded results - the release of Chudy i inni/ Skinny and Others in 1966, in which Dymny was also featured as an actor. Their third film was a "shelved" project slashed irrecoverably by the censors - Pięć i pół Bladego Józka / Five and a Half of Pale Joe, on the set of which the writer and actor met his future wife.

"I knew about him what he wanted me to know", says Anna Dymna:

He taught me everything I value dearly. My attitude to reality changed. I am self-reliant and this is invaluable to me. Now I'm not afraid of anything. We made our folding bikes ourselves, too. We cycled around Kraków together, because we did almost everything together. [...] I think that deep down, my friends envied me when Wiesiek waited for me in front of the theatre. Drunk or sober, but he was there. I felt that as long as I had Wiesiek, nothing bad could happen to me. If anyone had harmed me, he'd probably have killed them.

Kazimierz Kutz cast Dymny in his films Ktokolwiek wie / Whoever May Know and Sól ziemi czarnej / Salt of the Black Earth. Wojciech Jerzy Has had him in Szyfry / The Codes, Stanisław Różewicz in Pasja / Passion and Jerzy Gruza in Przeprowadzka / Moving and Przyjęcie na dziesięć osób plus trzy / Party for Ten People Plus Three. He also created memorable, non-stereotypical roles in the films Rancho Texas, Przez dziewięć mostów / Across Nine Bridges, Egzamin / The Exam, Nagrody i odznaczenia  /Awards and Decorations, Wesela nie będzie / Wedding's Off and Pejzaż horyzontalny / Horizontal Landscap. In some, he wrote dialogues and songs.

"On set, Dymny turned out to be indispensable as a master of improvisation", says Andrzej Wajda, for whom he played a beautifully handled episode in Wszystko na sprzedaż / Everything for Sale.

The script for this film was just a dozen or so pages long and was one never-ending improvisation. I outlined the Paris story I'd heard from Zbigniew Cybulski to him, and then Wiesiek retold it in the film in his own words. The idea for him to run around the camera with hussar wings was suggested on set by cinematographer Witold Sobociński, but the final look of that scene would not have been the same without Wiesiek's active contribution. I wanted to work with him as a screenwriter. My favourite story of his was Oskarżony/ Accused, about the improbable adventures of two Silesian men, Wiluś Rusin and his friend Kania, during World War II.

Wajda has described Dymny as one of the most original Polish artists he ever met:

I was a fanatical enthusiast of his satirical talent at Piwnica pod Baranami. I think Piwnica ended with his death. He was a part of the system in a way. He could make fun of Gomułka's speeches [the Polish leader and Communist party chief] because he wasn't from the intelligentsia. He embraced and filtered them through his own rebellious, plebeian mind.

Iskry published his Opowiadania zwykłe/Ordinary Stories in 1963. The small volume quickly became a bestseller. (When the book was reissued by Muza in 1997, it flew off bookshops shelves.) The prose is semi-poetic, semi-realistic. As the author once said, he got letters: "congratulations from Maria Dąbrowska, a protest from some peasants, and a (friendly) analytical letter from Polish Army youth activists in Bydgoszcz". The editors of Współczesność magazine gave Dymny a prize in 1964 for a short story entered in their competition. Soon after, he received a Tadeusz Borowski Scholarship, and in 1969 a Swiss award, the Kościelski Foundation Prize. His stories have been translated into English, French, Czech, Japanese.

What about Piwnica pod Baranami? It is not possible to fully evaluate how much this venue, the greatest artistic love of Dymny, owed to his energy and the absurd aura he brought to the tiny stage. He had a magnetic force that won people over. Provincialism clashed with pathos to create new qualities triggering laughter but also reflection.

Through her husband, Anna Dymna had very close ties to Piwnica pod Baranami, however, she has never appeared in cabaret or as an entertainment performer. "I think if you do something, you should be completely committed", she says:

I spent half my life at Piwnica. I watched Wiesiek electrify the audience with his personality. [...] Piotr Skrzynecki urged me to perform. He even brought me texts, but there was always a reason to say no. Standing up to an audience like that, imposing your own personality on them, is the one thing I don’t have the confidence for. I've always been scared of cabaret.

In Głowy piwniczne / Piwnica Heads (Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 2007), Wacław Krupiński quotes the violinist Zbigniew Paleta, reminiscing about Piwnica's first foreign trip, to the Arezzo festival in Italy in 1968:

I looked, and here was this strange procession, led by Wiesiek Dymny, with a crowd following him and repeating 'niente, niente, pierdolniente'. Then Dymny climbed on the base of a statue of Petrarch and yelled out some poems, including one about a princess whose 'spectre is haunting Europe, giving those it meets a kick in the arse'. And the crowd, understanding nothing, chanted 'duce, duce', and yelled 'bravo, bravissimo!'.

In the memories of those who saw Wiesław Dymny at least once on stage, he remains the unsurpassed interpreter of his own texts. After he died in 1978, at the age of 41, Piwnica's actors would in good faith try to imitate his style. It was a very bad idea. As with all charismatic, great artists, Dymny was inimitable.


By: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, September 2010 (excerpted from a larger work)

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Janusz R. Kowalczyk
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