In honour of the centennial anniversary of Tadeusz Kantor’s birth, here are five reasons behind the unceasing popularity of Poland’s most famous 20th-century artist. Art meant everything to him, but what is left of it today?
Totality – Theatre on Canvas / Painting on Stage
In the catalogue of the 2001 exhibition, hosted at the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, and entitled Tadeusz Kantor. The Impossible, Jarosław Suchan wrote the following introduction:
"Tadeusz Kantor is for Polish art what Joseph Beuys was for German art, and Andy Warhol for art from America. The creator of a completely distinct vision of theatre, an active participant in neo-avant-garde revolutions, an original theoretician, an innovator deeply rooted in tradition, an anti-painterly painter, a happener-heretic and an ironic conceptual artist—these are only some of the artist’s many faces."
He was one of the most famous contemporary Polish painters and simultaneously one of the most prominent theatre artists of the 20th century. The versatile oeuvre of Tadeusz Kantor is neither defined by nor limited to one genre of art. He made paintings, he created the set design for stagings by other artists, he directed his own performances, acted in them, wrote manifestos and realised happenings. His work enjoyed its greatest recognition in the theatre milieu, although he was also recognised with the prestigious Rembrandt award for his painting.
Anka Ptaszkowska, an art critic and a friend of Kantor, stated that he not so much painted the paintings but rather performed the act of painting. "It no longer had anything to do with the painting of a picture, wherein the artist was a master in control of his work. Kantor annihilated painting and then created it. With great tension. With the equally strong will to destruct as to create."
Kantor himself explained that he lost faith and trust in art which only reproduces objects and figures during the last years of the war. And it was then that he invented a place within theatre for objects doomed to be thrown out. In his performances, old furniture, worn clothes, and used up objects became eternal. In the 1960s, running in parallel with artists from the West, Kantor transformed the creation of a visual art piece into the form of a happening.
In a 1972 interview, conducted by Cordelia Olivier for the Arts Guardian, Kantor said
"I was tempted to make the Water Hen as a happening within the theatre. Happening and theatre are opposites in their essence. Happenings only take place once, and not more – like an accident on the street, which cannot be repeated. But I tried to apply the same method that I use in happenings – and, I think that the Water Hen can only be staged once. Of course, there can be many performances, but every time, the actors need new impulses."
After watching the performance in Edinburgh, The Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington wrote, "Kantor was using the actors like bits of a live canvas. It was as if one was watching the act of painting a picture for an hour, or an hour and a half (…). This made one realise that even a piece of theatre can become a painting."
Four decades later, the universal genius of Kantor still has no imitators.
A Theatre Reformer? "I’m only a specialist on myself!"
Kantor did not want to destroy traditional theatre. He rebelled, he opposed the reality that was facing him, because this was how he was shaped – in the cult of everything that was revolutionary or pertained to the avant-garde.
"I am not a director, not a man of theatre, it just so happened, the circumstances have resulted in everyone calling me a great specialist on theatre. It’s not true. I am only a specialist on myself."
But he did have a huge influence on theatre not only across Poland but also all of Europe, the both Americas, and even in Asia.
Before he started to create his own pieces, he took up work on the ideas of other artists, such as Andrzej Pronaszko and Leon Schiller, thanks to whom he also became known as a scenographer. Kantor began making theatre when he was already a mature artist, together with Maria Jarema at the Krzysztofory Gallery. They set up the Cricot 2 theatre, which soon turned out to be revolutionary. It stirred great emotion among spectators, it was hypnotic, it charmed viewers with its wisdom, entertained them with its grotesque, and drove them to tears with its realism. The method itself was simple, as Kantor explained:
"My efforts in the theatre strive towards depicting man, no matter what he is like, with his flaws, as long as it is him there, the true one, and not any kind of armour that I would impose as a director. And that is our method in the Cricot theatre."
Kantor was a director who stood on the stage during the performance, like the conductor of an orchestra creating the work live. He was known for the very strict discipline that he imposed on his actors. His team was composed of both amateurs and critics (a rarity at the time), and also dolls and mannequins which interacted with the actors and the audience.
Kantor also extended the field of experimentation onto objects that played parts in his stagings, and their material qualities. One actor who played the role of a vagrant was told to open and close a door for an hour and a half, another, who played the role of an imperial soldier, was to commit suicide every five minutes, and yet another actor, carrying a skeleton, was to continually bury him anew in the ground.
In 1974, during a reading at the Galeria Foksal in Warsaw, Kantor said
"It was very hard, but when he closed the door for the twentieth time, that is when the fascination began. The object disappeared! Something happened, as a result of which people only looked at him, fascinated, because he was endlessly repeating the same action. That is what is contained in magic, that is ecstasy, illumination, fascination, and in real language it is the repetition of an object, the repetition of an activity."
An Artist without Boundaries
Was he more of a national, a local, or a European artist? In Kantor’s case, it’s very difficult to decide. He staged Słowacki, yet never lost sight of the newest trends on the international art scene. He was strongly connected to Kraków with its tradition and history, throughout his whole life he both worked and presented his pieces across the entire globe. He was presented and appreciated at the most important artistic events, such as dOCUMENTA and Manifesta, and in the most significant museums and galleries of the world: The Tate in London, La MaMa in New York, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
He was the first painter from behind the Iron Curtain to have individual exhibitions in Paris in the 1950s and 60s. France received him very warmly. Yet, the truly European scale of his success in the theatre came with the early 1970s, when Richard Demarco invited Kantor’s Water Hen to the Edinburgh Festival.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the staging surprised all who saw it.
"In order to conquer the West, one must attack it rather than stage things in accordance with it."
– that is how Kantor commented on his international success.
The beginnings of his world career can be counted as starting with the staging of The Dead Class at the Riverside Studio in London. The American weekly Newsweek hailed the staging the best performance in the world. The Independent and The Times wrote that world art would be incomplete without the Cricot 2 theatre.
The journalist and writer Neal Ascherson underscored: "I never considered Kantor as a typical Pole", but Jerzy Turowicz noted contrarily that his art was deeply rooted in a sense of responsibility for the nation:
"I believe that in spite of the great successes across the world (…), it was not cosmopolitan art, after all. It was a very Polish kind of art. Strongly rooted in national heritage and made with some kind of a sense of an idea, a mission, and a responsibility for culture."
Kantor himself mocked the situation: "If Wielopole, this hole near Rzeszów, is understandable for New York, then I am terribly national, terribly provincial."
A Fascinating Rascal
Like no other Polish artist of the 20th century, Tadeusz Kantor was already a legend in his lifetime, one that transgressed the boundaries of politics, geography, and those of the artistic milieux. It was not only his influence on the life and work of other artists, but also his exceptional stance, personality and charisma of which numerous anecdotes and testimonies bear witness. He was monikered a fascinating rascal.
A catchiness, wit, and an exceptional sense of humour made up his legend just as much as explosions of anger, tirades and menacing looks. When friends and actors did not react to these explosions, he became even angrier. When they did not work according to his plan, he threatened to beat them up.
The actors merely carried out his instructions. Kantor was neither actor nor director, he was the theatre in its totality. In a talk with the ninateka.pl, Jerzy Turowicz explained that "This was all his oeuvre. It was so bold that I do not know of any other theatre director who would so strongly imprint his personality onto a performance borne out of his own imagination."
In 1981, the 4th Cultural Congress was taking place in Warsaw, and it was interrupted by the proclamation of Martial Law. Turowicz recalls the speech by Kantor: "The audience was astonished to see his violent attack onto the deficiencies and difficulties of Polish culture – one which was deeply engaged. It shocked people and at the same time filled with with awe for this individuality with an enclosed vision of the world and art, and a vision of culture."
Kantor gave himself over to art entirely, much like before him, so did Meyerhold, Tairov, Schiller and Piscator. "They were capable of dying for their ideas. And in terrible ways, too. I can also die for my idea", he said. His emotionally stirring theatre, constructed in accordance with the "cool shock method" made "even the intellectuals cry", as quoted by British press. "I cynically assume that the spectator must cry", Kantor would say.
During the time of the German occupation, despite the threat of the death penalty for the pursuit of any artistic activity, Kantor created an experimental clandestine theatre in Kraków, within the confines of a private apartment. The Cricot 2, created in 1956,was in fact its continuation. Pursued together with Maria Jarema, Cricot 2 evoked a pre-war avant-garde tradition of theatre ran by the visual artists of Cricot – a group founded by Józef Jarema, Maria's brother. After the war, Kantor animated a living international exchange as he frequently travelled west and reported on all that was happening in the domain of art upon returning. Wiesław Borowski, art historian and co-founder of one of the most significant post-war galleries, states in a talk on ninateka.pl:
"In the 1960s, he was the only artist who acquainted us with Europe and the world. It was through his own work but also through the very objective news that he brought with him from his journeys to Germany, Switzerland and the United States."
His influence on other artists was huge. In 1973, Kantor’s staging of Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes in Edinburgh was seen by Joseph Beuys. After the show Beuys asked for the entrance door to the building where the showing was staged to be dismantled. Together with scraps of Theatre Cricot 2 posters, he used this door for a piece entitled Poor House Door – A new beginning is in the offing (1981). This work is presently part of the Städtische Museum Abteiberg Mönchengladbach collection.
The figure of Kantor had an impact on the whole history of art and theatre of the 20th century. And he stood on the stage till the very end. He died on 8th December, 1990, after the last general rehearsal for Today is My Birthday. The process of preparations was complete, only the premiere was left to be staged, and it was, as he would have said, no longer pertinent. His tombstone on the Rakowicki Cemetery in Kraków is regularly devastated and stolen – either out of stupidity or perhaps the wish to preserve something of the master for oneself.
Archives of Own Creativity – Cricoteka
From the start of his creative work, Kantor took great care to ensure the future survival of his oeuvre. He noted the score of each performance in minute detail, he conducted interviews with himself, and many of his works were accompanied by detailed notes and manifestos. From the mid- 1970s, Kantor’s exhibitions mainly constituted documentation of his work.
The beginnings of his archives can be traced back to 1963 and the Popular Exhibition, also known as the Anti-Exhibition. It was then that he proclaimed a transformation of the condition of the viewer as well as the significance of the display. Viewers were presented with sketches, design notes, writings from the studio, photographs, calendars and newspapers. In Wiesław Borowski’s book entitled Tadeusz Kantor, he commented
"Instead of paintings, 'finite' works of art, I decided to exhibit what is usually considered as shameful, marginal and deprived of any artistic value."
This concept, which changed the role of the viewer from an analytic and contemplative one to an active and mutually present one, was also close to the Galeria Foksal, founded in Warsaw in 1966. When its founders—Wiesław Borowski, Anka Ptaszkowska, Mariusz Tchorek—announced their own Theory of Place, Kantor accused them of plagiarising his idea and stated that only artists should have the right to author manifestos.
In 1970, Kantor’s first documentation–happening exhibition took place in Foksal. It comprised photographs which documented his actions, drawings, pieces of the score and fragments of manifestos. This concept was in line with a change in the gallery’s function, as it had announced the new theory of a "Living Archive", and—for a period of time—turned itself into an information office. Kantor noted:
"We had been talking about documenting creative work for a very long time—I had an idee fixe about this—and it grew into something autonomous. (..) In the world, Art and Information centres were gradually taking over the place of galleries, and the first information offices started to appear. In this place, I would like to remind of my idea for the exhibition at the post office in 1966 and the text that accompanied it which showed the 'artistic possibilities of the postal phase' in which the parcel finds itself—the enveloppage—wherein we are made to see the exceptional state of the message which finds itself in a 'void' between the emission and the reception."
In 1980, Kantor opened up the Cricoteca in Florence and in Kraków—a centre for the support and documentation of the Cricot 2 theatre. The Museum of Theatre Cricot 2 was inaugurated in 1988 and its new headquarters were recently opened to the public in 2014.
In spite of the great care taken by Tadeusz Kantor about the memory of his person, his art and his history, he did not raise any successors. Because, is it even possible to imitate him?
Sources: firstname.lastname@example.org, dir. Krzysztof Miklaszewski, 2010; Jan Kłossowicz Tadeusz Kantor; Tadeusz Kantor from the archives of the Foksal Gallery, edited by Joanna Mytkowska, Andrzej Przywara; ninateka.pl; culture.pl.
Authored by: Agnieszka Sural, 21.01.2015
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 20/05/2015