Culture.pl's Filip Lech discussed Poles and Jews, Bogusław Schaeffer and Tadeusz Kantor, and the modern art world with Professor Richard Demarco, director of the Richard Demarco Gallery, longtime promoter of Polish and Central European art.
In 1972, the Richard Demarco Gallery and the Edinburgh International Festival presented an unprecedented exhibition of Polish art. It featured Tadeusz Kantor, Bogusław Schaeffer, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Edward Krasiński, Natalia LL, Koji Kamoji, Henryk Stażewski, Teresa Pągowska, Igor Werpechowski, to mention just a few.
Richard Demarco: Why did I do this? Why did I choose Poland?
Filip Lech: It was my first question.
RD: Everybody has forgotten what Poles did. They helped win the war. I always believed that Poland and the Polish people represent the true culture of Europe. They are a classic example of the christo-judaic dynamic of cultural heritage. I’m thinking about a Poland which includes Vilnius, Lviv, and Belarus.
I’ve been on the every single Edinburgh Festival. I’ve been responsible for the official festival exhibitions for 43 years. Everybody was saying: you’re crazy! Why are you showing the art and the culture of the enemy? You should show American art, French or Italian... But I answered: this is not the enemy, they are allies!
In 1942, when I was 12, I was an altar boy in my Roman Catholic parish church. I turned round to look at the congregation and it was packed. The church was full of people. I realized how curious it was that half of congregation was in civilian clothes: mothers, fathers, and children. But half the population was in uniform. Of the people who were wearing the uniform, there were three kinds of uniform. A third were British uniforms, a third Italian army uniforms, And the other third were Polish. So, they symbolized, for me, Europe at war.
FL: So war brought something positive into your life?
RD: You could say that. Polish soldiers were so beautiful, so impressive. The British, well, the British were just usual. Italians were prisoners of war with a big yellow circle on the back of their jackets. Anyway, a few years later the war ended. I was 15. Then the Cold War really began, and there was no victory for 120 millions of Europeans: they ended up in prison, in the Soviet communist world.
I had to wait for a miracle to happen, and it was performed by an Austrian Jew called Rudolf Bing. He decided with a few friends that what the everybody needed was the language of art: the highest level of music, theater, and performing arts. It was a language of healing. He suggested that there should be an international festival. He chose Britain, because the British used English, therefore a lingua franca. Oxford or Cambridge were too small, so he chose Edinburgh, in 1947.
When I was in my late 20s, I thought it wasn’t a good idea to live in a city which was an international capital of culture for three weeks, but for the remaining 49 was just a typical Scottish city. I decided to create a coffee culture, like the culture of Paris, Berlin. I opened a theatre and gallery where art lovers could meet. It was called Traverse Theatre and Gallery, after that it became the Demarco Gallery. It wasn’t just for visual arts, it was for all the arts, it represented the spirit of the Edinburgh International Festival.
The first exhibition which you presented was dedicated to German art.
The enemy. I thought that we must forgive, that it must be about a reconciliation, about prayer. In 1965, bishops from Poland sent a letter to their German counterparts, writing: we forgive and ask for forgiveness. I thought that not only should I show German art, I must show the art of countries which have suffered during the war. The next exhibition was Romanian, in 1972 it was Poland, then I showed Yugoslav art, Austrian art, and French art. All represented countries had been changed by the war, because my true belief is that the only way to recover from the agony of the war is to take culture seriously. It was a strategy which I used, year after year, staging the festival not for entertainment, not for some stupid art programme but to show that the language art is the one language we need when we need the truth, when we want to know who we are, after having suffered so much. I believe that we still haven’t recovered from the war, and that the Cold War is still happening.
I met with a Professor Demarco in Polin, Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
RD: I came to Poland in 1968, during the worst year of the anti-Semitic Polish nonsense. Now, I lived long enough to see the opening of the greatest museum in the world. Not in Poland, in the world. Not telling the sad story of the Holocaust, no! It’s a beautiful building made of beautiful materials, wood and stone. It’s telling the future of the Poles, the future of the Jews - together.
This building represents a new space, beyond the art world. A place for children, students and academics to visit. I’m speaking as a former professor of the Kingston University in London, and I was responsible for European Cultural Studies. I wish this place had existed 25 years ago because I would have conducted of all my classes here. It tells you loud and clear the story of Europe: an extraordinary statement! It gives me a hope for the future of human race. It’s the opposite of Disneyland and Hollywood.
I want to ask you about the language of art. Is it very different to experience art from Central and Eastern Europe?
Yes. I have a problem with Western art. I think it has become part of the world of entertainment, showbiz, sensations. It’s part of Hollywood. When I think about the modern art world, I think about people being confused. Art is not seen as an important form of medicine. If you are ill, mentally or physically, art can cure you, give you a reason to live. I believe that the best artists I’ve dealt with were Polish and German. This must mean something, surely.
You were interested in European art for a such a long time that you’ve witnessed the transformation from communism to democracy and the free market.
Now it’s being misused. Tadeusz Kantor and Joseph Beuyes both told me that I would probably live to experience a false avant-garde, the misuse of artistic language. It becomes an industry, I see this happening also in Poland. I’m very serious about it, because when you misuse it you’re committing a crime which damages people. I regard the modern art world as something to which I don’t belong. All artistic expression of an important nature is an expression of love. It shows the capacity of human beings to love, the mystery of life. When we use it simply to entertain we misuse it. The highest level of art is the essence of prayer. The music of Mozart and Beethoven; the poetry of Shakespeare and Mickiewicz. You must never forget what the great English poet called John Keats wrote about art and culture:
''Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know".
It is more important that we listen to this than to the words of politicians or bankers.
While criss-crossing all of artistic Europe did you notice some trends, motives unique to Central and Eastern Europe?
Unfortunately, the power of American materialistic consumerism has begun to affect it. Sometimes I prefer the Europe of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. European art then was very powerful, now it’s contaminated with the power of the marketplace. I’m sorry to say this, but I cannot avoid it. We do live in a materialistic age, we live in a world where the European Union is defined by the euro. If you want to bind the countries of Europe together you should consider how they were bound together by the concept of Christendom.
One of the artists in this exhibition which I presented was the young composer, Bogusław Schaeffer. Since 1972, for half a century, I believed in Schaeffer and I’m not giving up. Maybe people don’t realize that he’s a genius, but he’s in the same league as many of those artists, including Kantor. Next year will be a hundredth anniversary of Kantor, and we’ll honor him at the Edinburgh Festival, but I also have to put something on to honor Schaeffer. We must honor him while he’s still alive! And I just realized that the best place to show Schaeffer is this museum. He represents the process of healing through the arts.
Schaeffer was born in Ukraine, in Lviv.
Yes! He is a personification of the Europe that needs to be healed, a perfect example. If you separate the Jews from the Poles you don’t have a Polish culture. You have to have the mixture. I’m very pleased to be here, and I want you to know that I think this building is a masterpiece. What the building contains is of the greatest importance, everybody who enters this building will have the chance to rethink the meaning of Poland.
How did you meet Bogusław Schaeffer?
I met him through Ryszard Stanisławski, director of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. He was a brilliant director. I regard him as a genius, they cannot be boxed as playwrights, composers, people of theater, people of visual arts. They are everything! Typical for a Polish creative soul. I’ve come to Poland many times, I crossed the Iron Curtain over 50 times. To provide proof that I was serious about Poland. Do the Polish people believe that they’re most important people in Europe? If they don’t, they don’t understand what it means to be Polish. Their advantage is that their culture is Polish-Jewish culture. Britain is unfortunate because they don’t have enough Jews. We need more Jews! But at the moment we’re very fortunate to have many Poles.
If you had to describe Schaeffer’s art to someone who doesn’t know him, how you describe it?
He is an artistic polymath, a master of visual and performing arts, a deep thinker and questioner of the artistic world, a European John Cage. I would recommend looking at his visual art works, his scores. There you see a great refinement and serious thought process. You will also see his sense of humor, his sense of ridicule. Truth is sometimes very close to impossible situations, and he invites everyone to come with him to see how far you can go to redefine the world of sounds. He is also a true avant-gardist and explorer and you can see it in his drawings. He subscribes to my definition of what is real art. He is not easy, he is even a difficult artist, because he is very serious. His language is international, he is a product of the war years and the post-war years. His life is mixed up with his art.
In some points he is similar to James Joyce, who had to leave Ireland to have his work appreciated and so many artists who have to go somewhere else to be regarded as leaders of the definition of what we call XX and XXI century modernity. His music is truly modern, European and timeless at the same time. He is an avant-gardist by excellence, a person who lives on the edge of time.
In your opinion, what is Kantor’s legacy?
I regard it is a mistake to consider Kantor simply in terms of theater. I always remember the day when he received the Rembrandt Prize for painting. I know of no man of theatre who has ever been the recipient of the Rembrandt Prize. He is essentially a visual artist, a superb sculptor and painter. I think it is very sad when people referred to his stage sets and his costumes as theater props, that’s a profound misunderstanding. Everything he made was an artwork, manifestations of his genius as a visual artist. Out of this genius you can see the influence of Stanisław Witkiewicz, who was also a painter and photographer and a visual artist, and also questioned the nature of theatre with his performances. You can also see in him other great Polish minds at work, for example the influence of Witold Gombrowicz, Stanisław Wyspiański and Bruno Schulz.
All of them were also philosophers.
And very much influenced by the Jewish mentality, they also suffered from the war. It fascinates me - do you have to be a Pole to be a genius?
I don’t think so, but…
But it helps! (laugh) British artists could not produce a Kantor painting or drawing, no British playwright could have written anything like ''Dead Class'' by Kantor. You had to have a certain kind of European consciousness, you have to suffer. You have to have understood the madness of the world, the lack of stability, the tragedy of war and the capacity of the human presence to wreak havoc, you have to witness the murder of millions of human beings.
The interview was conducted during the Era Schaeffera Festival in Warsaw, 19.11.2014.