Poor, Miserable, Discarded & Found: Objects of the Polish Avant-Garde Theatre
default, An ensemble scene from ‘Gulgutier’, Studio Theatre in Warsaw, 1973, photo: Wojciech Plewiński / Theatre Institute in Warsaw, center, gulgutierra-1973.jpg
‘The human figure has become disgraced’. These are the words of the Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor in one of his interviews after World War II. But theatre artists have reflected on the inhuman ever since the first decades of the 20th century, when the world was ravaged by the horrors of the Great War.
‘The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art’. This diagnosis by the artist Paul Klee makes for an astute commentary on the aesthetic evolution that took place during his lifetime. The interests of the first avant-garde moved towards figures, constructions and objects isolated from their everyday contexts.
The heritage of 20th century-isms was employed by later artists, including those working in theatre – whose backgrounds in the visual arts encouraged their very formal conceptions of the performing arts. Theatre artists of the second avant-garde endowed their objects with numerous meanings. These became vessels for their trauma, metaphors for a ruthless reality and figures which often enjoyed a stage presence equal to that of the actors.
Kantor Was Here!
A galvanised queen
In May 1943, Tadeusz Kantor’s underground theatre held its first premiere: Balladyna, a Romantic drama by Juliusz Słowacki. This was an extremely unconventional interpretation of the play. Kantor’s Niezależny Młodych Plastyków Theatre (Independent Theatre of Young Visual Artists), which consisted of amateur actors performing illegally in private apartments, managed to cause some controversy with their portrayal of the character of Goplana. The queen of the lake and the elves accompanying her were brought to life as geometric figures made of galvanised metal sheets and other pieces of junk.
The more than two-and-a-half metre high ‘character’ of Goplana – a metal arc on a crude wooden platform – served as the spatial centre of the performance and a reference point for the actors. This betrayed some influences of Russian constructivism and Bauhaus, while Kantor also treated this gesture as a play upon the typical image of Goplana as a seductive forest nymph. His radical decision to portray these fairy-tale-like characters as cold constructs counted as a historic manifesto.
The horrors of the war led Kantor to give up on representing things on stage in accordance with conventional impulses. Of the human figure, he said:
we were unable to represent it on the basis of humanistic principles, antiquity or the beauty of human life […]. This was a result of the occupation and the dehumanisation carried out by the Nazis.
As such, in this production, Kantor portrayed the new, cruel reality. Turning the queen of the lake from a romanticist into a constructivist figure imparted a mourning of the previous representations of human beings and humanity. Nothing from this production has survived, but a recreation of Balladyna’s objects and structures made in the 1980s forms part of the collection of Kraków’s Cricoteka Museum of Tadeusz Kantor.
Object as partner
The occupation period marked the beginning of Kantor’s fascination with the theatre, which for him, held a spatial and visual character above all else. He developed his formal approach to performance art in the post-war reality in the 1950s while launching Cricot 2 – a theatre group inspired by Józef Jarema’s previous Cricot company.
Cricot 2 was characterised, like many avant-garde movements, by a revolt against bourgeois theatrical conventions. It used no decorations, costumes or props in the traditional sense, instead replacing them with object-machines, which were often treated as acting partners. This approach can be seen as a continuation of constructivist and dehumanising tendencies.
Kantor in Anecdotes
Kantor referred to the pairing of actor and object as the ‘bio-object’ – ‘an anatomical extension of the actor’ and a phenomenon existing on the boundary between the visual and performing arts. Bio-objects were used, for example, in Kantor’s famous The Dead Class.
The concept of the ‘bio-object’ was also a philosophical reference to early avant-garde ideas which aimed at removing the human from its elevated position, as well as to the dreams of artists who wanted to introduce puppets, mannequins and dolls to the stage. Today, such an approach would be understood as transhumanist.
The ‘Poor Room of the Imagination’
Kantor also used extant, used and found objects – his ‘ready-mades’. It is worth mentioning his beloved old umbrellas, which he collected in his room as if they were valuable finds, using them in his plays and visual art. In his Komentarze Intymne (Intimate Commentaries) from the years 1986-1988, the artist described the objects in this way:
How did umbrellas end up in my Poor Room of the Imagination… Around 1965 they began to fall down from the sky in flocks. […] I had a lot of fun with them; their ambiguity and elusive character helped me greatly in talking about many things I found myself unable to deal with. I called this space the ‘umbrellaic’. This only existed, of course, within my ROOM. Personally, I hate umbrellas in real life.
Why did Kantor call his ‘room’ ‘poor’? The director focused on what was desperately everyday, crude, banal, weak and even… boring. He claimed that he himself was devoid of imagination and merely used what happened to him and what he found. All this, once extracted from the ordinary reality, could become an artistic object.
Józef Jarema’s words on the activities of Cricot 2 following a Rome performance of The Water-Hen, based on a play by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, are emblematic here:
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… why are you so poor? You’re so poor, so grey. Cricot 1 was full of colours and the joy of life…
Szajna’s junk room
The object and all its meanings held a special place in the theatrical imagination of Józef Szajna. The director-designer’s extreme experiences from the Nazi German concentration camps influenced the aesthetics of his later work, through which he grappled with his unspeakable trauma.
Szajna had been a prisoner in a death cell – an extremely cramped, lightless room in which captives literally lost their minds and their feeling of embodiment as they awaited death by firing squad. Szajna escaped death by what seems like a miracle; the new commander of the camp declared amnesty on the day of the artist’s planned execution.
Szajna was a graduate of Kraków’s Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied graphic and set design. He saw theatre directing as the art of designing the stage, less interested in working with actors than with the space itself. Among Szajna’s legendary works is his collaboration with Jerzy Grotowski on a 1962 adaptation of Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1904 play Acropolis. Szajna created the set design, costumes and props for this production.
In a tiny performance hall of what was at the time known as the 13 Rzędów Theatre in Opole, Szajna designed an installation-junk room consisting of coils of wire, plumbing pipes, wheelbarrows and a rusted bathtub. The dehumanising and gender-effacing costumes were created from stiff, raw fabrics. This is how Szajna wanted to portray those at the lowest level of the camp hierarchy.
The Grotowski Glossary
Largely as a result of Szajna’s experiences and memories, Acropolis was transposed from its original location of Kraków’s Wawel Castle to the reality of Auschwitz. Over the course of the performance, the uniform group of actors turned the mess of miserable and abandoned objects into a camp.
The artist challenged the traditional means of expression of the theatre and stressed – as a visual artist and set designer – the importance of what was visible in the space, in which the actor counted simply as one of its objects. This made Szajna similar to Kantor – even though he did not create such a vast theoretical ‘addendum’ to his work that could serve as a clarification of his approach. In addition, the two artists were not at the best of terms – to put it gently – and accused each other of plagiarism.
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A later staging of another Wyspiański play invoked clear associations with the visual design of Acropolis. For his 1969 production of Bolesław Śmiały (Bolesław the Brave), Szajna worked with the then-novice director Helmut Kajzar. The set design consisted of cold metal pipes arranged on an all but empty stage. After the premiere, Jerzy Bajdor wrote in Gazeta Robotnicza:
Szajna is once again cruel in his associations and obsessions. He will hang an exhibition of skulls above the stage, show a procession of monks wearing death-like masks and use a coffin as a dramatically meaningful centre-point for the final scene. […] Szajna discarded an entire collection of exotic and fairy-tale-like depictions of the Middle Ages, replacing it instead with his own vision of that era and its world – a shocking and contemporary vision, as if rooted in his own memories from the occupation period.
Through theatre, Szajna was able to tell his own, dispersed story – in which meanings were expressed through objects and events, rather than words. Ironically, this often led to criticism that he was lacking in skills common to mainstream directors and that his works were boringly static.
Reminiscing about a nightmare
For 11 years, Szajna worked at the Ludowy Theatre in Kraków. This he shaped to become a radically avant-garde institution, where classic texts adopted new visual forms that did not attempt to imitate reality. In 1971, he became the head of Warsaw’s Studio Theatre (called the Klasyczny Theatre at the time), where he created his best work as a director. These productions confirmed his attachment to a formal and anti-psychological style.
Szajna’s Replika (Replica), which saw numerous versions from between the years of 1971 and 1973, was first created on the basis of an exhibition of the Academy of the Fine Arts entitled Reminiscencje (Reminiscences). It existed on the boundaries between the visual and performing arts: nearly wordless, it took on the form of a moving visual composition which gave birth to horrifying images.
In one such moment, figures dressed in coarse sackcloth rose from a battlefield out of mud, pipes, ropes and various destroyed objects assembled in the hall of a paint shop. The deformed human silhouettes, dismembered bodies and horrifying mannequins emerging from the unruly pile of trash created an apocalyptic image, around which the audience was gathered. Szajna followed an avant-garde idea in which the audience became part of the performance, rather than passive spectators comfortably seated in chairs facing a proscenium.
Intriguingly, Szajna considered his works to be… optimistic. Perhaps his miraculous salvation from death row made him believe that escaping any danger would be possible. His radical visions bore traces of – as he described it in the script of Replika – a ‘rebellion against the meaninglessness of life and unnecessary death’.
This precisely composed performance was presented in its consecutive, alternating versions in cities such as Göteborg and Edinburgh. Critics consider it to be Szajna’s magnum opus.
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20th century avant-garde
Szajna’s successor at the Studio Theatre, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, was another great director who understood theatre productions not only as dramatic and psychological formulas, but also as spatial, visual compositions. He, too, treated directing as the art of control over compositions and objects. Grzegorzewski’s passion for visiting flea markets in search of items of ‘lower rank’ is well documented.
Many peculiar objects reappeared in Szajna’s plays, like phantoms. One of these is the famous tram pantograph, which was present in Ameryka (America, 1973), Bloomusalem (1976) and The Slow Darkening of Paintings (Powolne Ciemnienie Malowideł, 1985), among others. Szajna appreciated the imperfect character of such finds and the ambiguous status they could hold onstage.
Today, this approach is continued and developed by artists such as Natalia Korczakowska, who has served as head of the Studio Theatre since 2016. She is particularly interested in drawing on inspirations from the legacy of the second avant-garde.
Korczakowska underlines the role of the set designer and the space and encourages directors to treat the space itself (and not the script) as a starting point in their work on a production. The role that objects serve in her production of Demons (based on Dostoevsky’s novel) can be seen as a tribute to Grzegorzewski – Korczakowska used objects which resemble those from an old marketplace to create a truly original menagerie.
Many visual artists turned set designers in the Polish theatre have taken a keen interest in poor, miserable, discarded and found objects – which resemble the human being, but do not imitate its overly idealised figure. From the beginning of the 20th century, through neo-avant-garde continuations and even today’s forays into virtual reality, object-oriented aesthetics have rejected the human form as the primary point of reference and narration in Polish theatre.
Written by Marcelina Obarska, Nov 2018; translated by MW, May 2019
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