The Polish Inspirations of the Brothers Quay
#language & literature
default, The Polish Inspirations of the Brothers Quay, The Quay Brothers during the production of their film 'Street of Crocodiles', photo: courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Bracia Quay podczas pracy nad filmem "Ulica Krokodyli", fot. dzięki uprzejmości MoMA
Although born in the United States, identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay bound their artistic and personal lives to Europe. At the end of the 1960s, they left Philadelphia for London to study at the Royal College of Art – and as a result, avoided being drafted into the army and serving in the Vietnam War.
The Brothers Quay, as they came to be known, lived in Belgium and the Netherlands, traveling across Europe until they settled in London. Their first visit to Poland took place in 1974, at the invitation of Andrzej Klimowski, who had been born in the U.K. and resided there. At the time, however, he was a student at the poster workshop in Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts, under the supervision of Henryk Tomaszewski.
Quay Brothers: From Lutosławski to Silence
From then on, the Brothers encountered Poland's culture on a regular basis – not only as mere spectators, but also as active participants. Follow Culture.pl through the Polish influences on this dynamic, creative duo.
The Polish School of Posters
The Brothers Quay first experienced Polish culture while studying at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts). One of the graphic design magazines at the school reprinted some of Jan Lenica’s works, such as the posters advertising Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck and Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead.
In a later interview with Kuba Mikurda and Michał Oleszczyk, the Brothers shared:
You could say that Polish posters sent us telegrams from our own future, along with its dark paths within literature, cinema and music.
These words by Zygmunt Kałużyński describe Lenica’s vision – but they can equally be applied to the twins’ work:
6 Legends of the Polish Poster School
There is a clear anti-aesthetic attitude here, a rejection of all ‘prettiness’, an intentional use of shock effect; the spectator, in a forced attempt to produce a polite smile, hoping to see something seemly, is about to get a bloody good (graphic) hiding.
Making animated films is an incredibly laborious and time-consuming process, and the necessary materials are often costly. At the outset of their creative endeavours, the Quays earned their keep in different ways, such as by washing dishes. They were also involved in graphic design, creating book illustrations, covers and posters.
Walerian Borowczyk, photo: Juliusz Zamecznik / Archaeology of Photography Foundation
Stumbling upon Walerian Borowczyk’s work turned out to be a sudden fix: just like them, he started out as a poster designer and ended up as an outstanding director of animated and feature films. In the Mikurda and Oleszczyk, the Brothers said:
Borowczyk was a decisive influence on our work. His smooth transition from the closed, isolated world of animation to the confident, perturbing parable of his first feature film, was an epiphany to us.
In a subsequent interview with Culture.pl, they picked Les Jeux des Anges (The Games of Angels) as the Borowczyk film with the most interesting musical arrangements, composed by Bernard Parmegiani.
The tram became one of the main modes of transport used by the Quay Brothers in Central Europe. Trams had already begun to disappear from U.S. urban networks by the 1940s, meeting a similar fate in the U.K. not long afterwards. Unnerving tram journeys often feature in the Quays’ animations.
Scenes from their first film, Nocturna Artificalia, or Those Who Desire Without End, featuring music by Zygmunt Konieczny, are among the most characteristic. Their 2014 Kwartet Smyczkovy (String Quartet) includes shots recorded on 8mm tape during their first trip to Kraków – and what do we see but a familiar tram, passing by a Kraków park. Nothing like today’s modern, silent machines, those old vehicles are immortalised in the films of the Brothers Quay.
In 1986, the Quay Brothers released the film adaptation of Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles. The author became one of their most prominent literary influences, along with Franz Kafka and Robert Walser. One of the leading motifs from Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies – seen as the epitome of Schulz’s metaphysics – has always accompanied them: 'dead matter does not exist'.
Quay Brothers - Street of Crocodiles - Short
Schulz really does reach the mystical density of matter. He introduces the reader into the arbitrariness of his linguistic land. Only a few days ago someone told us that Schulz’s language is so rich that you can read one page a day, not more. To us, reading each page is equivalent to drinking the heaviest of that sweet Tokay wine.
Street of Crocodiles is the first film the Brothers shot using 'serious' 35mm tape. For some time, there has been talk of a Quay Brothers feature based on Schultz's novel Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (originally: Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą), which was adapted by Wojciech Jerzy Has over 40 years ago.
Wojciech Jerzy Has
During the 2010 Polska Year! in the U.K., the Quay Brothers prepared an installation entitled The Quay Brothers for Has. Their work was based on Has’s famous portrait, which shows the director surrounded by objects from his films. Of the exhibition, Agnieszka Szeffel wrote:
The Hourglass Sanatorium - Wojciech Jerzy Has
The director, much like Faust grappling with matter and spirit, the alchemist bent over his life’s work in that mysterious study, contemplates yet another startling strategy.
The artwork is a kind of 3-D poster composed of stills and fragments from Has’s films – and all this takes place in the constant presence of the director himself.
The Quay Brothers became acclimated to a specific creative process – outlined by music, which they call the 'secret scenario'. 'Music defines the film’s nature, the way we perceive and grasp it', they said in their interview with Culture.pl.
One of their favourite 'screenwriters' is Leszek Jankowski, a composer with a primary interest in music for the theatre. They all met in 1981 during a London performance by Teatr Ósmego Dnia (Theatre of the Eighth Day).
The Quays, captivated by the music they heard, invited Jankowski to collaborate on Street of Crocodiles. Jankowski had already worked on the music for another Bruno Schulz project, which was never completed, and so sent them his sketches and tapes. In the end, the trio cooperated on many other projects – some short films, as well as the Quay Brothers' first feature-length film, Institute Benjamenta, which is now a cult classic.
Zygmunt Konieczny was another 'secret screenwriter'. He composed film scores (for Andrzej Wajda, Tadeusz Konwicki and Jan Jakub Kolski, among others), music for theatre and other songs. Nocturna Artificalia, the Quay Brothers’ first film, begins with his Deszcze / Rains. In Poland, this song is associated mainly with Ewa Demarczyk, who sang it to the words of Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński’s poem of the same title.
Polish Film Composers
Another important link between the Quay Brothers and Polish culture is Prince Jan Nepomucen Potocki. The first Polish archaeologist, he was also an expert on the Kabbalah, a politician, a member of the Knights of Malta and a writer. The twins looked for Potocki’s ghost in his family residence at Łańcut Castle, now a museum.
Here, the Brothers filmed Inventorium of Traces, in which they study the lives of the museum’s objects. These objects take on the role of observers, having seen both astonishing historical events and today’s museum guests, staring back at the old items with apathy.
To us, this effort of the imagination is transformed into the obsessive dream to accept the object’s point of view – to recognise and adapt its sensitivity and then show it to the spectator.
In 2010, with the support of the Łódź animation studio Se-Ma-For, the Quay Brothers embarked on an adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s short story Mask (originally: Maska). The story spoke to the artistic vision of the Euro-American filmmakers. With anachronistic language, the story is narrated by a creature who initially refers to itself as an 'it'. The product of an alchemical experiment, it resembles a praying mantis.
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A still from the film 'Maska' by the Quay Brothers
In a certain way, Lem’s intentions from 1974 were realised by the Quay Brothers here:
The formally romantic setting and atmosphere were meant to demonstrate that you can insert new, rational content into the ancient, mysterious, 'gothic' form of a novel. I made use of a few motifs from this classic model – 'fatal' love, love at first sight, jealousy… And yet I strove to give each of these motifs another, non-literary raison d’être, that being the possibility of introducing and explaining it with the backing of our cybernetic knowledge.
Krzysztof Penderecki & Witold Lutosławski
The Quay Brothers are well versed in the classics of Polish contemporary music. Krzysztof Penderecki’s music featured in Maska and the whole of Kwartet Smyczkowy is based on Witold Lutosławski’s String Quartet.
'The String Quartet' leaves a lot of room to the imagination. It’s very important, because when images are too closely bound with music, there emerges excess. It’s like being tired after running too quickly.
The filmmakers never interfere in the compositions they use, whether by turning the volume up or down, or cutting out unfitting fragments. To the Brothers Quay, music is an autonomous entity – and the director has no right to stand in its way.
The Quays' creative journey
As the Brothers Quay continue to influence, exhibitions have cropped up to document their creative endeavours. This article was originally published at the time of the Quays’ retrospective at the 2010 New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław.
Quay Brothers' Universum at Amsterdam's EYE
The next year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, featuring the Brothers' creations and a retrospective of their films. An exhibition titled The Quay Brothers' Dormitorium of Traces opened at the Centre for the Meeting of Cultures in Lublin in February 2019.
Given the Brothers' sources of inspiration, events such as these are a testament to the impact and reach of Polish culture as well.
Written by Filip Lech, Oct 2013; translated by Ewa Bianka Zubek, 7th Oct 2013; edited by LD, Mar 2019
street of crocodiles
polish school of posters
wojciech jerzy has
Sources: Quay Brothers interview with Culture.pl, Sept 2013; 'Thirteenth Month: The Cinema of the Quay Brothers' ed. by K. Mikurda and A. Prodeus (Kraków 2010).