Two Post-War Pilgrims: Kantor and Beuys
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no-image, Two Post-War Pilgrims: Kantor and Beuys
Beuys and Kantor are said to have met only once, and very briefly. The encounter took place at the Edinburgh festival in 1973. Rumours have it that Beuys entered the space where Kantor was rehearsing with his group, whistling the Polish anthem. Kantor made a side comment with a hiss, “Oh, here comes the old nazi”.
Joseph Beuys, 1971, Düsseldorf, Germany; Tadeusz Kantor, 1980, Paris, Théâtre Bouffe du Nord, photos by Tadeusz Rolke / Agencja Gazeta
Kantor’s group was staging Dainty Shapes and Hairy Apes, and the performance always included a scene in which one of the audience members was asked to play one of the forty Mandelbaum Hasidic Jews. Rumours have it that in Edinburgh, Kantor selected Beuys to play this part. In spite or maybe because of their striking similarities, the two artists visibly did not take to each other.
Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a German artist connected to the Fluxus movement, who created pioneer happening and performance art works, and was also a sculptor, installation artist, graphic artist, and art theorist and pedagogue of art. Teaching was important for him, and he became known for opening his classes to any and all interested, without prior exigencies. Ultimately, he strived to create an "extended definition of art" and the idea of social sculpture as a gesamtkunstwerk – a total oeuvre. Through this Gesamtkunstwerk, Beuys claimed a participatory role in shaping society and politics.
Both artists worked in a wide range of fields and media, deliberately testing limits and crossing lines. Although they drew constantly, and Kantor also painted, they are chiefly known for their actions – happenings, theater performances, street manifestations, lectures, debates, and more. Another point of convergence lies in the key to the artists’ work. It is anamnesis, the process of calling to mind, summoning up both the individual’s and a society’s forgotten memories.
The trauma of the Second World War – an event crucial for the shaping of contemporary art as such – is also one that directly influenced both artists. Time and again, Beuys and Kantor turned to personal stories from their lives, and the complex issues of German-Polish-Jewish relations, as well as the war. Yet, this is an event which they experienced in very different ways.
In 1941, Beuys – a member of the Hitler Youth as a teen – volunteered for the Luftwaffe. It is also during this time that he began to seriously consider a career as an artist. From 1943 on he was deployed as rear-gunner in a dive-bomber. Drawings and sketches from that time have been preserved and already show his characteristic style. On 16 March 1944, Beuys's plane was shot down on the Crimean Front and crashed close to Znamianka. He was rescued from the crash by nomadic Tatar tribesmen, who had wrapped his broken body in animal fat and felt and nursed him back to health. This particular story and this single happening has served as a powerful myth of origins for Beuys's artistic identity. Many critics and researchers delved into historic fact to demystify the account’s credibility. Yet, regardless of historic accuracy, it is not inconsistent with Beuys' work that his biography would have been subject to his own reinterpretation. Through this myth, Beuys also provided an initial interpretive key to his use of unconventional materials, amongst which felt and fat were central.
Similarly, Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) was a most colorful theatre director, the creator of happenings, as well as a painter, set designer, writer, art theoretician, and an actor in his own productions.
Motives of pilgrimage and returning to the places of one’s origin – especially through the vehicle of memory – constitute a recurring theme, and even an axis of Kantor’s work. His personal biography, strongly marked by the events of World War II, gives rise to the theme of these returns. Such is the case, for exemple, with the iconic The Dead Class performance. In it, a group of aged men return to their school desks, carrying backpacks and mannequins that stand for their bygone childhoods. As the dolls are tossed in fire, Kantor evokes the extermination of a whole nation. Growing up as a child and studying in Wielopole Skrzyńskie, a vast majority of Kantor’s colleagues were Jewish. Upon his return to the town after the war, he would find that they had all been killed, and vanished without a trace. The loss and impossibility of return – a theme which is universally true – thus mingles with the particular tragic loss of the Holocaust.
20th century polish theatre
Some even claim that while Kantor obsessively returns to the same motifs and memories, Beuys seems to cover his past over with chatter, as if attempting to hide something – even with the figure of a founding myth. According to Jaromir Jedliński, an art historian who curated a major Kantor | Beuys exhibition in Israel in 2012,
‘The repetition is reiterated in every single one of Kantor’s performances. Towards the end of his life, he says that everything he ever did was already there in The Return of Odysseus of the Clandestine Independent Theatre in 1944 and in the Death of Tintagiles based on Maeterlinck from 1937 – a piece which he first realised within puppet theatre and which he later returned to in 1987 with living actors (…)”
Jedliński adds that while Kantor walks around a circle throughout his life, Beuys seems to be running away, keeping his own wound camouflaged in spite of summoning others to expose lesions of their own.
Beuys attempted to apply philosophical concepts to his pedagogical practice, which had a huge significance for someone aiming at art’s therapeutic effects in society, as part of the envisioned "social sculpture" concept. One of Beuys' most famous Actions, “How to explain pictures to a dead hare,” exemplifies a performance that is especially relevant to the pedagogical field because it deals with “the difficulty of explaining things”.
While Kantor was openly critical towards any direct metaphysical or ritualistic goals of the art he created, Beuys openly called himself a shaman. He had adopted shamanism not only as a presentation mode of his art, but also in his own life. Going a bit beyond what can be regarded as a trend, Beuys believed that humanity, with its turn on rationality, was trying to eliminate “emotions” and thus eliminate a major source of energy and creativity in every individual. Hence he saw his role as that of an interrogator, a pedagogue, and a healer.
Kantor, on the other hand, who also always seeked novely, did not claim his own position as that of either a shaman or a healer. Much like Beuys, however, he was nonetheless an incredibly influential and charismatic figure, and a unique animator of the avant-garde art scene. In the late 1940s and in the 1960s, Kantor lectured at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, but his official career and place within academic structures was interrupted by the Communist extortion to paint only in the socialist realism style.
It was rather his path within visual arts as such that made Kantor especially sensitive to the paradoxes of representation. This is what is toyed with as the author of first happening actions in Poland, never ceasing to surprise and challenge the spectator.
Author: Paulina Schlosser, March, 2015