A scenery designer and painter, born in 1944.
Jerzy Juk-Kowarski first enrolled at Warsaw University to study mathematics, yet after his third year he transferred to the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 1973 he graduated from the Department of Interior Design, having studied under the architect and professor Tadeusz Zieliński among others. His theatrical debut came the same year when he designed the scenery for Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts directed by Henryk Baranowski at the Polish Theatre (Teatr Polski) in Bydgoszcz. In the 1970s he was associated with the New Theatre (Teatr Nowy) in Poznań headed by Izabella Cywińska. In 1975 he designed the scenery for Jerzy Jarocki's staging of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard at the Old Theatre (Narodowy Stary Teatr) in Krakow. Since then, he has regularly collaborated with Jarocki, designing many of this director's outstanding productions in Poland and abroad.
The designer has also worked with Henryk Baranowski on a number of contemporary plays, designing the scenery this director's stagings of Jean Genet's The Maids (1975) and Peter Handke's Offending the Audience (1975) at the Polish Theatre in Bydgoszcz. At the New Theatre in Poznan he worked with director Janusz Nyczak, designing the sets for Carlo Goldoni's The Squabbles at Chioggia (1975), Maxim Gorky's Summer Folk (1976), The Red Rooster Flies Heavenwards based on the novel of the same title by Miodrag Bulatovic (1978), and for Anton Chekhov's The Three Sisters (1985).
The artist also worked with director Izabella Cywińska on a number of Russian classics, including Vladimir Mayakovsky's The Bathhouse (1978) and Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector-general (1980), and also designed the scenery for Cywińska's stagings of Stefan Żeromski's Turoń (1977), Karol Hubert Roztworowski's Judasz z Kariothu / Judas Iscariot (1981) and Sławomir Mrożek's Zabawa / The Party (1979). On this same Poznań stage the artist designed the scenery for a number of Samuel Beckett plays, including Antoni Libera's stagings of Not I and That Time, as well as for Krapp's Last Tape directed by Jacek Gąsiorowski (1980).
Juk-Kowarski often chose natural materials, preferring wood above all. In Ghosts he showed audiences a greenhouse with real plants and a water-filled fishpond, in Summer Folk he created a real birch forest on stage, while The Red Rooster... featured live birds. The artist used these means to illustrate his view of humans as beings torn between culture and nature.
Juk-Kowarski values teamwork in theatre, underling that he is less interested in the final result achieved in working on a play than in the creative path, the process by which solutions are devised and a consensus among artists is achieved. He contends that, in reality, the actor is most important in the theatre. In his designs he strives to eliminate all superfluous elements; his scenery is thus highly intellectually and visually disciplined. This rational and visual discipline, sparseness of employed means, often causes Juk-Kowarski to be viewed as an ascetic. Skillfully designed playing areas are customarily emphasized in his designs, contributing to the intellectual and emotional message of the stagings.
There is no such thing as a separate phenomenon called theatrical visuals. There is just theatre," Juk-Kowarski once underlined. "Visuals are one of its constituent elements. I would just call them scenery." And he added, "If my sets work well with other elements of a production, that means they are essential, for that production would have meant less if the sets had not been on the stage. But let me say again: all efforts, all constituent elements of a production should be limited to the necessary. In this sense I am an advocate of 'poor' theatre. ('Głos Wielkopolski', 27 March 1978)
This precision having little to do with pure aesthetics, this minimalism of means in designing scenery, this selection of a handful of elements brings to mind analytical, mathematical reasoning. Years later the designer compared the two domains, saying:
I concluded that these were two closely related domains. Intuition, a basic element of mathematics, is just as necessary in art. But roaming about within virtual theory - because mathematics is completely virtual - is improbably pleasant. The instrument that is the brain suddenly finds itself absorbed by something that is completely non-material. It travels into a completely different reality - and that is an exceptional feeling. Revelations in mathematics have no equal. ('Didaskalia', 1 December 2003)
In Jerzy Jarocki, who always takes great care to compose the staged world of his productions with precision, Juk-Kowarski found a kindred spirit. The duo mounted over twenty productions at theatres in Poland and abroad. The Cherry Orchard, their first joint effort, played out in a bright, nearly empty room that conveyed a mood of sadness and abandonment. The artists chose Chekhov once again in the year 2000, staging Uncle Vanya at the Polish Theatre (Teatr Polski) in Wrocław. Juk-Kowarski and Jarocki also worked together on many classics. They staged Calderon's Life is a Dream (1983) at the Old Theatre in Krakow with a set composed of elements colored in tones of black, white, gray, red and gold. The production simultaneously combined distant but coherent stylistic elements - from Spanish color schemes on selected costumes through 19th century Polish military uniforms. The settings and other elements universalized the play's meanings but simultaneously indicated that the production pertained to Poland and Poles. In 1997, also in Krakow, the duo staged Johann Wolfgang Goethe's Faust, creating what would prove to be another important production. Juk-Kowarski also worked with Jarocki on a number of contemporary Polish dramas. In 1981 he created the scenery for Jarocki's staging of Sławomir Mrożek's Pieszo / On Foot at the State Higher School of Theatre in Krakow, a production that was later revived at the Dramatic Theatre (Teatr Dramatyczny) in Warsaw. In this production that proved an important contribution to the national discussion about recent Polish history going on at the time, the actors performed on a stage covered with wet clay while other scenery elements included railroad tracks and aircraft adorned with red stars. Seven years later Jarocki once again chose a Mrożek play, staging Portret / Portrait at the Old Theatre in Krakow. For this 1988 production Juk-Kowarski designed a cage-like room. Barbara Osterloff wrote:
The laboratory coldness of this space, corresponds to what the director has achieved in dismantling and reassembling the play's text - namely, a vivisection of the phenomenon of evil (...) ('Polska Plastyka Teatralna. Ostatnia dekada', Warsaw, 1991)
Ten years later, at the Polish Theatre in Wrocław, the duo staged Historia PRL wg Mrożka / The History of the Polish People's Republic According to Mrożek in gray-toned scenery that placed the reality presented on stage in inverted commas. They used a similar scheme of grays and dark areas for a 1992 staging of Tadeusz Różewicz's Pułapka / The Trap at the same Wrocław theatre.
Jarocki also frequently drew on the works of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and Juk-Kowarski designed the scenery for Grzebanie / The Burial, an original production devised by Jarocki based on the writings of Witkacy and staged at the State Higher School of Theatre in Krakow and at the Old Theatre (Narodowy Stary Teatr) in Krakow (1995), and for Akt Trzeci / Act Three, another original production based on Witkacy's Szewcy / The Shoemakers, also at the Old Theatre in Krakow (2002).
Blacks and reds dominated and were just as multi-functional and rich in associations as Witkacy's text," wrote Beata Popczyk-Szczęsna of the scenery to Act Three. "The resulting space on stage was dense and composed of elements of Communist, bourgeois and museum reality. Ropes and stanchions were the basic dividing elements, delineating and elevating the status of specific playing areas. These proved the perfect visual element for justifying character interactions aimed at achieving or maintaining a desired domination.('Opcje', 13 September 2002)
For many years Jerzy Jarocki would consistently return to Witold Gombrowicz's Ślub / The Marriage, staging the play six times. Juk-Kowarski worked with the director on his fourth, fifth and sixth versions of Gombrowicz's play. Staged in 1981 at the Dramatic Center of the Serbian National Theatre in Novy Sad, The Marriage proved a politically charged text. The stage design revealed and underlined the play's theatricality, the performance taking place on an empty stage with stagehands bringing in scenery elements and props in plain sight. The stage's ceiling and floor were covered with mirrors, until the final act, which was set in a cage. This production was followed by another staging at the Theater der Hochschule der Künste in West Berlin (1990) and by the now famous 1991 production at the Old Theatre in Krakow. This final Marriage gained a metaphysical and universal dimension. Juk-Kowarski's scenery was minimalist and functional to an extreme. The design, strongly linked to the production concept, became nearly transparent. Recently Jarocki and Juk-Kowarski tackled Gombrowicz once more, adapting his novel Kosmos / Cosmos for the stage at the National Theatre (Teatr Narodowy) in Warsaw (2005).
In Krakow Juk-Kowarski worked with Jarocki on Sen o bezgrzesznej / The Dream of the Guiltless One, based on motifs drawn from the writings of Stefan Żeromski as well as documents and quotations from the literature of his time (1979), and on Jerzy S. Sito's Słuchaj, Izraelu / Listen, Oh Israel (1989). He also designed the scenery for T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, originally directed by Jarocki at Warsaw's Dramatic Theatre and performed at St. John's Cathedral (1982) and later revived at the Old Theatre in Krakow and performed at Wawel Cathedral (1982).
Abroad the artists staged Bruno Jasieński's Bal manekinow / The Mannequins' Ball at the Tzviling Theatre in Chelyabinsk (1976), Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector-general at the Schauspielhaus in Wuppertal (1982), Isaac Babel's Sunset at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich (1984), Calderon's Life Is a Dream at the Schauspielhaus in Nuremberg (1984) and Slawomir Mrozek's Portrait at the Schauspiel in Bonn (1996).
Awards and distinctions:
1977 - 3rd Opole Theatre Confrontations - Scenery Design Award; "Przyjaźń" Weekly Theatre Award for the stage design of Maxim Gorky's Summer Folk directed by Janusz Nyczak at the New Theatre in Poznań
1979 - Prime Minister's Award 2nd class for artistic achievement
1988 - 17th Festival of Contemporary Polish Plays - Scenery Design Grand Prix for Sławomir Mrożek's Portret / Portrait directed by Jerzy Jarocki at the Old Theatre in Krakow
1996 - 2nd Polish National Competition for Productions of Contemporary Polish Plays in Warsaw - honorable mention in stage design for Grzebanie / The Burial based on the writings of Witkacy and directed by Jerzy Jarocki at the Old Theatre in Krakow
1999 - 5th Polish National Competition for Productions of Contemporary Polish Plays in Warsaw - Scenery Design Award for Historia PRL wg Mrożka / The History of the Polish People's Republic According to Mrożek directed by Jerzy Jarocki at the Polish Theatre in Wroclaw
2001 - Golden Cross of Merit
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2005.