Kazimierz Urbański is a director of animated films and documentaries, set designer, screenwriter, animator, performer and prominent teacher. He was born on 26th March, 1929 in Święciechowa, near Leszno (Wielkopolska), and died on 18th January, 2015.
Table of contents: Main Characteristics of His Work | Fascination with Matter and Movement | Animated Films | Return to Kinetic Art | Filmography
In 1956, Kazimierz Urbański graduated from the Faculty of Set Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, where he had been supervised by Karol Frycz. In 1955 he received a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and Art to study at the School of Applied Arts in Prague, where he graduated from the Faculty of Film Graphics in 1958.
Urbański is one of the key figures who influenced the development of artistic animation in Poland. He was the creator and founder (from 1st October, 1957) of the Film Drawing Workshop at the School of Set Design of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, which he headed in the years 1957-1972. It was one of the first establishments in the world specialising in animation, and the first in Poland.
In 1966, Urbański founded the Kraków branch of the Miniature Film Studio with the help of several of the workshop’s alumni – Julian Antoniszczak, Ryszard Czekała, Jan January Janczak and Krzysztof Raynoch. In 1974 the studio became independent and changed its name to Animated Film Studio in Kraków. Then, in the years 1973-1982, Urbański organised and led the workshop for Art Design for Film and Television, located at the Postgraduate School of Set Design of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, headed by Józef Szajna.
In 1982, Urbański co-founded the Animated Film Workshop (changed in 2002 to Department of Animated Film) at the Faculty of Painting, Graphics and Sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts (now University of the Arts) in Poznań, with the then rector Antoni Zydroń. In the meantime, he returned to the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, where he taught light direction at the International Set Design Department. In the years 1994-2000 Urbański taught at the National Film School in Łódź (specialisation: animated film). He also taught animation abroad in Zurich and Bonn. He educated and left his mark on several generations of animators by giving them faith in the importance of the author’s message in animated films, and the need to search for the language of animated matter. In addition to the above-mentioned co-founders of the Animated Film Studio in Kraków, Jerzy Kucia and Wojciech Bąkowski were also among Urbański’s students.
Urbański had well-defined views on what film should be like from the beginning of his artistic career. In The Specificity of Animated Films survey carried out by Kwartalnik Filmowy in 1964 (No. 4), he said:
the essence of film is [...] movement, and the creation of films respecting this principle is dependent on the ability to find a material and discover the movement, which is inherently associated with it.
Therefore, the starting point for most films by Urbański was matter. By observing and analysing the properties of materials (woollen threads, ink stains) the director found their vector of motion, around which he developed his works, ignoring the storyline as traditionally understood. Instead of ‘animation’ he prefers to use the term ‘kinetic art’ (‘kineplastyka’), which he defined in the Didactic Programme for a Film Drawing Workshop from 1969 as:
kinetic forms of artistic work, transferring a certain artistic surrogate having no independent aesthetic existence outside the screen from the spatial to the time and space dimension. (K. Urbański’s archive)
Urbański is also an absolute supporter of auteur cinema, which constitutes independent artistic expression of one person, responsible for the screenplay, the directing, as well as the sound effects and sets. He followed this principle both as an artist and a teacher. Extremely brave in his views and rarely departing from his rules, the director aroused controversy and always stood outside the mainstream of Polish animation. At the same time he consistently pursued his vision and was able to bring others around to his way of thinking.
In the Urbański's case, the separation between animated, documentary, and narrative film is not applicable, because regardless of their form his works reflect a fascination with matter and dramatic movement. His debut Romanca (1959), which combines live action with the stop-motion method, and in which a little boy plays with meticulously cut cardboard soldiers, metaphorically conveys the tragedy of war. The ordered toys covered in snow coming through the window, are blown by the wind as unwanted memories. However, the emphasis is placed not on the ideological meaning of the film, but on the struggle between the elements and inanimate matter.
A similar problem is explored in Gips-romanca (1960), created in the style of a poetic reportage, which shows students working with plaster during sculpture classes in black-and-white photos. Their actions teeter between an aggressive fight with the evolving skeleton of the matter, and a smooth caress. The transformation of the plaster into a motionless shell of a sculpture, its texture, shades and fragility during the act of destruction, seem to interest the director much more than the actions of the young artists.
Urbański adopted a similar attitude in Diabły (Devils, 1963) completed four years later, another documentary impression with picturesque, colour photographs, this time depicting a speedway competition. The preparation for the race shown in close-ups, in which the director captures the affectionate relationship between the shiny machine and its driver, is followed by a sequence of competition events filmed with great virtuosity, revealing the loneliness of man who, despite being surrounded by thousands of fans, is left on his own in his fight against speed and the sticky dirt. The title of the film gives the leading role to the grimy drivers, but once again Urbański is more interested in the interaction between man and matter, and the beauty and dynamics of movement.
This interaction is also central to the documentary Na krakowskim Rynku (Krakow Market, 1965), which shows the repairs carried out at one of the largest squares in Europe. The different steps in the reconstruction process – the removal of the old surface, the deep excavations, the winter mud, and the repaving – are captured by showing the struggle of passers-by, mainly women in high heels, with overcoming obstacles. The film, far from being a postcard image of a heritage site, presents the real impact of matter on the movement of bodies.
Rezerwat (Reserve, 1968), another impressionistic documentary by Urbański, takes viewers into the world of sculpture by Bronisław Chromy, yet the ‘artist at work’ is not shown in the traditional way – we only see the sculptor pulling out massive stones from the mountain river. By contrasting the movement of water and molten metal with the flow of people and cars in the city the director forces viewers to reflect on the interrelations existing in the world shaped by nature and the human hand.
The starting point for Urbański’s animated films was to determine the kinetic properties of the material and the movement encoded in it, while the storyline was often necessary in order to bind the form. This is why almost every film presented a new technique and material. In his first animated film, entitled Igraszki (Playthings, 1962), the director analysed the formal possibilities of one of the most popular animation techniques at the time – cutouts. By emphasising the easy transformation of complex objects, their disassembling, ordering and movement, the creator pointed to the analogy with military actions, creating a unique dance of forms with a pacifistic message.
Urbański returned to this animation technique in the ironically titled film Czar kółek (The Charm of the Two Wheels, 1966), which describes the tragic consequences of the motorcycle boom. This time, the director was primarily interested in the dynamics of movement of the cut-out figures. The extraordinary pace and rhythm of hundreds of animated insects and the expressiveness of speeding motorcyclists almost parting the frame fascinate with their technical virtuosity until today.
In Materia (Matter, 1962), one of the most recognisable films by Urbański, the material for the animation is a piece of yarn soaked in oil. The director turns the bright thread into an unusual ancient world throbbing with life, in which we see birds, insects, the first humans, and even all-consuming fire. The movement of the animated piece of yarn is impressive – incredibly smooth, vivid, almost poetic, clearly illustrating the phenomenon called ‘the drama of matter’ by the director.
The inspiration for the film Moto-gaz (Moto-gas, 1963) came from the diffusion of an ink drop on a damp floor. The director combined the expanding clusters of black ink with a cut-out figure (which also ‘stretches’ the ink evocatively) to form a visual spectacle in the form of torn patches and characters forming an easy-going, original reflection on the environmental pollution caused by cars and the regenerating influence of wildlife.
In the less technically sophisticated Pamiętnik filatelisty (Philatelist’s Diary, 1965) Urbański presented the history of Poland using animated postage stamps. Among the disciplined ranks of stamps, the movement of album pages and the pressing of stamps we find moments of national glory and great trauma (Hitler, concentration camps). The director returned to this subject in 1989, when he created Witkacego wywoływanie duchów (The Spirit of Witkacy), a film with a sharp message, using loose materials, photographs, cutouts and light painting. Starting with Multiple Portrait, one of the most famous photographs of the artist from Zakopane, Urbański revealed the drama of Witkacy, who was aware of the threats posed by totalitarianism, against the background of the great powers conspiring over the heads of the Polish people.
The film Słodkie rytmy (Sweet Rhythms, 1965) is an extremely evocative attempt to render sound effects with artistic means. The director subjected the film tape containing a record of outdoor beekeeping activities to heat treatment, replacing the sound of a flying bee with a vibrant patch of colour. Trenie zbója (Train Robber, 1967), which describes the military conflict between two warring nations, also goes beyond the limits of classical animation. And once again it is not the narrative, but the power of plasticity that catches the viewer’s attention. In a vibrant, multi-layered image with molded forms that smoothly transform into geometric abstractions, Urbański replaced the colour patch with transparent colourful films, combining drawing and cut-out figures in a unique way.
In Humanae Vitae (1969) the director used animated palms and fingerprints covered in black and red paint, which he combined with evocative music by Stanisław Radwan and the sounds of lovemaking. This was his impressionistic commentary on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical regarding procreation.
In the 1970s, due to the unwritten ban on films, the director developed his research on ‘transparent painting’ (in transparent emulsions), which resulted in numerous kinetic and audiovisual productions. He later used his experience with artistic light in film, theatre, and original performances based on his librettos and visions. His performance Transpeinture at the Third International Theatrologists’ Congress in Paris in 1977, was considered ‘a step into the twenty-first century’.
Due to the long break from filmmaking and his stage experience, in the eighties Urbański returned to the idea of kinetic art with even more energy. This energy found expression in Arytmia (Arrhythmia, 1980), a fully abstract poem of image and sound, created with an original light painting technique, taking viewers on an extraordinary journey into mysterious and unexplored worlds that have no real equivalent.
In the monochromatic Demony (Demons, 1981) painted with light and the movement of condoms full of water, Urbański created an artistically bold vision of a sexual act. Although the film was far from literal and used the language of abstract art, it was not released until 1998. In Lunapark (1989) the director once more used ‘light painting’ practiced during his original performances, giving new meanings and forms to the used materials.
In the 90s Urbański created films for the series Miniatur filmowych do muzyki klasycznej (Film Miniatures for Classical Music) and Impresje (Impressions) in the Animated Film Television Studio in Poznań. There he ‘composed music with image’ and continued to develop ‘light painting’. In addition, in La Danse Macabre, he drew on traditional materials. The musical (Piano Concerto in C major. Andante KV467, Nocturne) and painting impressions (Hans Memling. Sąd ostateczny / Hans Memling. Final Judgement), devoid of traditional narrative, have a captivating sense of colour and economy of form.
Music plays a very important role in Urbański’s films. Due to his collaboration with eminent composers (Andrzej Markowski, Stanisław Radwan, Krzysztof Penderecki, Zygmunt Konieczny), the director created very consistent works, in which music and image formed an unbreakable ballet of form, light, rhythm and tempo. Urbański is also the author of intros for festivals and television programmes, and trailers. He played in episodes of Godziny nadziei (The Hours of Hope, 1955) by Jan Rybkowski and Warszawska Syrena (Warsaw Mermaid, 1956) by Tadeusz Makarczyński, where he also served as an assistant cinematographer and set designer.
- 1960 – Romanca
- 1960 – Gips-Romanca (awards: 1961 – London, Kraków)
- 1961 – Smok / Dragon (intro for the National Festival of Short Films, currently Kraków Film Festival)
- 1962 – Igraszki / Playthings (award: 1962 – Rimini)
- 1962 – Materia / Matter (awards: 1963 – Mannheim, 1965 – New Delhi, Montevideo)
- 1963 – Witamy (film trailer)
- 1963 – Diabły / Devils (awards: 1965 – Montevideo, Oberhausen, 1969 – Zakopane)
- 1963 – Moto-gaz / Moto-gas (awards: 1965 – Oberhausen, 1966 – Poznań, 1972 – Katowice)
- 1965 – Pamiętnik filatelisty / Philatelist’s Diary
- 1965 – Słodkie rytmy / Sweet Rhytms
- 1965 – Na krakowskim Rynku / Cracow Market
- 1966 – Czar kółek / The Charm of the Two Wheels (award: 1967 – Locarno)
- 1967 – Tren zbója / Train Robber
- 1968 – Rezerwat / Reserve (award: 1969 – Zakopane)
- 1969 – Humanae Vitae
- 1980 – Arytmia / Arrhythmia
- 1981 – Demony / Demons
- 1989 – Lunapark
- 1989 – Witkacego wywoływanie duchów / Witkacy’s Spirit
- 1990 – Taniec szkieletów. La Danse macabre (with Aleksandra Korejwo)
- 1991 – Piano Concerto in C major. Andante KV467
- 1994 – Hans Memling. Sąd ostateczny / Hans Memling. Final Judgement
- 1995 – Nocturne in c-mol op. 48 nr 1 by Fryderyk Chopin
- 1997 – Telewizja edukacyjna / Educational Television (intro).
Author: Mariusz Frukacz, June 2011, transl. Bozhana Nikolova, April 2015