Stage designer, painter, draftsman, graphic artist; co-creator of Kraków's famous Cellar Under the Rams (Piwnica pod Baranami) cabaret; born on 11 December 1931 in Łódź.
Stage designer, painter, draftsman, graphic artist; co-creator of Kraków's famous Cellar Under the Rams (Piwnica pod Baranami) cabaret.
Wiśniak was a student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, studying in the Interior Design and Scenic Design departments under prominent figures like Karol Frycz and Andrzej Stopka. He graduated in 1959. He made his debut in 1956, first as an illustrator at the Przekrój magazine.
While a student, he became one of the co-founders of the Cellar Under the Rams cabaret, where he also debuted as a stage designer, devising the sets for Daniel Francois Auber's Jezioro trzech wieszczek (Lake of the Three Sibyls) directed by Piotr Skrzynecki in 1958. Around the same time, he and Skrzynecki were producing the first post-war Polish comic strip, Szaszkiewiczowa, czyli Ksylolit w jej życiu (Mrs. Szaszkiewicz, or Xylolyte in Her Life), printed in Przekrój weekly. Focusing on a certain Mrs. Szaszkiewicz, a nurse from Kraków's newly arising working-class district of Nowa Huta who also frequented the Cellar, the comic strip stories were devised by Skrzynecki and drawn by Wiśniak.
In 1959 Wiśniak made his professional stage debut when Jerzy Zegalski invited him to the Theatre of the Lubusz Lands in Zielona Góra to work on a production of Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman. Wiśniak spent 1959-1963, the initial years of his career, at the Silesian Theatre (Teatr Śląski) in Katowice, designing the scenery for Jerzy Broszkiewicz's Jonasz i błazen (Jonas and the Fool) directed by Jerzy Gruda (1959), George Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession staged by Edward Żytecki (1960) and a number of productions directed by Jan Biczycki, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Iphigenia in Tauris (1961) and Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (1962).
Beginning in 1963 the artist worked mostly in Kraków as well as in Wrocław, where he contributed to many productions directed by Henryk Tomaszewski at Wrocław's Pantomime Theatre (Wrocławski Teatr Pantomimy). From 1963 to 1971 he was the resident scenery designer at the Słowacki Theatre (Teatr im. Juliusza Słowackiego) in Kraków. In 1972 he transferred to the Stary Theatre (Narodowy Teatr Stary) where he would end up spending a decade, before being appointed artistic director of the Bagatelle Theatre during the 1981-1982 season. He was both general director and artistic director of this Kraków stage in the years 1982-1986. In the late 1980s he revived his relationship with the Słowacki Theatre, and then went on to spend 1989-1997 working at the Old Theatre for the second time in his life. Throughout this rich career, he collaborated with other Polish and foreign theatres, including Warsaw's Dramatic Theatre (Teatr Dramatyczny), Wrocław's Polish (Teatr Polski) and Contemporary (Teatr Współczesny) theatres, the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus and the Landestheater in Darmstadt.
Wiśniak's credits include more than 250 production designs, some of which he produced for exceptional directors like Jerzy Jarocki and Konrad Swinarski. Among other plays, he and Jarocki collaborated on Helmut Kajzar's Paternoster at the Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław (1970), Tadeusz Różewicz's Na czworakach (On all fours, 1972) and Shakespeare's King Lear (1977) at Warsaw's Dramatyczny Theatre, and Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector-General at the Stary Theatre in Kraków (1980). Swinarski, whom the artist thought of as his third professor alongside Frycz and Stopka, directed seven of the productions Wiśniak designed. In Poland they mounted important productions at the Stary Theatre in Kraków, including Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well (1971) and Stanisław Wyspiański's Wyzwolenie (Liberation, 1974). Previous to this, they showed All's Well... abroad, at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (1969) and at the Svenska Teatern in Helsinki (1970). Wiśniak also worked abroad independently, designing the scenery for a production of Jerzy Szaniawski's Żeglarz (The Sailor) at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre in Moscow (1969), Wolfgang Hildesheimer's Mary Stuart at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (1970) and Shakespeare's Richard III at the Landestheater in Darmstadt (1972).
Wiśniak also worked closely with Henryk Tomaszewski's Pantomime Theatre in Wrocław for a number of years, designing scenery for the Nativity Play (1961), Menażeria Cesarzowej Filissy (The Menagerie of Empress Phillis, 1962), Ogród miłości (Garden of Love, 1966), Spór (The Dispute, 1978), Hamlet, ironia i żałoba (Hamlet, Irony and Mourning) based on Shakespeare (1979), Kaprys (Caprice) based on Gerhart Hauptmann (1996) and Tragiczne gry (Tragic Games) based on Ferdinand Brückner (1999). He also worked with Tomaszewski on a number of projects at other Polish and foreign theatres, among others designing the scenery for Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade at the Polski Theatre in Poznań (1967), Eugene Ionesco's The Killing Game at the Polski Theatre in Wrocław (1973), Carlo Gozzi's Turandot at Wrocław's Polski Theatre (1974), as well as the Pantomime's Garden of Love at the Det Norske Teatret in Oslo (1967) and Bagaże / Luggage at the Det Köngelinge Teatret in Copenhagen (1971).
Together we created over thirty pantomimes, understanding each other perfectly, looking upon the world, upon art and upon many other matters similarly, Wiśniak said of his collaboration with Tomaszewski. In pantomime theatre the designer enjoys more liberty, his creations can be bolder and more expressive. (Gazeta Wyborcza - Kraków, 11 June 2004)
Gesture and costume replace text, which, although absent, always remains the starting point, admitted the artist. Thus, I had to carefully approach the forms of my designs for the Pantomime, to render legible the meaning of gestures, arrays of them, entire situations, and to adapt to the requirements of the spectacle. (Kazimierz Wiśniak, Z życia scenografa, Kraków, 1998)
He and Tomaszewski also jointly created an exceptional Museum of Toys (Miejskie Muzeum Zabawek) in Karpacz.
Wisniak is an excellent draftsman and colorist, and produced paintings alongside his stage work practically throughout his career. He saw painting as real independence and freedom that can be pursued outdoors, in natural lighting and not on a 'dark' theatrical stage. The artist denied the domination of scenery and manifested a dislike for aggressive sets, subordinating his own work to the text and to directorial concepts. He exhibited great care for contemporary detail, viewing Visconti, an exceptional, subtle realist, as his model. But Wiśniak's works were far from strictly descriptive, and embodied the metaphorization and universalization of meaning.
(...) Wiśniak's art is sensual, wrote Janusz Jaremowicz. The materiality of the costumes and even more so of the stage decorations are far from sensually neutral. Wisniak introduces rich detail and is unafraid of abundance that borders on the fantastic as was evident in his unforgettable work - the scenery to 'Garden of Love,' staged so many years ago by Henryk Tomaszewski's troupe. This sensuality of material means that when he draws broadly on traditional forms of material culture, the entirety remains organic. (Teatr monthly, 1994, no. 2)
Wisniak's often created dual spatial structures. In these cases, scenery would represent two different spaces that were often linked and supplemented each other, albeit indirectly. In Liberation the stage world was divided into realities presented in front and behind a parting curtain. In On All Fours a wardrobe or window on stage provided the audience with glimpses of another world. Wardrobes, in any case, played a significant part in Wiśniak's life: as a child he shut himself in one and in the darkness he suddenly saw, on the back wall of the wardrobe, an upside down image of the room outside with his mother sitting at a table. This was an instance of the camera obscura effect, caused by a ray of light being cast inside the wardrobe and presenting a transformed version of reality.
The artist was also a publisher and editor. He created the bulletin Latarnia (Street Lamp) for audiences of the Cellar Under the Rams, and later, jointly with Joanna Olczak-Ronikier, edited and published a local newspaper for residents of Kraków's Salwator district titled Salwator i Świat (Salwator and the World).
Wiśniak's drawings have appeared in Przekrój weekly, Rzeczpospolita daily and Miesiąc w Krakowie monthly. He has also illustrated a number of books, including Na rynku w Krakowie (In Kraków's Central Square, 1978), Piosenki, które śpiewali dziadkowie, gdy byli mali (Songs Our Grandfathers Sang When They Were Young, 1991) and Joanna Olczak-Ronikier's monograph Piwnica pod Baranami (The Cellar Under the Rams, 1994). In 1998 many of his drawings were also published in Wiśniak's quasi-journal titled Z życia scenografa (From the Life of a Scenery Designer).
For years the artist has enjoyed a close association with the town of Lanckorona, turning this historic township near Kraków into one of his passions. In addition to having a house there, he is chairman of the Friends of Lanckorona Society, and since 1994 has been publishing the quarterly Lanckorona Courier. In 2004 he was named an Honorary Citizen of the town, the first such distinction in Lanckorona's history.
Wiśniak's designs for the stage can be found at the National Centre for Scenery Design (Centrum Scenografii Polskiej) at the Silesian Museum in Katowice as well as in Kraków - in the museum and archive of the Stary Theatre and in the archive of the Słowacki Theatre. His painted works are held, among others, by the Contemporary Art Gallery (Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej) in Przemyśl and by numerous private collectors. Since 2000 Wiśniak has not often been engaged in creating scenography, instead he works as an illustrator and paints. His works were presented at almost twenty individual exhibitions.
In 2005 Wojciech Majewski directed a documentary film about the artist. The piece consisting of three parts presents activities undertaken by Wiśniak: both scenography, painting, and writing.
Awards and distinctions:
- 1966 - 8th Festival of Northern Polish Theatres in Toruń - Scenery Design Award for Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin's The Death of Tarelkin directed by Lech Komarnicki at the Baltic Dramatic Theatre in Koszalin/Słupsk
- 1967 - 9th Festival of Northern Polish Theatres in Torun - Scenery Design Award for Stanisław Przybyszewski's Śnieg / Snow directed by Lech Komarnicki at the Baltic Dramatic Theatre in Koszalin/Słupsk
- 1968 - Kalisz Theatre Meetings - Scenery Design Award for Stefan Żeromski's Róża / The Rose directed by Andrzej Witkowski at the Contemporary Theatre in Wrocław
- 1971 - 12th Festival of Contemporary Plays in Wrocław - Scenery Design Award for Helmut Kajzar's Paternoster directed by Jerzy Jarocki at the Contemporary Theatre in Wrocław
- 1975 - Award of the Minister of Culture and Art; Golden Icarus - Award of the Playwrights' Club and the Visual Arts Studio; Kraków City Award; the 16th Polish Contemporary Plays Festival Award / Nagroda 16. Festiwalu Polskich Sztuk Współczesnych in Wrocław for the stage design for Sławomir Mrożek's Rzeźnia / The Slaughterhouse at the Drama Theatre / Teatr Dramatyczny in Warsaw; The city of Karków Prize; the 15th Kalisz Theatre Meetings Award / Nagroda 15. Kaliskich Spotkań Teatralnych for Eugene Ionesco's The Killing Game at the Polish Theatre / Teatr Polski in Wrocław
- 1976 - Golden Seal 'for social work done to benefit the City of Kraków'; Order of the Cellar Under the Rams; Individual Award at the 16th Kalisz Theatre Meetings / 16. Kaliskich Spotkań Teatralnych for stage design for the play Wyzwolenie / Liberation at the Stary Theatre in Kraków; the 2nd Opole Theatre Confrontations Award / Nagroda 2. Opolskich Konfrontacji Teatralnych for stage design for Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's Oni / They directed by Izabela Cywińska at the Nowy Theatre in Poznań
- 1978 - Golden Seal - 'Citizen of Merit for the Wrocław Voivodeship and the City of Wrocław'
- 1979 - Golden Cross of Merit
- 1980 - Golden Seal - Union of Polish Visual Artists
- 2008 - Gloria Artis Silver Medal for Merits to Culture
- 2010 - The Polish Culture Foundation Honorary Award
Author: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, December 2005; updated: August 2016 (ND)