Krzysztof Niemczyk was born on May 21, 1938 and died in Kraków on January 19, 1994. A legendary figure of Kraków’s artistic life. A writer, whose only novel was published after his death. Self-taught painter and musician whose formal education ended in primary school.
A legendary figure of Kraków’s artistic life. A writer, whose only novel was published after his death. Self-taught painter and musician whose formal education ended in primary school.
Counted as an avant-garde exponent, he was fond of Zola, Tchaikovsky, de Santis, Italian neo-realist cinema, especially the actress Lea Padovani. In the 1990s he was known for his controversial activities in the urban space of Kraków. He was an open homosexual. A man on the artistic margin. He was forgotten for a long time. He was again discovered in recent years due to publication of his novel Kurtyzana i pisklęta / The courtesan and the chicks in a single volume with "A treatise on the life of Krzysztof Niemczyk" for the use by younger generations, a collection of materials, interviews and memoirs devoted to him, collected by Anka Ptaszkowska, a lifelong friend and activist who helped preserve the artist's work. The book, as well as the exhibition of paintings and photographic documentation of Niemczyk’s activity in the ART+on gallery in Warsaw in 2009, prepared by Ptaszkowska, fueled the interest in him. The legendary status of Nimeczyk prevents any attempt at separating actual facts of his life (uncertain and often mixing with fiction) from his creative side.
Krzysztof Niemczyk was born on May 21, 1938, in Warsaw, in a family of musicians Wacław Niemczyk and Danuta nee von Schenk, who moved to Kraków after the fall of the Warsaw uprising. He was bound to that city for the rest of his life, he lived and worked there, not counting brief trips to Paris and Oslo. His father, a famous violinist, abandoned the family fleeing to the West. Krzysztof Niemczyk began to write in the 1960s. From the twenty narratives he created during that period, only two were preserved to this day: Tragiczna łąka / Tragic Field and Chłopczyk rozbijający rodzinę / Boy Breaking up a Family. In the years 1965-1968 he wrote a novel Kurtyzana i pisklęta, czyli Krzywe zwierciadło namiętnego działania albo inaczej Studium chaosu / The Courtesan and the Chicks, or a Crooked Mirror of Passionate Action, or A Study of Chaos, which was not publish until 30 years later.
In the second half of the 1960s he was closely associated with the community of the Cricot 2 theatre of Tadeusz Kantor, the Krzysztofory Kraków gallery, and the Foksal gallery in Warsaw, he never exhibited his work there, however. His close friend was Anka Ptaszkowska, a critic who, along with Wiesław Borowski and Mariusz Tchorek, founded the Foksal Gallery in 1966. At the beginning of June 1968, he took part in a famed ball at the house Ptaszkowska’s family in Zalesie, held under the motto "Farewell to Spring". As Ptaszkowska recalls, "Niemczyk, in a jasmine-bounded tophat played a concert of Tchaikovsky at five in the morning at the old blüthner [piano]." The promising young writer attracted the interest of Tadeusz Kantor and his wife, Maria Stangret, in Kraków.
In 1969, Niemczyk took part in the Golden Grape Symposium in Zielona Góra as part of the exhibition "The critics present artists". He was invited by Anka Ptaszkowska to take part in an activity of three of Tadeusz Kantor's students (Mieczysław Dymny, Stanisław Szczepański, Tomasz Wawak) titled We are not asleep. In the exhibition hall, some of the artists lay on camp beds with the slogan in the background, under the supervision of so-called "permanent jury" which included Ptaszkowska and Niemczyk. As Ptaszkowska recalls, Niemczyk thought up some new banners like "Only dreaming guarantees impunity" or "We demand control". They we all his ideas, a classical revolution leader. Whenever he felt the decrease in the scale of the scandal, he immediately and effectively intervened. The whole project was met with rather cold reception by the organisers of the event and their principals.
Members of the activity in Zielona Góra were invited by Pierre Restany to take part in the exhibition Art Concepts from Europe held at the Bonino Gallery in New York. Niemczyk answered the call by sending a "funny and meaningless telegram" (Ptaszkowska). Those and other events led to a split within the Foksal Gallery on one hand and on the other – the breaking of friendly relations between Niemczyk and Kantor and his entourage. As Ptaszkowska recalls:
Niemczyk was not interested in power and the Foksal Gallery was not his domain. The sole fact of existence of a person like Niemczyk significantly undermined the position of Kantor, revealing the dissonance between verbalism of artistic manifestos and living experience of the ideas contained in them.
Niemczyk remained unnoticed, partially due to the fact of his arrest in 1971, and being put in a psychiatric hospital.
In the memory of many participants of Kraków’s artistic life (as well as the environment of the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw), Niemczyk was not only the author of Kurtyzana i pisklęta, but above all, a colourful figure with an unusual way of life and the ringleader of spontaneous, often illegal events. The ever-present wooden bird on his shoulder was remembered, as well as the paper angel wings sewn into his clothing or intensive, provocative makeup, but also the so-called "dziubary", spectacular thefts of state-owned food stores. When he was still a primary school student, he is said to have come to school naked, wrapped only in a map of Poland. What is important, his actions were not legitimised as art.
"In the 1960s," as Ptaszkowska writes, "street events organised by artists were called happenings, which deemed them socially sanctioned, legal 'artistic activities'. Niemczyk did not use that protection and extended the frames of art as much as he strained the limits of life." The transgressive and "artistic" nature of Niemczyk’s activities was appreciated by a painter and an avant-garde senior, Henryk Stażewski who, in a short text "Scandal in literature", wrote: "These and many other of his performances caused scandal and outrage of the viewers. This kind of activity shows that for K. Niemczyk it is as much of an artistic expression as writing a novel".
Few remaining photographs depict almost fully naked Niemczyk bathing in a fountain in front of St. Mary's Church in Kraków. Along with a group of hippies, he carried out an action of unreeling a spool of thread from the the Kościuszko Mound to the shore of Rudawa where he ceremonially dipped the rest of the spool in the river. Another time, they tied themselves to a bus that was ready for departure (The Laocoon Group). He turned his mother into a "living statue" by tying her up to a bench in the Planty park in Kraków, in front of the Bureau of Art Exhibitions. A series of photographs depicts provocative actions typical for Niemczyk - displaying naked buttocks at various points of the urban space of Kraków. One of his more spectacular actions that was said to take place as a response to the "New Regulations of the Foksal Gallery" was an intervention in Kraków’s Grand Hotel. As Ptaszkowska recalls, Niemczyk "gathered a lot of people in an elegant hall. When the waiters showed up, all of the participants, led by Niemczyk’s mother, pulled out boards that said: ‘Waiter – today you give us a tip’". Some people also think his "cooperation" (deliberately written in quotes) with the Security Service of the PRL to be one of his actions.
Niemczyk’s character, his uncompromising attitude and resistance to reality, lead modern interpreters to comparisons with the views and practices of the Situationists. In their text "Niemczyk’s Situationism", Marcin Hernas and Piotr Marecki, wrote that the artist tried to "revolutionise his own life" calling upon such groundbreaking books asThe Society of the Spectacle of Guy Debord and The Revolution of Everyday Life by Raoul Vaneigem. The difference was in the fact that – as they put it "his avant-garde style was, unlike Debord’s, about the confrontation of subjective emanations of subjectivity with the rigid reality. Niemczyk exposes himself to the blows of the system and by provoking its repressive actions he reveals its enslaving and destructive nature. He violates the system of symbolic violence of a totalitarian country."
Kurtyzana i pisklęta remains the life’s work of Niemczyk, an extensive novel, compared to the works of Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz and Witkacy. In spite of interest of literary critics (including Artur Sandauer) and avant-garde circles, it was not published at the time. Rewriting it into a few copies was financed by Henryk Stażewski. "Magazyn Kulturalny" (Cultural Magazine) published fragments of Kurtyzana… in the year 1974. In the 1990s, the novel came to the attention of a translator, Jacques Burko, who translated it into French, closely collaborating with Niemczyk on editing. The book was published by "Le Difference" publishing house after the author’s death, in the year 1999, giving rise to widespread interest in France. The Polish edition did not come out until 2007.
The book, written in a humorous and somewhat Mannerist style, creates a grotesque vision of Poland in the 1960s. The title character is an older, "retired" prostitute, taken out of a nursing home by a professor (a disciplined scientist), her pre-war friend and former lover, who marries her hoping to demoralise his nephews, future inheritors of his property. The story flashes a violent, exhilarating rhythm, unpredictable, ever more intense, taking everything with it like a river," wrote Anka Ptaszkowska.
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, July 2009.