An Anatomy Lesson after Rembrandt is a happening from 1968-1971 which showed how the great potential of a painted masterpiece can be activated in a dialogue between contemporary art and tradition.
Kantor, a painter and scenographer by education (he studied at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts in 1934-1939), reached for the works of the classic painters a number of times. He was inspired by Polish painters (Matejko, Malczewski, Wyspiański, Wojtkiewicz) as well as foreign ones (Velazquez, Goya, Rembrandt, Dürer, Géricault).
Kantor worked for instance on Rembrant’s famous piece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. This 1632 painting was commissioned by the surgeons’ guild, of which Nicolaes Tulp was a member. He was a doctor and the mayor of Amsterdam. The piece shows a public dissection conducted by him.
Kantor used the iconographic setting and the topic of the painting in his happening An Anatomy Lesson after Rembrandt / Lekcja anatomii wedle Rembrandta, which was shown in Nuremberg (1968), Warsaw (1969), Dourdan (1971) and Oslo (1971).
The most is known about the first two versions as they were recorded on tape. They were also extensively documented with photographs, especially the Warsaw version which took place in the famous Foksal Gallery.
The way in which these two realizations differ is interesting. In 1968 Dietrich Mahlow made the film Kantor Is Here / Kantor ist da for the German film studio Saarbrücken TV. For those who chiefly associate Kantor with the plays of the Theatre of Death such as The Dead Class or Wielopole, Wielopole, the German film may come as quite a surprise. In the first version of An Anatomy Lesson after Rembrandt the artist wore a black leather jacket and delivered his text in German in a rather serious and cold manner. When he presented the same happening to a Polish audience a year later in Warsaw he invited a group of hippies to participate in the event. According to the documentation, the event had an easy and joyful atmosphere. This time Kantor was dressed in a suit and he also wore a tie, which gave him a kind of professorial seriousness, and might have effectively strengthened the comic effect – Kantor, the professor, lecturing his hippy students.
In all of the versions of this happening Kantor conducted an "anatomy" of a man lying on a table surrounded by students. This wasn’t, however, an anatomy of the model’s body but of his clothing. From the model’s pockets and the recesses of his clothes Kantor drew various items: a pencil, a toothbrush, cigarettes, matches, a passport, photographs, a gun, an egg. A collection of things useful in everyday situations, enriched with items that one usually doesn’t keep in one’s pockets.
This is how the artist described the contents of these pockets in the happening’s score:
Behold the interesting themes
of hidden dives,
behold the real
of the human instinct
“I did this in a highly ceremonial way, supporting the happening’s action with the prestige of Rembrant’s painting”, the artist emphasized. At the Foksal Gallery Kantor ended the happening by creating a collage from the items taken out from the model’s clothes.
Everything in his creative work comes into existence on the same principle -- ready-made. This also applies to existing works of art. Therefore the paintings of great masters don’t appear in his works as sources of authority and living inspiration but as fragments of total reality.
- wrote Jarosław Suchan in reference to An Anatomy Lesson after Rembrandt.
Author: Karolina Czerska, December 2014
- W. Borowski, Tadeusz Kantor, pub. Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, Warsaw 1982
- T. Kantor, Metamorphoses. Texts about the Years 1934-1974 / Metamorfozy. Teksty o latach 1934-1974, selected and edited by: K. Pleśniarowicz, pub. Ossolineum-Cricoteka, Wrocław-Kraków 2005
- K. Pleśniarowicz, Kantor. Artist of the End of the Century / Kantor. Artysta końca wieku, pub. Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, Wrocław 1997
- J. Suchan, A Happening as a Ready-Made / Happening jako ready-made, (in:) Tadeusz Kantor: niemożliwe = impossible, edited by: J. Suchan, pub. Bunkier Sztuki, Kraków 2000