The 1957 photograph is connected to the beginnings of Beksiński's interest in photography. It depicts a female body in a way that is a far cry from the traditional nude.
Beksiński's first photographs show his interest in the tradition of avant-garde, which he became familiar with mainly thanks to the Kraków's milieu. He most likely saw the famous Contemporary Art Exhibition in 1948, which stood not only for the tradition of constructivism or expressionism Grupy Krakowskiej / Krakow's Groups but also, the less rooted surrealism. His path as a photographer Beksiński describes as a transition from the 'New Matter-of-Factness' aesthetic, via abstraction, to the work over 'photographic sets'. He took up photography toward the end of his studies in the department of Architecture at Krakow's School of Technology, and his goal was to prepare for his exams in film direction. Although he never finished these studies, a photo camera and later a video camera always accompanied his work - first as an artistic medium, later as a documentary tool.
The picture titled Sadist's Corset from 1957 is connected with the beginnings of his work. It depicts a female body in a way that is a far cry from the traditional nude. The character is turned away from the camera, and is shown in a fragmentary manner, the face and legs are not visible. The body is bound tightly with a rope that creates an irregular net. It is also partially covered by geometrical forms, maybe a piece of a chair, shown in a great foreshortening. All of the frame and staging manipulations make an impression of the character being broken to pieces. The woman in the photo is under oppression, being portioned in the act of looking. It is not an isolated example of this surrealistic technique in the Beksiński's art of that time. He achieved a similar effect of a fragmentary body image in his other nudes from 1957-1958 through framing or using a mirror. Unconventional approach to the female nude is already visible in the picture called Torso from 1953 where, in a massive foreshortening, a girl's body or rather its deformed fragment is shown.
These works reveal a broad awareness of the medium and a visual intuition of their author. They are not only deepened experiments with forms of photography. Their great expression was achieved by meticulous staging, directing with props, which to some extent shows a convergence with photo-performance and body art. People's portraits and depictions of their bodies were one of the most important topics of Zdzisław Beksiński's photography. He made an effort to penetrate the mechanisms of the human psyche.
A defining moment for his artistic profile was the year of 1957 when he met Bronisław Schlabs and Jerzy Lewczyński. Till about 1960 they formed an informal creative group, in which Beksiński quickly proved to be the strongest individual and a source of inspiration for his colleagues. He would often explain to them philosophical readings, mostly existentialism and his fascination with contemporary classics, Kafka's, Gombrowicz's or Schulz's books. He was also fascinated by cinematography, especially by the trend of 'dark realism' but also the classic interwar avant-garde.
The first exhibition by these artists, in 1958, was met with a wide range of critical feedback, from an enthusiastic acclaim remarks of Urszula Czartoryska, to critical commentary of Alfred Ligocki. The latter, coming out of the guidelines of the 'pure photography', didn't want to acknowledge the abstract works as photography because of the interference with the artistic medium. Beksiński argued with Ligocki's point on the pages of Photography magazine, in his text titled The Crisis in Photography and the Perspective to Overcome It. He expressed his negative approach towards the pure photography and reportage, which was then identified as modern image and pointed out as the right way for photography. Beksiński opted for such a use of the medium that gives the author freedom of the artistic statement. A manifestation of this stance was the Closed Show exhibition that took place in 1959 in Gliwice, in the local Photography Society headquarters during which, among other works, Sadist's Corset was showcased. Beksiński and Lewczyński presented their photographic sets, and Schlabs his abstract compositions. It was about these works that Alfred Ligocki coined a famous concept of 'antiphotography'.
During this period Beksiński was already an author with developed artistic views. A modern author, which can be seen in his body of work as well as a formulated theoretical reflection on image. Beksiński distanced himself from both the tradition of pictorialism still very much alive in the People's Republic of Poland as well as the heritage of radical avant-garde present mainly in the works of Zbigniew Dłubak. What made him different from the first was the use of a direct and simple message, and the emotional neutrality and simplicity of the latter, he confronted with expression and technical manipulation. Paradoxically, it is the photography, the unappreciated by the artist himself part of his output, that is today the focal point of artistic studies. Beksiński, when he was doing photography, didn't believe in its artistic potential:
When it comes to my view on the essence and purpose of photography, I believe that photography operates on conceptual and visual matter. The conceptual matter should not be classified as literature just like the visual matter should not be labeled as fine arts. The fact that photography uses these concepts does not make it art. The only thing that can be called art is the result of putting together the conceptual and visual matters (oftentimes contrary to each other) in one photogram.
- Zdzisław Beksiński. Photographs, 1953-1959 from the collection of the National Museum in Wrocław, red. Adam Sobota, The National Museum in Gdańsk, Gdańsk 2001;
- Adam Sobota, The Conceptuality of Photography, Bielsko Biała 2004;
- Existences. Polish Avant-garde Photography of the Second Half of the 50s, exhibition's catalogue, red. Joanna Kordjak-Piotrowska, The National Museum in Warsaw, Warsaw 2005.
Author: Magdalena Wróblewska, November 2009
- Zdzisław Beksiński