Critics’ Picks

Kazimierz Urbański, Demons (still), 1981, mixed media, color and black-and-white, sound, 10 minutes 40 seconds.

Warsaw

Kazimierz Urbański

Zachęta National Gallery of Art
Pl. Małachowskiego 3
June 18–August 25, 2019

Communist Poland begot a golden era for experimental animation, with Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica winning international festivals in the 1960s and Zbigniew Rybczyński bagging an Oscar for Tango in 1983. The renaissance can be traced back to the government, which funded experimental cinema, including animation, but policed subversive content. Yet while filmmakers were forbidden to overtly criticize the state’s shortcomings, that did not prevent a passionate few from pursuing adventurous work and building an institution around it.

Kazimierz Urbański, the late subject of this survey, temptingly titled “Red Floods the Frame,” was among the foundational figures of Polish animation, and a product of the country’s postwar avant-garde. In 1957, he single-handedly created the unprecedented Film Drawing Studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. His is an idiosyncratic oeuvre, deftly fusing the existentialism and unorthodox DIY filming methods of Stan Brakhage with Jacques Tati’s and Charlie Chaplin’s populist slapstick. He dabbled in creative nonfiction shorts, live-action film, and animation, blurring all three into something he called kinoplastyki (cineart).

Urbański combined various avant-garde methods—including cutouts, photography, newsreels, sports documentary, and proto–music videos—and pushed them forward. He collaborated with the greatest experimental composers of his time: Krzysztof Penderecki, Andrzej Markowski, and Eugeniusz Rudnik of the rediscovered Polish Radio Experimental Studio. He created spectacular mini-suites by scratching, painting, or collaging directly onto celluloid tape, worthy of Disney’s Fantasia in their ambition. His cineart concerns road traffic (Charm of Two Wheels, 1966); air pollution (Moto-Gas, 1963); the Holocaust and World War II (Philatelist’s Diary, 1965); and desire in the extraordinary monochrome Demons, 1981, which makes use of water-filled condoms to stage an evocative yet abstract sexual hallucination. He was also fascinated with kinetic art and explored live-action painting in his quasi-theatrical spectacles. All that Urbański achieved offers a fantastical rebuke to today’s bingeable entertainments, as well as a testament to how innovative expression can flourish amid the severest artistic curtailment.