Taduesz Kantor

Galerie de France

Tasdeusz Kantor, a prolific figure in the world of Polish theater, brought to Paris a quartet of plays, a mini-exhibit of posters and videos, a symposium, and two public discussions, as well as an installation of his paintings, drawings, and objects at the Galerie de France. Kantor, now 74 years old, started out as a painting student at the Cracow Fine Arts Academy in the mid ’30s. He formed a clandestine theater company during the war, and worked as a professional set designer for some 15 years, yet he continued his involvement with painting. In 1955, the same year that he founded the Cricot 2 theater company, he turned to abstraction and soon emerged as a pioneer of art informel in Poland.

Just as Kantor the dramaturge remains a visible part of his performances—cueing the actors, moving props around, and, in his most recent works, playing a role as well—Kantor the artist clearly “stages” exhibitions, employing the same anticonventional manner that has been his trademark for more than 40 years. In this installation he often combined large figure paintings with mannequins’ limbs, which were mounted on upright metal floor stands. Positioned incongruously throughout were various hulking objects: Les enfants de la classe morte (Children of the dead class, 1975), a group of 11 wax mannequins seated on old-fashioned wooden school benches, Deux enfants dans boîte à ordures (Two orphans in a dustbin, 1961), an antiquated dustbin with two bald mannequins protruding from the top of it, and La trompette de Jericho (The trumpet of Jericho, 1985), a Rube Goldberg contraption with cranks, pulleys, rods, and a black-shrouded trumpet on wheels. On one wall and part of another, he grouped his line drawings: a veritable archive of fleeting thoughts. Upstairs, he arranged still denser clusters of standing canvases, and a big platform stacked with wooden folding chairs that looked something like a guillotine (The Annihilation Machine, 1963). Hand-lettered labels, made of brown wrapping-paper and notated in Kantor’s careful, if not always correct, French, were scattered throughout.

In theme and form alike, Kantor’s art is inseparable from his theatrical work. Yet it hardly requires a knowledge of his plays to recognize the gloom of his palette, the obsessiveness of his motifs, the irony of his titles. At first glance, there is a good deal of Francis Bacon in several of the painted figures, which writhe in the void of existential anguish, and there is more than a hint of Marc Chagall in others figures, which float gracefully over the countryscapes of his childhood memories. But the ubiquitous artist is less engaged in a dialogue with art than with time and history. All his work emerges from the despair that is summarized in the exhibition title, “Plus Loin—Rien!” (Further—Nothing!). It is a gesture, a trace, of something further.

Miriam Rosen