Tadeusz Kantor

Bunkier Sztuki

Tadeusz Kantor always insisted that he was uninterested in inventing new forms of expression. “Everything I do,” he claimed in an interview, “I do from known elements, from known reality, from real objects, saturated with certain conventions [and] essences.” The artist’s role, he thought, was not to invent but to question and destroy conventions and systems. To bring art into life, the artist should challenge established values, regardless of their aesthetic prominence or political cast.

A seminar figure in twentieth-century Polish art, Kantor (1915–90) was always controversial. His admirers saw him as an iconoclast who steered Polish art away from its local context toward uncharted territories. His opponents accused him of uncritically importing artistic novelties to Poland as soon as they occurred in the West and presenting them as the latest word on contemporary art. He was a chameleon-like figure who based his artistic program largely on the writings of two important literary figures of the interwar period, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and Bruno Schulz, as well as on Western Surrealism. But he was also highly charismatic. When he appropriated other artists’ ideas and styles, he knew how to process them so they carried traces of his own artistic temperament and wit.

This exhibition, “Taduesz Kantor: Impossible,” focused on the period 1963–73, during which Kantor staged Happenings—which he began to organize in 1965, after a visit to the United States—and experimented in a polemical fashion with Conceptualism. The exhibition included, among other works, photographic and film documentation of Happenings, photomontages of “impossible places” (a series of fantasy projects that envisaged erecting a bridge in the shape of a clothes hanger over the Vistula River or placing a gigantic chair in Krakow’s central square), and a series of paintings, “Multipart,” 1970, which were completed by viewers.

Being both an artist and a theater director, Kantor found Happenings well suited to closing the gap between art and theater. Though not overtly political, Kantor's Happenings were a poignant statement about the instability of the world in the late ’60s. He saw them as carriers of “raw reality,” as opposed to the “constructed reality” of abstract art, which he rejected as a form of illusionism. Kantor’s interest in Happenings was perpetuated by a realization that the work of art “lives much more intensely in my imagination,” and that “carrying the element of the imagination onto canvas is not the best kind of activity at this moment.” Happenings were for him a progressive artistic form based on the disintegration, rather than the synthesis, of various arts. The series “Panoramiczne happeningi morskie” (The panoramic sea happenings), 1967, included such events as a live staging of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and a concert by a hidden orchestra placed on a platform in the water just off the Baltic shore.

In the mid-’70s, responding to recurrent predictions of the “end of painting,” Kantor declared his interest in art rooted in “poetry and psychology,” which he realized in the form of “painting-objects” executed on canvas. “Wszystko wisi na wlosku” (Everything is hanging by a thread), 1973, was an environment with large painting-objects, such as Płótno i parasol (Painting and umbrella) and Płótno i deska (Painting and wooden plank), which appeared unstable: A slight change in the position of the object in relation to the canvas would result in the collapse of both. At the same time, he intensified his activities as a theater director, which remained the focus of his activities until his death. Paradoxically, this exhibition returned Kantor’s ephemeral work to a museum context. But it showed. Above all, how Kantor realized, step by step, his artistic credo of relinquishing originality to confront and comment on the notion of cultural disintegration.

Marek Bartelik