São Paulo

View of “Tadeusz Kantor,” 2015. Photo: Inês Correa.

View of “Tadeusz Kantor,” 2015. Photo: Inês Correa.

Tadeusz Kantor

SESC Consolação

View of “Tadeusz Kantor,” 2015. Photo: Inês Correa.

Both a visual artist and a theater director, Tadeusz Kantor was perhaps the most prominent and controversial figure of the twentieth-century Polish avant-garde. The exhibition in São Paulo was part of the International Year of Tadeusz Kantor that was announced by UNESCO to mark the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Kantor visited the city just once, in 1967, on the occasion of the São Paulo Bienal. But he received a prize there and subsequently became a major reference for the theorists and practitioners of Brazilian contemporary theater, including Antunes Filho, who runs the Center for Theater Research based at SESC Consolação, part of a private nonprofit chain providing education, health, and leisure services across Brazil since the 1940s. Kantor’s unique blend of local and universal elements makes his work as inspirational today, twenty-five years after his death, as it was in 1967. Kantor was one of the few artists who managed to frequently travel back and forth through the Iron Curtain, and his work benefited from developments in postwar Paris, as can be seen from the traces left on his work by art informel, Nouveau Réalisme, and Happenings.

The show addressed Kantor’s multiplicity using the metaphor of the machine. It was a recurring motif in the exhibition’s narrations, architectures, and title: “Tadeusz Kantor Machine: theater + happenings + performances + paintings + other modes of production.” Jarosław Suchan, one of the three curators (along with Ricardo Muniz Fernandes and the late Sebastião Millaré), emphasized that Maszyna aneantyzacyjna (The Annihilation Machine), 1963, displayed at the very entrance of the show, is the key to the meaning of the display and the dynamics of Kantor’s work. This machine—a mechanism hidden behind a black cloth that now and then folds and unfolds four stacks of wooden chairs—was first used in the spectacle Wariat i zakonnica (The Madman and the Nun), based on the play by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz and produced by Kantor’s company Cricot 2 in 1963. The device produced intervals of noise, drowning out the actors’ lines and stirring up the action. At SESC, the machine worked as a reminder of the lively, process-based character of Kantor’s oeuvre, in which subsequent phases rather than creating an additive whole question and transform what has been previously done.

Juxtaposing documentation of Kantor’s Happenings with props and artworks, the exhibition showed how his art, regardless of the medium, always started with the human being. There were many subtle reminders of this humanism across the exhibition. For instance, in the room presenting the “emballage,” or “wrapping,” works he started making in 1962, borrowing from the Nouveau Réalisme practice of incorporating found objects on canvas, the curators decided to present footage from Grand Emballage, 1968, an action performed by Kantor with his wife, Maria Stangret, captured on camera for Dietrich Mahlow’s documentary film Kantor ist da (Kantor Is There), 1969. The performance took place at the Nuremberg, Germany, parade ground where the Nazis used to hold their propaganda rallies. Standing in the middle of the field, Kantor meticulously wraps Stangret in toilet paper as he walks around her in circles. Elsewhere, the drawing series “Chłopiec z gazetami” (The Boy with Newspapers), 1968, depicting a half-naked boy partly buried in a pile of paper, was faced with the abstract cardboard, string, and cloth collages from the “Okolice zera” (Near Zero) series, ca. 1967. The confrontation between the depicted body with the nonfigurative work displayed on the opposite wall was a reminder that humanism is also present in Kantor’s abstract art. It was through subtle juxtapositions of this kind and the fascinating metaphor of the machine that the exhibition unveiled the dynamic and multifarious narrations characterizing Kantor’s practice and challenged the routine of linear thinking about an artist’s life.

Sylwia Serafinowicz