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Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990)
By Malgorzata Kitowska Lysiak

Malgorzata Kitowska-Lysiak ,Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin
Faculty of Art Theory and the History of Artistic Doctrines 2002

Born in 1915, died in 1990. Stage director, creator of happenings, painter, scenery designer, writer, art theoretician, actor in his own productions, lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. Kantor was inspired by Constructivism, Dada, Informel art, and Surrealism. He was educated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, studying under the eye of Karol Frycz, an outstanding stage designer of the inter-war period. Kantor mounted his first productions - Jean Cocteau's ORPHEUS, Juliusz Slowacki's BALLADYNA, and Stanislaw Wyspianski's POWROT ODYSA / THE RETURN OF ODYSSEUS - with an underground theatre company that performed in private homes.

Immediately after the war, he worked as a scenery designer, mostly for the Helena Modrzejewska Old Theatre (Stary Teatr im. Heleny Modrzejewskiej) in Krakow. He continued to design for the stage (primarily abstract scenery) on a regular basis through the end of the 1960s. A voyage to Paris in 1947 provided the impulse that helped him to crystallize his individual approach to painting. In 1948 he founded the GRUPA KRAKOWSKA / KRAKOW GROUP and participated in the Great Exhibition of Modern Art (Wielka Wystawa Sztuki Nowoczesnej) in Krakow. He fell silent as a painter when government authorities began to propagate Socialist Realism as the official line in art. Finally, in 1955, Kantor exhibited the paintings he had created between 1949 and 1955.

Nineteen fifty-five was an important year for Kantor for one more reason. It was then that he led a group of visual artists, art critics, and art theoreticians in creating the CRICOT 2 Theatre, in which he would develop and test his creative ideas. Cricot 2's first premiere was MATWA / THE CUTTLEFISH, after Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1956), a production in which Kantor cleverly juxtaposed the piece's sublime text against found objects and the primitive environment of a café audience. The theatre's production of MATWA manifested many elements characteristic to Kantor's style of theatre, including scenery reminiscent of silent film and actors who moved and acted like mannequins.

Cricot 2's second production, CYRK / CIRCUS, based on a play by painter and company member Kazimierz Mikulski, included the technique of emballage, which was yet another element typical of Kantor's theatrical work at the time. In CIRCUS this technique took the form of black bags in which the artist tightly wrapped his actors. These emballages were designed to strip actors and objects of their characteristic forms, turning them into indistinguishable substance. Emballage was followed by "Informel Theatre" (1960-62) - an automatic form of spectacle that surrendered to coincidence and the movement of matter. The actors in Kantor's "Informel Theatre" production of W MALYM DWORKU / COUNTRY HOUSE, another work by Witkiewicz (1961), were treated like objects and entirely stripped of individuality.

However, "Informel Theatre" failed to fulfill Kantor's needs; it was insufficiently integrated in an internal sense and too many of its parts were open to reduction. Kantor therefore replaced the concept of "Informel Theatre" with that of "Zero Theatre" (1962-1964), which was stripped of all action and the transpiring of any events. This concept was most fully embodied in the Cricot 2's production of the WARIAT I ZAKONNICA / THE MADMAN AND THE NUN, also after Witkiewicz, which Kantor mounted in 1963.

The evolution of his stage practice and aesthetics had brought Kantor to the limits of all traditional concepts of theatre. In 1965 he proceeded to mount Poland's first-ever happenings - CRICOTAGE and LINIA PODZIALU / DIVIDING LINE. These were followed two years later by the famous LIST / THE LETTER and PANORAMICZNY HAPPENING MORSKI / PANORAMIC SEA HAPPENING. Happenings, as Kantor himself wrote, were a consequence of his previous experiences in the theatre and as a painter: "Thus far I have tried to overcome the stage, now I have abandoned the stage outright, that is, I've abandoned a place that remains in a certain relation with viewers. In searching for a new place, I theoretically had at my disposal all the reality of life." (After: Jan Klossowicz, "Tadeusz Kantor")

His disappointment with happenings as a creative direction brought Kantor back to the theatre. In 1972 he mounted NADOBNISIE I KOCZKODANY / DAINTY SHAPES AND HAIRY APES, based on a text by Witkiewicz, in which elements of the form of the happening were absorbed into theatrical practice. Three years later, with the play UMARLA KLASA / THE DEAD CLASS, Kantor developed another phase in his theatre, a direction the artist named the "Theatre of Death." It is this phase that includes what are considered the artist's most exceptional and best known productions, including WIELOPOLE, WIELOPOLE (1980), NIECH SZCZEZNA ARTYSCI / LET THE ARTISTS VANISH (1985), NIGDY JUZ TU NIE POWROCE / I SHALL NEVER RETURN HERE (1988), and the posthumously produced DZIS SA MOJE URODZINY / TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY (1991), the primary motif of which is death, transcendence, as well as memory and the history inscribed in memory. The productions of the "Theatre of Death" highlighted a concept present in Kantor's entire oeuvre, namely, his concept of "Reality of a Lower Order", "which continuously demands that I examine and express issues through low status substance, the lowest possible, substance that is poor, deprived of dignity, prestige, that is defenseless and often simply contemptible." (Tadeusz Kantor, after: Jan Klossowicz, "Tadeusz Kantor")

"To say of Kantor that he is among Poland's most outstanding artists of the second half of the twentieth century is to say very little. Kantor is to Polish art what Joseph Beuys was to German art, what Andy Warhol was to American art. He created a unique strain of theatre, was an active participant in the revolutions of the neo-avant-garde, a highly original theoretician, an innovator strongly grounded in tradition, an anti-painterly painter, a happener-heretic, and an ironic conceptualist. These are only a few of his many incarnations. Apart from that, Kantor was an untiring animator of artistic life in post-war Poland, one could even say, one of its chief motivating forces. His greatness derives not so much from his oeuvre, as from Kantor himself in his entirety, as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk that consists of his art, his theory, and his life," states Jaroslaw Suchan, curator of the exhibition "Tadeusz Kantor. Niemozliwe" / "Tadeusz Kantor - Impossible."

Important awards and distinctions:
1976 - Boy-Zelenski Prize for UMARLA KLASA / THE DEAD CLASS
1977 - Norwid Critics' Award for UMARLA KLASA / THE DEAD CLASS
1978 - Best Production Award for UMARLA KLASA / THE DEAD CLASS, Caracas
1978 - Rembrandt Award bestowed by an international jury of the Goethe Foundation in Basel for real contributions to shaping the art of our age
1980 - OBIE Award (USA) for 1979 production of UMARLA KLASA / THE DEAD CLASS
1981 - Award of the Minister of Culture and Art 1st class in the realm of theatre for his work as a scenery designer
1982 - Diploma of the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the propagation of Polish culture abroad
1986 - "Targa Europea" Award, granted to outstanding representatives of culture and science in Europe, Italy
1986 - New York Critic's Award for best production on Broadway (for directing and ensemble acting)
1989 - Commander of the Order of Art and Literature, France
1990 - Great Cross of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, awarded for having a significant impact on contemporary art in Europe and for contributions to enlivening cultural life in the Federal Republic of Germany.

Source: © Copyright by Adam Mickiewicz Institute

Related Links:

  • The Stage of Memory
  • Exhibition of TK Paintings
  • Images of TK

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  • Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990)

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