CULTURE FOR FUTURE Exhibition From Tadeusz Kantor's Estate

The deposit of Maria Stangret-Kantor and Dorota Krakowska


Jaromir Jedlinski

Journey, Homecoming:
The Great Testament of Tadeusz Kantor

"I now maintain that a genuine work of art is enclosed, inaccessible. The rôle of the viewer consists in keeping in the shadow of that work. It is not true that we come to a museum to consume art. It was the bourgeois cannibalism of the 19th century that was responsible for the glorification of that non-artistic attitude towards a work of art."
Tadeusz Kantor, 1979

When Tadeusz Kantor was awarded the Prix Rembrandt in 1978, he formulated his Small Manifesto, containing a statement that refers to the different registers of his work, to the meanings that are variously evoked by the exhibition now being presented at the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, of a fragment of his creative output, comprising paintings and drawings, that has recently returned from the Galerie de France in Paris to the artist's native country following the will of his Heiresses. Maria Stangret-Kantor and Dorota Krakowska have put this legacy on deposit at our Museum. That significant statement from the Small Manifesto, reads: "It is Reality of the Lowest Order that accounts for my paintings, emballages, mean objects and miserable people coming home after a long journey - like the Prodigal Son." *
The journey and the homecoming have been permanent elements immanent in Tadeusz Kantor's work, in his reflection on art, as well as in his biography. They defined the theme and the material of his work and determined the artist's own existence. Itinerant theatre and an itinerant collection of works, stops in the journey and a pilgrimage. Tadeusz Kantor's constant reference to the motif of Odysseus/Ulysses seems to suggest his acceptance of his own fate of an artist-wanderer, but also his belief in the possibility of returning home. Home and the world - here and elsewhere - these locatives describe the complementary areas in Tadeusz Kantor's work, and also define the range of his art's presence, both on the local scale, and in the universal consciousness. Journeys and homecomings. Hope for the new and nostalgia for what is familiar, the old. And also memory. And imagination. The coming back to the "Poor Chamber of Imagination", the returning to the local with the baggage of the world. Packing up the local and sending it off into the world. Culture. "The Europe of culture". Cafe Europe, Kantor's text-summa, or a retrospection of his exhibitions, written in 1990 for his exhibition in Rome, a Baedeker-catalogue, the confession of a wanderer, the record of the wanderings of art.

Kantor's letter from Florence, of 3 October 1980, addressed to Stanislaw Balewicz (co-founder of the Krzysztofory Gallery in Cracow), is characteristic of this attitude; the artist wrote: "We'll be coming here again in January. For now we are saying good-bye to the city so similar to Cracow, with Signoria's tower, Brunelleschi's cupola, Massaccio, Leonardo, Buonarotti, Savonarola and Machiavelli. I would like to be already saying hello to Weit Stos, Wyspianski, to the Plants - Gardens of Cracow, and to you, dear Stas." Kantor also remembered Weit Stos, the wanderings of that artist, any artist, in Duerer's house in Nuremberg, the city where he also worked himself. But one may quote here yet another letter, the one written by Heiner Mueller to Robert Wilson in 1987, which became an inspiration for Wilson to create the work MEMORY/LOSS, the piece for space/memory, presented at the XLV Biennale di Venezia in 1993. It referred, in its structure and creative force, among other things, to Tadeusz Kantor's work, two years after the artist's death in Cracow. Mueller's letter contains the statement: "There is no revolution without memory." Kantor's whole biography was the embodiment of revolution, or "plotting" as he liked to put it, whose basis was memory; and it was memory, together with its complement - imagination - that he used as primary material in his life and in his art, characterized by "extraordinary eclecticism", as was discerningly observed by Gillo Dorfles. It was the product of the constant pursuit of maximum reality. During the whole of Kantor's creative life, painting, drawing and theatre complemented each other, but there was also a competition among them; painting, drawing and stage-performance engaged in a dialogue, sometimes even an argument, concerning that maximum reality, eclectic like life itself, which the founder of Cricot 2 Theatre lived even more creatively than he was making art. In Tadeusz Kantor's last spectacle Today is My Birthday (1990, posthumous world premiere in France, in1991), a painting put on a movable easel found its way onto the stage. This was a meaningful comeback, a telling symbolic meeting at the end of the journey. The meeting between the two aspects of Kantor's personality: a theatre personage and a painter. The meeting between the painting on the stage, and the action in the painting, manifested in that spectacle, had occurred previously too, indeed recurred throughout the artist's whole creative life. In his text entitled The Picture, referring to the spectacle Today is My Birthday, Kantor wrote: "The only absolute truth in art is arrived at through presenting one's own life, revealing without shame, discovering one's own FATE, DESTINY. (...) If I'm arranging my room on the stage, my Poor Chamber of Imagination - and I'm doing this for the first time - if I'm arranging the room of a painter - then I have to show his paintings too. (...) And put them on easels." In his last theatre creation, Kantor revealed to us his own - "FATE, DESTINY", which are primarily the fate and destiny of a painter. Today, five years since the artist's death, we know that we are left with only his paintings, drawings, and also the props and relics of his theatre. The theatre itself has turned out to be impossible to continue; it only exists in those objects, aids to the memory that is alive among both the witnesses and the participants of the long journey of Kantor's Cricot 2 Theatre, now giving autonomy to stage objects, bringing into focus the paintings and drawings made during the fifty years' creative journey of the author of the Great Testament of our century. It comprises the war-time clandestine performance The Return of Odysseus, paintings, informel theatre, Popular Exhibition - Anti-show, the series of drawings People-Dummies and Panoramic Marine Happening, Emballages and the Theatre of Death - The Dead Class, the cycle of paintings Everything hangs by a thread, and the spectacle Wielopole, Wielopole, the series of drawings My Home and The Chair, the theatre performance Artists Be Damned and the series of paintings After This, Nothing, Again, and also spectacle-testament (in the literal sense of the word) Today is My Birthday. Tadeusz Kantor's legacy consisting of paintings and drawings forming the essential part of his Great Testament can currently be seen at the Muzeum Sztuki, which presents the collection of Kantor's works created between the 1940s and the late 1980s, belonging to the artist's Heiresses, who have put those works, after their long peregrinations, on deposit at our Museum. They had been stored for many years at the Galerie de France in Paris, where they were brought time and again by the artist himself, and were then exhibited, packed, sent away to other countries, received again, reproduced in books, etc. After Tadeusz Kantor's death, which occured on the 8th of December 1990, during the final rehearsals of the maturing spectacle Today is My Birthday, the Muzeum Sztuki took it upon itself - following the Successors' wishes - to bring about the return of those 175 drawings and 35 paintings to Poland, and with the help from others in Poland and in France, we accomplished this in the summer of 1994. However, the proper return of the collection is taking place right now - with the presentation of its greater part at the Muzeum Sztuki. This exhibition concludes however only a certain phase of documenting Tadeusz Kantor's whole oeuvre; strictly speaking, it prepares the ground and is a small step towards making the work of the absent artist become present in the common house of world art. That work will continue its journey, because the journey is inherent in it. Like all great art, it is at the crossroads, dwells at different houses, but avoids feeling at home in any of them. We know that Tadeusz Kantor was afraid of fixing, making still a work of art. In his text The idea of a journey from 1969, he said: "The idea of a journey is common to all my work. It is the idea of art as mental journey, discovering new areas for exploration. Since 1963, my paintings have included attributes of a journey: parcels, bags, suitcases, rucksacks, people constantly on the road... I perform happenings with those motifs ..."

Tadeusz Kantor - painter-plotter often abandoned painting, approaching its almost total negation. Everything hangs by a thread. In his text Cafe Europe of 1990, Kantor wrote: "And then: 1973. The exhibition Everything hangs by a thread. Where the subject of the painting was what had been thrown outside the painting and was barely relevant". In an interview with Wieslaw Borowski, conducted in 1974, he said: "In that series, Everything hangs by a thread, I perform certain manipulations on the canvas; however, it is not formal manipulation. The canvas is indeed material, but what I do is ridiculing canvas, and ridicule always assumes emotional involvement."

Besides those negations of painting, the exhibition also includes works from the opposite end of the spectrum: rich, symbolic, material, expressive paintings, full of reflection on man and objects, rational and emotional at the same time. These are the paintings from the series Emballaged Figures. An example of reflection on that special object that is painted canvas - a representation, but with its own size and weight, its material and fragility. The reflection on a picture as a requisite of the interior it is placed in, picture as a requisite of a museum, gallery, exhibition, determines the way it is painted, made, exhibited. This is Kantor's argument in the discussion concerning the manner of a being of the fruits of an artist's work - being a painting, art, or the avant-garde.

Exemplars of another works-series-action presented at our exhibition - Multipart (multiplication plus participation), were shown by Kantor in 1970 at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, and postulated the rejection of the uniqueness of the work (multiplication) and overcoming the artist's exclusive responsibility for the work (participation of others in the "completing" of the work). Kantor remarked on this in his text Cafe Europe: "And then: the year 1970. The exhibition of identical pictures with an umbrella. They were to acquire their individual character only after being completed by their purchasers. All the pictures were bought on the first day of the show. After a year there was an exhibition of works of the purchasers-artists. Not my works. I had only provided the initial stimulus - the umbrella."

The last group of Kantor's works prominently represented in the collection held and shown here in Lodz - is the set of paintings After This, Nothing, Again. They contain the experience of their author's life-time - his life in art. The paintings are overcrowded, rich, waiting for a further solution. "In this splendid crush, there could be no rules or dictates of the 'mass' avant-garde", wrote Kantor in Cafe Europe, referring to the exhibition After This, Nothing, Again, from 1981. He went on to say: "I was again accosted by the Napoleonic soldier from Goya's painting. A figure came out of the painting and it turned out to be only fiction...". Eclecticism as intensified fiction made for the closer contact with reality, of which art is only one of elements.
After this, nothing, again? I'll never come back here again?

Kantor claimed that he painted out of habit, but was making drawings with passion, "altruistically". He was saying farewell to painting and then returning to it. The artist's unceasing involvement with painting and theatre, "life in a triangle", "cohabitation" with them, found expression in the spectacle Today is My Birthday - the artistic legacy, "personal statement" of the artist. Kantor's Great Testament, like the 15th century Testament of Francois Villon (based on the instinctive feel of reality and evoked by Kantor for that reason), looks through reality. It is spoken "without shame" as the author of The Dead Class put it. It remains a mystery, which we should preserve.

"And now this exhibition. Well ...accrochage, vernissage. The only hope is the audience. To have the audience come to my theatre, Cricot and say: He hasn't changed! He's always the same!", wrote Tadeusz Kantor in Cafe Europe.

Jaromir Jedlinski, October 1995


* The fragments of Tadeusz Kantor's texts quoted here maintain the original punctuation, but the versification has been simplified in some cases.


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