From our correspondent Zbigniew Stańczyk, a former Stanford curator who has just returned from a centenary celebration for Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990), considered one of Poland’s most important twentieth century artists, held in sunny Brazil:
One of the biggest Polish cultural events of 2015 took place in São Paulo, Brazil, and thanks to the Cinema Theater, I had the opportunity to participate in it. São Paulo hosted retrospective exhibition devoted to the full scope of the career of Tadeusz Kantor, widely considered to be among the most important and prolific painters and playwrights of the twentieth century. The audience reception was astounding, and certainly will be the subject of more than one analysis.
According to Jaroslaw Suchan, one of the curators of Kantor’s exhibit, “Kantor is to Polish art what Andy Warhol was to American art. He created a unique strain of theatre and was an active participant in the revolutions of the neo-avant-garde; he was a highly original theoretician, an innovator strongly grounded in tradition, an anti-painterly painter, a happener-heretic and an ironic conceptualist. His pioneering work remains powerful and influential today, challenging conventional boundaries between installation, performance and stage.”
All three floors of the SESC Cultural Center were turned into one great laboratory for actors’ workshops, film presentations, and of course the exhibit. The entire building was reconstructed, a thousand square meters of interior were repainted. Exhibit space was turned into a living theater. Mingling with the visitors, the actors of the Antropofagica Theater performed characters from Kantor’s plays. His face, recorded on film, appeared on a large-format, 6-meter screen, and dominated the entire exposition. He always loved being on the stage, in the middle of the action – and once again, he was given a chance to participate.
Kantor was constantly on a real or imaginary trip. Another curator, Ricardo Muñiz Fernandez, responded to this inclination by putting exhibited objects among the crates in which they were brought from Poland. Kantor liked to include packages on his canvases. He liked to immortalize them so they wouldn’t suffer the humiliation of losing their utility. In so doing, he restored the dignity of the things that were doomed to oblivion. Hence, a work of art appeared in a place where it didn’t have right to exist.
He rejected the formalism of museum exhibitions and curators. He went his own way by building an “anti-exhibition,” devoid of chronology. At the entrance to the 2015 exhibition, the organizers placed a large photograph of postwar Warsaw in all its devastation, serving as an introduction to the artist’s intellectual context: war destroying everything and everyone, degrading people to passive objects. The pulsating streets of São Paulo outside the building stood in marked contrast to this shocking accent.
Although Kantor never visited Brazil, he received one of the most important prizes of his life at the São Paulo Biennale in 1967. From the beginning, his name was associated here more with the theater than with the visual arts. The founder of the Center for Theatrical Research, who attended one of Kantor’s performances of The Dead Class during his visit to Italy in the 70’s, and Filho included the play in the actors’ training program and the word got out. That’s why the São Paulo exhibit devotes much attention to Kantor as a set designer, creator of para-theatrical activities, and a theater-theorist.
To illustrate Kantor’s presence in today’s performing arts, Brazilians invited Teatr Cinema from Michałowice. The founder and director Zbigniew Szumski had followed an artistic path similar to Kantor’s. He graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk and painted for years until he had exhausted its possibilities. He began doing theater. He appeared on the cultural stage in the 1990’s precisely at the time when Kantor departed from it. He continues the tradition of the Polish avant-garde with astonishing results. His vision goes far beyond the kind of work that took critics decades to accept in Kantor’s oeuvre. Szumski experiments in each performance. He has perfected his instrument: a group of actors who have worked with him for over twenty years. They brought River of Fire, a play that attempts to resolve the trauma of war experiences, to São Paulo. The title refers to the original meaning of the word Holocaust: “annihilation in flames.” The play depicts behavior of people cut off from the world, which had passed the death sentence on them.
Szumski makes frequent references to war as a last resort and gives a second chance to people who disappeared into the depths of darkness, denied the right to exist. Bringing them back to life becomes a conversation with the conscience of the artists and the entire community.
Few of us are aware of the importance of São Paulo as one of the most influential cultural centers in the world. This cosmopolitan city of 20 million has dozens of theaters and museums on the highest level. The exhibition received excellent reception and is considered by the local critics as most important event of the year.
Cinema Theatre, a follower of Kantor’s ideas, tours internationally and makes frequent appearances at many important festivals. I was curious how the theater’s avant-garde repertoire would resonate with the Brazilian audience. Each performance ended with a standing ovation, which lasted for minutes. We met the leading Brazilian actors, directors, and artists. Wrocław, European Capital of Culture in 2016, has to include performances of this unique theater in the next year program. I can’t imagine it any other way.
All photos by Zbigniew Stańczyk. Read more about the three-month exhibit, which ended earlier this month, here.