Posts Tagged ‘Zbigniew Stanczyk’

Life in people, life in things: Tadeusz Kantor exhibit in São Paulo

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

“Tadeusz Kantor Machine”: The biggest exhibition of Kantor’s artistic work in Americas.

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.


Children in the rubbish cart, from the play “In a Little Manor House” by Witkiewicz.

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.


A scene from “The Review of Fire”

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.


Outside the SESC culture center in São Paulo.

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


In 1970, Kantor created an 8 meter high folding chair made of concrete which was placed in Wroclaw among street traffic. It was to make an impression of something abandoned. He explained: “This artistic condition existed not in the chair, not in the form but in the surrounding. The existence of this chair caused all of the surroundings to become artistic.” Below, a smaller chair.


More on the man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s visit to Stanford

Friday, April 26th, 2013

photo(1)On Wednesday, we wrote about the Polish hero who tried to stop the Holocaust, Jan Karski.  No sooner posted than we got a letter from the former director of the Hoover Archives, Elena Danielson, who remembered one of his visits to Stanford (she’s pictured at right with Karski).  “Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier,” she recalled. “He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.”  The Jan Karski Papers collection was established at Hoover in 1946.

A story on Karski’s longstanding relationship with Hoover is here.  It begins: “A letter dated April 16, 1945, and signed by Stanford University president Donald Tresidder, formalized a relationship between Jan Karski and the Hoover Library (now known as the Hoover Institution) on War, Revolution and Peace that was to last until the end of Karski’s life. The letter confirmed a temporary appointment ‘to collect materials relating to political, economic, social, and other developments in Poland and other areas in Europe which have been attacked and occupied by Axis forces.'”

From Elena’s email:

Jan Karski was already a hero for those of us on the Hoover Archives staff when the East European curator Maciej Siekierski organized the visit by Jan Karski, seen in this photo from the mid-1990s [photo by Zbigniew Stanczyk]. Karski began working directly with Herbert Hoover back in 1945 to document the history of Poland in World War II. As a result, the Hoover Archives hold the largest collection of 20th century Polish archives outside of Poland, and the heart of the documentation is concern for human rights.

Hoover’s own interest in Poland went back to his humanitarian relief work there in World War I. Starting in 1945 Karski traveled to  London, Paris, and Rome, as well as Switzerland to coordinate the collection of documentation on the Nazi horrors in central Europe as well as the Soviet crimes. Those documents at Hoover preserved the truth about the Katyn massacre and the Gulag, information suppressed in Russia until 1992.  Karski used the same discretion, tact and diplomatic finesse to save the Polish embassy files abroad that he had used in his secret missions during the war.

jan_karskiThose skills were still evident in old age when I met him. He dressed meticulously, spoke in carefully chosen words, and conveyed the seriousness of his work to preserve the truth about the war. His sense of humor showed in ironic flashes. He told a story, now I’m retelling it from memory so I hope I have this about right, from 1942. He was in Switzerland conferring with OSS chiefs about his trip to the U.S. to see Roosevelt. He persuaded the OSS that they had to buy  him better shoes if they wanted him to be taken seriously by the president of the United States. Something like that. Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier. He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.

Meet me at the San Francisco Public Library for Miłosz centenary celebration Dec. 7

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

The centenary for Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz has been a year-long, international saga for many of us who knew him, translated him, or wrote about him – but it’s finally winding to a close this month.

Think of tomorrow night as one of your last chances to get in on the act.

On Wednesday, December 7, I will be speaking at the San Francisco Public Library for a Celebration of Czesław Miłosz – and also a celebration of An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. in the Latino-Hispanic Meeting Room at the library on 100 Larkin Street. The book will be for sale at the event.

Here’s what’s going to happen:  the host of a weekly KUSF radio show Zbigniew Stanczyk will be interviewing me and one of the Polish poet’s earliest translators, Peter Dale Scott, poet, author, and former Canadian diplomat in Warsaw.

But here’s the deal:  Pan Stanczyk also knew Miłosz, and there’s a few questions I’d like to ask him, too.

What’s more, I’m sure the audience will have a few questions to ask us about the renowned poet who spent four decades of his long life in Berkeley – and I’m sure some of those in the room also knew Miłosz, so I hope we’ll have some time to hear from them, too.

It will all be very democratic.  With luck, even Miłosz himself will have a say.  I have some video clips to play, if I can get the whole techno-thing working right.

So come along for a evening of readings, recollections, and books.  It should be fun.

Last call.

Postscript on 12/7:  And a fine event it was.  As you can see from Caria Tomczykowska‘s cellphone photo at right, I spoke in the shadow of giants.

And it was indeed very democratic!