I was born in 1922 in Rzeszów [Poland]. During my late school years I was imaginative, but I was an average pupil. I was fascinated with sport and I liked drawing. In 1938 I won the Polish championship in high board diving and was second in the All-Poland swimming competition for secondary schools. These were my early successes.
World War II destroyed family life and changed my idea of happiness and life. I became a soldier, too early; at the age of 17 I was responsible for myself. I swapped sport for underground activities in the Zwiazek Walki Zbrojnej [Armed fighting union], and my interest in drawing for sabotage actions. Wanted by the Gestapo and arrested while escaping to Hungary, my friend and I were faced with a new world, whose motto was “Arbeit macht frei”. Here everything becomes metaphysics: force, cruelty, heroism and sacrifice. Race, class, religious divisions and political views are not important. We are an archipelago of human-inhuman mentalities, where a man becomes a number. The concentration camp is a chance for suicidal men. For an attempted escape my two colleagues and I are to pay with the death sentence. Later there is only a cell in the death block, a room without door, window, air or hope. The world was 90 x 90 cm, head high. The cell is always dark, days and nights are not important, it is as if time has stopped. The wait for execution draws one to God. I am close to giving up. I want to die, but fate decrees otherwise. Only an amnesty in 1943 caused by a change of camp commandant (Hoess to Liebehenschel), sentences me once again to life-in the penal colony. Again I am on death row. I survive. Providence? Years later I write in “Cervantes”, a play staged in 1976 in the Teatr Studio [Studio theatre] : “I am cut from the rope – death in within me and I must sleep with it”. Eschatology? Past and attitudes?
Memory is a human quality. Is it possible to be an individual – a society without obligations? The passage of time and destruction are not only a characteristic of the camp but also a general threat. I do not divide time into yesterday and tomorrow. I relate to the past as to experience. I remember hunger as a transformation of personality close to nirvana, its resignation and feelings without pain and fear. Years of war and occupation become my great university, the time of moral strength trial and friendships. The first days of freedom are like a vacuum without joy, but it is time to get up from ones knees. Not wanted by anyone, full of complexes I look for my chance in science. I am ashamed of my “hump” and I do not admit my experiences.
In 1947 I start studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków [Cracow]. The world of imagination and surreal fascination of paintings and stage decoration opened before me. I want little, but I have so much. “I throw off the shell of time because I am alive” – I speak Dante’s words in 1974. At the beginning of my new life I am struck by illness. In spite of this I continue studies and read a lot. Nietsche, Tatarkiewicz, Balzac, Witkacy, Mann, I penetrate Klee’s history of art. The advantages of youth pass, I am close to thirty. In 1952 and 1953 I win diplomas with distinctions. This cheers me up. I start my own home. I begin independent work in the theatre. I do not waste time on socialist realism, I take off with the thaw of 1956 and introduce abstraction on the stage. I am laughed at as a formalist in the first socialist town in the world – Nowa Huta [In Poland]. “Szajnism” and “rugism” are the same says “Trybuna ludu” [Polish daily paper]. This strengthens me. I change theatrical decoration into three-dimensional composition, the actor’s world, a specific environment. Hanging forms, structures, their movement, ripped horizons full of mysterious holes, and curtains surround the whole auditorium. “Imiona wladzy” [Names of the authority] by Broszkiewicz, “Oresteia” by Aeschylus, “Myszy i ludzie” [Of mice and man] by Steinbeck, “Antigone” by Sophocles are expressed by the structuralism of forms.
In 1957 I receive the prestigious “Przeglad kulturaloy” [Cultural review] prize. I share it with S. Mrozek and Z. Mycielski for starting the innovative folk theatre in Nowa Huta. I realize almost all my targets 1:1.
Scholarships in Paris in 1957 and l958 (I was fascinated with the abstract art of Malewicz, Kandynski, Braque and Picasso) do not revolutionize my artistic researches.
I omit constructivism including the theories of Craig and Mayerhold but learn about the Dada and Bauhaus movements. In 1961 the ladder to the sky is made, which pierces the horizon in Mickiewicz’s “Dziady” (Dir. K. Skuszanka and J. Krasowski). Frozen three dimensional forms and tableaux like pictures from the series “Dramaty” [Dramas], which are created between 1957-64 are characterized by a montage of different materials, torn sheets and burnt out backgrounds.
The series “Wariacje teatralnet’ [Theatrical variations] on cardboard are similar to collage, half surreal. Are these my nightmares? Shapes – figures and imaginary scenery to unwritten plays. The enchanted magic of the author’s theatre? The scene with a swinging lamp in 1959 play “Wariat i zakonnica” [The madman and the nun] by Witkacy (Dir. W. Laskowska) is full of magic surreal objects. Swinging, unbridled, apocalyptic horses simultaneously supplement the trick riding scene in “Radosc z odzyskanego s’mietnika” [Joy from retrieved rubbish by Kaden-Bandrowski (Adapt. and dir. J. Krasowski) in 1960. I achieve another kind of expression using descending bent polished tin shapes during the epilogue of “Nieboska komedia” [Un-divine comedy] by J. Krasinski (Dir. B. Korzeniewski) in 1959. I place on the stage and in the foyer old rusty wheelbarrows, broken baths, heater pipes, torn sacks instead of costumes and wooden shoes in plays like “Acropolis” (Co-prod. with J. Grotowski, 1962).
Between 1963-1966 the theatre in Nowa Huta stages author’s performances of Gogol’s “Rewizor” [The government inspector] using old “sitzbads” [sitz baths] on wheels, old hanging mattresses to create the apartments of provincial public officers; T. Holuj’s “Puste pole” tThe empty field] with a bandaged cow; Kafka’s utopian “Zamek” [The Castle] collapsing in the epilogue and W. Wandurski’s “Smierc na gruszy” [Death on a pear tree] portraying war with self destructive spinning metal wheels in crossing of headlamps.
Many of these performances were considered to be political provocation and humbug, which is why I had to resign from running the theatre in 1966. But I did not give in. And when in 1969 H. Kajzer’s play in rehearsal in the Old Theatre in Cracow was cancelled I left town.
In a series of pictures “Epitafia i Apoteozy” [Epitaphs and Apotheoses] from 1966-68 I use the remains of objects as building material. These I change into objects of different form and meaning. “Deballage” is a performance staged in Niece in 1967 with the Vagant company. It is a metaphoric show of the disintegration of construction and form. This work is an important example of my creativity.
To honor artists murdered by the Nazis I build a three dimensional composition (about 140 m2) entitled “Reminiscencje” [Reminiscences] which is shown on the 150 anniversary in 1969 of the foundation of the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, and later at the Venice Arts Festival of 1970. “Reminiscences” are not only about memory, but also a warning of possible destruction today. This is the world of silence suddenly showing the extinguishing of life. This is a studio without people, a performance of silence, consisting of a forest of old easels sticking up like guillotines, crosses made of burnt figures and unfinished moulded constructions, dusty photographs and lists of camp records. I dedicate this composition to all victims of fascism and totalitarianism.
In 1962 I write an article in “Zycie llterackie” [Literary life] titled “O nowej funkcji scenografii” [On the new function of scenography]. In it I analyze the concept of theatre and art. I try to characterize my working methods and my search for new means of expression. This concept which I develop in Warsaw after being appointed in 1971 as a director of Theatre “Studio-Gallery”, where post-graduate study work shops at the school of scenography of the Academy of Fine Arts are set up, teaching Polish and foreign students under my supervision.
Collective creativeness and its artistic expression are the result of the development of ideas about organic theatre. Poetic visions and solid reality find common ground here. Word, picture, sound portray the creation and disintegration of form in their metamorphosis. Life, death and life. Dead objects come to life and change roles. The actor plays puppets, the puppet becomes a figure of this theatre.
A series of the author’s plays with script and stage design are made starting with the world premiere in 1971 of “Faustus” at the Polish Theatre (based on the play by Goethe), in 1972 “Witkacy” (based on the works of St. I. Witkiewicz), in 1973 “Gulgutiery”, between 1971-76 “Replica” (versions I- VII), “Dante” (premiered in Florence in 1974 with later productions in Dubrovnik and Essen), ending with “Cervantes” in 1976 and “Mayakovski” in 1978. The existential awareness of life and universalism of problems become the idea of this theatre. It is not difficult to notice the author identifying with the heroes of the plays. It is also not difficult to notice political accents as in the precursory (1978) vision of the rise and collapse of communism in “Mayakovski” (the scene showing the “palaces of communism being built from red chairs and its collapse at the end of the play. “Replica I”, arranged in 1971 as a plastic construction for the museum in Götenborg starts the “Theatre of panic”. Stumps of mannequins, dilapidated artificial limbs, the scraps of our civilization, waste comes out of the ground and creates a deadly landscape. The actor – animator and action appear in “Replica II” shown at the Demarco Gallery during the Edinburgh Festival of 1972. “A story about the agony of the world and our great optimism” (I comment on this in the programm for the 1973 Nancy world festival) is staged together with “The wall of shoes”, composition “Usurper”, “Altar”, “Partisan”, “Mother”, “Child” and “Pregnant”. Real drama does not require too many words and unnecessary gestures. References-contexts? Ethics and aesthetics? Morality. “Replica” with its message goes around the world. In Mexico it is accepted as a miracle play – a ceremony after the earthquake, in Germany as an atonement play, in Israel, as a memory of the holocaust. In Canada in 1986 the play is awarded a prize for the most memorable play. The American press wrote: “This is not only an epos of the gas chambers and Hiroshima; this is a cry of our times.”
At the end of the 1970s a composition “Silhouettes and shadows” appears. It was a static environment shown at the 1979 Sao Paulo Biennial Arts Festival. From 1978 until the present predominantly black and white pictures in the series .’Ant hills.’ are created. The lineal human legacy is hardly recognizable and becomes an anonymous sign of the united community, without a hero on its “way to nowhere”. Configurations spread and grow creating a specific universe. Disintegration and chaos, the disintegration of ephemeral structures in their short life – migrations, manifestations, meetings – the end of the 20th century.
In 1981, after the imposition of martial law, I resign from the post of manager of the “Studio Art” Centre and withdraw from the public life.
In 1987 I build a three-dimensional composition (about 240 m2) entitled “Drang nach Osten – Drang nach Westen”, which faces up to barbarity, fascism and totalitarianism. This composition exhibited in 1987 in Warsaw, Moscow in 1988, Sao Paulo in 1989 and Venice in 1990 was a political challenge.
I change life into pictures. Art is a demonstration of that which needs liberation within us; it is a selfdefence against helpless surrender.