A Master of Many Faces: Tadeusz Kantor

Fifteen years after the death of Tadeusz Kantor, all that remains of him is the legend - and quite a few stereotypes. This could all change thanks to a gallery which opens today, the 15th of April, in Warsaw's 'Zachęta' district.

"This won't be your standard monograph," says Jaroslaw Suchan, the gallery's co-curator. The key to the gallery isn't Kantor's biography, nor bullet points signifying his major achievments, rather, it's his conception. The particular parts of the whole focus on the ideas that continually animated the artist's creative work. Suchan and Marek Świca (the former director of the Institute for Documenting the Art of Kantor Cricotek) distinguished three seperate guidelines: Avante-garde, Realism and 'Memory.' The gallery is stuffed full of Kantor's works, but also documents the evanescense of the artist's pursuits, the films dedicated to him, fragments of scenographies, and the works of others. "The Interior of the Imagination" sounds like it's going to present itself almost akin to a sort of gallery/performance, a multi-level artistic sight. The notion of a "gallery/performance" does not appear merely coincidentially - for contemporary audiences, Kantor is above all (and often solely) a creative force in Avante-garde theater, the author of legendary performances such as "The Dead Class," "Wielopole, Wielopole," or "Down with Artists." The problem was that although an excellent director, he made an effort to avoid being stereotyped as one.

"When someone calls me a 'director' I don't agree to it," he would say. "I don't agree to being called a 'painter' either because that's a very old term with a colossal tradition. As for 'director?' Two hundred years covers everything."

He was born in 1915, in Wielopole Skrzynski, not far from Krakow. He managed to complete his studies in painting at the Krakow Academy just prior to the outbreak of World War II. He began his creative work in theater during the occupation - he would present performances in private apartments, which served as centers for conspirators.

After the war he grew to be one of the most active and influential figures on the domestic avante-garde scene. He would prepare performances, worked on creating scenographies, painted, co-created the 'Krakow Group,' which brought together many of the most important Polish modern artists of the 1940s. When, in 1948, the Communists decreed the aesthetic of 'Socialist-Realism,' Kantor went silent, only to return to the forefront of cultural life even bigger upon the death of Stalin. "His was a creative spirit with a view towards an entirely personal vision of theater, an active participant in the neo-avante-garde revolution, an original theoretician, an innovator deeply rooted in tradition, an anti-painting-painter, a heretic-for-happenings, an ironic conceptualist: these are just some of his many faces," recollects Jaroslaw Suchan.

Kantor provoked the development of new tendencies in Polish Art, often playing the part of Mercury between European culture and Poland, isolated as it was then from international artistic life.

In the mid-1950s, he "brought" 'Informel' paintings from Paris, representative of the Expressionistic movement, reveling in non-geometric abstractions. He also brought 'Material' paintings, wherein artists would underscore the material, ready-to-hand [zuhanden] nature as objects of particular depictions. Kantor was also the first to organize 'happenings' in Poland and he is regarded by many critics as the precursor to the Art of Conceptual Installation. A "Comical Sojournener towards the New," wrote indignant critics in the 1960s. "Influence is unimportant, what matters are reasons!" - came the artist's reply.

He did not like the word "director," but this word perhaps comes closest to grasping Kantor's multifaceted activities. The author of "The Dead Class," directed a beautiful drama in the form of his life, composed of a variety of creative areas, wherein he himself played the hero. With his characteristic hat, his black raincoat, and his scarf, he seemed to be one of the cast of characters gracing his theater. Disoriented critics could never quite fathom where the 'real' Kantor ended and where the 'artist' began. Suchan has no doubt that in Kantor's activities, his creative work was on par with the direct impact that his personality and animated artistic life made on Poland, inspiring, provoking and sometimes even jarring.

It was from this love of provocation that all of the controversies surrounding Kantor came up. Some treated him like a genius, others idolized him, still others considered him a manipulative spin-doctor. Now we can find out which face truly belongs to Kantor.


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