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Zdzisław Beksiński - Between Good and Evil

Words:

Edd Norval
February 12, 2020

Artists particularly well regarded for portraying the darkness of authoritarian dictatorships and atrocities are few and far between. In literature, there's Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn whose words opened the world's eyes to the murderous Soviet Gulags. In film, we have Joshua Oppenheimer, a talented director revealing the extent of Indonesia's mass killings. In art, it's just as uncommon, but through Zdzisław Beksiński's paintings, he joins the fearless ranks of those who depict history's most devastating periods, combined with his own deeply personal experiences.

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Beksiński had no formal training as an artist, but was in fact, an architect. Particularly taken by the imperfections in things - the decay that is a part of our natural existance, he was predisposed to honing in on these particular parts of life. Parts that may be seen as ugly or unfit of attention.


Viewing the world in such a way was a case of both nature and nurture. Growing up in a Poland that was part of the Soviet Union, he came of age in a landscape ravished by war, where collapsed buildings wearily lined the streets and discarded armaments were Easter eggs for young boys intent on pursuing adverture.


So absorbed by his sociopolitical surroundings, a photograph of the young artist exists that's deeply powerful, showing him and a friend playing with used bomb shells, awestruck as if a hidden treasure had revealed itself amongst the rubble.

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It makes sense for someone coming from such an environment to go on and study architecture. Harbouring the desire to rebuild a crumbling landscape is a noble gesture, both personal and patriotic. Succeeding in his university studies, the young Pole found himself quickly uninterested in the realities of trying to climb the ladder of an elitist career.


Rather than landing in a studio, he worked as a construction site supervisor, allowing his mind the chance to wander and become occupied with new ideas. On the side, only as a hobby, he began his foray into art, utilising the materials lying around sites, just as he had salvaged objects as a child, to be incorporated into the form of his sculptures and paintings.


His autodidactical foray into art stuck and he began to quickly devote more time to his newfound passion. Just as he had been young and idealistic when hoping to rebuild the world around him, his art is reviewed as having two distinct phases; the early utopian route, an extension of his psyche at that time and an increasingly dark exploration of the horrors inflicted on people through wartime scenarios and personal tragedy that came later in his career.

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From the late-60s to the mid-80s, Beksiński embarked on an era of his art that he deemed the 'fantastic period', whereby he was intent on painting as if capturing dreams. His surrealistic visions had the tortured reality that dreams often do, where something is recognisable, but you're not quite sure where from.


Instead of capturing the archetypal characteristics of a dream though, the artist's subjects could be more easily associated with nightmarish visions, traumatic events distilled into still images that were imbued with a narrative complexity that often defied simple readings - something that he was vocal about in his disliking of. His paintings contained rich symbols and as such, were open to various interpretations. A simple 'meaning' would reduce what each image could represent.


Much of these paintings during this period followed his earlier artistic trajectory of depicting decay - in both living and inanimate objects. This fascination often appeared as morbid, and the surreal elements often capable of making the works uneasy viewing - particularly when a common reading was that he was evoking repressed memories of the massacres and death from authoritarian regime under which he was born.

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His paintings have an enduring appeal and contain qualities many find alluring, despite containing unsettling themes and characters. None of them have titles, either. This is a choice so as to neglect hinting at their allegorical or metaphorical context, to defy explanation and mostly, because the paintings themselves defy convention, adding one of arts most enduring ones (bestowing a title upon a work) would risk breaking the illusion.


Having influenced many, one of the Polish artist's most famous collectors comes in the form of a man who has created his own fair share of nightmarish creatures - Guillermo del Toro. Beyond filmmakers, he was a household name in his home country and had exhibitions as far away as Japan. Despite his relative fame, he was deeply cursed by misfortune in the last decade of his life.

In 1998 his wife died from cancer, then the following year, his son Tomasz committed suicide. Eventually, in 2005, Beksiński was subject to a gruesome death. His cleaners son wanted to borrow money from the artist who refused. In turn, the 19-year-old stabbed the artist to death in his apartment.


Beksiński's childhood and familial life coalesced in his early fantastical work, which later became darker as his agoraphobia heightened as tragedy struck the painter. Claustrophobia is overwhelming in his intense images which hold horror up to our eyes and makes it follow us where we go. Once we have seen them, they'll linger on for a while - just like the memories that shaped the art in the first place.

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