Krakow, Poland – Kafkadesk sat down with Jaroslaw Serafin, the art director of the Historical Museum in Sanok, Poland, to talk about Zdzisław Beksiński (1929 – 2005), the great Polish master of arcane figures, dystopian worlds and haunting shapes.
Hello M. Serafin. Have you ever met Zdzisław Beksiński?
Unfortunately, I have never had that opportunity. Too bad for me, because Beksinski – even in the light of archival and biographical materials available to us – appears to have been an exceptional figure. But in direct contact, as his friends and acquaintances testify, he made an even stronger impression. What is particularly striking was his modesty, self-irony and a powerful distance to his own person, according to their testimonials. Considering his position and extraordinary achievements, one would rather expect arrogance and complacency. This is probably the best evidence of Beksiński’s class.
To characterize his figure, we should pay attention to his extraordinary erudition and eloquence. Beksiński was an intellectual with wide humanistic knowledge and outstanding knowledge of the matters which absorbed him the most, for example, classical music. At the same time, he was endowed with an extraordinary sense of humour, combined with cynicism and a developed sense of observation.
In general, he was a man of opposites: an introvert who could talk about his passions in an engaging way. Despite numerous complexes and a general feeling of self-doubt, he believed in the value of his work and strove to immortalise it. He avoided social contact, was not a frequent visitor of salons, and painted mainly for himself. Yet, fame and recognition were the objects of his aspirations. The external straightforwardness went hand in hand with a subtle and sophisticated interior.
What were his main inspirations?
Formally, Beksiński cut himself off from any inspirations and made his own originality and separateness a value in itself. He avoided vernissages of other artists, did not study art history in depth, although he knew it very well of course. At the same time, like every artist, he drew more or less consciously on the achievements of his great predecessors.
In his childhood, for example, he had a deep fascination for the works of Artur Grottger, whom he admired for the precision of his drawing, the quality and romantic aura of his works. Later there was also a phase of fascination with Paul Klee, Picasso’s art and – when it comes to sculpture – Henry Moore’s works. But as I said, none of them would have an overriding influence on his art. Beksiński was simply unique.
As for places which may have inspired him, we may surely mention Sanok and Warsaw, maybe also Krakow. But even so, he did not relate to any particular place at all. Even in the case of Sanok, where he spent his childhood and most of his life, there was no specific sentimental bond or special attachment.
When it came to things and objects, he naturally attached the greatest importance to cameras, camcorders and later computers. These things genuinely pleased him, were his great passion and obsession, and – as he himself said – somehow replaced conventional forms of relaxation and self-fulfillment typical of most people, such as travel and holidays.
What is your favorite work made by Zdzisław Beksinski?
Although there are dozens, if not hundreds, of such works, I remain invariably influenced by one of Beksiński’s most popular paintings, the work AA72. Such a choice may not be particularly original or sophisticated, but it is the first work by the artist that I saw when I was a child. Published in the magazine “Fantastyka”, it became engraved in my memory and was my first contact with Beksiński’s work.
The unusual aura and metaphysical atmosphere of the work make a special impression. It is worth noting that the work, depicting a dark valley, is a late echo of the impression made on the young Beksiński by David’s Psalm. This is quite unusual, considering the spirituality of Beksiński, a man searching for different answers rather than following beliefs in line with more traditional notions. And besides, it is simply an excellent work, though probably not as mature as the slightly later paintings.
Tell us a bit about the Historical Museum in Sanok.
The Historical Museum in Sanok is an absolutely unique place, not only on the map of Podkarpacie, but also on a national scale. The collections gathered here are so diverse that they attract tourists from all over Poland and from the most distant places in the world. Obviously, the Beksiński Gallery comes to the fore as it houses the most numerous, important and famous works of the artist. There are also drawings, including the earliest works of little Zdzisław, as well as graphics, photographs, sculptures, computer graphics and other forms of the work of this extremely prolific artist.
Another magnet for tourists is the most valuable collection of Carpathian icons, an extraordinary sacred work of the Orthodox Church. The oldest icons date back to the 15th century, and the whole collection illustrates four hundred years of evolution of this genre in the region.
The museum is also the home of an interesting collection of paintings from the Ecole de Paris, an armoury, an archaeological collection, a panorama of works by local artists and a collection of portrait art.
What book or film relates the most to Beksiński’s fantastic paintings and universe, in your opinion?
This is an extremely difficult question. I do not know at all whether such an analogy can be made. By the way, Beksiński was a great cinema lover and among his favourite films he mentioned Fellini’s Amarcord, in which he found an image of his own childhood in Sanok. However, pointing to the films which reflect the atmosphere of his work is a breakneck task.
A whole plethora of artists has been inspired by Beksiński, and in this group the most famous name is probably that of Guillermo del Toro, a collector of Beksinski’s paintings and one of the most famous Hollywood directors today. But whether his productions (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) can be juxtaposed with Beksinski’s paintings, I am not sure.
Beksiński fascinates filmmakers, computer game producers, a whole host of young artists, but his work is so individual that any closer attempts at imitation are doomed to duplicity or kitsch.
Could you tell us about Beksiński’s creative process?
Beksiński devoted his entire life to creativity. When he was still a teenager, he created sketches, depicting his parents, aeroplanes or cars. These works can be seen in our museum today. As far as the mature creative process is concerned, it was extremely absorbing and labour-consuming. In fact, Beksiński often spent several hours a day painting.
As a result, the creative output is counted in thousands of works. We do not even know how many paintings he left behind: for certain over 1,000, maybe even 1,500. And yet, apart from painting, he also dealt with artistic photography, drew, created computer graphics, sculpted, and even – which not many people know – tried his hand as a writer and music composer. It is truly difficult to think of an equally industrious and prolific artist.
When it comes to painting, he used a specific material in the form of fibreboard. Why? Simply because this material was available to him in the 1950’s and he had it at hand while working at Autosan, a bus factory in Sanok. Having gotten used to it, he could not but also did not want to switch to traditional canvas. He painted in oil, of course, and sometimes used acrylic paints. All the specific painting materials are presented in the reconstructed studio of the artist in our museum.
What is Beksiński’s place in Polish modern art? And how did he relate to other contemporary Polish artists?
During his life Beksiński did not particularly care about relations with other artists or the artistic environment in general. Nowadays it is even more difficult to point out specific relations with other artists. Beksiński is simply Beksiński, and probably this is the source of his popularity and worldwide success. The best evidence of such separateness is the fact that it is difficult, even today, to ascribe Beksiński to one particular trend. The multitude of names and definitions which are applied to his art proves his originality.
Do you have any particularly striking stories about Zdzisław Beksiński and his art?
For many readers, this may be the most interesting question, but I will leave it unanswered! Firstly, because it is worth exploring his extraordinary biography – full of such stories – for oneself. Secondly, because above biographical sensations, highlighted perhaps too much in recent years, I prefer to focus here on the artistic aspect of his figure.
Interview conducted by Tetyana Halyelo.