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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Tadeusz Kantor

Chair Wroclaw, Hucisko, Poland, Tadeusz Kantor--theater of the absurd.                  
Very rarely does one meet an artist who is not what we term "multi-talented." That's especially true when we begin to look at those who have made much of an impact on what we broadly call "the arts." Picasso, for instance, was so multi-talented it's almost an injustice to call him simply a "painter." Recently I've cited the multiple talents of artists as diverse as Red Skelton, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rube Goldberg, Michelangelo, and of course, perhaps the king of all such artists old Leonardo himself (da Vinci, not Dicaprio). Of course, in some of these cases the artists' various talents lie in related art endeavors, but in others, their art became essential a second career. Using myself as an admittedly poor example, I'm an artist, but also an educator who learned, late in life, to write; but I've also dabbled in architecture, video production, interior design, photography, and landscaping. Many of these are little more than extended hobbies, but in each case my "interests" I've pursued to the point they might reasonable be termed "talents." At the moment, in my spare time, I'm learning digital art, though I'm far from what you'd call "talented" in this new pursuit.
Composition, 1959, Tadeusz Kantor
Tadeusz Kantor
Sometimes artists develop two or three, even four or more, such talents to the point it's difficult to decide how to classify them (assuming all artists have to be classified). The Polish artist. Tadeusz Kantor. is one such case. He first attracted my attention as a painter but in fact, he was far more active as a set designer and proponent of avant-garde theater, while also producing some rather astounding sculptures, such as a forty-two-foot-tall (14 meters) concrete folding chair (top, not exactly something you'd cart along to your kid's baseball game). Some writers handle this diversity of talent with the old, reliable "slash bar"--painter/set designer/sculptor/actor/director/etc./etc./etc. That's fine if you want to be shallow, terrible if you want to do the artist justice as what some have called a "Renaissance man" (or woman). Perhaps the best phrase ever used to describe Kantor was in referring to him as the "Andy Warhol of Poland."
Edgar Warpol 1967-68, Tadeusz Kantor,
textiles and metal.
Tadeusz Kantor was born in 1915 in a small town in southeastern Poland (I could mention the village name but you'd never be able to pronounce it, much less remember it). He graduated from Krakow Academy in 1939 just in time for the Nazi occupation of his country. Nonetheless, instead of going off to war and being shot at, he founded a small, underground, theater group while also serving as a professor at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. It was during the war years he began developing his interests in experimental theater. After the war, Kantor began designing avant-garde sets for traditional productions such as Saint Joan and Measure for Measure in which the stage extended out into the audience and the actors began interacting with manikins. Many of Kantor's sculptures are not far-removed from manikins as seen in his 1967-68 figure Edgar Warpol (above, right).
Panoramic Sea Happening, 1967, Tadeusz Kantor. A "happening" in which an audience on the beach watches as Kantor "conducts" the waves in a oceanic concerto.
The problem was, 1950s avant-garde became 1960s standard fare. Thus, in remaining "cutting edge," Kantor formed a new theater group he called Cricot 2, which evolved to the point that any resemblance to traditional theater was likely accidental, indeed, something to be avoided. His "plays" evolved into "happenings" (above) in line with what American, French, and British avant-garde artist were doing at the time (artists who made no pretense with regard to theater). In many of Kantor's early productions, he broke down the barrier between rehearsal and presentation, hoping to achieve a more natural, true-to-life performance. Moving from mere set designer, his happenings became "live paintings" in which he was the sole artist, even participating on stage, playing himself as in his award-winning, 1975 production, Dead Class. Kantor cast himself in the role of instructor to a class of apparently dead students confronted by manikins representing younger versions of themselves. 
A scene from Kantor's 1975 avant-garde The Dead Class.
As a painter, Kantor cannot be "pigeon-holed" as merely an abstractionist, though many of his early works were quite abstract. His paintings, like his theater, were avant-garde in the sense that the avant-garde is always a moving force like an advancing army from which the French first named it. However, painting gradually became inadequate to Kantor's creative impulses. His theatrical arts, which became happenings, and (like Warhol) moved later into film, foreshadowed the evolution we've seen during our Postmodern era away from paint on canvass into much more viable and effective mediums of expression. Kantor died in Krakow in 1990 at the age of seventy-five.

Write to the Table, 1983, Tadeusz Kantor. This reminds me of some of the poses and models
I once used in teaching high school figure drawing (though not quite so uncomfortable).


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