Apr 6, 1915 - Dec 8, 1990

Tadeusz Kantor

Theatre Institute in Warsaw

Tadeusz Kantor (1915, Wielopole Skrzyńskie – 1990, Krakow) – an avant-garde artist, painter, draughtsman, art theoretician, stage designer and director, author of happenings, a prominent 20th century theatre reformer, one of the most renowned artists on the Polish art scene.

Tadeusz Kantor, Théâtre National Populaire, Lyon, 1982, photo by Guy Delahaye

Between 1934 and 1939 he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. During the German occupation he founded the experimental Underground Independent Theatre, where he staged clandestine productions of Juliusz Słowacki’s “Balladyna” (1943) and Stanisław Wyspiański’s “The Return of Odysseus” (1944). The productions, with the participation of the artist’s friends and colleagues, were performed a number of times in private Krakow apartments. Kantor often emphasised that it is precisely in the wartime documents that the real origin of his art lies.

“Balladyna”, Underground Independent Theatre, Krakow, 1943, photo by Witold Witaliński
“The Return of Odysseus”, Underground Independent Theatre, Krakow, 1944, photo by Zbigniew Brzozowski
“The Return of Odysseus”, Underground Independent Theatre, Krakow, 1944, photo by Zbigniew Brzozowski
“The Return of Odysseus”, Underground Independent Theatre, Krakow, 1944, photo by Zbigniew Brzozowski
Photographic reconstruction of the stage design for a production of “The Return of Odysseus”, Underground Independent Theatre (premiered in 1944), 1981, photo by Jerzy Borowiec

Instrumental in forming the Young Artists’ Group, a hub for Krakow’s avant-gardists. In 1948, he co-organised the 1st Exhibition of Modern Art in Krakow, where he exhibited his metaphorical paintings.

The cover for Witold Gombrowicz’s Yvonne, Princess of Burgundia with illustrations by Tadeusz Kantor, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1958
The cover for Witold Gombrowicz’s Yvonne, Princess of Burgundia with illustrations by Tadeusz Kantor, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1958

From the mid-1940s to the mid-70s, he designed sets and costumes for professional theatres.

Eugene Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”, directed by Piotr Pawłowski, stage design and costumes: Tadeusz Kantor, Państwowy Stary Teatr im. Heleny Modrzejewskiej, Krakow, 1961, photo by Wojciech Plewiński

In the period 1950–1954, in protest against the socialist-realist doctrine, Kantor withdrew from the official art circuit. In 1955, drawing on the tradition of the pre-war Cricot the Artists’ Theatre, together with Maria Jarema and Kazimierz Mikulski, he founded the Cricot 2 Theatre. The company was active at the Krakow branch of the Association of Polish Artists and Designers. The name of the newly created theatre alluded to the pre-war Cricot the Artists’ Theatre, founded by Józef Jarema. The theatre was inaugurated in 1956 with the production of “Cuttlefish” by Witkacy and the pantomime “The Well, or the Profundity of Thought” by Kazimierz Mikulski. The following year, the company staged Mikulski’s “The Circus”, which was accompanied by the show of Andrzej Pawłowski’s “Kineforms”. As part of the early activity of Cricot 2, Tadeusz Kantor also directed “The Carbuncle” by Andrzej Bursa and Jan Güntner. Kantor was the first post-war director to stage Witkacy. For the following two decades, together with Cricot 2, he would create six productions based on his dramas. Kantor referred to his attitude to the playwright Witkacy as ‘playing with Witkacy’, since the productions were, strictly speaking, at no time ‘stagings’ of the original plays.

“Cuttlefish”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Artists’ House, Krakow, 1956, photo by Aleksander Wasilewicz
“Cuttlefish” (rehearsal), Cricot 2 Theatre, Artists’ House, Krakow, 1956, photo by Aleksander Wasilewicz
The programme for the production of “Cuttlefish”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Artists’ House, Krakow, 1956, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the production of “Cuttlefish”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Artists’ House, Krakow, 1956, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the production of “Cuttlefish”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Artists’ House, Krakow, 1956, Cricoteka Archive
„The Circus”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Artists’ House, Krakow, 1957, fot. Aleksander Wasilewicz

On 14th January 1961, at the Krzysztofory Gallery in Krakow there took place the premiere of the production based on Witkacy’s “Country House”, staged by the Cricot 2 Theatre. With it, Kantor implemented his theatrical concept that he called Informel Theatre. It was a kind of automated theatre, subject to randomness and the movement of matter, in which actors held the same status as objects. “This represented the stage of informel in my theatre. But not through some kind of pictorial matter, but via action, using sacks; the people inside the wardrobe became like their clothes that hang there; deprived of their will, they spouted some gibberish of their own. A beautiful performance.” At that time, Kantor drew freely on the concept of informel painting. The costumes of the actors appearing in the production were made during the rehearsals. First, some random clothes were stitched up, then they were torn and ripped (the exception was the costume of the Mother, who appeared in a provocative, red corset). The costumes made in this way removed the individuality of the actors squashed inside the wardrobe – the most important stage object in the play. “Country House” was in fact the only production that Kantor went on to repeat under different conditions and with non-Cricot 2 actors.

“Country House”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1961, photo by Aleksander Wasilewicz
“Country House” (rehearsal), Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1961, photo by Aleksander Wasilewicz
“Country House” (rehearsal), Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1961, photo by Aleksander Wasilewicz
“Country House”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1961, photo by Aleksander Wasilewicz

Kantor’s painting was inspired by the contemporary art that he came into contact with during his numerous sojourns abroad, in particular in Paris and New York; thus, his paintings experimented with informel, Dadaism and conceptual art. In the early 1960s, Kantor gave up on depicting reality in any form and concentrated on his new concept: emballages (wrapping).  In Art Informel, the act of creation included a spontaneous, even spasmodic gesture, initiated in Europe by the movement known as Action Painting and such artists as Jackson Pollock, Fautrier or Georges Mathieu. In his work, Kantor accentuated the role and significance of Surrealism, and chiefly its stage called automatism which very much revolved around chance. In practice, a work of art came to be as a result of such activities as pouring coloured fluid upon a canvas stretched out on the floor, squeezing paint directly out of tubes, rubbing or spilling pigments on the surface of the painting by, for instance, hitting it with a line or a whip. In 1957, “Życie Literackie” published Tadeusz Kantor’s article entitled “Abstrakcja umarła – niech żyje abstrakcja” [Abstraction Is Dead – Long Live Abstraction]. It discussed the twilight of Geometric Abstraction and the heyday of Tachisme and Art Informel. An expression of spontaneity and chance, some titles seem surprising, while at once illustrating processes dominant in Kantor’s “shapeless” painting. Random, senseless syllables combined in word-formation compilations begin to develop a quality with a novel meaning and new power of impact: “Oahu”, “Tadana”, “Ramamaganga”, “Hopai-siupai”, “Rach-ciach-ciach”, “D’osyta-d’osyta”, “Alalaha”, “Pasakas”, “Amarapura”.

Having totally rejected all figurative expression in painting during his informel period, Kantor contrarily decided to return to it. He tried to regain the factual connection between art with object and reality. Realising, however, that a traditional representation of the object was no longer valid and indeed impossible, he decided to hide the object and in this way only to mark its presence in a provocative manner. The term ‘emballage’, borrowed from the French word meaning ‘packaging,’ and which echoed the sound of ‘collage’, became for Kantor the new artistic modus operandi. On emballages, he wrote: “I want to emphasise that emballage is something more than a (…) provocative p r e s e n c e of the object. It is a p r o c e d u r e and an a c t i v i t y. Of course, connected with the object. This is a fundamental difference, which finds its further consequence in the happening. The very act of p a c k i n g contains the very human need and passion for preservation, isolation, endurance, passing on and also the taste of the unknown and a mystery. Its multiplying and complicated ritual has all the potential to become a disinterested process, often obsessive. Shoddy bags, packages tied with string, envelopes, sacks, rucksacks, which represent the lowest in the hierarchy of objects, being predestined for the dustbin – on the threshold of destruction, in a last glimpse reveal their autonomous, objective existence.” Numerous emballages created by Tadeusz Kantor were semi-spatial works, including used and frequently worn items (envelopes, bags, umbrellas) attached to the canvas. This is what Kantor wrote about a series of works for which he had been using paper bags from circa 1962: “I brutally nailed measly paper b a g s, from rubbish bins, crumpled, crushed, to the impeccably pure canvas of my paintings, like they had been rare butterflies. Their creases, made in the process of production, replaced previous, sophisticated d i v i s i o n s of abstraction. They were so much dearer to me now than those proud and ‘avant-garde’ ones. Tortured, decrucified, c a p t u r e d bags.” In his paintings, Tadeusz Kantor ‘wrapped’ not only items but also the human figure. “Museum Persiflages”, or masterpieces of painting transformed by the artist, constitute a special kind of emballages. One of the museal emballages is the “Emballage of the ‘Prussian Tribute’” by Matejko, dated 1975 (National Museum in Krakow). “I ventured to make an emballage of a ‘national treasure’, Matejko’s ‘Prussian Tribute’. I ‘wrapped’ proud figures of royals, knights and bishops with desperation, fear and reverence – for evermore. The only one I left alive was the great Court Jester – Stańczyk”. Between 1965 and 1981, he created several paintings-emballages of Infantas with realistically painted heads and postman’s bags replacing the lavish skirts. They were quotations from the paintings by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. Kantor explains: “I decided to ‘wrap’ historical characters. Here are Velázquez’s ‘Infantas’. Like relics or Madonnas. Wearing formal clothes, with forced gestures and dull emptiness in their eyes, they remain vulnerable… I replaced the famous skirt of the Infant, like a liturgical chasuble, with an old worn-out postman’s bag. Pieces of wood burned by sea salt and washed up on the shore provide the only weak allusion to an internal skeleton…”

In 1963, together with the company of Cricot 2 Theatre, Tadeusz Kantor put on another play by Witkacy, “The Madman and the Nun”, thus marking a new phase in the development of his theatre, the Zero Theatre. Years later, he would maintain that with that performance he had for the first time succeeded in creating a stage situation in which the theatrical action acquired its own reality, independent of the dramatic text. And it was in that production that he fully succeeded in realising his concept of the Autonomous Theatre. The concepts of ‘zero’, ‘aneantization’ and ‘desillusion’ are derived directly from that production. The staging of “The Madman and the Nun” also represented another step towards the formulation of Kantor’s idea of the Reality of the Lowest Rank. And it is during the work on the production that Kantor embarked on his idea of emballages. He would be faithful to these concepts for the rest of his life, and they all became his hallmarks. When working on “The Madman and the Nun,” Kantor wanted to create an artistic strategy would enable him to reclaim the reality of objects and situations. He maintained that this was only possible in a spatial environment that he called ‘ground zero’. Almost the entire small stage of “The Madman and the Nun” was taken up by a construction, consisting of old folding chairs, tied together. This was the machine of annihilation, that Kantor gave the French-derived name “The Aneantisating Machine”. Inside the pyramid of chairs, there lurked an actor, who set the structure into motion by pulling on a string. Sudden, unexpected movements and the rattling noise of the chairs ‘annihilated’ the acting of the actors. They were obliged to fight for every inch of the stage space, so as to be able to remain there at all and to deliver their lines. The artistic situation that Kantor called ‘ground zero’ was a ‘poor’ situation, in which all objects and actions are stripped of their usefulness and as a result, lose their status acquired in daily life. Old, damaged and thus useless things were for the artist a natural artistic medium. Through the autonomy of artistic action provided by the ground zero situation, they acquired a new reality. It was in this operation that Kantor saw the essence of his art.

The programme for a production of “The Madman and the Nun”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1963, Cricoteka Archive
“The Madman and the Nun”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1963, photo by Aleksander Wasilewicz
Tadeusz Kantor, „The Autonomous Theatre”, published manifesto, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1963, Cricoteka Archive
An object – “The Aneantisating Machine” from the production of “The Madman and the Nun”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1963, Cricoteka, photo by Wacław Nowak

In November 1963, at the Krzysztofory Gallery in Krakow Kantor organised “A Popular Exhibition”, also known as the “Anti-Exhibition”. On display were not paintings, but a melee of drawings, documents, letters, photographs, newspapers, elements of theatrical work such as costumes, objects and props, and various other objects. According to the poster, these numbered nearly a thousand. In the manifesto accompanying the exhibition, the artist declared his protest against the rigid convention of exhibitions and the predictable behaviour of the audiences. According to him, the exhibition represented the first-ever environnement, which drew the spectators into adventure and ambushed them; this was of great significance for Kantor’s work in the future. For the first time ever, Kantor displayed in public over a dozen of his emballages.

“A Popular Exhibition”, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1963, a photograph fabricated by Tadeusz Kantor
A manifesto for “A Popular Exhibition” in Polish, photography on canvas, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1963
A manifesto for “A Popular Exhibition” in English, photography on canvas, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1963

Starting in 1965, he embarked on a series of artistic actions and happenings (such as “The Anatomy Lesson after Rembrandt”, 1968), working closely with the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw. In April 1965, Tadeusz Kantor went for a few months to the USA, where he had a chance to witness the apogee of the happening movement. On his return to Poland, for the next few years, Kantor created his own happenings; at the same time he maintained that the methods of the happening, albeit not referred to by that name, had long been in use in Cricot 2 Theatre. Kantor organised his first happening, called “Cricotage”, on 10th December 1965 in the cafe of the Society of Friends of Fine Arts in Warsaw, together with a group of artists and critics linked to the nascent Foksal Gallery. “I introduced there 14 life activities, such as eating, shaving, carrying coal, sitting etc. During the happening, these activities were stripped of their practical function and each of them was ‘condemned’ solely to its own development.”

In August 1967, as part of the 5th Koszalin Plein Air in Łazy near Osieki on the Baltic coast, the “Panoramic Sea Happening” took place. This very spectacular event consisted of four parts: “The Sea Concert” (during which the audience, gathered on the beach watched the composer, sporting a tail coat, conducting the waves), “The Raft of the Medusa” (during which the participants took place in a live recreation of the famous painting by Theodore Gericault), “Erotic Barbuyage” (during which some girls covered in sticky substance threw themselves at the audience) and “Agrarian Culture on Sand” (which consisted of planting newspapers on the beach).

“The Dividing Line”, happening, The Art Historians Association, Krakow, 1965, photo by Wojciech Plewiński
The programme for the “Panoramic Sea Happening” with score, Łazy by Koszalin, 1967, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the “Panoramic Sea Happening” with score, Łazy by Koszalin, 1967, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the “Panoramic Sea Happening” with score, Łazy by Koszalin, 1967, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the “Panoramic Sea Happening” with score, Łazy by Koszalin, 1967, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the “Panoramic Sea Happening” with score, Łazy by Koszalin, 1967, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the “Panoramic Sea Happening” with score, Łazy by Koszalin, 1967, Cricoteka Archive
The programme for the “Panoramic Sea Happening” with score, Łazy by Koszalin, 1967, Cricoteka Archive

On 28th April 1967 at the Krzysztofory Gallery in Krakow, there took place the premiere of “The Water Hen”, again based on a play by Witkacy. This marked the beginning of the next stage in Cricot 2, which Kantor referred to as the Happening Theatre or Events Theatre. In this production the artist used the formula of the happening. This is how the theatre critic and historian Jan Kłossowicz described the production of “The Water Hen” presented by Cricot 2:

“In the very long and narrow Krzysztofory hall, chaos reigns. Spectators are seated on stools, some on boxes or mattresses, on the floor. (…) It’s very crowded. The ‘emballaged’ actors, wearing heavy coats, with suitcases and bags, wander around in the audience. The confusion intensifies. Someone is making a phone call, someone else is pouring water into the bath standing in the middle. Amidst all this palaver, the calm, pedantic Waiters circulate, attired in tail coats (some of them are indeed authentic, professional waiters who have been hired from the Wierzynek restaurant for the occasion). They are serving tea and coffee. The actors’ activities are intensifying…”. In 1969, Cricot 2 took “The Water Hen” on its first international tour, first to Rome, then to Edinburgh.

“The Water Hen”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, Foresthill Theatre, Edinburgh, 1972, photo by Richard Demarco
“The Water Hen”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1967, photo by Edward Węglowski

„The idea of life and work as a constant journey made itself endlessly insistent,” wrote Tadeusz Kantor. He maintained that every artist bore the stigma of some obsessive motive that recurred throughout his works. With Kantor, this was the motif of the journey. It first appeared in his earliest theatrical productions and paintings, connected to ”The Return of Odysseus” (staged at the Underground Independent Theatre in the early 1940s) and continued until his late works. The artist wrote: “In my paintings, the idea of the journey is closely connected in its content with the entirety of my oeuvre. This is the idea of art as a journey of the mind, the development of ideas, the discovery of new areas for exploration. Since 1963, I have used in my paintings the props of the journey: bundles (emballages), bags, suitcases, rucksacks, the characters of the ‘eternal wanderers’ (…) 1967 came. The basic semantic message of the autonomous action of ‘The Water Hen’ [produced by] the Cricot 2 Theatre, was the idea of the journey. The group of wanderers, with magnified attributes of travel, on a tiring, hallucinatory ‘march’, brought to the public the MESSAGE of the idea: the concept of adventure, surprise, the unknown, risk taking, the passage of time, annihilation…”

Ilustracja idei podróży: postaci z „Kurki Wodnej” jako trupa wędrowców, fotografia i fotomontaż: Jacek M. Stokłosa

The next stage in the development of the theatre of Tadeusz Kantor was marked by the premiere of the production of “Lovelies and Dowdies”, again based on a play by Witkacy, which took place on 4th May 1973 at the Krzysztofory Gallery in Krakow. Whilst in the Happening Theatre the spectator was meant to be an active participant in the performance, in the “Lovelies and Dowdies” the intention was that he would experience the impossibility of coping with the proliferation of many elements appearing simultaneously, which would make it impossible to decipher the meaning of the whole performance. “With ‘Lovelies and Dowdies’, in my Impossible Theatre, I set a trap for illusion. (…) Especially in Poland, the Cloakroom is a place that everybody would like to bypass, but the Cloakroom is brutal and indispensable. (…) Thus, the entire production took place practically in there, in a place of the lowest rank the Cloakroom”. Stage props and objects also played a vital role. One group of them consisted of objects that had a stand-alone existence, so to speak; these clearly had an influence on the viewers: the Cloakroom manned by two brutish attendants, the Monumental Rat Trap, which was being pedantically cleaned by Bestia Domestica, and the Henhouse-Cage, in which Princess Zofia Kremlińska, nee Abencerag was kept. There were also objects which, combined with the actor, resulted in what Kantor referred to as Bio-objects.

“Lovelies and Dowdies”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1973, photo by Jacek Szmuc
“Lovelies and Dowdies”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1973, photo by Jacek Szmuc
“Lovelies and Dowdies”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1973, photo by Jacek Szmuc
“Lovelies and Dowdies”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1973, photo by Jacek Szmuc  
“Lovelies and Dowdies”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1973, photo by Jacek Szmuc
“Lovelies and Dowdies”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, Foresthill Theatre, Edinburgh, 1973, photo by Richard Demarco
“Lovelies and Dowdies”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, Foresthill Theatre, Edinburgh, 1973, photo by Richard Demarco

In his theatrical, and to an extent his conceptual productions, as well as in his paintings, Tadeusz Kantor frequently employed the chair – an object that, according to him, belonged to the reality of the lowest rank. “The fact that I use a chair, he explained, is essential for me, because I reveal its unchangeable functions, very low and very funny, which I don’t encounter in other objects.” In March 1970, at the Symposium Wrocław ‘70, Kantor presented his design for a 10 metre-high concrete chair, which he intended to be placed in the middle of the urban traffic flow. In the event, the project was never implemented; however, the idea spurred Kantor towards theoretical musings on the sense of contemporaneous art: “These were desires to realise the new role of the work of art without expression and without perception. The expression of the work of art that stemmed from its material attributes had for a long time been losing its significance and its power to fascinate. These doubts and the conclusions that I drew from my own practice found their ultimate expression in my Manifesto 1970. After I wrote it, I came to the conclusion that the subsequent material fate of the chair and its implementation were of no further interest to me. I was inclined to think that the very manifesto with its theoretical content was capable of replacing the chair itself as well as many other ‘impossible’ monuments, which I continued to design.” Designs of such works, which have also been referred to as designs of conceptual architecture, were displayed at the Foksal Gallery in 1971. These were three photographs on canvas that showed monstrously magnified objects, placed in actual locations in Krakow: “The Monument of a Chair” on the Rynek, Krakow’s Main Square, “The Bridge – a Clothes Hanger” over the Vistula near The Wawel and “The Light Bulb”, placed on Little Rynek.

Tadeusz Kantor, “The Light Bulb”, from the “Impossible Monuments” series, 1970, photographic collage, photo by Jacek M. Stokłosa, Cricoteka
Tadeusz Kantor, “The Clothes Hanger”, from the “Impossible Monuments” series, 1970, photographic collage, photo by Jacek M. Stokłosa, Cricoteka
Tadeusz Kantor, “The Chair”, from the “Impossible Monuments” series, 1970, photographic collage, photo by Jacek M. Stokłosa, Cricoteka

In 1970, at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, Tadeusz Kantor carried out his action called “Multipart”. In preparation for the event, in accordance with Kantor’s instructions, some 40 almost identical copies were made of the painting “Parapluie-emballage”, but he was not personally involved in the production. During the opening of the exhibition, all these mass-produced copies – multiparts – were auctioned to collectors, who were invited to complete themselves the work bought or even destroy it, and to display the results of their activities in a year’s time at the same gallery. In this way, as Kantor observed, “the numerous prerogatives of so-called artistic activity (…) are transposed onto other people, who are not deprived of the hope for and appearance of being the owners of a work of art.” On 20th February 1971, at the exhibition called “Multipart: Last Stage”, 34 multiparts were presented. For a year, they had been subject to various activities (most commonly, the white canvas had been filled with inscriptions, or else the owners had stuck photographs or objects onto the work). In the action “Multipart”, Kantor had again set out to question the notion of the work of art – as an auteur opus, the effect of artistic vein; the artist refrained from personal contribution to the realisation of the works, providing only the concept and the technical guidelines. Negating the unique quality of the work of art and stripping it of dignity, he simultaneously questioned the positions of museums, galleries and collectors. 1970, in Lausanne, the artist presented another version of multiparts – this time, the umbrellas on the canvas were impressed in plastic, creating negative impressions.

“Multipart” exhibition by Tadeusz Kantor, Foksal Gallery, Warsaw, 1970, photo by Eustachy Kossakowski
“The Final Stage of Tadeusz Kantor’s Multipart” exhibition, Foksal Gallery, Warsaw, 1971, photo by Piotr Barącz

The Theatre of Death was a watershed in Kantor’s theatre. It began with the production of “The Dead Class”, made in 1975. It is widely considered a masterpiece of the theatrical art of the 20th century. With this production, Kantor embarked on the last stage of his theatrical oeuvre. Kantor used the concept of death in order that the theatre could once more evoke feelings. “Death or even thinking about death has more emotional impact than those stemming from the awareness of life”, Isabel Tejeda observed in the catalogue of the exhibition of “The Dead Class”. This is how, in his text “School Class”, Tadeusz Kantor described the moment that the idea of the production came to him: “The year is 1971 or 72. Seaside. In a small village. Almost a hamlet. A single street. Small, poor, single-storey buildings. One is probably  the most shabby of all: the school. It was summer and the summer holidays. The school was empty and abandoned. It had just one classroom. You could look inside through the dusty panes of the two abject windows, placed low down, just above the level of the pavement. This gave the impression that the school had sunk below the street level. I glued my face to the window pane. I stared for a long time into the dark, murky depths of my memory. Once more, I was a small boy, with my inky fingers, wetted with spit, turning the pages of the reading primer; the grain of the floor had been worn away with constant scrubbing and the bare feet of the country lads suited the floor very well. Whitewashed walls, render crumbling at the bottom, on the wall – a black cross.”

“The Dead Class”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1983, photo by Jacquie Bablet
“The Dead Class”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1983, photo by Jacquie Bablet
„The Dead Class”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1975, photo by Jacek Szmuc
„The Dead Class”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1975, photo by Jacek Szmuc
„The Dead Class”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Krzysztofory Gallery, Krakow, 1975, photo by Jacek Szmuc

Tadeusz Kantor first used the term ‘cricotage’ in reference to a short production entitled “Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, devised as an event to accompany the exhibition at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome in 1979. “Cricotage” (1965) was also the title of Kantor’s first happening. Subsequently, the artist would use the term to refer to studio works during workshops he conducted for students. This was also the case with the “Machine of Love and Death” (1987). These works became part of the presentation of events evoked by the memory machine that showed and immortalised different stages of the artist’s life and work. This process had started with “The Dead Class”.

“Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Klub Studentów Politechniki Warszawskiej “Stodoła”, Warsaw, 1984, photo by Jerzy Borowski
“Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1982, photo by Jacquie Bablet
“Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1982, photo by Jacquie Bablet
“Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1982, photo by Jacquie Bablet
Tadeusz Kantor, a fragment of the manuscript for the object called the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, used in the performance of “Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, Cricot 2 Theatre, 1979, Cricoteka Archive

Grey wooden platforms, a window, a mound of earth with a wooden cross, a metal bed with a winch; in the background, a wardrobe, a table, objects are part of Tadeusz Kantor’s vision of a return to his childhood, which he re-created in his production “Wielopole, Wielopole”, staged in 1980 in Florence. This room re-created on the stage is the setting for the action of the play and for the bringing back of memories. Kantor made his own family the protagonists: his maternal grandmother, uncles, aunt and cousin as well as the anonymous recruits that can be seen in an old photograph – the comrades-in-arms of the artist’s father, who never came back from the war. It was indeed that photograph, taken out of a family album, that shows Kantor’s father surrounded by soldiers setting out for the front in 1914, that became the artist’s inspiration for “Wielopole, Wielopole”, his revisiting of the place of his birth – Wielopole Skrzyńskie. “This is the room of my childhood. I keep trying to reconstruct it in my memory, always from scratch, but it keeps vanishing, dying. I recall it and it disappears, recall it and it again disappears. (…) In a memory, there is never any action, there are only frames and this is the (…) frames memory. (…) I take my family, or rather I take the room (…) there is also the figure of the rabbi. He was a friend of my grandfather, the priest. And the procession, which is also there, because (…) everything has merged together; this is a child’s imagination, child’s memory; the funeral of the grandfather blurs into the Crucifixion, the priest is chasing the cross, as if this were his own coffin, and the moment comes that a scandal occurs: the rabbi has joined the Catholic funeral. Because this is how it happened. Because during my grandfather’s funeral the high members of the Jewish community came out of the synagogue in full regalia and the Catholic ceremony was infused with just such an intervention. And in this production there can be found a trace of that event. And the second frame came to me later, because when the soldiers kill that rabbi, this is a war matter, the last war, when Germans were killing Jews. (…) There is Christmas there, and Easter, when people visit Christ’s tomb, when all these ceremonies take place – these frames bring to mind the family. And it is the family that kind of acts out scenes from the Gospel. These are also frames that overlap, here there is also a frame structure. The frame of ‘Last Supper’ by Leonardo da Vinci is superimposed onto the frame of this room. And that Last Supper is already taking place in the cemeteries of today’s world.”

“Wielopole, Wielopole”, Cricot 2 Theatre, “Sokół” Hall, Krakow, 1983, photo by Leszek Dziedzic
“Wielopole, Wielopole”, Cricot 2 Theatre, “Sokół” Hall, Krakow, 1983, photo by Leszek Dziedzic
“Wielopole, Wielopole”, Cricot 2 Theatre, “Sokół” Hall, Krakow, 1983, photo by Leszek Dziedzic
“Wielopole, Wielopole”, Cricot 2 Theatre, “Sokół” Hall, Krakow, 1983, photo by Marek Norek
“Wielopole, Wielopole”, Cricot 2 Theatre, “Sokół” Hall, Krakow, 1983, photo by Marek Norek

“Let the Artists Die” was the third production of the Theatre of Death. It premiered on 2nd June 1985 in the Alte Giesserei in Nuremberg. Here, Kantor continued and developed the ideas from “The Dead Class” and “Wielopole, Wielopole”, basing the structure of the play on “memory frames.” This is how the artist characterised the essential building blocks of the production in the accompanying programme: “Not: a defined location, named in the stage directions, but: overlapping MEMORY FRAMES recalled from THE PAST, ‘posing as’ the present time, turning up ‘for no good reason’, mixing objects, people, situations… and in these crazy goings-on losing all the logic that rules in life.” The location of “Let the Artists Die” has no connection to any real, tangible place. The author referred to it as “My Poor Little Room”. This concept first made an appearance in “Wielopole, Wielopole”; in that production Kantor reconstructed on stage his Childhood Bedroom. “The Poor Little Room of Imagination” as the artist’s inner space would from then on re-appear in his art: in his theoretical texts, in the production “Today Is My Birthday” and in his late paintings.

“Let the Artists Die”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow, 1986, photo by Leszek Dziedzic
“Let the Artists Die”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow, 1986, photo by Leszek Dziedzic
“Let the Artists Die”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow, 1986, photo by Witold Górka
“Let the Artists Die”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow, 1986, photo by Leszek Dziedzic
“Let the Artists Die”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Krakow, 1986, photo by Leszek Dziedzic

On 23rd June 1988 at the Piccolo Teatro Studio in Milan the premiere took place of “I Shall Never Return”. The production continued the themes of love and death and developed actions exploring the artist’s personal experiences. As always, Kantor accompanied his actors on the stage. In his previous productions, his presence had appeared spontaneous. Here, for the first time, he allocated himself a scripted role: as himself. The leitmotif of the play is the imperative to reconstruct the past and to recall people and memories. In the monologue with which the performance begins, the artist announces that we shall be meeting again characters from his earlier theatrical productions. In an act akin to the calling up of ghosts, customary at

the ancient Slavic custom performed on Forefather’s Eve, the artist brings back characters from the performances of “The Water Hen”, “Lovelies and Dowdies”, “Where Are the Snows of Yesteryear”, “Wielopole, Wielopole” and “Let the Artists Die.” Each character appears in the original costume and with the original props; however, their presence on the stage bears no resemblance to their original role. They mock Kantor, set out to execute him and are in clear opposition to their author. In his monologue, directed to the actors, the artist announces:

“And as for me, in order to create something, to create this world in which you will steadfastly climb upwards, garnering applause – I must fall downwards. And I am falling. I am falling down like hell! (…) Keep me company at the bottom for a while. The artist must always be at the bottom, because it is only from the bottom that you can shout so as to be heard. Perhaps there, at the bottom, we shall reach a mutual understanding. And after that, don’t descend to hell ever again.”

“I Shall Never Return”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1988, photo by Bogdan Axmann
“I Shall Never Return”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1988, photo by Bogdan Axmann
“I Shall Never Return” (rehearsal), Cricot 2 Theatre, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1988, photo by Jacquie Bablet
“I Shall Never Return”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, 1988, photo by Jacquie Bablet
“I Shall Never Return”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Teatro Il Vascello, Roma, 1989, photo by Tomasso Le Pera

On 8th December 1990, Tadeusz Kantor died suddenly in Krakow, after one of the last rehearsals of the production “Today Is My Birthday”. The premiere took place at the Theatre Garonne in Toulouse in France on 10 January 1991 (under the title “Aujourd’hui c’est mon anniversaire”). Kantor’s last production was a personal confession, with the artist himself its chief protagonist. The character of the Self-portrait of the Owner of the Poor Little Room of Imagination, played by Andrzej Wełmiński, was intended to be associated with Tadeusz Kantor. In “Today Is My Birthday” Kantor concluded his reflections on the theme of death. The premonition of death and the awareness that the end is nigh become almost tools of creation. Since 1986, the premonition of death had always been present in Kantor’s artistic visions. In “Today Is My Birthday”, the death of the artist and even his funeral are structural elements of the production.

“Today Is My Birthday”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Théâtre Garonne, Toulouse, 1991, photo by Caroline Rose
“Today Is My Birthday”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Théâtre Garonne, Toulouse, 1991, photo by Caroline Rose
“Today Is My Birthday”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Théâtre Garonne, Toulouse, 1991, photo by Caroline Rose
“Today Is My Birthday”, Cricot 2 Theatre, Théâtre Garonne, Toulouse, 1991, photo by Jacquie Bablet
A photograph of Tadeusz Kantor’s family taken in 1912 (father Marian Kantor, mother Helena Kantor, uncle Stanisław Berger), used as a prop in the production of “Today Is My Birthday”, Cricot 2 Theatre, 1991, Cricoteka

The Centre for the Documentation of the Art by Tadeusz Kantor Cricoteka was founded on the initiative of Tadeusz Kantor himself in 1981. The artist intended it to be a multifunctional centre, focused primarily on documenting and popularizing the achievement of its initiator. He devoted the last ten years of his life to form a basis for the institution. Originally located at 5 Kanonicza Street in Krakow, Cricoteka was to be more than simply a museum, as the artist himself explained: “(…) this is going be to an unprecedented establishment, combining in its form and function various spheres: visual (displays, collection, reconstructions of stage situations), scholarly and archival (archive, reading room) and educational (lectures, studies, experimental workshop), at the same time providing space for vibrant artistic events.” On 12th September 2014, the new seat of Criocoteka in 2–4 Nadwiślańska Street in Krakow was opened. In visual terms, the building unites two qualities: the old revitalized postindustrial building of the former Elektrownia Podgórska in Krakow and a novel structure superimposed over the power plant. The structure strikes with its bold and courageous combination of the old with the modern. The design was directly inspired by Tadeusz Kantor’s work, and chiefly by his painting entitled “Man with a Table”, thus constituting a continuation and transformation of the artist’s idea by referring to his concept of emballage. In the revitalized section of the building – the electric plant – there is a theatrical room dedicated to all kinds of stage events, an archive with a reading room and offices. The modern structure suspended above the plant houses exhibition and educational space.

The new building of Cricoteka in Krakow, photo by Maciej Jeżyk

Photos are the part of Tadeusz Kantor's exhibition in Cricoteka in Krakow.

Credits: Story

Exhibition's script — Natalia Zarzecka, Małgorzata Paluch-Cybulska, Justyna Michalik, Jan Raczkowski; Cricoteka
Editor — Paulina Kaucz, Cricoteka
Photos and coordination — Miron Kokosiński, Cricoteka
Cooperation — Klaudyna Desperat, Instytut Teatralny im. Zbigniewa Raszewskiego
Cooperation — Jakub Drzewiecki

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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