It’s really hard to know what to make of an artist like Zdzislaw Beksiński, who claimed – throughout his career – that there was no symbolism to anything he painted. Where viewers saw darkness, foreboding and outright apocalyptic horror, he claimed to be only striving to bring his imaginings to life. "I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams" he is most famously quoted as saying, but if that were the case, would those not be nightmares?
Born in Sanok, southern Poland February 24, 1929, Beksiński studied architecture at Kraków Polytechnic and after completing his studies in 1955 returned home to work as a construction site engineer and supervisor – which he hated. He had no formal training as an artist, but soon discovered he had an interest in montage photography, sculpting and painting, and he used construction site materials for his medium: plaster, metal and wire.
His early photography anticipated later paintings, which often depicted emotionally charged images, deformity, desolate landscapes and bodies/faces erased or obscured by bandages. At times there were sadomasochistic themes.
As an artist, according to internet sources, Beksiński was fascinated with death, decay and darkness, and was also known for his interest in eroticism, abstractionism and Eastern mysticism (see: culture.pl – the best in Polish culture) At the same time, and despite the repetition of certain visual themes, he was adamantly opposed to discussing or explaining the subject matter, and in keeping with that he refused to provide titles for any of his drawings or paintings, and many now carry no dates of creation (I added them when I could find them).
Disappointed with the limitations of photography and sculpture, each of which he gave up by the early 1960s, Beksiński turned to painting – and his first major success came in 1964, with an exhibit of his works in Warsaw which sold out; he soon became the leading figure in contemporary Polish art (and was fired from his job at the bus factory in 1967).
He painted with a passion, mainly working in oil paint on hardboard/fiberboard panels that he personally prepared, although he also experimented with acrylic paints. He is said to have abhorred silence, and always listened to classical music while painting, and although he loved classical music, he also is said to have been a fan of rock music. He paid little attention to trends in art. His imagery was dreamlike, jarring and startlingly original.
In the late 1960s, Beksiński entered what he himself called his "fantastic period", which lasted up to the mid-1980s. This is his best-known period, during which he created very disturbing images, showing gloomy, surrealistic environments with very detailed scenes of death and decay. Nightmarish but detailed landscapes filled with precisely painted skeletons and deformed figures became his trademark.
Scenes of death and destruction were the only subjects of interest; unsettling, dire, grim, apocalyptic, dystopian. Viewers ran out of adjectives.
The adjectives all pointed in one hellish direction, although by all accounts Beksiński was a pleasant person who took enjoyment from conversation and had a keen sense of humor. In almost every biography he is described as modest, shy, a music lover who “shunned any activity that might interrupt his routine, including exhibitions of his artworks" (which he never attended). Here’s a photo of him from 1991.
And here’s another
Does he look like the kind of fellow who could paint images like these?
Detailed scenes of death and decay became Beksiński’s hallmark, along with landscapes filled with skeletons, skulls and graveyards. These paintings were almost indescribable, though painted with grim precision. Some observers credit Beksiński’s early childhood for the source of his obsessions; he grew up shortly after WW2, and war time images would have been a strong influence in his youth.
Yet so many of his works seem so clearly personal, so obviously inspired by the artist’s subconscious, that viewers can’t help but ask “what terrible thoughts motivated you to paint THAT?”
In interview after interview, critics asked, “Are you tormented? Are you depressed?” And Beksiński consistently said “no.”. He claimed his works were misunderstood; in his opinion, they were rather optimistic or even humorous. For the most part Beksiński claimed that even he did not know the meaning of his artworks and was uninterested in possible interpretations.
As determined as he was to keep secret his motives for painting such imagery, he was open about his desire to paint “in such a manner and style that his work would be instantly recognizable as being a “Beksinski” – and he was not shy about sharing his working methods and techniques. He gave interviews and showed off his studio. But he did not like to talk publically about the paintings themselves. He wanted them to be seen, not interpreted.
Time after time, when interviewers asked him to explain the meaning behind his images, Beksinski would grow silent and defensive, then suggest that his viewers simply appreciate the aesthetics of what he had given them, rather than try to interpret their emotional significance. In an online interview on Symbolism, 1997, captioned in English, Beksinski said, “When I create, simple associations appear. Associations of several objects collide with each other, creating an apparent context..."
"...All opinions that I allegedly paint dreams come from journalists. In my life, maybe I’ve tried to paint one dream – a fragment from a dream in my early youth. But I never use dreams, I never wonder why I am painting a bird sitting on someone’s shoulder. It can happen spontaneously, just like in a dream, I just create totally easy-going. If it fits, just leave it there..."
"...I never wonder why I calligraphed number 28 or 2 on a painting. I did lots of them. It doesn’t mean anything."
But then (as the interviewer points out) there are specific words on your paintings, like “nevermore” on that balloon.
And Beksinski replies, “Yes, that is my old painting, Indeed had some content associations…. but it has nothing to do with “the Raven” a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It was just a combination of a couple of wolves, a balloon and a dying out bonfire. An interaction of elements that would never happen in reality. Something the wolves have seen once and will never see again. Now it seems silly, like explaining jokes. You have to feel it, if you don’t it makes no sense." (my highlighting)
Beksiński: "but that was then, today I can’t get easily in this mood. The image lives its own life. Those were the paintings from the mid – late 1970s. I was a different person then."
It’s frustrating when an artist refuses to share their rationale, or puts the onus on the viewer to do the work, thereby distancing himself from his own creations in ways that excuse his lack of involvement. On the other hand, perhaps he was just paying homage to the inadequacy of words to describe art. As the artist Edward Hopper succinctly put it, “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.”
Where the artist’s first period was marked by “expressionistic” color and gothic realism to create doomsday scenarios, Beksiński’s later works – beginning c.1990 showed a more abstract style, and a more monochromatic color palette. The 1980s served as a transitory period for Beksiński. During this decade, his works became more popular in France due to the endeavors of Piotr Dmochowski, a film producer and art dealer (Hommage à Beksinski Video 1985) who championed his work. At that time, Beksinski also achieved significant popularity in Western Europe, the United States and Japan. Observers have remarked on the similarities between his work and that of the late Swiss artist, H.R. Giger. They were, in fact, contemporaries in the art world (SN: the only piece of original Beksinski art I have seen in person was part of a display of art owned by Giger, in the Giger Museum in Gruyeres)
From the late 1980s into the early 1990s Beksinski focused on monumental or sculpture-like images, including a series of crosses. They were less complex and “colorful” than those from his "fantastic period", but critics agreed: just as powerful.
In the later part of the 1990s, Beksinski discovered computers, the Internet, digital photography and photo manipulation (photomontage), a medium that he focused on until his death.
However, along with artistic experimentation, the 1990s also brought great tragedy; his wife Zofia passed away in 1998, and a year later, on Christmas Eve, his son Tomasz committed suicide and Beksiński was the one who found the body. Heartbroken, he is said to never have been able to come to terms with these events. Then, on February 21, 2005, Beksiński was found dead with 17 stab wounds in his Warsaw apartment. It later came to light that he was killed by 19-year old Robert Kupiec, the teenage son of his longtime caretaker, and one of his son's friends. And the reason for the murder, it was later determined, was that Beksiński had refused to loan Kupiec the equivalent of approximately $100.
Located in the royal castle in Sanok, the Historical Museum is now the repository for several thousand of Beksiński’s works, including photographs, drawings, graphics and paintings. Exhibitions of his work began there as early as 1964, and through the years the artist continued to supplement their collection, culminating in the artist’s bequeathing all his works to the city of Sanok. In 2012 a new Gallery of Zdzislaw Beksiński was opened in the southern wing of the castle, along with a reconstruction of his Warsaw workshop and today, The Historical Museum in Sanok is the exclusive owner of copyrights of Zdzisław Beksiński's works.