Discover the Dystopian Surrealist Art of Polish Painter & Photographer Zdzisław Beksiński

“In the medieval tra­di­tion, Beksin­s­ki seems to believe art to be a fore­warn­ing about the fragili­ty of the flesh — what­ev­er plea­sures we know are doomed to per­ish — thus, his paint­ings man­age to evoke at once the process of decay and the ongo­ing strug­gle for life. They hold with­in them a secret poet­ry, stained with blood and rust.” — Guiller­mo del Toro

The life and death of Pol­ish painter, pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and sculp­tor Zdzisław Bek­sińs­ki has been sen­sa­tion­al­ized, made into a cursed tragedy in the telling of events late in his life that, tak­en togeth­er, all seem hor­ri­fy­ing enough: the death of the artist’s wife from can­cer in 1998, the sui­cide of his son, Tomasz, one year lat­er, and, final­ly, his own stab­bing death in 2005 at the hands of his care­tak­er’s teenage son. If we add to this account Bek­siński’s child­hood in Nazi-occu­pied, then Sovi­et-occu­pied Poland, we have ample rea­son to spec­u­late about the mean­ing of his night­mar­ish visions.

But the “Night­mare Artist,” as he’s called in the video above, wants us to stay away from mak­ing mean­ing of any kind. Unlike artists whose work can seem insep­a­ra­ble from their state­ments of pur­pose (or per­son­al or his­tor­i­cal tragedies), Bek­sińs­ki had noth­ing to say about his art or his life.

He pre­ferred that oth­ers keep silent as well, though he him­self hat­ed silence, work­ing to loud clas­si­cal music and rock. Music, he said — not lit­er­a­ture, film, his­to­ry, or even oth­er artists — was his only inspi­ra­tion. The impres­sion we get from these scant details and Bek­siński’s dis­turb­ing work, is of an indi­vid­ual prob­a­bly best left alone.

Judg­ing an artist’s body of work by the worst things that have hap­pened to them, how­ev­er, is man­i­fest­ly unfair. For the major­i­ty of his life, Bek­sińs­ki embod­ied the famous Flaubert quote about a reg­u­lar, order­ly cre­ative life. He stud­ied archi­tec­ture, went on to super­vise con­struc­tion projects and then design bus­es. Like many peo­ple, he hat­ed his job (he left the bus com­pa­ny in 1967). He devel­oped a pas­sion for pho­tog­ra­phy, sculp­ture, and paint­ing. With no for­mal art train­ing, he struck out on a suc­cess­ful fifty-year career as a pro­lif­ic Sur­re­al­ist, becom­ing a mas­ter of oil paint­ing. Was he tor­ment­ed? Those who knew him describe him as mild-man­nered, pleas­ant, even fun­ny. He seems to have been quite con­tent.

Do we resist inter­pre­ta­tion as Bek­sińs­ki want­ed? How can we, when the imagery of death in his work seems itself to inter­pret events that inevitably shaped his world? Bek­sińs­ki was born in Sanok, in south­ern Poland, in 1929. When the Nazis came to Poland a decade lat­er, Sanok’s pop­u­la­tion was “about 30% Jew­ish,” notes the Col­lec­tor, “near­ly all of which was elim­i­nat­ed by the war’s end.” Decades lat­er, Nazi iconog­ra­phy and crowds of gaunt, corpse-like fig­ures began to recur in Bek­siński’s paint­ings, which he described as “pho­tograph­ing dreams.” These hor­rors pre­dom­i­nate in his most pop­u­lar work, even though Bek­siński’s vision had more breadth than casu­al fans might know.

His sense of humor is evi­dent in his pho­tog­ra­phy, and in ear­ly, more abstract, paint­ings, he dis­plays a much lighter touch. (See a broad sam­pling of Bek­siński’s work at Art­net.) In the 90s, he began exper­i­ment­ing with com­put­er graph­ics and “was grant­ed his wish of being able to add sur­re­al­is­tic alter­ations to pho­tographs,” bring­ing his career “full cir­cle as he returned to his first medi­um,” notes Yet, like his con­tem­po­rary H.R. Giger, where Bek­siński’s name is known, he’s usu­al­ly known as a painter of night­mares and heavy met­al album cov­ers — and for good rea­son.

The Sev­er­al Cir­cles video on Bek­sińs­ki above (which opens with a con­tent warn­ing) shows why his “epic uni­verse of hellscapes” has proven so inescapable to the crit­ics who embraced his work, the gal­lerists who sold it, and those who have dis­cov­ered it since the artist’s trag­ic death.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Sur­re­al­ism: The Big Aes­thet­ic Ideas Pre­sent­ed in Three Videos

The For­got­ten Women of Sur­re­al­ism: A Mag­i­cal, Short Ani­mat­ed Film

The Pol­ish Artist Stanisław Witkiewicz Made Por­traits While On Dif­fer­ent Psy­choac­tive Drugs, and Not­ed the Drugs on Each Paint­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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