Written By: Naomi
Trigger Warning: Nazis, concentration camps, unsettling imagery.
Zdzisław Beksiński was born in the small town of Sanok, Poland on February 24th, 1929. To understand not only the childhood of Beksiński but his life and art, one must first understand his town and the wars that ravished it.
Sanok has historically been made up of German farmers and served as the eastern front during the 1914 and 1915 winters of WWI. During the war the town was occupied by the Russian army in 1915 and it greatly damaged the town. The town was then taken over by troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sanok had a population that was 30% Jewish, one of the largest in all of Poland, but during WWII this population was almost entirely eliminated. To this day, in the center of town where the Jewish ghetto was once located and many were murdered in mass by Nazis there is now an open valley. The largest and most notorious concentration camps were all located in German-occupied Poland, six of them serving as extermination camps including Auschwitz. In 1939 5,400 Jews lived in Sanok, the Zaslaw concentration camp was a forced labor camp that these individuals were deported to, and during the war this camp would see about 15,000 prisoners pass through it. Jews from Sanok were murdered in a cemetery in town, the forests, or just on the outskirts of town so they could be immediately buried. Those that did not die in Zaslaw were transferred to the Belzec extermination camp when Zaslaw was being liquidated in January of 1943 and killed in the gas chambers. Zaslaw was about 8 km away from Sanok or about a 9 minute drive.
Beksiński was born in a time where Poland was still recovering from WWI which had ended in 1918 and had been at war with Soviet Russia until 1921. This picture is of 12 year old Beksiński playing with his friend in front of an abandoned Soviet base in 1941 where they are handling old soviet artillery shells. WWII had started in 1939 when Beksiński was 10 and he grew up during the terrifying and traumatic occupation of Nazis in Poland and the various blood soaked stains they would leave on the land. During this time, 100,000 polish families were forcibly removed from their homes including 30,000 children and forced into labor from the age of 12. Over 4,000 of these children were seen as acceptable candidates for “germanization” and were taken from their families and sent away.
Beksiński was 16 when WWII ended and the country was once again under Soviet occupation when he was able to go to university, he applied for both the fine arts and architecture but settled for studying architecture and graduating in 1952. He worked for several years as a supervisor for a construction site and realized he hated the job, it was too full of boring mindless tasks and pressures so he took a job designing buses and began to experiment with photography and did so in a manner that shook the photography community. His photographs were a drastic contrast to the photography of the time that focused on catching people and places as they were, being clear about their subject matter and purpose.
Beksiński’s interest in unsettling, dark, fantasy, sadomasochistic, and erotic imagery was obvious in his works and shocked viewers. Beksiński seemed to try and catch the essence of things without directly showing it and his photography was classified as surrealist and expressionistic. He at no point cared about the trends and what caught the attention of critics, he just wanted to focus on what would appear in his dreams or things he would obsess over. His photography did show a funny and artistic side to Beksiński
but the photo he would most known for was called the Sadist’s Corset which was revealed in 1957. In it you can clearly see the sadomasochistic theme as a nude woman is viewed from the back, a photograph that might normally be considered erotic is disrupted by the blunt cropping of the photo so the woman’s head is not visible and an out of focus piece of furniture is blocking the line of her back and her bottom so that nothing sexual is visible. Her ridged stance is not sexual and the sides and hips of the woman that remain visible are aggressively being pulled at by black strings that dig into her flesh. This photo caused an outcry and backlash by the public and a critic went as far as to call Beksiński’s work “Anti-photography” and that surrealist photography like this should not be acknowledged.
Beksiński’s photography ended in the early 1960’s however, he felt that it was too restrictive and that the altering of photos at this time was too limited for his creative vision and imagination, he experimented with sculpture for a short period of time, creating some abstract relief pieces before he turned to the art form that would not limit him, painting.
Beksiński never visited museums or studied fine art, his inspiration came from music and would listen to classical and rock music. He experimented with oil and acrylic paint, taking some of his original photographs and editing them how he pleased by layering paint over them then painting on hard board canvases he created himself.
Staying true to form he began with sadomasochistic drawings before he moved on to paintings fully, this being a time that is known as his “fantastic series”. Using the drafting skills he learned in school for architecture he created these depicted hellish landscapes, horrible creatures, emaciated bodies and familiar architecture with nightmarish twists. The images of anxiety, depression, decay and a dystopian world brought him fame, making him a common name in Poland and gaining recognition in other countries, when one of his paintings in 1975 gained him a particular amount of fame he was fired from his job at the bus factory and he decided to do art full time. His art style is even credited to have inspired various metal band covers over the years and was even directly used for others.
Beksiński used his art to examine mysticism, the psyche, and unconscious thoughts but claimed his art had no meanings, that as he painted be did not intend the pieces to have a statement, story, and he even did not give most of his paintings names. Beksiński is quoted as saying, “Meaning is meaningless to me. I do not care for symbolism and i paint what I paint without meditating on a story.” He wanted to leave the meanings of his art to be up to the viewers and for them to comprehend as they pleased. However he felt that his art was being misunderstood when described as only grim or dark, he felt that they were optimistic and even comedic.He mainly wanted the paintings to stand individually as paintings and shamed when critics would attempt to make narratives out of his work.
A/N: Personally as I look at his art it is hard for me to believe that he is not making narratives and that his art has no meaning. And if he were painting from the empty space of his mind, I am concerned by the imagery that comes from his subconscious with the history of his childhood in WWII. I agree with In Praise of Shadows (Link in sources below) in his video that there are elements of war in each painting,the reference to religion is not hidden and the use of space, color, and technique tell stories clearly.
He does not hide the fact that he despised mob mentality The theory In Praise of Shadows provides in his video inspired the title of today’s episode and I will be quoting him almost directly here. In some of Beksiński art there is the prominant use of a brilliant blue that robes a character we would identify as death.
This blue is seen again in a photo that does not try to hide that it is the head of a soldier wearing a helmet similar to those of Nazi soldiers. In this instance, the coincidence of this color and it’s history, is too dark for me to ignore and I would be amazed if this was a choice made by Beksiński intentionally in his art. The blue we see in these images is known as Prussian Blue.This color got its name from the chemical that is used to create it known as Prussic Acid AKA Hydrogen Cyanide. There is a pesticide made from this acid called Zyclon B which was used by Nazis in gas chambers during WWII. It has been known in some circumstances to stain any surfaces it comes in contact with this signature blue and have the same chemical composition as the paint.
And if the color is too far of a reach, in one of these painting of death there is a Latin phrase on the wall that was used by the American Nazi party, "In hoc signo vinces" which translates to, "In this sign thou shalt conquer". His works also show numbers tattooed or carved into people. Please watch In Praise of Shadows' video on this topic for more information and examples of this theory!
When his fantastic period came to an end in the 1980’s, Beksiński moved into what he called his “gothic” period. The subject matter in these arts shifted to more focus on deformed heads, more muted color palette and a series of T shaped crosses. At one point he burned a selection of his paintings in his backyard, he did not leave any documentation of what these paintings contained but he said they were too deeply personal for him or unsatisfactory. For a while he returned back to photography when digital editing and art was in its infancy in the 1990’s but gave up on it since they had not been refined enough for his taste and returned to painting.
Beksiński’s already horror filled life did not end in his adolescence and that can be seen in his art that it haunted his unconscious mind, but in 1998 another series of hardships would begin. Beksiński had married a woman named Zofia Helena Stankiewicz in 1951 when he was 22 and together they had a son 7 years later named Tomasz. Tomasz had an interest in rock music like his father, in fact Beksiński had loved the music so much that he was known for blasting it loudly and event made attempts to make his own music but as he got older he had lost some of his hearing from these practices. Tomasz had an interest in horror films and became a music journalist and a popular charismatic Polish radio host. The family’s life was uneventful and even calm, they had moved to Warsaw in 1977 and Beksiński was not a socialite, he preferred to stay at home with his family, paint, and listen to music. Interestingly enough it is said that he may of had obsessive-compulsive disorder since he was a child and any type of traveling would cause, in the artist’s own words,”neurotic diarrhea” that came with the anxiety of travel and being away from his home, his anxiety would interfere and keep him from attending the opening of his own exhibits.
Unfortunately Beksiński’s wife Zofia succumbed to cancer in 1998 at the age of 70, and a year later, his son Tomasz commit suicide at the age of 41 on Christmas eve, Beksiński was the one to discover his son’s body and he was never able to come to terms with it.
Beksiński had always been known as a very pleasant person and very humorous despite his unsettling paintings, but on February 21st, 2005, 75 year old Beksiński was found dead in his home with 17 stab wounds to his body. Upon investigation it turned out that Beksiński had gotten into an argument with 19 year old Robert Kupiec who was the son of Beksiński’s caretaker, he had refused to loan Robert money which was just about $100. Rovert was sentenced to 25 years in prison on November 9th, 2006 and Burning Man put up one of Beksiński’s crosses in his memory; in 2006 Beksiński’s homeland in Poland opened a museum for his art. Beksiński’s imagery inspired music and a point-and-click game in 2015 called Tormentum as well as inspired famous filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro.
Sources: The Holocaust Encyclopedia, Morpheus Gallery, Artophilia, WikiArt, Culture.PL, deMilked, Daily Art Magazine, WideWalls, YouTuber: In Praise of Shadows