The eastern European nation of Poland has given the world a slew of renowned artists, from symbolist Jacek Malczewski (1854 – 1929) and historical realist Jan Matejko (1838 – 1893) to abstract artist Caziel (1906 – 1988) and landscape painter Eugene Zak (1884 – 1926.) It’s also given us Zdzisław Beksiński (1929 – 2005), a surrealist who had a knack for the uniquely dark and otherworldly; a visionary renowned for producing disturbing works of a phantasmagorical nature.
While Beksiński was also a sculptor and a photographer, he is best known for his expressionistic paintings and drawings, eerie and often apocalyptic in style as they are. Almost all his works are untitled, though some have unofficial names. They frequently reveal malformed and seemingly tortured entities against infernal backdrops that gush alienation, melancholy, and death.
Indeed, his 1984 oil painting depicting two embracing figures shows that Beksiński was particularly adept at creating what can probably best be referred to as hellscapes. His haunting settings explode with images and beings so terrifying, they rarely fail to capture and command the attention of the viewer, morbidly fascinated or not.
Beksiński worked decay into the minute features of many of his artworks, his eye for immense levels of detail unwavering. Take his 1993 King and Queen (Król i królowa). At a distance some may think they’re merely viewing two slender, somber figures. But, upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that these creatures are made of weathered stone or torn fabric – a strange fusion of presumably animate things and inanimate objects.
His 2004 S4 achieves a similar effect, depicting a rocklike foreground transformed partway into a group of naked, faceless beings, knit together as if hewn from the substrate of their environment. True to form, Beksiński’s work is in some liminal state between life and death.
It’s this type of objectification that, perhaps, helps make many of Beksiński’s subjects so pitiable. Their existence, their forms, and whatever we might figure their functions, appear bound to or dictated by the oppressive constraints of nightmarish environments. One can’t help but wonder about the lives of the contorted, emaciated beings that populate Beksiński’s worlds.
Beksiński’s painting from the 1970s, unofficially titled Crawling Death (Pełzająca Śmierć), serves as a notable example; a dark creature with a bloody, bandaged head crawls on all fours among a ruined cityscape, dotted with flaming structures. The scene invites both revulsion and interest, fear and curiosity. As does a 1968 drawing of a misshapen, veiny body whose skin is grafted to a wall.
Beyond sheer decay, however, there is another visual element that defines and attracts to Beksiński’s work. Many of his best-known pieces have, on at least several occasions, been associated with the genre of fantastic realism; a category of art typified by the realistic portrayal of unrealistic phenomena. Some sources claim that it best fits Beksiński’s earlier work, the distinctly nightmarish paintings and drawings from the late 60s to the mid-80s, suggesting that a more abstract approach emerged later on.
“I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams,” he once said. And, there is certainly reason to think that many of his drawings and paintings are snapshots of reverie. What’s more dreamlike, for instance, than a powder blue severed head crying tangled, blood-colored roots that sprawl out over a white plain? Or a gargantuan yellowish face, mouth agape, receiving (or regurgitating) into its orifice an army of dark, spider-like humanoids against the backdrop of a desolate city?
Some of Beksiński’s most stark works feature swathes of architecture, often depicted by improbable shapes or made from impossible materials. It’s conceivable that the artist’s penchant for portraying surreal and fantastic structures comes from the fact that, during his time at college, he studied architecture. His preferred canvas was oa tile of beaverboard, a kind of fiberboard utilized in construction. He knew it well, since for several years he worked on a construction site, a job he purportedly hated. And, though he mostly relied on oil paints, Beksiński also used acrylics.
What lead the artist, known to be quiet and unassertive, to draw and paint such terrifically apocalyptic and fantastic things? It's possible that his works could reflect the stress of having lived under Soviet-backed communist rule. One of his paintings, depicting piles of garbage bunched up at the foot of a cross, bears an uncanny resemblance to occupied Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, where the Soviets bulldozed religious paraphernalia. He was also personally mired in tragedy later in his life; within a two-year span during the 1990s, Beksiński’s wife died and his son committed suicide.
Nevertheless, he reportedly had a pleasant and inviting personality, though the claim contrasts with the sheer horror of much of his art. Of course, it's useless to speculate exactly what, aside from dreams, first inspired Beksiński’s dystopian and morbid style, one he called “Baroque” and “Gothic.” But, he was certainly not alone in his macabre predilections.
Agnieszka Warnke, identifies a number of contemporary Polish artists renowned for their preferences for the grim and ghoulish. Among these are artist, photographer, and set designer Magda Hueckel (b. 1978) as well as designer and photographer Zbigniew Libera (b. 1959). Hueckel’s repertoire includes a photo series titled Anima, which features black-and-white images of dying plants and closeups of rotting animal bodies — subjects that compare favorably to some of Beksiński’s photos and other work.
Libera’s creations are also macabre and shocking, albeit more humorous and ironic. He is probably best known for his controversial LEGO Concentration Camp (1996), which he modeled on a World War II-era Nazi internment facility. He also restaged photographer Nick Ut’s infamous The Terror of War (1972) photo. The original showes a naked girl running down a road fleeing violence during the Vietnam War, whereas Libera’s recasts the image with a similarly nude, albeit elated, woman
There’s little comparison that can be made between Beksiński and Libera, aside from the fact that both produced art that glorifies and makes use of the concept of death. And that, perhaps, is comparison enough. Death is a universal experience, but Zdzisław Beksiński certainly had a unique way of depicting it in his art.
Note* Images curtesy of the Piotr Dmochowski's collection (1,2,3,4,6); Image curtesy of Wiki Art (7,8), Image curtesy of the Muzeum Historyczne w Sanoku (9)