A Review of His Art
“Art is one of the beautiful lies and I guess it is nothing more.” Zdzisław Beksiński (1983)
Here I will provide you with a review of Beksiński’s work, focusing on some of my favorite paintings by him and keeping in line with the spirit of his creation: “Meaning is meaningless to me. I do not care for symbolism and I paint what I paint without meditating on a story.” Zdzisław Beksiński (1981). As such, I will not attempt to find a [hidden or “real”] meaning behind these paintings or worse to try to convey what the artist “might have meant”.
A succinct account of his life and work
Born on 24th February 1929 in the Polish town of Sanok, Zdzisław Beksiński was the only son of Stanisława Dworska and Stanisław Mateusz Beksiński. However, his year of birth is, in reality, unknown as during the German occupation of Poland he was given a false year of birth to be saved from deportation and slave labour.
Beksiński finished school during the World War and it is during this turbulent and traumatic period that his drawings started to reveal Beksiński’s raw talent. He wanted to pursue film, but his father objected and made him apply to the Faculty of Architecture, Engineering and Communications in Krakow. While a student, he met and married his wife, Zofia Helena Stankiewic of Dynow in 1951 and, a year later, he graduated. Following his university years, the first few jobs included working in construction sites; then he was employed by a bus factory (Autosan) where he designed buses and minibuses.
Beksiński took up photography during his time at the Faculty of Architecture, Engineering and Communications. While at Autosan, he continued to draw and also started taking painting more seriously: Beksiński set up a studio at home with brushes and paints from the bus factory. In addition to drawings, paintings and photography Beksiński did full sculptures. Slowly, his drawings started attracted attention and in 1958 (the year his only child, Tomasz, was also born) he became a member of the ZPAF, the Association of Polish Art Photographers and had a [joined] exhibition in Warsaw. However, in 1959 he stopped working as an art photographer.
Five years later, in an exhibition organised in Warsaw he sold all his exhibits and experienced his first financial success. As a result, Beksiński quit working at Autosan and devoted all his time to creating art. In 1984 he signed a contract with an art dealer in Paris – Piotr Dmochowski – who tried to promote Beksiński’s creations in France and Germany. However, Beksiński had no interest in marketing his work and in Poland he was already loved and well-known. The contract with the Paris art dealer lasted for ten years but the hassle of advertising his creations became too much for Beksiński and in 1994 he ended the agreement with Piotr Dmochowski and delegated all the promotion of his work to the director of the Sanok Historical Museum.
In 1995, Zofia was diagnosed with aortic aneurysm (a bulge or swelling in the aorta). Three years later she died. Beksiński loved his wife very much and losing her was devastating for him. In 1999 however, his son committed suicide, leaving the artist alone. In his will, drafted in 2001, Beksiński left everything to the Sanok Historical Museum. Not long after that, in 2005, the artist was murdered, and all his work and materials passed to the museum1.
All the art work used in this article, with exception of the cover painting that belongs to my mother, belongs to Zdzisław Beksiński. All images of Beksiński’s work come from here.
The world is beautiful, but ours is not
Rejecting immortality means to be immortalised in the moment. The idea of continuing after death imbalances life by burdening the individual with rules and duties that often narrow one’s imagination, reason and emotional development. There is a strange comfort in not knowing where one goes after death – it is this unknown which, in general, confers choice or, at least, the appearance of choice. There is also a certain melodicity to this comfort, one that is harmonious and, strangely, common to all people as it reveals that our deepest desires are usually too similar.
Perhaps this idea of continuation stems, to some extent, from our [superficial] pursuit of happiness. We seem addicted to this pursuit. Too many of us chase happiness like junkies or zombies, looking for it everywhere: in needles, bottles, tourniquets, bullets, sugar, sex, pills, careers and sometimes marriages, but only to be disappointed in the end. As soon as we taste its ecstasy it dissolves away, leaving us looking for the next kick of happiness. If we could leave behind this idea of eternal continuation, eternal existence and accept the end for what it is – the end – then, maybe, just maybe, we could be truly happy.
The mystery of the unknown is perhaps what terrifies us more than anything else, even more than the actual act of dying, assuming that one dies pleasantly and not at the hands of a drug cartel – dismembered and thrown over an overpass. Yes, to be drowned in the unknown is akin to feelings of anxiety, paralysing fear, the eradication of reason and visions of a distorted realm we once called “the future”. This however need not be so tensed for us: we can engage with the unknown and surrender to it.
However, the depth and length of this mystery is not the only horror that haunts us: closely related to our tendency to attach meaning to things, processes and, by implication, to existence itself is our relationship with places – to feel like you belong somewhere, sometime where you can just be you, whoever you are and choose to become still. This combination of a desire to belong (which implies some sort of need for concreteness in our existence) and the overpowering unknown of life itself, although toxic for us, is irresistible – like the Prussian blue.
I do think that, from this desperation to not face the unknown (an inevitable fate for all of us), our fantasies come to life – isn’t it strange that something which can be so personal and comforting like our own imaginations may come from a place of (irrational) dread?
Hope, just like happiness, is overrated and unnecessary. Both meet their end in the same place, the same way, always and everywhere – at the hand of death. We tend to fear (or even hate) death for this. But why don’t we feel the same way about hope and happiness? Afterall, they continue to mislead us, and we keep coming back for more: every generation is born blind, grows up with lies and dies in regret; a regret fuelled by hope and too much happiness.
Why are we glad to see the rays of sunlight when we are too aware that a cold and vast darkness dwells beyond the blue sky? In the end, we are told, our entire known existence will be shrouded in an eternal night. Nyx and Erebus, you were the first, but will you be the last?
Maybe a word on imagination is appropriate. To me, it is rather peculiar how our world, in a not so docile and subtle fashion, curbs one’s development as an individual – rules, systems, codes, guidelines, norms, values, equations, ways of thinking and doing, textbooks and tomes, dogmatic views – all suffocate the only essential element for imagination and consequently, innovation to happen: chaos.
Order oppresses. Chaos liberates. Order demands obedience. Chaos demands nothing. Order provides structures and systems. Chaos lets you build whatever you want. Order is rigidity. Chaos is eternal change. Order is limitation. Chaos is freedom.
But we cannot handle chaos – no, we cannot. To imagine is to venture in the realm of no rules, in the lawless lands of your mind and soul. However, to create (that is to focus that what you imagine and express it through actions) requires in the first instance an acceptance of order. More, once accepted, elements of order (discipline and consistency) ought to be used to engage with elements of chaos (passion and vision) to bring about one’s creation.
This however should be a sacred and privatae process that each individual engages in and learns from and should not be tempered with: none of the above enumerated “things” should interact with this process of “self-regulation” (if you want to use a term that is more familiar, for I sense the panic settling in). The question now is: will this creation be a destroyer of worlds or the rock upon which the future will be built?
Nature is undoubtedly beautiful. It is so in an objective manner, i.e. undeniable by us humans. I believe that the reason for this mesmerising beauty is the harmony of nature: everything just fits – colours and shapes melt into one Whole. This list of “everything” also includes violence, but of a special kind. Nature’s violence is brutal, but it is not cruel; it is savage, but it is not unfair; it is mindless and therefore without direction.
What terrifies us is not as much the sight of blood, guts and cracked bones that expose the marrow. It is something far more sinister: the realisation that in each one of us lies the seed of violence and of the type which is not just brutal and savage but also cruel, unfair and carefully planned. We are not good, and we’ve never been. But we are not evil either and we’ve never been so. We are both. Someone who melts over 300 people in acid and someone who stands in front of tanks to protect others have one thing in common then – they are human.
What tips the balance in one part or the other are not just circumstances – for if we have a gun behind our ear, we may butcher someone to escape or we might not. This is what makes us different (not superior or inferior) to other creatures: choice. We can choose, always.
In our ephemeral world, nothing is stronger than death – not even love, which is arguably the only emotion which makes us more than human: it makes us humane.
But love need not be as strong as death to have a significant impact (sometimes even a greater one than death) on our world. Indeed, love is what lasts through time, passed down from generation to generation like a bit of DNA – sure, we can be scientific about it and risk vandalising something which cannot be entirely elucidated with concrete (and thus limited) explanations. Or we can accept to be blind, knowing that in darkness we are free.
We are all ashamed of this truth. We hide from it and we hide it from others. We lie to ourselves, trying to deny its existence like blasphemous heretics. And yet, it is there – this THING is always there. We can see it pretty much everywhere we look but nowhere else it appears as clear as in someone’s eyes. Our eyes cannot lie and so, they betray this thin coverage, rendering our souls naked for everyone else to laugh at. This laughter however is just sorrow which is ashamed to be seen for what it is.
The more we deny this, the (en)stranger we feel. At some point, we no longer feel right in our bodies and want to escape – so suicide becomes the light at the end of the tunnel. Only if we could embrace this truth…would it crucify itself for us? Will it save us from ourselves?
You know as I know that in this world, we are all alone. The Universe does not want us, the lions don’t want us, the whales don’t want us, the oranges don’t want us. No societal structure, no set of cultural values and no mythical stories can absolve us from this condition. We are all alone together.
More than anything, I need colour. As I don’t usually paint, music provides most of the colour for now. Music is one of the most potent drugs which governments and corporations don’t know of its magic yet. Once they will understand this, they will attempt to control it in one shape or another. Then we will be left with words to provide this colour.
However, words can be too dry – indeed, if what one writes is not in the right language, its essence is lost. Language is the portal to understand the soul of a people. French literature can only provide colour if read in French and the same goes for any creation that is primarily concerned with words. Translations in other languages cannot replicate entirely the essence of the original – this is why we can never be as perfect as the god that made us. But we must try damn it, we must try!
Hate primarily comes from suffering. More specifically, it comes from unheard, dismissed and mocked suffering. Hate is the voice of that which is oppressed and can no longer forgive. Through hate, victims are reborn into conquerors. Those who think they will rule forever have yet to taste the hate of those that have been ruled, and it will taste as sweet as ashes.
Religion is not useless. Quite the contrary, it is as important as science, but it serves a totally different role in helping us explore our existence. Religion operates in the world of metaphysics and, crucially, it sheds light on that which science can never hope to reveal: all the unexplained parts of the answers to fundamental questions about ourselves and about our existence; in other words, it keeps the mystery alive just enough for us to be curious about it.
The mistake that too many make is to use religion to explain that which belongs to reason (and thus, to science) and to use reason to reveal that which belongs to metaphysics. This is a spiritual and mental disease that comes from our “need” for certainty. How can we choose when to apply reason and when to appeal to mystery? The boundaries are not clear (and why should they be?) but they can always be found: they appear when the questions get too big to fit the method model.
Confusing these two approaches towards exploring our existence results in cognitive dissonance.
We often claim that we value [human] life above all, but I don’t think we really do. At least not until something affects us and then we remember; even then, it is too vague.
What “we” means here is us all as a society, not just in the West, but as a human global society (civilisation) – individually, each one of us has their own values but collectively, when aggregated like apples with pears with oranges and melons, the societal values do not reflect our own. There is a weighted average, it seems, of what values win at this aggregated, bigger picture level. For how can we claim to value [human] life with so many orphans, so many devasted by wars, so many manipulated by marketing propaganda, so many tied to their factory chairs to produce cheap frying pens, so many without education, so many that are simply nameless numbers.
The future is only bright in space. We will eventually turn Earth into the hell we run from. It is unfortunate that we cannot help ourselves from setting our flesh on fire. Control (power), power (control) and more control (power) – and all for nothing.
We fail to see that true power is obtaining dominion over oneself and not over others. As soon as one tries to control themselves, one eventually observes the difficulty of this life-long task. More so, as one progresses in building this dominion over oneself, it is impossible not to notice that total domination is unachievable and therefore, one has to live with the unknown that drips at the edge of our soul.
The desire to obtain power (or control) over others either physically, spiritually or psychologically is a thinly veiled weakness of a coward who cannot look inside themselves and face the burning hell. Indeed, it is difficult to extinguish or at least calm the fires within but if one manages such feat, even in part only, they will rule a world that only they can understand, create and transform and the need to control others will at once vanish. At least the vastness of space may make this kind of power (control) obsolete, for none can conquer that which has no end.
A word on chaos. In the past, when the message was slowed by lack of technology, the hydra needed to regenerate its heads before it could spit fire – and this could take years, if not centuries. Today, the hydra no longer needs its heads to spit fire. Remember: in the beginning, there was chaos.
The world is beautiful, but ours is not.