Lech Stangret, image courtesy of the curator.

Lech Stangret (born 1959) is an art historian, critic and a member the AICA.  He is the director of the Tadeusz Kantor Foundation and  curator at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw.

Stangret is also the author of the programme at the Tadeusz Kantor Festival Krakow 2000 – European City of Culture and a curator of numerous exhibitions in Poland and abroad devoted to the art of the artist – including at the Museum of Fine Arts in Prague, Fundación Telefónica in Madrid, Casa Mila in Barcelona, La Bellone in Brussels and CEAC in Strasbourg.

His publications include: Tadeusz Kantor. Malarski ambalaż totalnego dzieła (2006), Zbigniew Gostomski. Ad rem (2012), and Tadeusz Kantor: Drawing (2016).

LUCIJA ŠUTEJ: Kantor was a multi-media creative. Descriptive titles such as artist, set designer, actor, theatre director, etc. do not even begin to capture his versatile interests and practice. His extensive theatre and painting opus broke the very foundations and conventions of performance and fine arts. I wanted to touch upon your personal memories of the first encounters with Kantor’s Cricot 2 Theatre. How did you experience Kantor’s artistic (anti) theatre?

LECH STANGRET: My first encounter with Cricot 2 Theatre was absolutely accidental. Kantor was looking for a very young man, practically a boy, to play the part of Adaś in his production Wielopole, Wielopole. On account of the fact that Maria (Kantor’s wife) was my father’s sister, I had the opportunity to visit the Kantors while I stayed in Kraków in 1979. During one of these meetings, without giving any particular details, Tadeusz offered me the role of Adaś in a play which would be created in Florence. I hadn’t had any acting experience yet. I hadn’t even seen a single performance by Cricot 2 Theatre. One can say that I was so-called “raw material”, which later turned out to be a certain asset as I did not have any acting habits picked up at film or theatre schools. 

The rehearsals for Wielopole, Wielopole took place twice a day for more than half a year. Kantor was well aware of all advantages as well as limitations of a traditional repertory theatre. For almost twenty years he worked as an art director and cooperated with the best directors, actors and theatres in Poland. He was also a magnificent teacher to whom I owe all my knowledge of theatre and acting. Time spent in Florence influenced not only my interests, but what is more important, my whole life. I began studies at the department of History of Art in Kraków, obtained the degree of doctor in a PhD program and I am currently working as  an art historian, curator and critic at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw.

LŠ: The creation of the Underground Independent Theatre during WW2 and the participation of Kantor’s friends and colleagues saw his theatre productions performed in various private Krakow apartments. Just how influential was the latter’s formation on the birth of Cricot 2, co-founded with fellow artists Maria Jarema and Kazimierz Mikulski?

LS: In Nazi-occupied Poland all cultural activities were forbidden. According to a Nazi racial theory Polish people were defined as racially inferior “sub-humans”, suitable only for slave labor for the putative  “Aryan race”. Therefore, the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków was closed down and the School of Crafts (Staatliche Kunstgewerbeschule) was founded and existed in its place. Not only were all cultural activities forbidden under threat of heavy penalties (including capital punishment), but also the spectators and participants of illegal exhibitions and performances were punished as well. On that account, the productions of the Underground Independent Theatre, which were founded by Kantor, were performed only at private, conspiratorial apartments. Nonetheless; Cricot 2 Theatre, founded by Tadeusz Kantor along with Maria Jarema and Kazimierz Mikulski in 1955, did not refer to any experiences of the Underground Independent Theatre. But it harked back to the longest-existing avant-garde artists’ theatre of the interwar period – Cricot. 

Maria Jarema was one of its members, hence the name Cricot 2 was given as a way of indicating that it was going to continue the tradition of the pre-war theatre bearing the same name. The first performances of Cricot 2, such as The Cuttle Fish or The Circus were prepared by the artist of the former Cricot theatre, e.g. Maria Jerema was the costume designer for The Cuttle Fish  while Tadeusz Kantor was director of the production. Cricot 2 Theatre underwent many transformations through its years of existence. After Maria Jarema’s death (1958), when Kantor was working on his manifesto In a Little Manor House (1961) – the Informel Theatre, he was not only the director but also the author of all the stage props, costumes, accessories and decorations used in that performance. From that particular moment, Cricot 2 was considered as Kantor’s authorial theatre. Kantor indicated that the development of his stage ideas was rooted in the experiences of the Underground Independent Theatre and it artlessly combined with Cricot 2. However, it happened later, not while founding Cricot 2 Theatre.

LŠ: Kantor’s theatre practice speaks of the artist’s receptiveness to currents in the fine arts as well as his desire to redefine the theatre experience. Kantor achieved in his work, a continuous theatre transformation from the concept of Informel Theatre or automated theatre to Zero Theatre, Happenings Theatre and ultimately Theatre of Death. How would you define the introduction or mirroring of Kantor’s painting practice in his theatre work, resulting in such drastic metamorphosis of theatre concepts?

LS: Kantor, being engaged in both painting and theatre, noticed that after the periods of surrealism and dadaism movements, artists had moved away from the theatre which no longer participated in the transformation of the art. It seemed to become ossified. Therefore, he decided to step forward with his art ideas to enliven it. His desire was to translate new trends in fine art into the language of theatre. Working on new performances starting with In a Little Manor House, he wrote manifestos in which he declared creating new forms of theatre that were also supposed to be the new stages of the Cricot 2 Theatre development. 

He meant by no means the theatre of a painter or a visual artist, but to introduce in performances new means of expression derived from the world of art, e.g. as in the Informel Theatre, where the spectacle relied entirely on coincidence. When the world of art no longer provided new incentives to him, Kantor announced his departure from a path of avant-garde canon, as in his opinion it was the path of innumerable conceptual artists and introduced a production The Dead Class accompanied by a manifesto: The Theatre of Death. His following productions, defined by him as Theatre of Love and Death made no reference to occurrence in art. 

LŠ: Kantor described art as by nature uncontrollable and thus it can not be lined in solely one order, as it experiences constant growth – yet there is a strong presence of the concept of renouncing the present, not only by his actors and the meaning of props, but also could we say audience? The audience is an active and equal participant of this dialogue.

LS: Obviously, no theatre may exist without an audience. Thus, the audience has always played a significant role. As far as Cricot 2 Theatre is concerned, Kantor wrote many texts in which he described his struggles with reality and stage illusion. The participation of the audience in Kantor’s performances varied depending on the actual stage of the development of his theatre. Starting with the waiters who were unaware of their participation in a production The Water Hen – Happening Theatre, to an actual participation of the audience in Lovelies and Dowdies – Impossible Theatre. Rejecting the traditional form of the theatre, in which an actor pretends to be someone he is not while a viewer pretends to believe him; Kantor wished to create a spectacle where a viewer would be more like a spectator, fan than a passive observer. The fan identifies with the participants, saying ‘we participated’, tries to influence their behaviour, even though the fan does not take an active part in it. Making it simple, Kantor wanted the viewers to have the impression that they are participating in a one-time event, watching a unique spectacle and the following one will be completely different. His presence on the stage served this purpose. He acted as a facilitator, connector between the authenticity of the scene played by the actors and the genuineness of the audience. In his works, Kantor recalled experience gained from the Underground Independent Theatre. He claimed that just then, when both audience and actors were in grave danger he was able to achieve a lasting bond between them.

“Wielopole, Wielopole” (1980), image courtesy of Lech Stangret and Tadeusz Kantor Foundation.

LŠ: The artist defined instinct as his primary criteria – were there limitations (in his theatre work) to where the concept was applied?

LS: It is quite a broad term referring to many of Kantor’s actions. For example, the happening may here be taken into consideration. Kantor’s first encounter with the happening took place in 1965 when he was in the USA on a scholarship invited by the Ford Foundation. After his return to Poland he made his first happening  Cricotage on account of the fact that he noticed that some of the elements of a happening (e.g. coincidence) had already appeared in his theatre e.g. in the Informel Theatre. Thus, he came to these conclusions on his own as if following his instinct.

LŠ: Kantor was also a prolific painter who through his international exhibition activity encountered numerous trends in art. His communication with fellow Polish artists such as his community in Krzysztofory, also enabled the introduction of international art developments – has this communication perhaps influenced the practices of artists from Poland to some degree?

LS: Kantor was always opposed to dividing art into the Western art and the Eastern one, or to distinguishing the national art. He also believed that a performer should be aware of the development of art, be familiar with its current trends and directions. Even though Poland did not witness the birth of any major art world trends or movements, it does not mean that there were no remarkable artists who created exceptional works of art. Nevertheless, they cannot be taken into consideration as the creators of those trends and movements. Moreover, Poland may be considered as one of those countries which is under the influence of the world of art and its diverse forms and directions ( e.g art informel, pop-art, minimal art or op-art). Although, not all trends or movements suited Kantor’s interests, he made friends and showed a great admiration for other artists and performers, such as Henryk Stażewski or Zbigniew Gostomski.

LŠ: The 1963 exhibition at Krzysztofory Gallery titled A Popular Exhibition or Anti-Exhibition conveyed the artist’s protest against the rigid norms of exhibition making, where he exhibited drawings, documents, letters and personal photographs. It also marked the artist’s break  from figurative depiction towards emballages – just how much was it also translated into his theatre practice?

LS: Popular Exhibition (also referred to by the artist as the Anti-Exhibition) was an attempt to equate exhibition space with ‘interior of imagination’. It was filled with the objects from his past in the form of mockups and derelicts – commonplace, schematic, random, mingled with significant, valuable but also trivial facts, people, letters, prescriptions, addresses, trails, dates, meetings – all displayed without any kind of hierarchy, chronology of events or location. The aim of the Anti-Exhibition was not to show the finished work of art, but all the props and objects used in the process of its creation, which are usually later thrown away. For Kantor, the main characters of the Anti-Exhibition were documents, notes, sketches, drawings, photographs, etc. as they combine into the process of the preparation of the work of art, and what is left of that process, reveals a lot about the artist’s work.

LŠ: Edinburgh Fringe Festival organiser Richard Demarco, held a pivotal role in the introduction and promotion of Kantor’s work – his theatre and painting opus. Furthermore, Tadeusz Kantor met fellow artist Joseph Beuys, through Demarco – just how significant was this encounter ?

LS: This encounter with Beuys did not have any particular significance or influence on Tadeusz Kantor’s artistic activity. As a matter of course, Kantor was familiar with Beuys’s works, valued them and vice versa. Nevertheless, they worked at opposite poles on art, and created in different circumstances. They met each other when they were already mature artists developing their played-out artistic strategies. Of course, there are numerous similarities in both artists’ biographies and stages of working life but none of them can be found in their works and artistic activity.

LŠ: Like Beuys he was also albeit briefly an art lecturer – precisely why was his academic career short-lived?

LS: Kantor served as a lecturer thrice and each time the reasons to leave academia were different. It happened for the first time at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków (1947-1950). He was summarily dismissed from his employment when the communist government in Poland decreed a doctrine of socialist realism in 1949 applying to all artists, performers and authors. It’s main aim in the fine arts was to create realistic paintings and sculptures characterised by the depiction of communist values. All art galleries and museums in Poland were state-owned, controlled by the communist government and what’s more, no other forms of art were allowed to be presented or displayed in them publicly between 1949 and 1955, with the exception of socialist realism. Kantor’s painting was scornfully described as ‘formalism’. Representing a triumph of form over substance, considered degenerated, his paintings were forbidden to be exhibited and Kantor was sacked from his position as a professor at the Department of Painting. From April until July 1961 he worked as a visiting professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Hamburg. Kantor had a temporary contract including lectures and seminars from April until July and after that period the contract was discharged and ended on the actual agreed-upon date stated in it. On 1st September he was appointed contract professor (for a period of 2 years) at the Faculty of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Nevertheless, after two years the artist quit teaching as it was difficult to reconcile lectures and seminars with his artistic work and the international tournée of the Cricot 2 Theatre.

LŠ: Exhibition at Demarco Gallery titled Atelier 72 was the result of close collaboration with Ryszard Stanisławski, the then director of the Museum Sztuki in Łódź and was the important representation of the Polish avant-garde artists including T. Kantor, M. Abakanowicz, W. Borowski, J. Beres, Z. Gostomski and others. Who were the other important figures that tirelessly promoted the artist’s work?

LS: Not to diminish the accomplishments of Richard Demarco or Ryszard Stanisławski, nonetheless there were many artists that promoted Tadeusz Kantor’s work. As far as the painting is concerned, one of the first figures was a Swedish collector and patron of the arts – Theodor Ahrenberg. Kantor was invited to Stockholm by him in the 50s and had the first solo exhibition of his paintings (works from 1950 to 1958) abroad at the Samlaren Gallery. Kantor travelled many times at Ahrenberg’s invitation to Sweden and Switzerland and had his works exhibited in Swedish, Swiss and German art galleries. He was also recognised with the prestigious Rembrandt Award bestowed by the Goethe foundation in Basel. The other important figures include Pontus Hulten, Nicolas Serota, Ole Henrik Moe, David Gothard, Catherine Thieck, Karl Gerhard Schmidt and in respect of Polish ones – for such instances, Wiesław Borowski from the Foksal Gallery.

LŠ: Critic Wiesław Borowski, co-founded the Foksal gallery with fellow critics and artists such as Henryk Stażewski, Zbigniew Gostomski, Anka Ptaszkowska, Mariusz Tchorek, etc. Kantor staged numerous happenings at Foksal and he contributed to the introduction of the international contemporary art trends through presenting international catalogues, etc. from his travels – thus we can argue that Kantor also had similar activity as an arts promoter as Richard Demarco?

LS: In my opinion, there are a number of differences between Kantor and Richard Demarco. First and foremost, Kantor was mostly an artist, whereas Richard was mainly an art promoter. Moreover, they worked in different circumstances and conditions. Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. In the pre-internet era the access to accurate, independent information from the Western World was controlled and limited by the authorities. The same applied to artists’ departures to the countries of Western Europe – they were sporadic. In the times of socialist realism, travels to those countries were in a matter of fact put off and partially resumed not before the late 50s and 60s. Yet, they were still infrequent.

On his travels abroad Kantor brought many catalogues and books on modern and contemporary art. He initiated meetings, discussions, organised public readings to make comments and remarks on new trends in art. Therefore, some artists and critics called Kantor “a travelling salesman of novelties”, a person who brought in, spread and introduced foreign trends into Polish art. According to an anecdote from that period, one of participants of Kantor’s public discussions devoted to tachisme, who was an informer for the authorities, informed on the artist that Kantor had allegedly propagated fascist ideology. Summoned to be charged with propagating fascism, Kantor had to explain the difference between tachisme and fascism to the communist clerks. It changed in the 70s when Edward Gierek became the new First Secretary of the party and communist Poland was opened to the Western Bloc. Artists form Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic or countries of the former Soviet Union arrived frequently to Poland to learn about new trends and movements in art. As it became much easier for artists to apply for and obtain passports, Kantor gave up on organising public readings and focused solely on his work.

Lech Stangret with Maria Kantor, Teresa Wełmińska and Tadeusz Kantor in Tokyo (1981). Image courtesy of Lech Stangret.

Tadeusz Kantor (born 1915, died 1990) was an influential Polish artist. His versatile practice connected theatre, performance, set design as well as painting. Kantor authored significant manifestos on theatre practice and his productions with Cricot 2 such as “The Dead Class”, “In a Little Manor House” or “Wielopole, Wielopole” left a lasting impression. Centre for Documentation of the Art of Tadeusz Kantor CRICOTEKA and Tadeusz Kantor Foundation are the two institutions that preserve the legacy of the artist.