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Józef Szajna

A number of theoreticians have already tried to define Józef Szajna: is he a painter, playwrighter, sculptor, graphic or may be an architect of real, stage space or conventional space of a painting? No one found an adequate answer, as Szajna’s exceptional talent and individuality are indefinable. Being a great painter, playwrighter, scenographer, sculptor and ar­chitect Szajna is above all an artist – an individual striving to express his emotions by means of visual media, no matter whatever field of art they belong to. He obeys the one precedent law: his own imagination, emotions and experiences. They form a material to give it a shape the artist needs, they inspired Szajna to tear and burn surfaces of his paintings long before Burri did it; they make the artist indifferent towards any particu­lar style or convention.

General, elementary ideas and emotions in a very broad sense are the field of artistic interest of Józef Szajna. In his interpretation every personal experience becomes a general problem, embracing the whole of mankind constantly imperilled by evil forces that emer­ge from chaos, continuous struggle, pressing inertia of clashing forces. Out of such chaos overflown by crying the act of Szajna emerges. By elimination and subbmission the shape becomes softly delineated, more clear and this gives the upper hand to the contents, some­how sublimates them and release from the ballast of form.

Szajna’s works are not produced to be beautiful or decorative. They are not even to be displayed in museums or galleries as the works of art. The one and only role of Szajna’s compositions is to record and express emotions of their creator, then they can disap­pear, break up as the artist does not need them anymore, whereas the audience still want to look at them to find their own troubles and worries. Józef Szajna was born on 13 March 1922 in Rzeszów; also he was 17 when the Second World War broke out – too less to fight in the regular army, enough to join the resistance movement. Captured and taken to Auschwitz he arri­ved there so early, that he got a very low, five-figure number 18 729.

Everybody knows what was Auschwitz and the extermination camp, but only those who survived that horror are aware of what it really meant, therefore they never talk about it except with other former camp inmates, as no words can express the nightmare of it. The ex-prisoner number 18 729 also assumes the same attitude. His works do not express the horrible past, but they warn us against evil, which may always revive.

Yes, Szajna gives us a warning, but first of all he observes a man in extremely untypical situations like living in a concentration camp. The artist’s eye is bitter and sharp, he reveals the truth and puts questions concerning an ultimate fate of a human being.

In his spatial composition „Reminiscences” – an epitaph dedicated to the Cracovian artists taken to Auschwitz in 1942, Szajna definitively deals with the past. First time displayed in Cracow on the occasion of 150 anniversary of the Cracovian Academy of Fine Arts, then at Venice Biennale in 1970 and at Ruhrfestspiele (1971) „Reminiscences” were later purchased by the Museum in Bochum and presented at the jubilee „Bilder von Menschen in der Kunst des Abendlandes” exhibition in West Berlin among masterpieces created since Roman times up to Picasso, Leger and Holder.

About Szajna’s „Reminiscences” Dino Buzatti wri­tes as follows: „…everyone who saw the work of Józef Szajna gets very much impressed by it… His thrilling composition „Reminiscences”, devoted to the martyrology of Auschwitz looks like a stock-still, paralysed theatre performance in which there is on border betwe­en a stage and audience and whoever enters the ecposition becomes a part of it. The way Szajna depicts those terrible days of war is a great value of his art. He presents only bare facts, withholding his feeling of hatred…”

Szajna’s next artistic achievement – „Replica” cycle carries a timeless message. Movement and sound, playing a big part in it at first, are gradually limited, thus the work turns out to be a synthesis of the contents and form, still very presentative. In his artistic performance „Dante” Szajna took up the motif of Dante’s „Heli” to remind us that the hall has always existed and it is only up to us if we would let it come out upon the surface of earth and conquer the world once again with its hideous, totalitarian system.

It was written about Szajna that he carries his art around the world as a message. It is true. Indeed, Szajna treats his own artistic activity as a mission, therefore he never defines himself as a representative of any particular trend or abides any standing rules of an artistic play. He was always indifferent towards such basic problems as the questions of the vanguard art in their theoretical and formal aspect. What counts is only the expression and he tries to find the most adequate forms and materials to express himself… This characte­ristic of his art caused that he was recognized as a precursor of a number of achievements of the expressive trends. Moreover: due to its power of expression, Szajna’s art is always up-to date, it strikes our imagination. Such it war 20 years ago in Venice, where he displayed for the first time and now, when Szajna is an artist known all over the world. Today we pay him homage on the occasion for the 50 anniversary of the Second World War’s outbreak.

This celebration does not include writing any theore­tical treatises, as is customary. Szajna rejects the theory, he derides it since he is no doubt a vanguard artist and his art is really unique. It is neither a form based on the ex-post philosophy nor a philosophy closed in a formally perfect shape.

The vanguard art of Szajna is a question of morality, therefore it survived the crisis of the vanguard art movement as a formation.

Jerzy Madeyski

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  • YEAR1990
  • CATEGORY Art Biennale
  • EDITION44
  • DATES27.05 – 30.09
  • COMMISSIONERJerzy Madeyski
  • PARTICIPANTS

    Józef Szajna

  • TEAM
    organizer: Central Bureau for Art Exhibitions "Zachęta"

About the Artist

Józef Szajna – painter, scenographer, stage manager, scenarist, theatrologist.

Born on 13 March 1922 in Rzeszów. During the Nazi occupation he fought in the resistance movement; taken to the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Studied at the Graphics Department (graduated in 1952) and the Scenography Department (graduated in 1953) of the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow. Szajna is a very active artist. He often takes part in polish and international artistic exhibitions as well as international theatre festivals. He participates in conferences on modern concept of art and theatre, works on the problems of organic theatre and its visual narration. In 1975 the Theatre at Slavic Cultural Centre in Port Jefferson in New York was named after Józef Szajna. In 1954-1965 Szajna stayed at the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow doing a research and educational work; in 1972 he become a professor. In 1963-1966 – a director, artistic and stage manager of the People’s Theatre in Cracow-Nowa Huta. There he created a number of original scenographies and cont­rolled the artistic form of performances. In 1966-1971 Szajna cooperated with the Old Theatre in Cracow, Silesian Theatre in Warsaw and many foreign theatres. In 197^ became a director of the Classic Theatre in Warsaw, truned it into the Centre of Art – Theatre Gallery of which he was a director and artistic manager till March 19g2.

Many years’ member of the Union of Polish Artists and Designers, a member of the Polish Association of Scenic Authors and Composers, a member of honour of the International Association of Art AIAP-IAA (an organisation under the auspices of UNESCO with its seat in Paris, Association of European Culture (SEC) with its seat in Venice, academician with a Gold Medal of the Italian Academy of Art and Labour in Salsomaggiore Terme, jury member of the World Council of Culture in Mexico.