Zdzislaw Beksinski wasn’t just an artist but indeed a multifaceted creator in the true sense of the word: the Polish polymath started his artistic career as a photographer but later became interested in painting which will turn into his focal activity from the beginning of the sixties until later during his life, with a brief parenthesis as a sculptor. His first photographic works are shot with an Icorett Zeiss during the communist occupation of Poland and they portray principally subjects that are close to the artist: narrow streets, wooden walls, isolated people overwhelmed by the surrounding architecture. Having finished his studies in Cracovia with a degree in architecture, Beksinski goes back to his native city in Sanok and founds with some friends a photographers’ collective. 

Zdzislaw Beksinski

In 1959 they organize an exhibition in Gliwice which becomes known as “The Anti-Photography” and where Beksinski displays fifteen of his works. Among them one will remain particularly relevant for polish art critics: the “Sadist’s Corset”, a shot where, standing behind a chair, the photographer portrays his wife Zofia’s body wrapped with a string. 

Zdzislaw Beksinski

Inspiration for this picture came from the surrealist photography and from the processing of film negatives invented by Pudvkin, a famous soviet director and film theorist who whas his contemporary; Pudvkin’s ideas inspired Beksinski’s visual narration and his photo sets created with the juxtaposition of newspaper, film negatives and amateur photos. These ideas were in contrast with the ideal of a “pure photography” which was popular at that time, in fact, just a year prior to his exhibition, Beksinski publishes in the polish magazine “Photography”, an essay titled “The Crisis in Photography and the Perspective to Overcome It” where he expressed his disappointment and his negative approach towards the photography of his time and suggests two ways forward: one is the use of the traditional technique in order to create photo sets which resemble those of the film industry; the other is to start considering photography as an abstract art. 

Two years later though Beksinski became disinterested in photography in order to put all his efforts into painting and sculpting, his proposals for a new photography therefore won’t translate into a concrete production; it is only later, in the last part of his life, when he decides to pick up photography again thanks to the availability of computer graphics, a technique which enables him to edit his photos to suit his surrealist vision, in the end the issue comes full circle. It’s 1960 when he decides to focus first on sculpting and then on drawing, he produces heliotypes and montypes in a path that led him finally in 1968 to painting; between this period and the middle of the eighties is when he’s most recognized and what is considered the height of his career, a period that will be defined as “fantastic realism”. This artistic school highlights the same topoi previously seen in the photographs taken at the beginning of his career: a great attention to the human body, transfigured and deformed faces, lack of full bodied figures, gloomy and oppressive atmospheres, an obsessive attention to details. This is exactly why it’s impossible to understand Beksinski’s paintings without studying in depth is photographic production, they are the door that makes us enter his fantastic world where he still takes us even thirteen years after he was brutally murdered.

Luca Torelli

A special thanks to the Historical Museum in Sanok and its director Wieslaw Banach for allowing the use of Beksinski photographs Piotr Dmochowski for sending them and Kamil Sliwinski for the documentation.