Death watcher

Death watcher

"We all see death before our eyes," Polish artist Zdzislaw Beksinski reportedly said at the opening of his exhibition at Warsaw's Zacheta Gallery in 2002. "I am not an exception… Personally, I am more afraid of dying than death itself. This is not a fear of emptiness but of suffering, and this is what I am most afraid of."

Three years later, on February 21, 2005, the 75-year-old surrealist painter known for his hellish landscapes and nightmarish figures was found dead at his flat in a prestigious Warsaw  neighbourhood with multiple stab wounds in the head and chest.

It was a clear case of murder, although there were no signs of forced entry or robbery.

Shortly thereafter, two young men, Robert K, a 19-year-old secondary-school pupil, and his 16-year-old cousin Lukasz K were arrested. On questioning, Robert K, son of a long-time friend and aide of Beksinski confessed...

On that fateful day, the two boys had gone to Beksinski's house to borrow money from him. Beksinski refused to give the loan and tried to call Robert K's father instead. Angered by this, the teenager had stabbed the famed artist to death.
On November 9, 2006, the Court of Warsaw condemned Robert K to 25 years in prison, and his accomplice, Lukasz K, to 5 years. The Appellate Court upheld the lower court's judgement in Robert K's trial; it was, however, not convinced of Lukasz K's guilt and a retrial was ordered in his case.

Apocalyptic vision

One of the best-known artists of Poland, Zdzislaw Beksinski (1929-2005) was born in Sanok near the Carpathians Mountains. He had no formal education in art. Trained as an architect at Krakow's School of Technology, he took up photography toward the end of his studies in the Department of Architecture.

In the 1950s, he was actively honing his photographic skills and marking his images with surrealistic-expressionist designs and sadomasochistic themes. 'Sadist's Corset' (1957), an important work of his, shows a nude female body bound tightly with a rope. He eventually gave up on photography in the early 60s and concentrated on intricately detailed drawings in which he portrayed haunting, mysterious and frightening scenes.

His 1964-exhibition in Warsaw  featuring mainly drawings was a major success with all the works being bought over.

In the 80s and 90s, Beksinski's paintings got exhibited abroad and achieved significant popularity in France, the United States, and Japan.
As one who was always fascinated with death, decay and darkness, Beksinski created numerous apocalyptic visions and abstract renditions of skulls and skeletons which stunned the critics as well as common viewers alike.

According to Katarzyna Nowakowska-Sito, art historian and former curator of modern art at Warsaw's National Museum, "Beksinski created a language, a climate of horror and secrecy in his paintings. He engaged people's imagination and it was very convincing."

Eschewing symbolism

Historians point out two distinct periods of artistic activity in Beksinski 's career. Between end-1960s and mid-80s, he was engaged with his 'fantastic' series highlighting dreamlike but hellish landscapes; unearthly architecture; and lurid figures. After this successful period that made him a household name in Poland, Beksinski 's style changed and entered a 'gothic' era, when his art became more abstract and less dreamlike.

Throughout his life, Beksinski avoided concrete analysis or metaphorical interpretation of his work, saying "I cannot conceive of a sensible statement on painting."

He hated explaining the 'meaning' of his images. "Meaning is meaningless to me. I do not care for symbolism and I paint what I paint without meditating on a story." All of his paintings remained untitled. He believed in the mystery of images rather than explicit definitions. "I react strongly to images that have no obvious answer to their mysteries. If there is a key to their construction, they are simply illustrations."

Another notable feature was that Beksinski never painted directly from nature. "I abhor everything which is 'natural', everything which comes 'directly from the cow,' as the Poles say. I drink instant coffee and milk powder, I eat powdered soups and only canned meat."

His abhorrence for a neat and orderly state was obvious. "When I paint a wall, I want the roughcast to peel off; when I paint an interior I want it to be covered with spider webs, I want a floor strewn with waste, rags garbage and filth of all sorts. To my eyes, a nice body, a smooth wall, a row of straight windows, a clean interior, a shining floor are, and will remain, the synonyms of boredom."

In 1977, Beksinski and his family shifted from Sanok to Warsaw. Before moving, he is said to have burned a selection of his works in his own backyard, without leaving any documentation about them. He explained that they were either "too personal" or "unsatisfactory," and in any case, he did not want people to see or know about them.

What's a trend?

Beksinski paid little or no attention to prevailing trends in art. Nor was he interested in gaining approval and admiration of critics. He avoided being present at public events and almost never visited museums  or exhibitions. Although his art was predominantly grim and gruesome, he himself was known to be a pleasant person with a keen sense of humour. He was modest and somewhat shy, but always ready for a good conversation.

Beksinski's life was beset with tragedy in his final years. Death, which he had portrayed in so many chilling ways, began to stalk his family in the late 1990s. Beksinski's wife Zofia succumbed to cancer in 1998. A year later, their son Tomasz, a well-known translator and popular music journalist, committed suicide.

"Beksinski will be remembered as a brilliant artist, and by those who knew him as a docile man with a profound wit and keen sense of the human condition," recalls James Cowan, president of Las Vegas-based Morpheus Fine Art. "What a remarkable man he was. A bit of Woody Allen, a dash of Oscar Wilde for spice, and brushes of Francisco Goya and William Turner."

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