Tadeusz Kantor and Modernism




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Northwestern University Press


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Peer reviewed



This chapter will argue that in order to understand Tadeusz Kantor’s relationship to, and place in, twentieth-century Modernism, it is necessary to understand his inherently poetic and philosophical approach to his practice as an artist. As with other artists for whom the Second World War was a formative experience, Kantor’s particular aesthetic strategies are evidently profoundly influenced by his wartime experience. However, for Kantor this did not happen as a simple linear narrative in his artistic development. Until the 1970s, his experience can be understood to have been continually refracted through his engagement with a succession of international contemporary art practices. Each of Kantor’s encounters with a foreign art movement—Constructivism and abstraction, Surrealism, informel, “zero,” emballage, happening—was transformed in his hands through its intersection with his underlying concerns. As such, separate and, on the surface, seemingly disparate movements acquire a certain homogeneity as they are each détourned by Kantor in his struggles to articulate a poetics of being. As a consequence of his personal operation of them, these individual avant-garde artistic strategies are each turned into vehicles for each other. In this way, and certainly when viewed retrospectively, all of Kantor’s work can be seen to be expressive of certain tendencies from Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism and informel; it is all, in a sense, “impossible,” all “packaged,” all concerned with the “zero” or “nothing” of being, and all concerned with the immediacy and aleatoricism of the happening. With The Dead Class in 1975, Kantor began to leave such explicit engagement with, and personalization of, existing art forms behind. Nevertheless, his ability to consistently bend existing artistic practice to his own purpose is an intrinsic part of the process that led to his later work. The continuous element underlying this process is Kantor’s concern with the paradoxical nature of human being, what the contemporary, post-Heideggerian Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben would later characterize (following Hegel) as “this negative being”— “the thing existing which is not when it is, and is when it is not: a half-glimpsed becoming” (Agamben 2007: 107). Death is the negative side of this “half-glimpsed becoming.” This “negative being” is, in Heidegger’s words, the “placeholder,” or the “lieutenant of the nothing” (Heidegger 1968: 37, and 1998: 93).

This chapter will explore in more detail the metaphysical underpinnings of the paradoxical “negative being” of human being in Kantor’s work. Firstly, I will examine the origins of Kantor’s engagement with art informel and argue that his interest with this form may derive from an underlying sense of informe peculiar to Polish Modernism that is embodied in the work of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), Witold Gombrowicz, and Bruno Schulz, as much as from the artists he encountered in his trips to Paris in 1948 and 1955. I will then discuss this in relation to Kantor’s détournement of the various avant-gardes that he experimented with during the 1950s and 1960s. In doing so I will show how Kantor’s reflection on aspects of his wartime work surfaces in the late 1960s in a way that prefigures certain key concerns that emerge more explicitly in The Dead Class and his subsequent work. This early, key experience in occupied Kraków will be shown to relate to Kantor’s reading of the work of the Jewish graphic artist and short- story writer Schulz, whose own aesthetic strategies of inverting dominant ontological hierarchies can be seen to inform Kantor’s own artistic practice. Implicit in this strategy is again a critique of a representational ontology that prioritizes a substantialist concept of being over the more dynamic and mutable concepts of becoming and seeming—a reading of reality that Schulz championed. In his performative and theatrical staging of various avant-garde approaches, Kantor can be seen to challenge conventional ontological hierarchies in a way that—following Nietzsche and Heidegger—articulates the anxieties of twentieth-century Modernism in a fundamental way. In doing so, Kantor’s work both echoes Schulz’s metaphysics and prefigures a sense of the immanence of life as elaborated in the work of Gilles Deleuze.



Abstraction, Attention! Painting, The Dead Class, Art Informel, Tadeusz Kantor, Modernism


Leach, M. (2019) Tadeusz Kantor and Modernism. In: Romanska, M. & Cioffi, K. (eds.) Theatermachine: Tadeusz Kantor in Context, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.


Research Institute

Institute of Drama, Dance and Performance Studies