Stunning Nightmares
Musings Culture Art

Stunning Nightmares

Ben Sixsmith

The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński

When I was a boy I visited the Tate Modern – a huge art gallery in London improbably housed inside the looming structure of the old Bankside Power Station. Even then, I found most of the modern art faintly ridiculous. A lot—not all, but a lot—of the exhibits looked like stuff you would extract from a landfill. One room that captured my interest, on the other hand, was devoted to the works of Francis Bacon.

Francis Bacon—not the Elizabethan—was an English painter who created portraits and self-portraits in which the features of men and women had been grossly, intricately distorted to resemble, I thought, their inner screams and grimaces. That this interested me is not hard to explain. I did a lot of inward screaming and grimacing. On the assumption that others felt similarly, I thought this was a more honest portrayal of humanity than others had offered. It was a rather silly thought but an honest one. Unlike my more pretentious silly thoughts, I did not tell anyone else about this admiration.

The other artist that I liked was John Constable, whose peaceful rural landscapes I had seen in the National Gallery. Adolescence is a strange thing.

The English columnist Bernard Levin was not a fan of Bacon. “What is the second most noticeable, striking and important fact about the Crucifixion?” he asked.

“That it is a story of shame, degradation, failure and death. What is the most noticeable, striking and important fact about it? That it is a story of shame put to shame, degradation raised incorruptible, failure turned to overwhelming triumph and death transmuted into eternal life. What is wrong with Francis Bacon? He has not noticed that, halfway-through, the Crucifixion turns into its opposite.”

I am sure that people who know Bacon's work better than I would dispute this characterization. The reader is more than welcome to look it up and judge for themselves. But I thought about it as I reflected on the work of the Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński.

Beksiński's life was not one to inspire a philosophical optimist. Born in Sanok in south-eastern Poland, he worked on the dullest ends of construction and design before having improbable success as a surrealist painter—a career that he embraced with all his being as he spent his every waking hour immersed in painting. Acquaintances knew him as a polite and cheerful man: “He always bowed.”

Yet terrible misfortune plagued his later life. His wife died of cancer in 1998. One year afterwards, on Christmas Eve, his son Tomasz, a successful radio personality and music journalist, killed himself. Tomasz had attempted suicide several times before and had even announced in one of his columns that he was about to die. Finally, in 2005, Beksiński himself was murdered by a young acquaintance to whom he had refused to loan money.

Such a tragic life seemed to reflect Beksiński's art. Like Bacon, he was attracted to the grotesque and the dystopian. The strange, deformed creatures which stalk his paintings have also attracted comparisons to those of H. R. Giger of Alien fame.

Beksiński resisted objective thematic interpretations of his work, saying:

I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.

“I reject any contents in my art,” he said in a grumpier moment.

There is no doubt his dreams were nightmarish. Sometimes he painted desolate landscapes, such as in the haunting AC75, in which small groups of figures cluster round fires on giant stone columns which stand far enough from each other that no one could jump between them. Sometimes, he painted alien beings, like the emaciated creature inching across the canvas in AE73, with its head wrapped tightly in blood-stained bandages. Death and decay are ever-present in Beksiński's work—if depicted with striking detail and vividity. When I think about the Eastern Bloc, I imagine it—lazily, I know—in shades of grey, but these paintings are suffused with striking colors.

But is all this nihilistic? Is Beksiński doing no more than, as J. G. Ballard described his intention for his techno-masochistic novel Crash, rubbing the human face in its own vomit?

I don't think so. In one painting, King and Queen, the figures of a man and woman, joined in the middle, have been immortalised in austere stone. I have to respect Beksiński’s insistence that he was a mere convoy for the images he saw in his dream but I was still reminded of Larkin's “An Arundel Tomb”:

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone.
. . .
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
. . .
The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost-true:
What will survive of us is love.

In another painting, two skeletal figures embrace amid a burning landscape (or, as one critic calls it, hellscape). This is no ordinary embrace, nor a desperate instinctual grasp for something solid in the moment of death. This is the tender embrace of two lovers, or, perhaps, of a father and a child, with the taller skeleton cradling the other's skull. As a sand-like substance swirls around them, they cannot be separated. Here, the dystopic imagery intensifies the compassion, as accidental as it might have been. Even such a hideously oppressive environment cannot overcome the human instinct to love.

Perhaps my favourite of Beksiński’s paintings is AA78. (Beksiński, as I’m sure you have noticed, was not a big fan of titles.) Here, an empty building beneath a starry sky has been inhabited, somehow, by an image of a forest scene. Mushrooms climb the walls, but almost seem to be an outgrowth of them in another example of his interest in blurring the lines between the organic and inorganic. Somehow, all these elements are so carefully balanced and expertly crafted as to come together into something beautiful and enchanted. The violence of Beksiński’s landscapes and skies settles—just for a moment, but for a lovely moment.

None of this is to suggest that Beksiński’s work reflects the “overwhelming triumph” of which Levin spoke. His paintings are fantastically preoccupied with the morbid and the grotesque. At times, he could make biting comments about art being like the vodka one offers a man condemned to death.

Still, much of his work achieves that æsthetic transcendence any artist aspires to. He was honest about his imagination. There is no hint of puerility in his dystopias. Even a disembodied head which appears to have expelled its guts through its eye sockets is, if one looks closer, instead expelling roots. Moreover, his precision and creativity in portraying the images that stalked him are unmatched. The horrors and sadness of man's imagination are documented with exceptional clarity. If we must face our fears then here they are, more vividly presented than one could imagine.

There is something inspirational about some of his work as well. “Paintings should be admired and contemplated,” Beksiński said in one of what I imagine were countless attempts to dissuade people from asking him what his work meant—reminding one of Samuel Beckett's timeless reply, “It means what it says”—“Like beautiful landscapes or anything we admire without asking what it means.” Perhaps, but beautiful landscapes are inspirational. They stir the soul, and so do some of Beksiński’s paintings.

What made Beksiński’s imagination so bleak? It is tempting to leap two-footed into the biographical fallacy and reference the tragic events that befell his family but they took place many decades into his career. The horrors of World War Two and the oppressive nature of Soviet communism could hardly have left no impression, but Beksiński maintained that he had a sheltered war, and the closest he came to being “political” was designing a bus that the communist authorities considered too “American.”

Perhaps the most unsettling answer is that this is just what his imagination was like. A fallen species need not endure exceptional trauma to be traumatized. But even in the raw hellscapes of his imagination, fires are lit, and people cling to another, and roots spread. The rigors of nature, and of man's nature, do not overwhelm the human capacity for wonder, and courage, and tenderness. This is a more affirmative existentialism than those of other artists.

Still, I am not exactly disappointed that I did not come across these paintings when I was a teenager.

Featured Image:  Portret żony, 1956-57 r. (Wife portrait, year 1956-57) by Zdzisław Beksiński via Wikimedia Commons.

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland who has written for The Spectator USA, First Things, Quillette, the Washington Examiner and others. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.