Theatre Fine Arts Theory

Visual works

Szajna was a unique and versatile artist: a painter, a creator of graphics, collages and assemblages, a set designer, theatre director, scriptwriter, art theorist and avant-garde artist. He was a graduate of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts and a lecturer at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. All his life he worked on the border of fine arts and theatre. Szajna’s work, both in terms of contents and form, was marked by being an eyewitness to the Holocaust. His imagination was full of dismembered dummies, prostheses, rags that used to be clothes, and shoes whose owners disappeared in gas chambers, as well as the barrels and pipes of cremation ovens. All these motifs made up the artist’s individual and recognisable style. Nevertheless, the world after disaster, as depicted through Szajna’s works, was not deprived of hope. On the contrary, everything that Szajna did and said can be interpreted as an attempt to offer hope and to save human values.

Szajna created the concept of “visual narrative theatre”, all the elements of which, including the actor, are subordinate to the visual component. He made his debut in repertory theatre as a set designer in Opole in 1953, as a theatre director in Nowa Huta in 1963 and as a scriptwriter in Warsaw in 1972. The turning point on his path to auteur theatre was his collaboration with Jerzy Grotowski on Akropolis (1962). Since then, the actor in performances created or co-created by Szajna was immersed in objets trouvés – objects that seemed to have been found on “a scrap heap of modern times” – effigies, ladders, pipes, rags and shoes… His most important work, Replika (Rejoinder), was shown in seven subsequent versions all over the world for two decades.

Szajna’s artistic path as a painter started in the concentration camp of Buchenwald. Three of his pictures from this venue have been preserved. Being deprived of subjectivity was an experience that became a central motif of all his work in the area of fine arts (Reminiscencje/Reminiscences, and the series Mrowisko/Anthills). At the same time, Szajna remained deeply rooted in the tradition of the First and the Second Avant-garde. It reflected both in the way the artist worked with the matter (collages and assemblages, “matter painting”, “objets trouvés”) and in the ways he used space (installations and environmental art). His work has been presented all over the world at several dozen solo and collective exhibitions. In 1989, at the São Paulo Art Biennial, Szajna was hailed one of the five most important artists of the 20th century.

Józef Szajna’s theoretical work is a special comment to both pillars of his artistic activity: fine arts and theatre. His first programmatic text – On the New Function of Scenography – was written at the time of Szajna’s collaboration with Jerzy Grotowski on Akropolis, staged in Opole in 1962. As a set designer, Szajna wrote about increasing the role of performance space, and as a future theatre director he demanded that the literature component of the performance be subordinate to its wholistic concept, since “the author of a drama is invited to participate, but theatre is an equal partner.” From 1962 to 2005, the artist published ten theoretical texts that became a record of how the philosophy of his auteur theatre was shaped.