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Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) Born in the Galician village of Wielopole, Kantor studied painting in the Fine Arts Academy in Krakow from 1934 to 1939. His earliest work for the stage was a Marionette Theater performance of Maurice Maeterlinck's The Death of Tintagiles, which he produced in 1937 and which led to a renegotiation of his constructivist proclivities, inspired by Malevich, Mondrian, and Gropius, with his curiosity about the "great mystery" and "excommunicated symbolism" of Maeterlinck, Kafka, and Bruno Schulz. During World War II, Kantor started the Young Artists Group and the Underground Independent Theatre in German-occupied Krakow, with which he staged clandestine productions of Romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki's Balladyna and Stanislaw Wyspianski's The Return of Odysseus. It was during this time that he began to produce works in non-theatrical spaces and to incorporate ready-made, everyday objects into his work. After the war, Kantor's rejection of Socialist Realism led to his dismissal from the faculty at the Higher School of Fine Arts. In 1955, he co-founded the avant-garde CRICOT 2 THEATRE, which gained immediate renown for its 1956 production of S.I. Witkiewicz's The Cuttlefish and continued to be a laboratory for works by Witkiewicz and Kantor. Despite his increasingly successful engagement with theater, however, Kantor never stopped working in the visual arts, and was acclaimed for his painting in Poland and abroad: in 1959 he participated in Documenta 2, and in the early 1960s he taught painting at the Fine Arts Academy in Hamburg and exhibited widely in Western Europe.

"When somebody says that I am a theater director, I don't agree," Kantor insisted. "When he calls me a painter, however, I agree, because it's an old term with an enormous tradition behind it - but 'director'? Only about two hundred years..." Painting was for Kantor an actual laboratory of ideas, a private scene of dialogue with tradition, the avant-garde, and the whole world. It is important to recognize that every stage in his work in the theater corresponds to a development in his work as a visual artist. Kantor's artistic vision in both fields underwent a sea change in the 1950 and 1960s, when he turned his back entirely on abstract art and illusionist painting and focused on a conceptual aesthetic oriented toward physical objects - umbrellas, bags, crumpled rags and pieces of paper, common garbage - transposed from everyday life to the world of art. As he put it, "Metaphysics must have its own physics," and Kantor's physics was devoted to such "poor objects" and what he termed Reality of the Lowest Order. During his time in Western Europe, Kantor encountered the new art practice of happening, and in 1965 organized the first Happening in Poland, an hour-long piece titled "Cricotage." He would go on to organize over a dozen more happenings through the end of 1960s, and is perhaps best known for his 1967 "Panoramic Sea Happening," which took place near Koszalin on the Baltic coast, lasted for two hours, and involved 1600 participants. In conjunction with this practice and with his general aesthetic shift, Kantor developed two phenomena specific to his work: emballage and cricotage. Emballage, which means simply "wrapping" - as object and practice - was a way for Kantor to explore the phenomenology of surfaces, in terms of both concealment and containment, and especially with regard to tactility in both theater and the visual arts. Cricotage is a mode of performance that Kantor developed directly out of his happenings, but which he distinguished from them, and from performance art in general, as being neither an open form - i.e. open to audience participation - nor dependent on the human body as the site of action.

It is Kantor's theatrical work from the 1970's and 1980's, known as his "Theatre of Death" phase, that has garnered the most international attention and that continues to define his legacy. His piece Dead Class premiered in Kraków's Krzysztofory Gallery space in November 1975 and went on to tour internationally, attracting audiences and awards in places like Edinburgh, Milan, Sydney, Caracas, West-Berlin, Mexico City, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, and New York, where it won an Obie Award for its performance at La MaMa E.T.C. in 1979. Memory, the past, the impasse of life and death, and the power and limits of the imagination, became the thematic material of subsequent works like Wielopole, Wielopole (1980), Let the Artists Die (1985), I Shall Never Return (1988), and the posthumous Today is my Birthday (1991). Like Dead Class, all of these works toured extensively with the Cricot 2 Theatre. During this last phase of his career, Kantor's cricotages and paintings continued to be shown internationally, and a critical discourse around his work emerged, with books published in Switzerland, France, and Poland, and symposia held in Poland and Belgium. Since his death in 1990, the Krakow-based institution Cricoteka, which was founded in 1980 as a "living archive" of the Cricot 2 Theatre, has continued to preserve the memory of Kantor's work. In 2008, construction was begun on the Tadeusz Kantor Museum, which will house Cricoteka after its opening in 2011.

Chronology of life