Tadeusz Kantor was born in 1915 in Wielopole, a small town in southern Poland. His father, a teacher, was killed in World War I, and therefore, Kantor grew up in the house of his great-uncle, a priest. He took an early interest in the theater but decided instead to become a painter, learning drawing and painting under the influence of the Polish Symbolists: Stanisaw Wyspiaski , Witold Wojtkiewicz, and Jacek Malczewski. From 1934 to 1939, he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, where he studied scene design with Karol Frycz, who was himself a highly innovative stage designer as well as a painter, theatrical director, theater manager, and follower of the ideas of Gordon Craig and Wyspiaski. Frycz’s and Kantor’s careers are in keeping with the twentieth century traditions of Krakow, a Polish center for the avant-garde both in the visual arts and in stage design, where visual artists often became theater directors and managers.
In 1942, Kantor and a group of young painters formed the underground, experimental Independent Theatre during the German occupation. In 1946, Kantor began his career as a scene designer, creating sets and costumes for theaters throughout Poland until he went to study in France in 1947. He returned in 1948 to organize the first postwar exhibition of modern Polish art in Krakow and was appointed to the faculty of the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts.
Poland fell under the control of Joseph Stalin in 1949, and the authorities officially imposed Socialist Realism on the arts and artists. Kantor’s professorship was revoked, and he began to collaborate with Maria Jarema, a widely recognized painter and sculptor who had done scene design for Cricot 1 , an important Krakow avant-garde theater between the world wars. Kantor continued designing in this manner until the collapse of Stalinism under Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. With the increased independence of Poland, at least in areas of culture, Polish theater began to flourish. During this time, Kantor’s style began to intensify and vary. It was also in 1956 that Kantor opened Cricot 2, which would eventually be housed in the basement of the Gallery Krysztofory in the old city of Krakow. Cricot 2 became Kantor’s base of operations and a homing point for actors, painters, and poets who sought to explore new dimensions in the arts.
During the late 1950’s, Kantor mounted productions at Cricot 2 while traveling and exhibiting his painting in various parts of Western Europe. In 1961, he published the first of his theoretical works on theater, Teatr Informel (1961; The Manifesto of the Informel Theatre, 1982), which dealt with the concept of a fluid theater composed of “shapeless matter” in which the substance of the performance lay in the artist’s struggle with the material, not in the aggregate result of the performance. Kantor was, in the early 1960’s, a professor at the Akademie Kunste in Hamburg, where in 1961 he published “Ob die Ruckkehr von Orpheus moglich ist?” (is Orpheus’s comeback possible?).
In 1962, Kantor wrote his Emballage Manifesto, which propounded the creation of art objects from the lowliest of wrappings, such as discarded sacks, bags, and envelopes, which, from their despised position as disposable receptacles, acquired an autonomous but utterly empty existence. The Teatr Zerowy (1963; Theatre Zero Manifesto, 1982) followed, and it argued that a play ought not to be enacted but commented on by the performers; its text was to be destroyed and replaced by a theatrical universe of humdrum, discarded objects that are transformed in performance and interact with the actors in a struggle with them for presence on the stage.
From this point on, Kantor continued to create productions in which the text—in many cases the plays of Stanisaw Ignacy Witkiewicz —had been radically altered. He also continued to mount happenings, to paint, to design, and to write. By the mid-1970’s, Kantor was working away from the texts of others by combining...
(The entire section is 1,992 words.)