Zdzislaw Beksinski And The Vast Nothingness That Surrounds Us

A look behind the bleak but beautiful artwork.

Zdzislaw Beksinski wasn’t big on talking about his artwork. A man who often admitted to journalists that he was in love with himself, when it came time to explain the meaning behind his doomsday surrealist-style paintings, the esteemed artist would suddenly grow shy and put up a defensive wall, then sternly suggest that his viewers simply appreciate the aesthetics of what he had given them, rather than try to interpret its emotional significance.

Still, when a person brings such ghoulish pieces of art to life in a manner so powerful, one begins to wonder where his inspirations lie. I mean, looking at Beksinski’s paintings feels like watching the beginnings of a storm. As the fiery red hot and bleakly cold pigments mix together, the colors themselves seem to almost boil and flash with life, making each piece appear more striking than the last. His depictions of gaunt, hellish creatures roaming harsh and sickly barren inner landscapes appear as though someone peered into the post apocalyptic world that awaits us, and brought back pictures that resemble a waking nightmare. It’s only natural that eventually, someone would grow curious, and ask him what he’s going on inside his head.

Born in Sanok, Poland on February 24th, 1929, Beksinski grew up loving art, but was told repeatedly by his parents that there was no money to be found in it. Following their lead, Beksinski graduated with a degree in Architectual Engineering and an MSC in the Technical Sciences in Krakow. From there, he spent a few years during the 1950s working on random construction sites in Krakow and Rzeszow for the Autosan Bus Factory, where he designed the bodies of buses and minibuses. In short, he did not like it. Beksinski began his photography period during the ‘50s as a hobby, making only enough money to continue purchasing materials, but eventually, he gave it up and turned completely to painting, because it gave him more freedom in his expression of his subjects. When he found that he could actually make a decent living on painting alone, he said goodbye to the auto industry, and spent the rest of his days mainly in his atelier, blasting classical music (and surprisingly some pop music too), drinking his Nescafe coffee, and painting for fourteen hours straight. 

Although hints of his moody, nightmarish metaphysical themes popped up in his work during the early 1960s, it wasn’t really until the 1970s, when he began painting in oil on Masonite, that he really hit his stride and earned himself a loyal audience. This came to be known as his “Fantastic Period”, which lasted up through the mid 1980s and made him a household name in Poland and across the globe. In 1972, he got his big break during his exhibition at the Warsaw’s Teatr Wspolczesny, when he sold all of his paintings in one fell swoop, and earned the love and admiration of critics and fans alike. Beksinski still remained deeply antisocial, but he won everyone over anyway, simply because the work he created when he put paint to hardboard panels was too astounding not to notice.

Some would argue that his many illustrations of death and decay are a result of his horrendous real life tragedies, but the truth is, his obsession with things like the warped human figure and tombstones and crucifixions became evident long before such grievances occurred. In 1998 Beksinski’s loving wife Zofia passed away. One year later, his son Tomascz, a famous music journalist and translator for foreign transfers of big Hollywood movies such as Die Hard, Apocalypse Now, Wild at Heart and Silence of the Lambs, sadly took his own life on Christmas Eve of ‘99. This obviously devastated Beksinski, but one shouldn’t simply cite these awful happenings as the sole reason behind his wickedly haunting work. He wasn’t reacting to trauma; he was offering audiences a peek behind the wizard’s curtain – just so long as they don’t start asking questions.

If there were any life event that influenced Beksinski’s vision, it’s more likely that it would be the fact that he grew up in Sanok, Poland amongst the chaos of World War II. However, that still doesn’t explain his infatuation with sadomasochistic imagery, as seen during his early photography era in pictures like the 1957 “Sadist’s Corset”, which looks like a black and white depiction of voluptuous woman bound in an unnatural way. It also doesn’t explain how he became a world famous painter without any formal training. Some people are just talented and driven, and it’s quite possible that he was one of the gifted few who exhibit these traits.

Still, people wondered and poked and prodded, and still Beksinski insisted that there was no meaning behind his ghastly creations. Even when people pointed out how he hated to exhibit his work, and how he rarely showed up to public events to meet his consumers, Beksinski claimed that he was completely uninterested in manifestos of any kind, be they artistic or political. At the end of the day, it seems that Beksinski was just a very misunderstood and modest man who adapted to the default position of talking himself up and faking glory in an attempt to ward off questions he didn’t want to answer.

Amongst friends, he babbled for hours, although he admitted that he often forgot birthdays and names and things he deemed unimportant in comparison with his craft. To him, his work was all that mattered, but trying to explain it to someone else felt like torture.

Finally, in an interview with Katarzyna Janowska and Piotr Mucharski, Beksinski began to open up, and reveal some of the inner workings of his meticulous mind. “We all sit in a false reality, scenery” said Beksinski in his eye-opening interview. “All will become nothingness”. At first, it seems as though Beksinski is relaying depressing thoughts about how pointless life is. However, as the interview continues, it becomes clear that his viewpoint is less about nihilism and more about Maya’s Doctrine of Sankara, which suggests that people rise above asking questions and interpret life on an intrinsic subconscious level of understanding and acceptance. 

According to Beksinski, “Art is like a bottle of vodka given to a convict prior to execution. A besot premed. So he doesn’t know what’s going to happen next”. He says that we cannot stand waiting for nothingness, that we have to do something. If it’s all dust, we might as well make the most of it and make beautiful art in the meantime. 

Despite what his horrifically hypnotic paintings, his blunt way of speaking, and his withdrawal from society might suggest, Beksinski insisted that he is a happy person who actually does require an audience to continue painting.