Zdzisław Beksiński’s opus evokes distinct emotions in every viewer and bodes a universal quality of enchantment. The artist steered clear of associating his paintings with any meaning however art critics continue to link them to various aspects of Beksiński’s life. Beksiński’s started expressing himself through photography in the 1950s. His genre has been described as ‘surrealistic impressionism’. Realizing that photography cannot provide him with complete artistic liberty, he turned to sculpting and painting. While it is nearly impossible to describe Zdzisław Beksiński Art through a single art genre, most of his work falls under the ‘dystopian surrealism’ category.
The Psychology behind Zdzisław Beksiński Art
To understand the psychology behind Beksiński’s work we must deconstruct his work in terms of its objective and probable subjective qualities. An unbiased judgment of his dystopian surrealistic work consists of ghastly hellscapes with erotic, dark, and decaying creatures creating an uneasy and suffocating environment. He uses shades of dull colors with extremely fine details that make a seemingly illogical painting look strangely realistic. Anything that a viewer feels when observing an artwork and their attempt to relate it to the artist is essentially a projection of their own psyche. One of the most unique characteristics of Beksiński’s work is an emphasis on expression rather than on the pleasantness aesthetics.
To most people, his work is an expression of the dark side of the unconscious. According to Jungian psychology, this rather sordid side of the personality is called the ‘shadow’. The basic premise of Jung’s psychoanalysis involves the expression and eventual acceptance of the shadow which leads to transformative changes in a person’s personality. The shadow involves those primitive thoughts, ideas, and instincts of a person that are consciously and socially deemed unworthy. Similar to this is Sigmund Freud’s concept of the ‘id’. Even though Beksiński never attributed any meaning to his paintings, he has described them to be “optimistic” and at times “humorous”. These attributions point toward his acceptance of the shadow and psychological maturity. He wasn’t concerned with what the audience might like and was loyal to his unconscious expression. As it turns out, the audience respected his authenticity.
What is Dystopian Surrealism?
Surrealism emerged in Paris in the late 1910s. Surrealism allowed complete freedom of the unconscious mind, in the absence of any judgment. Thus surrealistic expression is a combination of the artist’s cognitive as well as subconscious world. A surge in surrealism was seen right after the gradual death of dada’s irrational rationale. Dadaism doesn’t only imply freedom of thought from logic but the condemnation of rationality and reason. In 1924, artists gradually moved toward surrealism.
Surrealism made its appearance in literature through ‘The Surrealist Manifesto’ written by psychiatrist Andre Broton. Surrealism involved the shift of art from its socially acceptable forms to more authentic, often unreal representations of the psyche. Salvador Dali was a pioneering surrealistic artist. His painting titled ‘the persistence of memory’ is a prime example of surreal art.
Dystopian Surrealism is a specific genre of Surrealism. The term dystopia refers to a fictitious place or state where there are severe misfortunes and injustice, where people live under dire conditions. The landscapes depicted in these works are called ‘hellscapes’ which reflect a scarce and environmentally exhausted place, giving it a gothic and gore appearance. Beksiński combined the characteristics of surrealism and his dystopian imagination in his work, giving rise to dystopian surrealism.
Rise of Zdzisław Beksiński’s Art
His art gained popularity in 1960 in Poland. Gradually by the 1980s and 90s, Zdzisław Beksiński’s art was well recognized all over the world. Beksiński was an architect who graduated from the esteemed Kraków University of Technology. He started his work in construction and later designed buses for the government. In the 1950s he was interested in photography and quickly started expressing himself through his unique style.
His photography can be described as avant-garde with a touch of surrealism, sadism, and even sadomasochism. Sadomasochism involves erotic elements and drawing sexual gratification through physical pain or discomfort. Beksiński later felt that he isn’t being able to manipulate his photographs to the extent he desires. To gain complete artistic liberty, he turned to making sculptures out of plaster and metals. Alongside he became increasingly interested in oil painting which finally gave him full freedom of expression.
The Best of Beksiński
Most of Beksiński’s work is untitled or has a coded name with a combination of letters and numbers. This allows a viewer to completely project themselves while perceiving his work rather than drawing any metaphors from the title.
“Meaning is meaningless to me. I do not care for symbolism and I paint what I paint without meditating on a story.”Zdzisław Beksiński
Beksiński emphasized strongly that his paintings do not hold a special meaning to him and are purely made for aesthetic purposes. Here’s a list of some of the most well-known Zdzisław Beksiński Art pieces:
1. Sadist’s Corset (1957)
Beksiński expressed himself through various art media during his career. He set his foot in art through photography. He used this realism-based medium to create something unreal, logic-defying and surrealistic. The Sadist’s Corset is grayscale picture that depicts a woman with her back toward the viewer, while she is wrapped in nothing but a rope. The shapes made by the rope on her body are inconsistent, making it look as if she is shattered into pieces.
The rope is tied around the model rather tightly like a corset. This gives the viewer a sense of constraint, tightness, and captivity. The frame only captures the woman’s torso leaving out her legs and head out of the picture. Large portions of the model are in shadow further giving it a fragmented appearance. To me, this photograph shows that the privileged do perceive the pain of the oppressed but choose to look at them in fragments to distance themselves from the painful reality. Before coming to the final piece, Beksiński created several drafts of the final photograph. His work is so moving that even the drafts have gained immense popularity.
2. Head Sculpture (1960)
During his gradual shift from photography to more moldable art, he took to sculpting. Almost all of his sculptures have a close resemblance to the human head. In his 1960, untitled head sculpture, Beksinski used a platinum sheet to carve out what looks only slightly like a human face. The most striking features are the symmetry and the eight holes on the sculpture. There is obviously no right way of looking at this piece as it heavily depends on subjective perception.
When you look at the different portions of this sculpture, the holes mimic the eyes or the mouth depending on how you see it. While it might evoke trypophobia in a few, others might be disturbed by the otherworldly look and ruggedness of the sculpture. In my opinion, the sculpture resembles the human bone structure. The piece reflects how people can be totally different underneath the skin. From this point of view, Beksinski once again expresses the themes of death and decay through his work.
3. AA78 (1978)
The AA78 is a famous piece from Beksinski’s ‘fantastic’ period. The art style of this series has been described as ‘fantastic realism’. As the name suggests, this type of art has attributes of fantasy and realism. In his painting AA78, Beksinski uses rather dull colors like ochre and brown with some bright reddish maroon and an even brighter blue.
The portions painted in red are extremely detailed and have a vascular appearance. It seems as if a network of blood vessels is engulfing a structure of concrete. Even under a beautiful starry sky, gloom lurks within the edifice. The small details are both realistic and surreal making the painting look like something out of a dream.
4. Untitled painting (1984)
This painting captures the soul of dystopic surrealism with exceptional completeness. It features two human skeletal figures in a tight embrace. With little flesh on their bodies, it looks like they are on the verge of being reduced to a heap of bones. It may also be that they have dried up and have fused together over the course of time.
The thin layer of flesh is enough to show that the figure on the left is that of a woman and the right is that of a man. The positioning of their hands reflects pain, suffering, and even love to some extent. There’s a sense of wanting to protect one another from imminent misfortune doused in helplessness. Unconsciously, Beksinski presents an emotional narrative about life in the face of impending danger and vulnerability.
5. Untitled Painting
The year in which this painting was completed is widely unknown, which adds to the mysterious idea behind this painting. In the center stage is a carcass of some bird-like fantastical creature. The top portion of the painting features fine details of boney hands and hints of some faces around bright light being emitted from an emblem. Several old artifacts seem to hang on top of the dead creature. The painting comprises an unsettling amount of detail and fantastic realism. When looked at closely, it appears as if the place is like a detailed tomb for the creature.
Beksinski uses his signature Prussian blue to highlight the bird-like creature. Even though the artist doesn’t attribute the specific usage of this color to any particular meaning, art critics have made some interesting observations. This specific shade of blue is the color of an important chemical for the gases used in the holocaust. Therefore, the usage of Prussian blue has been considered a reflection of the artists’ past during World War II.
Through his work, Beksiński conveys how deeply he is occupied by the mystifying forces of the psyche. Even though he didn’t attach any meaning to his work, every aspect of his paintings is symbolic including the color palette he uses. The artist faced several gruesome tragedies in his life and it is near impossible not to connect his dark paintings to the darkness in his life. On the day of his murder, Beksiński completed his last painting which was signed with the letter ‘Y’.
The painting features a delicate sheet of paper with damaged ends and deep creases. The theme of dystopia still occupies center stage in his last painting. The slow decay of this sheet is seen on its fragile edges and its inevitable end is palpable. The creases may symbolize the permanent damage caused by the vicissitudes of one’s life.
In the 1990s, Beksiński got into graphic designing where he edited photographs to mold them into something surreal, keeping in line with his distinctive style. His work has been an inspiration for movies and even video games. The artist was a man of few words but his career speaks volumes. Beksiński’s work continues to mesmerize people to this day.
Following are some Frequently Asked Questions about Zdzisław Beksiński:
How many Beksinski paintings are there?
About 600 paintings by Zdzisław Beksiński are exhibited in a museum in Poland (The Historical Museum, Gallery of Zdzisław Beksiński, Sanok). However, 708 unique digital prints of his paintings can be found online.
Where are Beksinski’s paintings?
The Gallery of Zdzisław Beksiński houses 600 artworks by the artist. This gallery is situated in Muzeum Historyczne w Sanoku (The Historical Museum) in Sanok, Poland. Some of his other works are located in Nowa Huta Cultural Centre, Karakow.
What inspired Beksinski?
In an interview, Beksiński mentioned that he wants to paint in a way that it seems like it’s a photograph from a dream.
“I wish to paint in such a manner as if I were photographing dreams.”Zdzisław Beksiński
However, it was not his dreams that inspired his work. According to Beksiński, he was inspired greatly by music, especially classical music even though he was also interested in rock. He usually listened to music on his headphones while painting.
Why didn’t Beksinski name his paintings?
Beksiński hardly even named his paintings because he did not want people to attach any meaning to his work based merely on its title. He himself never spoke about the meaning of his paintings and emphasized the face value and aesthetics of his work.
When was Beksinski born?
Zdzisław Beksiński was born on the 24th of February, 1929. Beksiński died on the 21st of February 2005.
What kind of art is Beksinski?
Beksiński completely relied on his psyche to draw inspiration for his work. With no filter on, Beksiński captured the underside of human personality in his art. Surrealism, eroticism, darkness, mysticism, death, and decay are some common themes of his artwork. Beksiński set foot in the art world through photography. His photographs have a very distinctive surreal, sadistic, and at times sadomasochistic overlay.
Later he moved on to oil painting most of which featured grim, dismal, and hellish landscapes along with architectural landscapes which were manipulated accurately to give them a tinge of dystopia. The 1960s to 1980s was his fantastic period where he let the subconscious realm of mind be expressed and become conscious of its dark side. These landscapes were occupied by cursed or ominous creatures headed toward inevitable doom. Surrealism combined with impending doom gave rise to his most common art theme, the ‘Dystopian Surrealism’.
Zdzisław Beksiński Art books
The Fantastic Art of Beksinski is a beautifully illustrated book consisting of a collection of Beksiński’s best works. The book was published in 1998 and was authored by Beksiński himself.
What were the tragedies of Beksiński’s life?
According to Beksiński, it wasn’t his childhood or traumatic life events that gave rise to the darkness in his art. The artist grew up during world war 2 in Poland. A large part of the Polish population was Jewish almost all of whom were brutally murdered by the Nazis. This cruelty toward the Jewish created a climate of horror and scarcity in general. The open destruction of buildings, houses, and the creation of concentration camps is expected to hurt the quality of life immensely. Growing up under these conditions may be the reason why Beksiński often used the theme of dystopia in his work.
The next big tragedy in his life struck when Beksiński’s wife died of cancer leaving him alone with their young son. Later, at the age of 19, Beksiński’s son died of suicide. One would think that the worst is over but the future had something even more gruesome in store for him. The old artist stayed in his home alone in Poland all his life, where his caretaker helped him around with chores. On 21st February 2005, the caretaker’s son stabbed Beksiński 17 times over a dispute about some extra money.
When did Zdzisław Beksiński start photography?
Beksiński started photography in the 1950’s. One of his first world-renowned photographs is titled ‘Sadist corset’. The photograph has elements of surrealism and sadism. His unbound freedom of expression received backlash on account of creating something logic-defying through a realism-based medium. Later Beksiński withdrew from photography because he felt he could not completely manipulate pictures as per her imagination.
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