Over the years, the concept of surrealism has been stretched to its limits by artists of varying calibre through the use of vastly different mediums. However, there was one particular pioneer who managed to capture the true terror of human existence by weaponising surreal elements against the limits of our own imaginations. That person was none other than Zdzisław Beksiński, the Polish genius who earned the title of ‘Nightmare Artist.’
Born in 1929, Beksiński identified art as a major part of his life since he was a child. Starting out with photography, he rebelled against the tradition of realism in the art form during that time by experimenting with the very idea of reality. He explored the depths of human depravity by fixating on the artifice of the medium, featuring psychosexual themes which were presented by contorted subjects. This deviation from realism angered many critics who labelled Beksiński as an advocate of “anti-photography”.
Despite all the backlash, Beksiński maintained that the true purpose of any art form is to provide the artist with complete freedom in order to facilitate self-expression. He insisted that “meaning is meaningless to me.” This aphorism would become increasingly important in his later works, especially after Beksiński decided to abandon photography because he felt that he had nothing new to say via photographs.
The most significant moment in Beksiński’s illustrious career was his decision to switch to painting without any formal training in the field. While listening to classical music during the artistic process, he managed to create some of the most enigmatic masterpieces of the 20th century. His works depicted scenes from nightmarish worlds where masses of indistinguishable, emaciated, blind subjects populated hellish landscapes. Skulls without eyes, people sinking into furniture, apocalyptic resignation.
Many people were moved by the profound bleakness of his works but Beksiński insisted that he was an optimist who was trying to make sense of this world through the use of humour. His ability to laugh at the widespread existential despair while simultaneously maintaining the severity of the condition was something that very few artists are capable of, especially through something as bizarre as his artistic vision.
In an interview, Beksiński said: “All I want to do is to paint. One cannot escape tradition. A painting as such, an object hanging on the wall, defined by its geometric shape, framed, looked at and commented upon is as a whole the result of tradition. Both contemplation of a work of art and conversation about a work of art, are elements of tradition, which have penetrated even conceptualism.”
Although he left interpretation to the people who admired his paintings, there were many sociopolitical critiques embedded in the frameworks of his artistic nightmares. Like many other artists at the time, Beksiński was influenced by the atrocities of the Second World War and he threw in many interesting references to the historical horror by depicting symbols. Ranging from larger-than-life fascists to portrayals of the terrifying crowd psychology which intellectuals like Gustave Le Bon criticised at length, Beksiński successfully created works that were specific and universal at the same time.
“The message of painting does not dwell in the accessories but in the unspoken,” the artist insisted. “At most, accessories or rather the preference for a certain kind of accessories reflect the artist’s mental disposition. But I do not paint in order to initiate spiritual contact. To be quite honest, I do not really know what it is all about. I simply feel an urge to paint And whether I have too much or too little imagination… I must say that I do not think much of imagination. A tree against a misty background means more to me if it is well-painted than all of Magritte.”
As technology advanced in the ’90s, Beksiński began to experiment with computer programs to create digital art which definitely comes across as memes in retrospect. That was his Frankenstein period where he tried to jam the anomalous presence of digital art into the dark beauty of his paintings and the result was nightmarish but in a completely different sense. Towards the end, Beksiński had reached a very difficult position after having lost his wife and his son in quick succession before the turn of the century. It affected him so much that he wrote a suicide note and attached it to his wall as a constant reminder.
Contrary to the preparations, the ‘Nightmare Artist’ did not end up killing himself. He met a different end when he refused his caretaker’s son $100, with the latter eventually stabbing him 17 times. Since then, Beksiński’s masterpieces have been discovered and rediscovered by contemporary masters such as Guillermo del Toro who have tried to recreate his post-apocalyptic hellscapes but haven’t gotten it right just yet.