Born in 1922 in the city of Rzeszow. Scenery designer, stage director, playwright, theoretician of the theatre, painter, graphic artist.
During the World War II occupation of Poland, Szajna was a prisoner of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, a fact that influenced his art.
He obtained degrees in graphic design (1952) and scenery design (1953) from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. In 1954, immediately after completing his studies, he began teaching at his alma mater and continued to do so for the next nine years. Since 1972, he has been a professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he has headed the scenery design studio among other things. He has remained professionally active as an artist throughout this time. Between 1955 and 1963 he designed scenery (for productions like MYSZY I LUDZIE / OF MICE AND MEN after the novel of the same title by John Steinbeck and DZIADY / FOREFATHER'S EVE by Mickiewicz), and subsequently, to 1966, he acted as the managing director and artistic director of the Teatr Ludowy (People's Theatre) in Nowa Huta, where he also directed a series of plays. He has additionally worked with the Stary Teatr (Old Theatre) in Krakow, the Teatr Slaski (Silesian Theatre) in Katowice, the Teatr Wspolczesny (Contemporary Theatre) in Wroclaw and the Teatr Polski (Polish Theatre) in Warsaw. In 1971, he created his own Teatr-Galeria (Theatre Gallery) at Centrum Sztuki Studio (Studio Center for the Arts - formerly the Teatr Klasyczny / Classical Theatre) in Warsaw. There, he pursued his own educational ideas through his singular, elite way of popularizing various artistic genres: primarily through theatre, but also encompassing other domains of the visual and other arts. He resigned the directorship of the Center ten years later, with the advent of Martial Law in Poland.
Szajna produces paintings and prints, designs scenery, directs theatre productions, has authored the scripts to original theatre productions and is a theoretician of the theatre. He is perceived primarily as a man of the theatre and creator of his own, personal formula - as Zbigniew Taranienko states it - of "visually narrative theatre" (otherwise known as "visual theatre," "visual artists' theatre," "theatre of visions"). The primary accent in this type of theatre falls on visual expression. In contrast to artists like Leszek Madzik, however, Szajna never rejected the actor, with his individual gestures, or the word. Nevertheless, the most important role in his theatre is allotted to visual signs and imagery: expansive scenery and often grotesquely over-sized props. Szajna himself was quoted as saying, "I transform life into images [...]," and this thought accurately reflects his intentions. This idea of an innovative type of visual theatre, realized most fully in his productions at the Teatr Studio (Studio Theatre), also encompassed a majority of the artist's experiences outside of the theatre. In his original morality plays (e.g. REPLIKA / REJOINDER, 1973; GULGUTIERA, 1973; DANTE - based on THE DIVINE COMEDY, 1974; CERVANTES, 1976), Szajna combined literary texts saturated with his personal reflections with the previously mentioned visionary organization of the stage space and the inventive, intense, expressive performances of his actors.
The artist began painting and producing prints during the 1950s, the same decade during which he began to work in the theatre. These works manifested the artist's fascination for Art Informel that was dominant in Poland at that time. Szajna initially produced collages, creating flat images by attaching non-painterly materials to them: worn down pieces of leather, chunks of rubber, fragments of fabric (OBRAZY-DRAMATY / IMAGE-DRAMAS). In the 1960s, he channeled his efforts much more overtly towards assemblage, accenting textures in his compositions, adding pieces of found objects (e.g. mannequins). In these works, objects, or their fragments, were not treated in a fetishistic manner, as "everyday votive items"; rather, they carried dramatic content, traces of traumatic experiences (POSTAC V / FIGURE V, 1962; DWOJE / TWO, c. 1966). The need to visualize his own experiences, find an artistic form that would best answer this need, resulted in the artist creating new spaces, an example of which is the environment-like project titled REMINISCENCJE / REMINISCENCES (1969). Szajna also sought in this manner to commemorate Polish artists who had perished in concentration camps. For this reason, he used "mementoes of the past" - the remains of small objects, photographs, concentration camp "props" - all of which lent truth to his message. The artist also referred to tragic events in his paintings of the 1980s and 1990s, in which he drew on both the achievements of figurative art (see the series of ominous, primarily black and white paintings titled MROWISKO / ANT COLONY, 1978-88; GNOM / GNOME, 1991) as well as Abstract Expressionism (ZAMET / CONFUSION, 1989). The spatial arrangement DRANG NACH OSTEN - DRANG NACH WESTERN (1987) also proved an act of the artist's continued efforts to reconcile the barbarity of totalitarianism (Fascism and Communism).
Szajna has represented Poland at events like the Venice Art Biennale (1970 and 1990) and the Sao Paulo Biennale (1979 and 1989). He owes his success around the world primarily to his activities as a theatre artist. He is a member of numerous artistic associations and has been honored for his achievements many times and in many ways, in both Poland and abroad. He has gained particular renown in Italy, where he has received several of the highest cultural awards (e.g. the Gold Medal of the Accademia Italia delle Arti e del Lavoro in Salsomaggiore Terme, 1981). In 1975, the theatre at the Slavic Cultural Center in Port Jefferson (United States) was named after the artist. In celebration of his 75th birthday in 1997, an attic theatre in his hometown of Rzeszow was specially adapted to house a permanent exhibition of his works. This collection (paintings, drawings, spatial compositions from the stage productions REPLIKA / REJOINDER and DANTE) is retrospective in nature and thus provides a glimpse of the artist's subjects and poetic.
Noteworthy publications on Szajna include Jerzy Madeyski and Andrzej Zurowski's book titled "Szajna" (1992), a catalogue published on the occasion of a solo exhibition of the artist's works on his 75th birthday at the Center for Polish Sculpture in Oronsko (1997), and a book by Janusz Szajna titled "Jozef Szajna i jego swiat" / "Jozef Szajna and His World" (2000).
Art History Institute of the Catholic University of Lublin
Faculty of Art Theory and the History of Artistic Doctrines
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