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Photographing Dreams: The Art of Zdzisław Beksiński (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 6)

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A valley between high cliffs into which a distant light faintly shines, where the giant bodies of dead soldiers seem to have grown somehow into the solid rock. A cathedral as massive as Chartres, made entirely of blood and flesh, with a great dark hole leading into the center of the structure like an invitation. A horde of insect-like creatures crawling into the gaping mouth of a huge godlike face, in front of the bombed-out ruins of a dead city. Zdzisław Beksiński, Polish painter of fantastic realism, may be the greatest twentieth-century artist most people in America have never heard of.

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Beksiński never named his paintings and he never explained them, once saying “I cannot conceive of a sensible statement on painting.” He disdained any question about what his paintings meant, describing his work as simply “photographing dreams.”

 

It is the quality of Beksiński’s dreams that make his work so fascinating. Beksiński saw into another world and then incarnated it in this one, giving us windows onto the mythic realms in the form of his paintings. Where Gaiman, Lukyanenko or Barker portray an intersection of the waking world with a transcendent reality, Beksiński never shows us our own world, but only the other one. His works are nevertheless a definitive example of the mythorealist tendency, using realistic techniques to make the mythic into something you can almost touch with your own hands. It is Beksiński’s mastery of his technical repertoire that makes this possible, because there is nothing vague or notional about these images- they practically look like actual photographs, albeit of a landscape that is as alien as it is horrifying.

 

One of his paintings shows a world of monoliths, on each of which squats an identical circle of skeletally-thin figures grouped around a fire, seemingly performing some coordinated ceremony. In another painting a spider-like or crab-like monster, as big as a house, broods from atop a T-shaped crucifix that looks down on a lunar landscape of dark blue rocks. Many of these images involve massive architectural edifices, ruined cities, buildings made of organic matter, and cadaverous humanoid figures performing ritualistic acts.

 

Beksiński’s paintings were consistently grim, but he was apparently a pleasant and easygoing man in person, and he described his own work as being in some sense humorous. If so, then it was gallows humor. The last years of Beksiński’s life were marked by tragedy. His wife Zofia died in 1998, followed by the suicide of his son Tomasz a year later. In 2005, Beksiński was stabbed to death by the teenage son of his caretaker after he had refused the young man a loan.

 

Beksiński’s life may have had its tragedies, but he was not a melodramatic or self-indulgent figure. He claimed to be inspired primarily by classical music, and he was said to be shy and modest in temperament. In an era in which the artist’s outward-projected ego was everything and the work nothing, Beksiński was the exact opposite. He showed that the mythic realm could be painted with all the clarity and precision of a digital picture. Indeed, he worked almost exclusively on the computer for the last period of his artistic life, creating digital images of the same strange worlds he had so often rendered in paint.

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition

 

The Two Worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth (The Mythorealist Spirit in Art and Literature, Part 5)

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Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth operates on two levels at the same time. On the one hand it is the story of Ofelia, a lonely little girl in post-Civil War Spain, who has been carted off to a rural military outpost where the Spanish Maquis are waging guerilla warfare against her Falangist stepfather’s tiny garrison. On the other hand it is the story of the Princess Moanna- the very same girl- who must find her way back to her true home in the Underground Realm, the beautiful fairyland from which she is unknowingly exiled. A mysterious and more than a little sinister faun (the “Pan” of the title) guides young Ofelia through the tasks she must perform to prove that she really is the reincarnation of the lost Princess Moanna, and that her life in the human world has not rendered her unfit to return home.

 

Ofelia’s stepfather is a sadistic fascist, a war criminal and torturer who loves only the unborn son his ailing wife is carrying, and then only as a symbol of his own masculinity. Though unfailingly correct toward his wife in the old school sense, his coldness and distance toward her create an air of constant tension. His attitude toward Ofelia develops from disdainful to murderous as he discovers her sympathy for the Maquis, and her intentions of running away with his newborn son after the death of her mother.

 

The tasks set for Ofelia by the faun are classic fairy-tale tests, such as to obtain a key from the body of a giant toad, and a magical dagger from the lair of a child-eating ogre called the Pale Man. Ofelia fails this second test by violating a taboo, resulting in one of the most visually stunning sequences of the movie, as the Pale Man hunts Ofelia through the corridors of his lair, watching her through eyes in his hands. The task, the broken taboo and the child-eating ogre are all classic fairy-tale motifs, but what makes this scene so effective is its successful evocation of the feeling of a nightmare, of being chased through dark tunnels by a relentless monster. The effective use of modern special-effects technology is what makes this possible, creating the visual illusion that all these things are really happening, with no more suspension of disbelief required than the bare minimum.

 

Most directors telling such a story would have given us a fairyland of cloying sweetness and impossible innocence, but the perilous double nature of the traditional fairy realm is incarnated in the faun, a darkly powerful presence who evokes anything but trust. His final task for Ofelia is to steal her baby brother and bring him to the labyrinth, where he reveals that the only thing that will open the portal to the Underground Realm is to shed innocent blood. Ofelia’s final test is one of good versus evil, and she doesn’t know which of the two the faun actually serves.

 

The ability to see out of more than one set of eyes, to accept multiple interpretations of reality at the same time, is the heart of magic. Is the Underground Realm “real” or “imaginary”? Is Ofelia a sad and possibly delusional little girl, or a fairy-tale princess? Does she really return to the Underground Realm, or is her final vision of that magical place a mere hallucination?

 

All of these things are actually true at the same time, depending solely on your perspective and your worldview. Ofelia’s stepfather is a man who can only see one world. Ofelia can see two. Any interpretation of the final scene depends on how many worlds the viewer can see.

 

Author ofA Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest

“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)

 

Amazon Link

$2.99 Kindle Edition