By Christopher Thompson
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.
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)