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Letting Tattered Clothing Sing: Tadeusz Kantor's Anatomy Lesson


Martin Leach is a senior lecturer in performance at De Montfort University, where he teaches anatomy, physiology, and philosophy in the School of Arts. He read English and Drama at the University of Hull before studying theatre directing in Poland in the early 1980s.

And already we are in the antipodes of clothing!
lots of pockets!
one inserts into them everything, or else nearly everything!
gnawed pencils
leftover tobacco
crumpled cigarettes
crumbs of bread
pictures of family
pictures of a lover
pictures of children
pornographic pictures
cinema tickets
tram tickets
metro tickets
aspirin tablets
vitamin tablets
paper napkins
official papers
waiters’ bills
stolen teaspoons
loose buttons
and guns
this is the interesting contents and stuffing of
these intimate hiding places
and secret repositories,
this is the genuine,
authentic side of
ridiculous organs of
given for preservation
and memory![1]

— Tadeusz Kantor, from the score to his happening, Anatomy Lesson According to Rembrandt

Artists often use oblique strategies to explore the nature of human being, and in this respect Tadeusz Kantor was no exception. A consistent foundation of his aesthetic was a twofold preoccupation with what he called, in Polish, realność najniższej rangi (the reality of the lowest rank) and przedmiot biedny (the poor object). Each of these terms denotes a lowly and degraded reality at the margins; a form of being that dwells in the liminal ‘zero-zone’ between existence and non-existence. This essay offers a new interpretation of Kantor’s happening, Anatomy Lesson According to Rembrandt (1968–71), and situates it with respect to this aesthetic focus, which, I argue, arose out of Kantor’s witnessing of parts of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ while he was a resident of Kraków during the Second World War.[2] Kantor’s formative experience in the German-occupied city will be shown to relate to his reading of the work of the Jewish graphic artist and writer Bruno Schulz, whose aesthetic strategies of inverting dominant ontological hierarchies informed Kantor’s own artistic practice. Implicit in this inversion is a critique of forms of representational ontology that prioritise a substantialist concept of ‘being’ over the more dynamic and mutable concepts of ‘becoming’ and ‘seeming’; a reading of reality that Schulz championed. I will suggest that in his performative staging of Rembrandt’s own Anatomy Lesson, Kantor posed a challenge to representation that both echoes Schulz’s metaphysics and prefigures a sense of the immanence of life as elaborated in the work of Gilles Deleuze.

Rembrandt completed his painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in Amsterdam in 1632, at a time when the culture of attending the public dissection of corpses in anatomy theatres had become a mark of civic respectability.[3] Kantor’s Anatomy Lesson According to Rembrandt debuted in Nuremberg in 1968,[4] when so-called realny socjalizm (real socialism)[5] was coming to dominate Polish cultural and political institutions, and during an epoch that Theodor Adorno had recently defined as marked by the question of how to live ‘after Auschwitz’.[6] The corpse that is the subject of Tulp’s dissection in Rembrandt’s painting was a thief named Adriaen Adriaenszoon, from Leiden (ironically, Amsterdam’s rival in the staging of civic anatomies), who had been executed on 31 January 1632 for stealing a coat.[7] Significantly, in Kantor’s Anatomy Lesson, it is the clothing that is dissected, rather than the human being.

In his poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ (1926), W. B. Yeats, railing against the approach of old age, wrote of the soul animating the tatters of ‘mortal’ clothing:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing,
For every tatter in its mortal dress.[8]

There are echoes in this verse of the Platonic understanding of the soul as separate from (and superior to) the body.[9] However, as Martin Heidegger argued in his 1940 essay ‘The Age of the World Picture’, it is ‘in the metaphysics of [René] Descartes that, for the first time, the being is defined as the objectness of representation, and truth as the certainty of representation’.[10] I contend that Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson arose out of the same intellectual milieu from which this Cartesian understanding of representation and subjecthood emerged. While Rembrandt was at work on his painting, Descartes himself was also in Amsterdam (from 1629 to 1633), studying anatomy and writing texts such as his Treatise of Man, which presented a vision of mechanical beings ‘composed as we are, of a soul and a body’, and of nature as a rationally knowable system.[11] In an influential reading of Rembrandt, William Schupbach presents a Cartesian worldview as underpinning the Anatomy Lesson, arguing that ‘the duality of man’s metaphysical status [is] given visible form in the composition of Rembrandt’s painting’;[12] Jonathan Sawday also argues for the ‘Cartesian nature of Rembrandt’s image’, particularly in its ‘portrayal of the dominion of intellect over the aberrant will of the executed felon’.[13] As Sawday observes, the spirit of ‘Cartesian man’ extended beyond Descartes’ own writings, exemplified in art, in certain ‘metaphysical’ poetry of the period,[14] and also ‘in the anatomy theatres of Leiden and Amsterdam [where] Cartesian man was born, in the person of a grotesquely twitching criminal corpse, at the behest of the medical and juridical authorities of the city’.[15] I would argue that this dualistic conception, of an incorporeal agent installed within the human anatomy — in the body but not of the body — thus forms an important part of the wider context for Rembrandt’s painting.

‘Restaging’ Rembrandt’s work in an altogether different time and place — in Nuremberg in 1968, where the world had recently come to learn the full extent of irrational faith in the technological and bureaucratic rationalism of the Holocaust — Kantor appeared to articulate a more subversive idea of human life than was implicit in the original painting. In Kantor’s happening, there seems to be a tacit critique of the prevalent understanding of ‘rational progress’, which resonates with Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). This later Anatomy Lesson celebrates life not in the apparently disembodied form of the Cartesian cogito, nor as an object of representation, but as distributed and immanent throughout the ‘poor matter’ of clothing and possessions. Kantor’s intentions may at first appear satirical, focusing on the seemingly peripheral contents of the pockets of the clothing that enshrouds the body lying on the dissection table, and revelling in the low and the trivial in contrast to Rembrandt’s solemn and purposeful anatomical study. Directing attention toward the apparently trivial was one of several strategies of evasion used by Polish artists to deal with censorship in the communist period; this particular quality was essential to Kantor’s art, rooted in his interest in the ‘reality of the lowest rank’ and in ‘poor objects’.

The happening was performed on four occasions between 1968 and 1971. Each time, Kantor made use of found participants, with whom he composed his tableau according to the formal scheme of Rembrandt’s painting. He snipped with scissors at his model’s clothing, opening up the lining and paying particular attention to the contents of the ‘wrinkled and crushed | pockets’, ‘these intimate hiding places’, these ‘ridiculous organs of | human instincts | […] for preservation and memory’. Thus anatomised, the torn clothing and the ‘forgotten leftovers’ and ‘shameful litter’ liberated from the pockets were glued and stapled to canvas to create an emballage: an artwork-assembly or many-layered collage of tattered clothing and personal belongings that was in effect a ‘still life’ or nature mort.[16]

In staging his happening ‘according to Rembrandt’, Kantor appears to set the consequences of the Enlightenment project of rational progress through scientific enquiry in stark juxtaposition to one of the iconic images associated with the origins of this dream. The corpse in Rembrandt’s painting becomes, in Kantor’s performance, an anonymous body whose clothes and belongings are coolly and methodically removed and processed, becoming in the end a ‘painting’ themselves. Kantor’s written partytura (score) for the happening clearly suggests that the seemingly trivial objects harvested from the model’s pockets are ‘the genuine, | authentic side of | individuality’. In this anatomy, the objects take precedence over the forgotten model, as they are gradually transformed into a still-life. However, the value of these objects emerges precisely because of their link to ‘authentic individuality’. In Rembrandt’s painting, the dissected body parts — the flexor muscles of the forearm — are valued for the conclusions that can be drawn about the intricacy of their anatomical mechanisms; the corpse’s individuality is not of interest. It is the demonstration of the power of rational knowledge that is of primary importance.

Rembrandt’s painting has been viewed as a dramatisation of the historical moment of separation of the human soul from its bodily machine, and as a celebration of the triumph of the intellect over the substance of nature. This victory, associated with the coming of Enlightenment-era science, heralded the liberation of Western Philosophy from the post-Aristotelian confusions of Scholastic thought. As Sawday has argued, the Cartesian rational subject, freed of its entanglement with troublesome matter, constituted a new ‘we’, able to gaze clearly and distinctly, as Descartes put it, on the material of God’s creation, understand its workings, and in so doing, put it to more purposeful use.[17] However, this Cartesian system in a sense merely internalised an ancient schism between Being as ousia (substance), and the concepts of becoming and appearance. Heidegger claimed, in his 1935 lecture course Introduction to Metaphysics, that for the ancient Greeks, the apparent opposition between Parmenides’ conception of Being as changelessness and Heraclitus’ conception of Being as becoming was understood in a unitary way,[18] just as appearance was understood to share in the essence of Being, to be an aspect of it (‘appearing belongs to Being […] Being has its essence together with appearing’).[19] In contrast, the Cartesian gaze tacitly embodies the schism, by positing a subject that habitually accesses the objective world via potentially unreliable sensory representations. In this system, the subject that succeeds in installing itself as a rational, sovereign agent wields the power to establish what Michel Foucault has characterised as a ‘biological-type caesura within a population’ that allows the population to be represented ‘as a mixture of races, or to be more accurate, […] to subdivide the species it controls, into the subspecies known, precisely as races’.[20] Paradoxically, the fragmentation of the world understood in terms of representational ontology renders potentially vulnerable all those subject to what Foucault has termed ‘biopower’, such as those instrumentalised and deemed ‘inferior’ within a model of racial hierarchy.

As Adorno and Horkheimer argued influentially in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, one of the possible destinations of the hyper-rationalised use of science is Auschwitz.[21] There, the sovereign agents turned human beings into parts of a machine in which they were anatomised and rendered into inanimate components: skin, hair, gold teeth, and so on. These components were themselves processed alongside a variety of the subjects’ personal belongings by the Sonderkommando, special groups who sorted through the mounds of bodies and clothing outside the gas chambers in order to harvest ‘useful’ commodities prior to the bodies’ incineration in the crematoria. It is not only the bodies that become decomposed in this image of commodification, but also the ‘humanity’ of every survivor and of the various categories of ‘worker’ in the industrialised system of the camps. Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi has written about the testimony of Miklós Nyiszli, a Hungarian physician and ‘one of the very few survivors of the last Special Squad in Auschwitz’.[22] Levi found one episode recounted by Nyiszli particularly significant:

So, Nyiszli tells how during a ‘work’ pause he attended a soccer game between the SS and the SK (Sonderkommandos), that is to say, between a group representing the SS on guard at the crematorium and a group representing the Special Squad. Other men of the SS and the rest of the squad are present at the game; they take sides, bet, applaud, urge the players on as if, rather than at the gates of hell, the game were taking place on the village green.[23]

In his book, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben reflects: ‘This match might strike someone as a brief pause of humanity in the middle of an infinite horror. I, like the witnesses, instead view this match, this moment of normalcy, as the true horror of the camp. […] [T]hat match is never over’.[24] Agamben’s implication is that it is precisely the unseen lack at the heart of this simulacrum of normalcy that constitutes the hidden idea of humanity: a fragile thing, whose awful, bare, empty negation is itself a sort of crime. I shall later locate this idea in Kantor’s happening.

In April 1942, Kantor received news that his estranged father, Marian Kantor, had been shot and killed in one of the quarries in Auschwitz.[25] Although Tadeusz Kantor was never sent to the camp, he was nonetheless a witness to part of the machine of extermination. In November of that year, Kantor, along with his mother and his sister’s family, was resettled to an apartment building on Węgierska Street, in the Podgórze district of Kraków.[26] The building stood within the original boundaries of Kraków’s Jewish ghetto, which had been established in 1941 by the Germans when they evicted the Jews from Kazimierz (the ‘Galician Jerusalem’), the historical centre of economic and intellectual life for Polish Jews since the fourteenth century.[27] The Galician suburb of Podgórze, situated just across the Vistula river from Kazimierz, was a rundown former merchants’ residential area. The ghetto was intended to be an incubator of contagious diseases, such as typhoid, which the Germans hoped would help accomplish the extermination of Kraków’s Jews.[28] The area was enclosed within three-metre high walls, which parodied Jewish tombstones.[29] Following reductions in the ghetto’s size, Kantor and his family came to be resettled next to its boundary in March 1942.[30] That June, the SS assumed authority over the ghetto and in the first few days massacred approximately 600 Jews in Plac Zgody, the main square, and in the surrounding streets; 7000 more were sent to the gas chambers.[31] Further large-scale massacres and deportations to the death camps occurred in October 1942. The ghetto was finally ‘liquidated’ in March 1943 and its entire Jewish population was either killed there or transported to the death camps.[32]

Kantor’s residential situation at that time brought him into close proximity with the doomed populace of the ghetto. His officially registered work during 1942–43 was in the stage workshops for the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre which, following the removal of Jews to Podgórze, had been relocated to the Izaak Synagogue, in the heart of Kazimierz.[33] In order to travel to and from his place of work, Kantor would have had to pass over Piłsudski Bridge, the only open bridge between Podgórze and Kazimierz. This required him to pass along Limanowski Street, where the reduction of the ghetto had divided the street along its middle with a barbed-wire fence, forming the new ghetto boundary.[34] Anyone walking or travelling by tram along this street must have been profoundly aware of the figures on the other side of that fence, already marked by degradation and death. As Kantor articulated it in his twelfth Milano Lesson:

World War II.
Concentration Camps,
Human Beasts,
Human kind turned into mud, soap and ashes,
The time of contempt…’[35]

Kantor’s daily confrontation with an erased or virtually erased humanity became a source for his artistic theory and practice at this time. It was probably during this period, when Kantor was working on what was to be the final underground production for his Clandestine Independent Theatre (The Return of Odysseus by Stanisław Wyspiański, 1944) that he first formulated his idea of ‘poor reality’ or ‘reality of the lowest rank’. Denied their own cultural practices by the occupying forces, many young Polish intellectuals turned to the work of the interwar avant-garde, a key figure of which was Bruno Schulz. Born in the provincial Galician town of Drohobycz (now in Ukraine), Schulz had achieved fame in the 1930s with the publication of two volumes of his short stories, Cinnamon Shops (1934) and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (1937). Schulz was fatally shot, in his hometown, by a Gestapo officer on 19 November 1942, and neither his surviving writings nor his graphic work bears any direct reflection of the reality under German occupation.[36] However, Kantor was an avid reader of Schulz’s fictions at this time.[37] The connections with what the critic Artur Sandauer would later term the ‘degraded reality’ depicted in Schulz’s writing, and the reality both of his own existence as a Pole under German occupation and as a witness to the condition of the Jewish population in the ghetto are stark.[38] After the war, Schulz’s work was not available in Poland until 1964, as much of Polish cultural identity remained suppressed, though this time under various manifestations of socialism.

As Czesław Prokopczyk has noted, the notion of ‘degraded’, ‘bankrupt’, or ‘marginal’ reality in Schulz centres on the Polish word tandeta. The meaning of this word, he writes:

…may be understood, to put it simply and visually, as the lowest layer, or the lowest, though for some intriguing reasons favourite, subspecies of the ordinary in the world of Schulz’s fiction. It is the layer of shoddy and cheap products, of trumpery and lack of taste, of ‘depraved’ human characters, or possibly even of crippled and deformed beings.[39]

In Schulz’s fictional universe, this degraded reality takes many forms, but in general it seems to derive from the deeply felt paucity of provincial life, the sense that what passed for reality in the town of Drohobycz was somehow a second-rate imitation of the reality of an urban centre like Kraków or Warsaw. Reality in Schulz’s fiction is said to be ‘as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character’.[40] It ‘exists in a state of constant fermentation, germination, hidden life’ and ‘takes on certain shapes merely for the sake of appearance, as a joke or form of play’.[41] It is as if, because provincial reality has no substance, it occupies itself with ‘the assuming and consuming of numberless masks. This migration of forms is the essence of life’.[42]

It is not hard to see how this presentation of reality might have spoken to Kantor, in his situation at that time. The German occupation made explicit — and all-too-concrete — a ranking of humanity that had existed to some extent, in a less structured way, in various societies before the war. However, under occupation, Germans assumed the highest rank, Poles became their inferiors, while Jews occupied the lowest rank of all; according to Hitler and the SS, Jews were beneath even the lowest rank of humanity.[43] As Agamben has noted:

The truth — which is difficult for the victims to face, but which we must have the courage not to cover with sacrificial veils — is that the Jews were exterminated not in a mad and giant holocaust but exactly as Hitler had announced, ‘as lice’, which is to say, as bare life. The dimension in which the extermination took place is neither religion nor law, but biopolitics.[44]

Such a reality clearly produces ‘degradation’ at many levels. However, it was not merely as a description of the ‘bankruptcy of reality’, of ‘that city of cheap human material’ that Schulz’s metaphysical prose would have been attractive to Kantor.[45] More than merely black humour, ‘degraded’ reality somehow offers a certain hope in Schulz’s depictions, in that it takes on a celebratory quality and assumes a playful self-sufficiency. Thus, in Schulz’s ‘Treatise on Tailor’s Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis’, Jakob, the narrator’s father declares:

Matter has been given infinite fertility, inexhaustible vitality, and, at the same time, a seductive power of temptation which invites us to create as well. In the depth of matter, indistinct smiles are shaped, tensions build up, attempts at form appear. The whole of matter pulsates with infinite possibilities that send dull shivers through it. […] It entices us with a thousand sweet, soft, round shapes which it blindly dreams up within itself. […] We are simply entranced and enchanted by the cheapness, shabbiness and inferiority of material.[46]

In his 1968 commentary on the contents of his anatomical model’s pockets, Kantor expressed this same, Schulzian sense of enchantment.

The reality of occupied Kraków was one in which the metamorphosis from animate to inanimate body was a casual fact of daily life; in which mounds of clothing or belongings indicated the recently departed presence of a human life just as much as its corpse.[47] In such a degraded reality, where the already lowered quality of life could be reduced further still, to dead matter, it is not surprising that Kantor would be drawn to Schulz’s brand of quasi-panpsychism, to this exotic version of the Aristotelian conception of hylomorphism: of form and matter (a conception that perhaps also anticipates later ideas such as Gilles Deleuze’s vitalist concept of immanence).[48] The cheapness of life somehow heightens the awareness of the awful bare emptiness of its potential negation; but it also becomes a cause of celebration and a form of resistance to the forces of degradation and negation.

In his article ‘Cinnamon Shops by Bruno Schulz: The Apology of Tandeta’, Andreas Schönle argues that it is ‘the privileged position of tandeta that […] it mediates between form and matter’.[49] In its imitation of form, tandeta ‘fakes a definite appearance, without, however, merging completely with it’.[50] Faking ‘a definite appearance’ would appear to be a deliberate paradox, designed to call into question the conventional ranking of ‘appearance’ as ontologically inferior to authentic, substantial being. In his book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Agamben uses an obscure figure from Roman law to articulate a similar paradox of negation at the heart of human being that seems to echo the celebration of tandeta. Homo sacer (sacred man) is a figure who is banned from the law, thus occupying a liminal state of being, of ‘bare life’; that is, the life of one ‘who may by killed and yet not sacrificed’.[51] Drawing on the work of Carl Schmitt in Political Theology and its discussion of the ‘state of exception’, Agamben develops this idea to cite the bare life of homo sacer as emblematic of the condition of human being as existing in a liminal zone between biological existence and political life: between nature and culture.[52] This is a Heideggerian concept of human being as a continual becoming-appearance, an existential performance as opposed to an essentialist substance.[53] If bare life is part of the existentialist essence of human being, then it is the self-recognition of it as such — the human-as-abject-being — which affords recognition of the ‘genuine, | authentic side of | individuality’. What is discarded or forgotten is therefore salvaged and redeemed in Kantor’s Anatomy Lesson,in a way that also echoes Walter Benjamin’s conception of messianic time in his 1940 essay ‘On the Concept of History’.[54]

The celebration of tandeta in Schulz’s fictions can therefore be seen as a re-appropriation of degradation (or in Kantor’s terms ‘reality of the lowest rank’) for creative purposes.[55] This is shown in Kantor’s happening, as the separation of layer from layer of clothing leads to the abrupt discovery of ‘new interior worlds’, which open up to reveal the almost non-Euclidean space of the ‘antipodes of clothing’: ‘pockets! | lots of pockets!’ As Kantor delves into this interior world of his model’s clothing, the cotton padding spills out of the lining. Unravelling and proliferating seemingly out of proportion to the confined space of its origins, this padding seems to echo the ‘fluffiness and porosity’ of matter celebrated by the father in Schulz’s ‘Treatise’.[56] Similarly, the objects that Kantor harvests from this model’s pockets, while initially innocuous, seem gradually to change and proliferate in the partytura, as the catalogue of items progresses. From the innocent and trivial ‘gnawed pencils’ and ‘toothbrushes’, the list proceeds to more personal objects in the form of photographs. However, these consist not only of the expected pictures of ‘family’ and ‘children’ but progress to the more illicit pictures of a ‘lover’ and pornography. As Kantor continues to unpack the pockets, he discovers ‘condoms’, ‘stolen teaspoons’, and finally the escalating violence of ‘penknives’, ‘knives’, and ‘guns’. As with Schulzian matter, there is thus a sense that the inanimate objects associated with the anonymous and forgotten model have a subversive life and humanity of their own; that, as the father in Schulz’s ‘Treatise’ expounds, ‘There is no dead matter […] lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life’.[57] There is also a sense in which the objects come to refer back to the subject of human individuality; not of the anonymous model alone but, paradoxically, of the individuality of everyone. Kantor’s harvesting of objects may recall the harvesting of useful commodities by the Sonderkommandos from the dead victims of the gas chambers. However, through his performative manipulation of the clothing and objects associated with his model, Kantor can be understood to be accessing Schulz’s subversive conception of form and matter, so that these items take on, as it were, a life of their own. In this dance of becoming and seeming, rather than obediently remaining in their category of ‘conventional | or insignificant outward appearance’, these items are liberated from the state of utter abjection that would otherwise seem to be the fate of Adriaen Adriaenszoon, the subject of Tulp’s anatomy, or the dead victims of Podgórze or Auschwitz.

Kantor wrote elsewhere that ‘The human form is shaped on the border area of a live, suffering organism and | a mechanism | functioning automatically and absurdly’.[58] In this conception, Kantor encapsulates the paradoxical fragility of the bare life of human being, suspended between the mechanism of Cartesian matter and the pre-Cartesian animating principle of Aristotelian form, between zoē and bios, between nature and culture, between the apparent oppositions of Being and becoming, of Being and seeming. In doing so, both here and implicitly in what might now be seen as his revision of Rembrandt’s Anatomy, Kantor reconfigured the separate, fragmented, and incorporeal nature of Cartesian res cogitans in a manner that allowed a sense of human soul to return via the illegal, poor side-door of tandeta, in a way that prefigures a Deleuzian conception of immanence. Where Rembrandt’s Dr Tulp found soulless, mechanical material in Adriaenszoon’s dissected forearm and hand, Kantor found a form of humanity in the dissected clothing and contents of his model’s pockets. In response to the unseen negativity at the heart of the football match that Agamben says is never over, and to the potential threat of the awful, bare emptiness of the negation of human life, Kantor’s Anatomy Lesson was a public celebration of humanity and soul within the ‘reality of the lowest rank’.

Acknowledging the dangers implicit in the dispassionate rationalisation of the subject, this gesture by Kantor invokes a more vitalist sense of life, one that is virtual and distributed throughout matter, that speaks and sings itself through the clothing and possessions that remain after the human body has been discarded. This Deleuzian sense of immanence hovers on the borderline between being and not-being, suggesting the self of bare human life being ‘held out into the nothing’, as the Heideggerian conception characterises it.[59] Echoing Heidegger’s ‘nothing of being’, Deleuze suggested in the last text he published before his death that ‘the immanent that is in nothing is itself a life’;[60] the ‘life of the individual fades away in favor of the singular life immanent to a man who no longer has a name, though he can be mistaken for no other’.[61] In his version of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, Tadeusz Kantor, rather than celebrating the rational, sovereign, disembodied subject of the Cartesian cogito, celebrates the liminal, immanent, bare life of tandeta. Where, in Rembrandt’s painting, the coat stolen by his subject is forgotten, Kantor’s response is to let the tattered clothing sing for itself.


  1. ^ Unfortunately, it was not possible to secure permission from the Kantor Estate to present the full translation of the partytura (score) here. A photographic record of this happening, by Eustachy Kossakowski and Jan Popłoński, was consulted for the writing of this essay and can be found in Tadeusz Kantor: Z Archiwum Galerii Foksal, ed. by Małgorzata Jurkiewicz, Joanna Mytkowska, and Andrzej Przywara (Warsaw: Fundacja Galerii Foksal, 1998), pp. 180–97. I am grateful for the assistance of Elżbieta Kaproń, Tomasz Macios, and Professor Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz in making the present translation of a fragment from Kantor’s score. There are several other key source materials on this happening. For details of performances, see Tadeusz Kantor, Pisma, ed. by Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz, 3 vols (Wrocław and Kraków: Ossolineum and Cricoteka, 2004–2005), I (2004), p. 356. For title, main text, and layout, see Kantor, Ambalaże (Warsaw: Galeria Foksal, 1976), p. 26. For graffiti in the photograph of the final installation, see Tadeusz Kantor: Z Archiwum Galerii Foksal, p. 187. Fragments of the Polish text of the score were also published in Grammatica, 3 (1969). There is an English translation by Charles S. Kraszewski in his unpublished manuscript held in the Cricoteka archival collection ‘Collected Theatrical Works and Happenings’ (pp. 437–40), and, more recently, an English translation was published in the book accompanying the 2005 exhibition in Vienna and Warsaw: The Impossible Theater: Performativity in the Works of Pawel Althamer, Tadeusz Kantor, Katarzyna Kozyra, Robert Kusmirowski and Artur Zmijewski, ed. by Hanna Wróblewska, Jarosław Suchan, and Sabine Folie (Nuremberg: Verlag für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2006), p. 109.
  2. ^ Kantor’s Anatomy Lesson According to Rembrandt was realised several times: in the Kunsthalle in Nuremberg (1968), the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw (1969), Dourdan near Paris (September 1971), and Henie-Onstad Art Centre in Oslo (October 1971).
  3. ^ See Jonathan Sawday, The Body Emblazoned: Dissection and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 150.
  4. ^ The happening was filmed; edited fragments can be seen in the film Kantor ist da: Die Künstler und seine Welt (Kantor is Here: The Artist and His World), directed by Dietrich Mahlow (1969), which is available on a DVD included with Sztuka jest przestępstwem: Tadeusz Kantor a Niemcy i Szwajcaria. Wspomnienia – Dokumenty – Eseje – Filmy DVD (Kraków and Nuremberg: Cricoteka and Verlag für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2007) and also in the collection of DVDs The Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor available from Andrzej Białko (
  5. ^ ‘Real socialism’ came into widespread use in the 1970s. The term designated the predominantly bureaucratic (rather than idealistic) forms of socialism practised in Poland and other Soviet satellite states in particular.
  6. ^ See, for example, Adorno’s ‘The Meaning of Working through the Past’ (1959), ‘Education After Auschwitz’ (1967), and ‘Lecture Fourteen, “The Liquidation of the Self”’ (1965), in Theodor W. Adorno, Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. by Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), pp. 3–18, 19–33, and 427–36, respectively.
  7. ^ See Sawday, The Body Emblazoned, p. 150.
  8. ^ William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 217.
  9. ^ See, for example, Phaedo, 82d–83b, trans. by G. M. A. Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), pp. 49–100 (pp. 72–73).
  10. ^ Martin Heidegger, ‘The Age of the World Picture’, trans. by Julian Young in Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, ed. and trans. by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 157–99 (p. 66).
  11. ^ Descartes, in Thomas Steele Hall, René Descartes: Treatise of Man (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 1.
  12. ^ William Schupbach, The Paradox of Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp’ (London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1982), p. 44.
  13. ^ This perspective could be considered a product of the problem of the relationship between the will and the intellect that Descartes had been working on in his Rules for the Direction of the Mind, written shortly before his move to the Netherlands. See Sawday, The Body Emblazoned, p. 153.
  14. ^ See Sawday, The Body Emblazoned, p. 296, n. 18, and Theodore Redpath, The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne (London: Methuen, 1956), p. 3.
  15. ^ Sawday, The Body Emblazoned, p. 158.
  16. ^ Emballage or ‘wrapping’, from the French verb emballer (to wrap), was an element of Kantor’s artistic practice that involved the ‘wrapping’ of people and everyday objects. As well as apparently protecting its contents, the wrapping served both to conceal and at the same time to reveal their presence. In so doing, the emballage also drew attention to itself as a representative of poor, marginal reality, occupying a liminal place between its contents and the observer. In essence, Kantor’s Anatomy Lesson According to Rembrandt is an anatomy of clothing foregrounded as an emballage of the human being; the resulting exhibition of the clothing glued to the canvas is, in effect, an exhibition of this dissected ‘wrapping’ or emballage. See Kantor’s ‘Manifest Ambalaży’ in Tadeusz Kantor, Pisma, ed. by Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz, 3 vols (Wrocław and Kraków: Ossolineum and Cricoteka, 2004–2005), I, pp. 300–04, and ‘The Emballage Manifesto’ in Michal Kobialka, Further on, Nothing: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 154–58. See also Kobialka’s discussion of the specificity of this idea in Kantor’s work in Further on, Nothing, pp. 70–74.
  17. ^ See Sawday, The Body Emblazoned, p. 151.
  18. ^ Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 103.
  19. ^ Ibid., p. 108; emphasis in the original.
  20. ^ Michel Foucault, ‘Society Must Be Defended’: Lectures at the Collège De France, 1975–1976, trans. by David Macey, ed. by Arnold I. Davidson (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 254.
  21. ^ Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
  22. ^ Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. by Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1989), p. 37. According to Levi, Nyiszli, a renowned pathologist ‘whose services Mengele […] had secured’ was ‘supposed to devote himself in particular to the study of twins […] Alongside this particular task of his, to which, it should be said in passing, it does not appear he strenuously objected, Nyiszli was also the attending physician of the squad, with which he lived in close contact’. Nyiszli’s reminiscences were originally published in New York in 1960 and rebublished as Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account, trans. by Tibère Kremer and Richard Seaver (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1993); the soccer match episode occurs in chapter IX of this book (it is described on p. 68). Levi recounts that: ‘An extreme case of collaboration is represented by the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz and the other extermination camps. Here one hesitates to speak of privilege: whoever belonged to this group was privileged only to the extent that—but at what cost—he had enough to eat for a few months, certainly not because he could be envied. With this duly vague definition, “Special Squad”, the SS referred to the group of prisoners who were entrusted with the running of the crematoria. It was their task to maintain order among the new arrivals (often completely unaware of the destiny awaiting them) who must be sent into the gas chambers; to extract the corpses from the chambers, pull gold teeth from jaws, cut the women’s hair, sort and classify clothes, shoes, and the contents of the luggage; transport the bodies to the crematoria and oversee the operation of the ovens; extract and eliminate the ashes’ (The Drowned and the Saved, p. 34). In order that they be prevented from telling what they had seen, Levi reports, these groups were allowed to operate for only a few months before they were themselves exterminated. ‘[A]s its initiation the next squad burnt the corpses of its predecessors.’ In all, twelve squads were formed during the operative period of Auschwitz.
  23. ^ Ibid., p. 38.
  24. ^ Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive: Homo Sacer III, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002), p. 26.
  25. ^ Various dates have been reported for this event; however, Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz gives the date as 4 April 1942, in accordance with the timing given by Marian Kantor’s nephew, Józef Zdzisław Kantor. See Pleśniarowicz’s two books Kantor: Artysta końca wieku (Kantor: Artist of the Turn of the Century) (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Dolnośląskie, 1997), p. 12, and The Dead Memory Machine: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre of Death, trans. by William Brandt (Aberystwyth: Black Mountain Press, 2004) p. 14. See also Zdzisław Kantor, Marian Kantor-Mirski (1884–1942) (Tychy and Kraków: Teatr Mały and Cricoteka, 2004), p. 26.
  26. ^ See Pleśniarowicz, The Dead Memory Machine, p. 35, and ‘Powrót Odysa’ i Podziemny Teatr Niezależny Tadeusza Kantora w latach 1942–1944 cz. I (The Return of Odysseus and the Clandestine Independent Theatre of Tadeusz Kantor in the Years 1942–1944, Part 1), ed. by Józef Chrobak, Ewa Kulka, and Tomasz Tomaszewski (Kraków: Cricoteka., 2004), pp. 38–39.
  27. ^ Anna Jodłowiec-Dziedzic, The Holocaust of Cracow Jews 1939–1945, trans. by Małgorzata Walczak (Kraków: The Historical Museum of the City of Cracow, 2004), p. 3.
  28. ^ Ibid., p. 8.
  29. ^ Ibid.
  30. ^ See Tadeusz Kantor: Wędrówka (Tadeusz Kantor: A Journey), ed. by Józef Chrobak, Lech Stangret, and Marek Świca (Kraków: Cricoteka, 2000), p. 27; Pleśniarowicz, Kantor. Artysta Końca wieku, p. 41, and The Dead Memory Machine, p. 35.
  31. ^ Jodłowiec-Dziedzic, The Holocaust of Cracow Jews 1939–1945, p. 11.
  32. ^ Ibid.
  33. ^ See, respectively, Tadeusz Kantor: Wędrówka, p. 28; Pleśniarowicz, Kantor. Artysta Końca wieku, p. 42, and The Dead Memory Machine, p. 35.
  34. ^ I am grateful to Anna Pióro, the curator of the Apteka pod Orłem Museum, for her help in understanding the changing topographical reality of the Podgórze ghetto and for granting me access to historical maps and photographs. I am also grateful to the late Mike Staner, a survivor of the Podgórze ghetto, who lived at 12 Węgierska Street while it was still within the ghetto, and who described to me at length the situation of the reality at that time.
  35. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, A Journey through Other Spaces: Essays and Manifestos, 1944–1990, ed. and trans. by Michal Kobialka (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 259. See also the first Milano Lesson, p. 211.
  36. ^ For an account of the circumstances of Schulz’s death, see Jerzy Ficowski, Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, a Biographical Portrait, trans. by Theodosia S. Robertson (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), pp. 137–38.
  37. ^ See Kantor’s comments in Krzysztof Miklaszewski, Encounters with Tadeusz Kantor, trans. by G. M. Hyde (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 32–33 and 37; Pleśniarowicz, The Dead Memory Machine, p. 27.
  38. ^ Artur Sandauer, ‘Rzeczywistość zdegradowana (rzecz o Brunonie Schulzu)’ (Degraded Reality (On Bruno Schulz)), in Bruno Schulz, Sklepy cynamonowe. Sanatorium pod Klepsydrą (Kraków and Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985), pp. 5–33.
  39. ^ Czeslaw Z. Prokopczyk, ‘The Mythical and the Ordinary in Bruno Schulz’, in Bruno Schulz: New Documents and Interpretations, ed. by Prokopczyk (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), pp. 175–209 (p. 206).
  40. ^ Bruno Schulz, The Fictions of Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass, trans. by Celina Wieniewska (London: Picador, 1988), p. 73.
  41. ^ Jerzy Ficowski, Letters and Drawings of Bruno Schulz with Selected Prose, trans. by William Arendt with Victoria Nelson (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 113.
  42. ^ Ibid.
  43. ^ See Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Volume I, 1795 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 445–46. From this simple tripartite hierarchy developed a complex web of resistance, of corruption and collaboration, of heroism and cowardice. Some Jews worked for the Gestapo to police Jews under the auspices of the Judenrat (Jewish Council). Some Poles collaborated in order to police each other and any Jews attempting to evade confinement in the ghetto, or any Poles who helped to hide them. Kantor’s somewhat semitic features, together with his living next to the Jewish ghetto would obviously not have helped his situation in that reality. According to the Nuremberg regulations, Kantor was officially classed as Nichtdeutsch or non-German (therefore not Juden or Jew and not required to wear the yellow star). Nevertheless, he was frequently stopped and ‘checked’ on the way to and from his home next to the Podgórze ghetto; that is, stopped by Germans patrols or their Polish collaborators and forced to drop his trousers to prove he was not circumcised. I am grateful to the late Mike Staner for describing to me the environment of ‘checking’ around this time, both by Germans and by gangs of certain categories of collaborators. I am also grateful to Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz who told me that Kantor had made it clear on several occasions both publicly and privately that he had been a victim of such checking.
  44. ^ Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 114.
  45. ^ Bruno Schulz, The Fictions of Bruno Schulz, p. 76.
  46. ^ Ibid., pp. 39 and 41.
  47. ^ Davies, God’s Playground, p. 455.
  48. ^ See Gilles Deleuze, ‘Immanence: A Life’, in Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, trans. by Anne Boyman (New York: Zone Books, 2001), pp. 25–33; and Giorgio Agamben, ‘Absolute Immanence’, in his Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999), pp. 220–39.
  49. ^ Andreas Schönle, ‘Cinnamon Shops by Bruno Schulz: The Apology of Tandeta’, The Polish Review, 36 (1991), 127–44 (p. 131).
  50. ^ Ibid.
  51. ^ Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 8; emphasis in the original.
  52. ^ See Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. by George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  53. ^ Agamben’s concept of la nuda vita (bare life) also resonates with Walter Benjamin’s concept of der bloße Leben (mere life) in the discussion of sovereignty in Benjamin’s 1921 essay ‘Critique of Violence’: ‘Mythic violence is bloody power over mere life for its own sake; divine violence is pure power over all life for the sake of the living. The first demands sacrifice, the second accepts it’. See Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’, trans. by Edmund Jephcott, in Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926, ed. by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004). pp. 236–52 (p. 250). My argument here is that Kantor’s work invokes an idea of bare life in the sense of a subversive celebration of the immanent, virtual, and liminal, rather than as an object of abject sacrifice. See Leland de la Durantaye, Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 203).
  54. ^ Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’, in Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938–1940, ed. by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. by Edmund Jephcott and others (Cambridge, MA: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 389–400.
  55. ^ Of course, such a move finds resonances in the post-Second World War movements in the avant-garde, such as informel, minimalism, and Arte Povera, as well as happenings, which Kantor encountered in his travels in Europe and the United States and which are refracted through his artistic practice (see Kobialka, Further On, Nothing, p. 78). Also, as Piotr Piotrowski has observed, avant-garde experimentation in the visual arts was not confined to the West but flourished in various ways in the satellite states of the Eastern bloc (see Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-Garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989, trans. by Anna Brzyski (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) pp. 9–10). Indeed, although a quality of tandeta can be discerned in the work of many artists such as, for example, Joseph Beuys and Christian Boltanski, the Schulzian reading of Kantor’s happening would be very different from the way Happenings are often seen as orgiastic or as developing out of abstract expressionism, or informel, where Kantor’s appropriation of that form had darker resonances (see Edward Krasiński and Magalena Kardasz, ‘A Happening is a work of art, and not a brawl’, trans. by Jadwiga Piątkowska and Maciej Głogoczowski, in Tadeusz Kantor: Niemożliwe/Impossible, ed. by Jarosław Suchan (Kraków: Bunkier Sztuki, 2000), pp. 235–38; Jarosław Suchan, ‘Kantor as Artist and as Material’, in Tadeusz Kantor. Interior of Imagination, ed. by Jarosław Suchan and Marek Świca (Warsaw and Kraków: Zachęta National Gallery of Art and Cricoteka, 2005), pp. 52–63 (pp. 57–58)). And, although Beuys’ presence in his own work might also be seen as similar to Kantor in terms of philosophical or spiritual inclination, his metaphysical concerns are more shamanistic, overtly mystical and rooted in German Romanticism, and his politics more overtly engaged. Kantor’s metaphysical concerns are – following Schulz – perhaps more ironic about transforming ordinary lowly material into something deeply meaningful.
  56. ^ Schulz, The Fictions of Bruno Schulz, p. 41.
  57. ^ Ibid., p. 40.
  58. ^ ‘Postać ludzka kształtuje się na pograniczu | żywego, cierpiącego organizmu i | mechanizmu | funkcjonującego automatycznie i absurdalnie’ (Kantor, Pisma, I, pp. 111–12; my translation).
  59. ^ Martin Heidegger, ‘What Is Metaphysics?’, trans. by David Farrell Krell, in Pathmarks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 82–96 (p. 93).
  60. ^ See Agamben, ‘Absolute Immanence’, p. 220.
  61. ^ Deleuze, ‘Immanence: A Life’, p. 28 and 29.