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Kantor’s Objects: Rembrandt and still life


Tadeusz Kantor Cricotage objects memory still life Rembrandt anatomy psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan Jean Genet


Łucja Iwanczewska is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, where she also graduated from the Department of Theatre Studies and undertook postgraduate Gender Studies in the Institute of Media and Audiovisual Arts. She received her PhD in Literature, specializing in Theatre Studies, in 2010. Her research publications include the books I Must Be Reborn: Encountering Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz’s Plays Otherwise (in Polish, 2007) and The Presentation of Self: Sade and Witkacy (in Polish, 2010). Her main research interests include Witkacy’s plays and the theatres of Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor, which she examines using theoretical lenses developed from contemporary philosophy, hermeneutics, cultural anthropology, psychoanalysis, and performance studies. She collaborates regularly with the Zbigniew Raszewski Theatre Institute in Warsaw.

I will begin from the end. And the end is only there, where there is no meaning left, where there is no content that could generate meaning once again.

I will begin from a place in which the way to think the unthinkable is to strip away its content. And in this place only one gesture is needed: the repetitious forming of structure, to enable forgotten, bleak content to return. To return to the home, I will begin from a chimney. Structure is precisely this — a place to be inhabited, a place to be imbued with meaning and content:

They burned down one by one.
Only a chimney left each time.
A chimney from my painting.
This is a chimney from my home.
Here, on this stage.[1]

I will begin from the end of the world:

An  i m a g e  of  t h e  e n d,
of the  e n d  o f  l i f e,
of death, of calamity, of the end of the world […].
Now then: here — on this stage:
the end of the world,
after a disaster,
a heap of dead bodies
(there were many of them)
and a heap of broken Objects —
this is All that is left.
Then —
according to the principles of my theatre —
the dead ‘come alive’
and play their parts
as if nothing happened.
There is more.
The figures,
which begin their lives again,
do not have any recollection of the past.
Their attempts at putting
the memory shreds together
are futile and desperate.
So are their attempts at putting
the objects together.
They try to put them correctly
to decipher their functions.
A bed, a chair, a table, a window, doors,
and those which are more complex,
a  c r o s s, a  g u i l l o t i n e,
and finally, the tools of
What an incredible collection of
different creative behaviours, despair,
surprises, mistakes…
First and
the world of everyday,
the lowest possible form of mundane existence,
is born.
Then, the world of
the transcendental phenomena,
miracles, and sacred symbols
[is] born.
Finally, the world of
collective actions,
the whole civilization…
Surprisingly enough, all of this
is nothing more than a
r e p e t i t i o n.[2]

In a world absent of world, beginning from and in the end is linked to the premise that metonymy (this ‘incredible collection…’) becomes the sole means of presenting, expressing, or showing. In Kantor’s world there are no metaphors, just metonymies; only metonymy can point towards the presence of those who are absent. The logic of substitution, of repetition, of remixing provides the content. Metonymy belongs to the order of the insolvability of the world. The insolvable world is foreign, mysterious, processual — it is where reality meets the Real. It is not present to everyday experience, since it is visible only in the retreat from life, when the objects that surround us no longer retain their ordinary meaning and function. The insolvable world is process that has been frozen, that has fallen into immobility. This immobility exposes the foreignness, the inaccessibility, the terror of life — the very act of killing. Its state of living-death is devoid of reason and purpose; it gives rise to the most profound fear and permits of no liberation. It is a voiceless haze that conceals all, morphs into all: objects, people, and finally the subject itself. It endures, renders action meaningless, since nothing can inhibit the monotony and sense of menace of the encroaching insolvable world. Its permanence lies in the fact of its sameness. Everything remains the same — what was, and what will be. The past shrinks, since it is founded on the life that has been put to death; the future alludes to nothing, and thus heralds no change. To cite an aphorism by Anaximander: ‘It is out of indeterminateness that things take their birth; and destruction is a return to indeterminateness, which is accomplished by virtue of necessity. For things are subject to chastisement and expiation at one another’s hands, because of their injustice, according to the ordering of time.’[3] Each object appears at the expense of and in place of another, in place of some unrealized potential that exists and disappears over time. Jan Kott called Kantor’s world the ‘still life of the dead’.[4]

Willem Claeszoon Heda, Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie (1631). Oil on oak, 54 x 82 cm. Old Masters Gallery, Dresden.

Willem Claeszoon Heda, Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie (1631). Oil on oak, 54 x 82 cm. Old Masters Gallery, Dresden.

In Kantor’s world, painting is transposed to theatre through metonymic constellations of objects, the leftovers of a world that no longer exists, the absence of the living human being. At the end of the world, the harmony and stability of still life must be replaced with representations of poverty and death. In Dutch and Flemish still life painting, chaos reigned in the scenes of countryside inns, of tables left in the wake of extravagant feasts, of kitchen interiors. We see places relinquished by people, half-drunk glasses, strewn cutlery, and books flapping open: a world vacated by the living, leaving a series of chaotic traces. A poor, empty, abandoned little room. Kantor’s ‘still life of the dead’ virtually transforms metonymic substitution into an erasure of representation. The discarded objects and piles of dead bodies leave us guessing at the rupture that has severed the everyday reality and relations of people and things. They attest to death. But the suggestiveness of these poor objects — abandoned, useless, transformed into junk — does not eradicate all inkling of their past.[5]

This past can be preserved through a wrapping-up — as with Kantor’s emballages — that shrouds the absent figure through a reconstructive gesture of actualization. In Kantor’s serial still life, this may be the ‘fixing’ of a person’s final touch of the object, as when it is necessary at the moment of catastrophe to:

p r o t e c t  it
from destruction,
from time,
from the primitive decrees of the authorities,
from the questioning by the official and slow-minded judges.
And thus the decision
to  w r a p  i t  u p!
To preserve it!’[6]

Here we come close to Bruno Latour’s notion of an attentive, protective assemblage of objects: ‘if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution’.[7] Kantor preserves material traces by reaching for poor objects that endure in the absence of people, yet retain the echo of their existence. The Man with Suitcases, the Woman counting Teaspoons, the Two Hasidic Jews with the Plank of the Last Resort, the Man with the Sack and its Unknown Contents, the Soldier and his Important Object: the subjecthood of all these figures extends into their objects. This is how the communion of human and inhuman arises, the causative community of action and being. The objects are not just things. As Latour writes: ‘They are much too real to be representations, and much too disputed, uncertain, collective, variegated, divisive to play the role of stable, obdurate, boring primary qualities furnishing the universe once and for all.’[8]

An object may serve both as an inscription on a gravestone and a testimony to a life. Its practical function is commemorative. Human ­activity is mediated by its presence, and both person and object inhabit the world on equal terms. Through metonymy, the body becomes an object in order to testify to its existence after death — it must be shaped in the image of an object, a fragment, a supplement, an addendum. The body disrobed of its muscles, nerves, flesh, and skin will tell us nothing about the person who inhabited the body. Rembrandt’s still life anatomy is silent, it leaves no trace of named recognition. As Kantor wrote:

The image of Death,
the most powerful
enemy of life,
is  c o n s t r u c t e d’  by human imagination
from bones,
the most durable parts
of the human body,
w h i c h  h a v e  t h e  b e s t  c h a n c e
to  s u r v i v e.[9]

It is a matter of survival, of a trace that commemorates a person, a confirmation that they existed. It is a hope in a world that endures in the absence of people, a world of abandoned paintings, places, and rooms furnished with objects that testify to death, that retains memory via its most permanent elements. The chimney recalls a house and a world that are no longer there. The anatomy of objects, the still life of a body, saves and preserves the memory of a person who is no longer there, a dead person supplemented by the object. As Kantor puts it:

this is the interesting contents and stuffing of
these intimate hiding places
and secret repositories,
this is the genuine,
authentic side of
the forgotten leftovers,
t h e  s h a m e f u l  l i t t e r,
t h e s e  w r i n k l e d  and  c r u s h e d
p o c k e t s![10]

These material remainders of the past also relate to the domain of reification, of narratives of objects that have their own agency and biography, which are at the same time an enduring testament to the person even as they themselves are transformed.

The Family Machine and ‘the Other Side’

And it was exactly the Reality
of life, so prosaic, with properties
so limited by life’s practicality
and utilitarianism,
which led to the situation in which
an infringement
of that Reality by anything which did not belong to it
constituted an intervention
so alien and unbelievable
that it could seem to be
From the other world.[11]

Social and interpersonal reality, the reality of existence, the reality of everyday life, is only a meagre cobweb of the imagination and may be ruptured at any moment. The chasm brought on by such a rupture is between the Real and our modes of symbolizing reality. It is also a chasm between love and death. It defines our human condition. We are witnesses and participants of the two orders — of love and of death. We exist in the wound, in the tear, which interrupts the rhythm and course of what we term ‘reality’. To live with the knowledge of this rending is to live with an awareness that not everything can be made into a symbol, that an eruption can occur that shakes the very foundations of our existence. But it is precisely there, where the foundations of our world fall apart, that we inevitably recognize the deepest, non-symbolizable kernel of our existence. This open chasm is, in the final reckoning, the people themselves, for it is they who run the risk of death, who preserve symbols, who are derailed and undermined in the realization of objects. But it is also thanks to this chasm that everything can take place on the surface, that the ‘inner’ becomes apparent on the outside. The answer lies not beneath the surface but on the surface.

This is significant for two reasons. The world of the surface, the symbolic order, is always in danger of being erased, of becoming transparent. The objects at the surface lack roots, boundaries, links to the inner depths. The surface world is threatened with invisibility:

the time of the object;
of that ‘something’ that exists at the opposite pole
of my consciousness,
of ‘me’ —
of the centuries-old desire totouch’ it at any price.
The object, which has been deep inside of me,
now started to call my name obtrusively and enticingly.
I was aware of the fact that its traditional representation, its ‘image’,
could not return,
because it was merely a reflection,
just like the moonlight,
a dead surface.
But the object is alive.
...The moon
and its invisible side!
Can one see what is in the invisible side?[12]

Moreover, Kantor’s strategy for arranging the post-catastrophic world metonymically has a further aspect, pointing the way back, the way towards un-remembering, of imbuing the empty structure with content. Reality and its everyday objects belong to the symbolic order, the order in which a person dwells, in which they find their home. It is a place in which we become human subjects, in which we build a home for the death drive so as not to fall into the void in the Real. The death drive is inscribed in the domain of the Real, hence we must build a house and head forward, towards the future. The house that is left behind will serve as protection — as a protective wrapper — since it is a body that is foreign to reality.

According to Harold Bloom, Jacques Lacan took the side of Thanatos over Eros, positing the primacy of metonymy (the trope of adjacency) over metaphor (the dominant figurative trope, of resemblance). He chose the literalness of real death, which undermines the symbolic order and removes the possibility of representation. No figure or figuration can break the chain of signifiers or actualize a return or representation, recovering it from invisibility. Unlike metaphor, however, metonymy can render the invisible present. In his seminar on psychoses, Lacan described the machinery through which the Symbolic and the Real orders meet:

It’s not pointless in this respect for me to remind you of the comparison I made last year between certain symbolic order phenomena and what happens in those machines, in the modern sense of the word, that do not quite talk yet but any day now will. One feeds figures into them and waits for them to give what would perhaps take us 100,000 years to calculate. But we can only introduce things into the circuit if we respect the machine’s own rhythm — otherwise they won’t go in and can’t enter the circuit. We can re-use the same image. Only it also happens that whatever is refused in the symbolic order, in the sense of Verwerfung, reappears in the real.[13]

To put it another way, in the symbolic world — which is constantly threatened by the triumph of a death that will render it invisible in the rhythm and ordering of the metonymic machine — there exist phenomena that, having been expelled from the symbolic order through an intervention or a trespassing, now return from the ‘other side’. The symbolic order has an organizing character, like the self-organizing rhythm of the machine, but it is enough just to disturb the everyday, utilitarian order for the traces of the ‘other side’ to return. Like Kantor’s Family Machine with its Mechanical Cradle, which rocks metonymically between the world of the living and the world of the dead, in a sequence of signifiers. What returns from the other side appears not within us, but without us, externally. It returns and makes of us objects that constitute us and our history. The Real belongs to the world of objects, and so we all carry our objects — pain takes on a shape, our lost loved ones emerge out of a photograph. Thus we can also find Kantor himself among the objects in his theatre:

I am... onstage
I will not be a performer.
Instead, poor fragments of my
Own life
Will become
‘ready-made’ objects.[14]


Jean Genet’s essay on the ‘strange word, Urb…’ reminds us how the material aspect of the world is marked by death, how death permeates the theatre. If ‘the strange word, Urb...’ — ‘urbanism’ — ceases to deal with the dead, it will mean the end of the theatre. The materiality of human remains — of commemorative monuments, of the culture of departures, of farewells, of death — redeems the theatre and prevents its closure, comprising its enduring, object-filled territory. Memory sites such as tombs, cemeteries, and crematorium chimneys interrupt the course of history, freeze the passage of time, their tangibility performing the un-remembering of those who have irreversibly departed. Even when theatre does not represent an object but simply sketches its outline and its shadow. In Samuel Weber’s words: ‘Not bodies, simply, or even corpses, but machines, masks, apparatuses: stage “properties” that belong to no one or to no thing.’[15] It is through these ‘props’ that the person, object, and history form a unity that is manifest in the theatre. Genet wrote:

Before the dead man is buried, let him be borne in his casket to the front of the stage; let his friends, his enemies, and the merely curious gather in that part of the theatre normally reserved for the public; let the funeral mime who led the procession divide and multiply into two, into several groups; let him become a theatrical troupe; let him, in the presence of the dead and the public, recreate the life and death of the deceased.[16]

The permanence of the material space of the world of the dead, of the post-catastrophic world, allows objects to be used as ‘props’ that perform resurrection and reconstruction. The theatre exists so as to repeat death and rebirth. Such is the purpose of Kantor’s theatre of objects.

Translated from Polish by Duncan Jamieson, Adela Karsznia, and Maja Łatyńska.


  1. ^ Tadeusz Kantor, ‘Silent Night (Cricotage)’, trans. by Michal Kobialka, in Kobialka, Further On, Nothing: Tadeusz Kantor’s Theatre (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 434–50 (p. 441).
  2. ^ Ibid., pp. 435–37.
  3. ^ As quoted by Simone Weil in The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind, trans. by Arthur Wills, preface by T. S. Elliot (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 281.
  4. ^ Jan Kott, Kadysz. Strony o Tadeuszu Kantorze (Kaddish: Pages on Tadeusz Kantor) (Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 1977), p. 27.
  5. ^ See Bożena Shallcross, The Holocaust Object in Polish and Polish-Jewish Culture (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011).
  6. ^ Kantor, ‘My Work — My Journey’, trans. by Kobialka, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 1–25 (p. 13).
  7. ^ Bruno Latour, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’, Critical Inquiry, 30.2 (2004), 225–48 (p. 246).
  8. ^ Latour, ‘When Things Strike Back: A Possible Contribution of “Science Studies” to the Social Sciences’, British Journal of Sociology, 51.1 (2000), 107–23 (p. 119).
  9. ^ Kantor, ‘My Work — My Journey’, p. 15.
  10. ^ ‘Lekcja anatomii według Rembrandta’ (Anatomy Lesson According to Rembrandt) in Kantor, Pisma (Writings), 3 vols, ed. by Krzysztof Pleśniarowicz (Kraków and Wrocław: Ossolineum and Cricoteka, 2004–2005), I (2004), pp. 356–58 (p. 358). Translation by Martin Leach and others. For further quoted sections of this text in English, see Leach’s chapter elsewhere in this volume.
  11. ^ Kantor, ‘Great Theoretical Digression’, in Teatr Cricot 2. Informator 1989–1990 (Cricot 2 Theatre: Information Guide 1989–1990), ed. by Anna Halczak, trans. by Elżbieta Chrzanowska-Kluczewska (Kraków: Cricoteka, 2003), pp. 214–18 (p. 216).
  12. ^ Kantor, ‘My Work — My Journey’, p. 12.
  13. ^ Jacques Lacan, The Psychoses 1955–1956: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. and notes by Russell Grigg (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1993), pp. 12–13.
  14. ^ Kantor, ‘To Save from Oblivion’, trans. by Kobialka, in Further On, Nothing, pp. 389–93 (p. 393).
  15. ^ Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), p. 311.
  16. ^ ‘The strange word Urb’, in Jean Genet, Reflections on the Theatre: And Other Writings, trans. by Richard Seaver (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), pp. 61–74 (pp. 73–74).