Zdzisław Beksiński was born on 24th February 1929 in Sanok, though he used to say that this date was not at all certain. Apparently, during the German occupation of Poland during the Second World War he was given a false year of birth to save him from deportation to Germany to slave labor. During the War, he attended clandestine grammar school, and after the war ended he wanted to study film and to become a movie director. But his father did not consent, thinking it would not secure his son's future. In line with the family tradition, he made him apply to the Faculty of Architecture & Engineering at the Krakow Polytechnic. He studied there and graduated with MSc received in 1952. Later in his life he commented on his choice of architectural studies over art: “I hated architecture so much that architecture is a plan, a project and as boring as a mechanical saw execution”.
On April 30th, 1951 Beksiński married Zofia Helena Stankiewicz, and they remained married until her death on September 22nd, 1998. His wife became his muse, and he often used her as a principal model, especially in his photographic works.
Beksiński had no formal training as an artist. After completing college he was obliged to take up a mandatory job assignment, which was then required by the orders of the Socialist government. He spent several years away from his home town Sanok, working on various construction sites as a construction site supervisor. He hated his job, and in spite of the monotonousness that came with it, he had gradually started realizing his true vocation. He took on sculpting, where he would often use his construction site materials for his medium.
After fulfilling his obligatory employment, he returned to Sanok in 1955 and spent a few years working for the Autosan bus and coach manufacturer as a bus designer. But most of his projects, after creating prototypes, did not enter into production. When working for Autosan, he started taking painting more and more seriously. He brought brushes and paint from the Autosan paint shop. Setting up a studio at home was a big problem financially, but it didn’t stop him from excelling in various art forms. Apart from an immense number of drawings he also did abstract reliefs and full sculptures. He entered the Avant-Garde stream and his exceptionalism started attracting critical attention. In his figural drawings, his aim was a well-nigh drastic kind of expression.
Simultaneously he has followed his calling in art photography. In May 1957 Beksiński set up an informal group of art photographers and their expositions were soon held in various galleries in Poland. In 1958 Beksiński became a member of the Association of Polish Art Photographers, and in 1959 he and his two friends exhibited for the first time abroad, at the prestigious gallery in Cologne, Germany.
On November 26, 1958, his first and only child was born, a son named Thomas. His son later became a well-known journalist in Poland, and also a radio music presenter, and translator of English-language film scripts.
In 1959 Beksiński stopped working as an art photographer. The exhibition organized in 1964 in the Old Orange House Gallery in Warsaw brought him his first financial success: he sold all the exhibits. He gave up working at Autosan and devoted all his time to art. The next exhibition organized in 1972 showed a completely different Beksiński. The exhibits were spacious paintings presenting dismal visions completely free of abstraction. Years later he called this his “fantastic” period, which would last until the early 1980s.
In 1977 Beksiński moved from Sanok to Warsaw, to a third-floor apartment in the industrial Służew district. He took his leave of Sanok by making a big bonfire in his garden and burning all the work he didn’t want to take to Warsaw.
In the four-room Warsaw flat, he and his wife looked after their elderly mothers. The cramped conditions made preparing canvases, varnishing pictures once they were dry, and framing them a very demanding and complicated job. The biggest room was set aside for his studio, with a large desk in the center. The smaller room was their bedroom and also served as a parlor. The remaining two were used by his mother and mother-in-law. After the two old ladies had died, he turned one of the rooms into a storeroom.
Over the next three decades, Beksiński created his entire artistic output in this Warsaw’s studio. When he worked there, he always had to have music playing, and he preferred music of 19th and 20th-century composers, accompanying him at work.
In 1984 he established contact with Piotr Dmochowski, a Parisian art dealer who tried for many years to promote Beksiński’s work in France and Germany. Beksiński himself had no part in this and was absolutely indifferent to having his work advertised.
The Sanok Historical Museum embarked on a systematic publicity campaign for his work, especially after 1990, arranging over 40 exhibitions in various Polish cities. His first permanent gallery was set up in the newly renovated rooms of Sanok Castle and initially exhibited about 100 of his works.
By late 1994 Beksiński was becoming more and more fed up with his contract with Dmochowski. Continual mix-ups were making him tense and feeling guilty, unable to cope with a situation in which he was partly dependent on another person. He wanted to be free, even at a cost of financial problems. The decision to break off the contract was maturing.
On November 16th he finally wrote a letter to Dmochowski ending the contract. He did not want and was not able to organize his exhibitions and delegated all this business to the director of the Sanok Historical Museum. He never turned up at official events and took no part in artistic affairs or political life.
Beksiński suffered from various health problems himself, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, but his wife’s illness was a particularly traumatic experience for him. In November 1995 doctors diagnosed her with an aortic aneurysm, which brought about her death on September 22, 1998. For him, those years marked by the impending tragedy were full of anxiety. He loved his wife very much and could not imagine life without her, but knew he would have to manage somehow.
On Christmas Eve of 1999, his beloved son Thomas committed suicide. Although Beksiński initially wanted a daughter, he loved his son very much, and the suicide death of his son was a tragedy for him and left an unfulfilled void in his life. The artist was left on his own.
He devoted his last years to painting and computer art. Thou his friends used to visit him from time to time, he felt that no-one could fill the void left by his dear ones.
In 2001 he drew up his last will and testament, making the Historical Museum in Sanok his sole beneficiary. He made several visits to his home town to settle the renovation of the family tomb and for promotion events held in Sanok Castle of albums of his work published by Polish publishing house BOSZ. He hated leaving his flat, yet he kept returning to Sanok, pinning his hopes on this city for the safeguarding of his work.
In the evening of February 21st, 2005 Zdzisław Beksiński was murdered in his Warsaw flat by a teenage son of his caretaker, reportedly because he refused to lend him money.
Hundreds of people attended his funeral in Sanok. All artworks and archival materials left in the Warsaw apartment were passed to the Sanok Museum, making it famous for the world’s largest selection of Beksiński’s works.
Despite his passing, Beksiński’s art lives on and is adored by the art lovers all over the world. Countless artist has been inspired by Beksiński, and his influences are often present in contemporary films, music, especially rock music, and video games.
One of his admirers is the famous Mexican film director, and Oscar winner for the Best Picture in 2017, Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro has been quoted as saying:
‘In the medieval tradition, Beksiński seems to believe art to be a forewarning about the fragility of the flesh, whatever pleasures we know are doomed to perish, thus, his paintings manage to evoke at once the process of decay and the ongoing struggle for life. They hold within them a secret poetry, stained with blood and rust’.
Bio courtesy of Wiesław Banach's essay, used with permission from the Historical Museum in Sanok, Poland. Text edited by Cezary L. Lerski.