“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men”, wrote Roman magistrate and writer Pliny the Younger in a letter to historian Tacitus, recalling the tragedy that hit the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the fall of 79 AD. Then, a roaring Mount Vesuvius erupted and pulverized molten rock and hot ash hundreds of feet into the air for 18 hours straight, releasing 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki atomic bombs.
“Some [inhabitants] were calling their parents”, Pliny the Younger goes on to say, “others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”
For centuries their bodies were buried beneath 30 feet of mud and ash, until excavations in the early 1800s unearthed them. Around 1,150 casts revealing the women, men, children and animals in and around Pompeii were made by pouring plaster into the cavities in the ash enveloping their remains. We can now see these harrowing victims forever suspended in time, spending their last seconds on earth in complete agony. Many were found in a fetal position, weirdly contorted and overtaken by spasms from extreme dehydration at the time of death. Those who were fortunate enough died in the arms of a loved one.
The terror captured by the plaster figures of Pompeii finds echoes in Untitled (1984), a work by Polish cult artist Zdzisław Beksiński. At first glance, it seems like we’re watching two petrified lovers with their limbs interlocked like matching puzzle pieces in a tight embrace, set against a hazy, apocalyptic background. But look in more closely and you’ll notice that these skeletons still retain part of their muscle mass, making their embrace even more emotionally gripping. Their calcified bodies display a sculptural texture, chiseled with care to reveal infinitesimal details, a reminder of humans’ frailty and wondrous biological complexity.
Are they holding on for dear life or for dear death? The way their fingers are digging into each others’ flesh might mean that they’re actually alive (or undead), and that their physique is an adaptation to a post-nuclear world. At least that was my impression after seeing more of the artist’s surrealistic, dystopian paintings.
Yet Beksiński’s art reflects an anguished psyche, an outpouring of despair and palpable fear which defies any logical reasoning. In fact, the Polish artist refused to title any of his paintings, so that his art wouldn’t be encumbered by analysis and interpretations, and would instead be experienced solely for its haunting and eerie aesthetics. Now, if I were to ask you what your favorite Beksiński painting was, I’m pretty sure the answer would be unanimous: Untitled.
Over the decades, Beksiński’s story conflated with the grimness of his apocalyptic, nightmarish visions, raising the question of whether life imitates art or vice versa. Plagued by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the artist shielded himself from the world in his studio, where he wouldn’t paint unless classical music was blasting in his ears, a habit which ultimately affected his hearing. He didn’t travel or take unannounced visits, nor was he comfortable with any changes to his routine. “EVERYTHING that separates me from the BASE (which is a house or an apartment that I own) exposes me to a specific conditioned nervous tension”, he explained. One of his most paralyzing obsessions was the thought of someone stuffing spiders into his mouth, a phobia surfacing in his works.
But it was the last period of Beksiński’s life that almost overshadows his art. In 1998 his wife Zofia died of cancer and, a year later, on Christmas Eve, his son Tomasz committed suicide. It all culminated with the artist’s own demise, in 2005, stabbed to death 17 times in the confines of his Warsaw apartment, by the 19-year-old son of his housecleaner after he refused to lend the boy money. As much as he had tried to shield himself from all the real and imaginary dangers that tormented him, tragedy still found its way. We are left with his paintings, the cocoons of his fears and haunting memories which are forever encased like the agonizing figures of Pompeii.
Have a spooky Halloween!
Note: You can take a virtual tour of the Zdzisław Beksiński gallery at the Muzeum Historyczne w Sanoku here.