Logo The Grotowski Year 2009
The Grotowski Institute
  • Polish
  • English
City of Wroclaw

Wroclaw European Capital of Culture 2016

the Ministry of Science and Higher Education
Exhibition "Dust: 'Apocalypsis cum figuris' in the photographs of Maurizio Buscarino"

Maurizio Buscarino Grotowski in black and white


A journey into Grotowski’s ‘aura’ through the lens of the great theatre photographer, Maurizio Buscarino, who recently recovered from his archives shots of the last performances of Apocalypsis cum figuris as well as other photos. This is for the current exhibition arranged in Wroclaw for the tenth anniversary of Grotowski’s death.


Buscarino has photographed the theatre and theatres, theatre in prison, puppet theatre, theatre pilgrimages, performances by theatre groups and Kantor’s creations. For more than thirty years he has been the eye and the memory of the new theatre. His photographs are not just documentary evidence: they narrate, evoke, suggest, and interpret. Amongst other things, he also took photographs of Grotowski, especially his Apocalypsis cum figuris in 1979, at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, shortly before the announcement of the Teatr Laboratorium’s dissolution.


HYSTRIO Where did the journey that led you to Grotowski begin?


MAURIZIO BUSCARINO I found myself in the theatre by chance, in my home town of Bergamo, at Teatro Tascabile. Somebody dragged me down to the cellar one Sunday and there I saw Odin Teatret’s Min Fars Hus. I accepted the invitation because they translated the title as My father’s house and they told me that it had something to do with Dostoevsky. I was deeply struck – maybe because of my theatrical virginity – by a look from Else Marie Laukvik. For several days I kept mulling over this very strange ‘thing’ that I had seen. I wrote a few pages about it that I wanted to give them. But they had already left. Then I met the Tascabile people and started to follow their work. They barely tolerated me. They were a sect. I observed them and they knew they were being observed. That is how my journey as an imperfect spectator began, and how I came to know about Grotowski.


How did the photographic service for Apocalypsis begin?


Service? Those photos did not serve for anything. In the preceding years I had tried to photograph Grotowski’s work many times, but I had always been prevented from doing so. Everybody talked about the Polish director as a fundamental reference point, but from their explanations and stories I could not understand why this should be so. During those years, after the disorder of my studies and after some political involvement, I was smothered by a heavy feeling of being stuck, with no way out. Then I turned away towards a little secret in my life that was connected to a photograph: the knowledge of the fact that anyone who entered within the field of my view would go away. With that photograph of mine I met the theatre. At that time, Grotowski was one of those reference points for me that created the coordinates of a most diverse, strange and above all useless landscape. For me he represented the paradox of the human being who starts to play and makes life truthful by playing the game of living it.


What attracted you towards Grotowski?


Poverty. I was fascinated by the concept of the poor theatre. I wanted to see it. So I tried to do so on many occasions. For instance at the Venice Biennale in 1975. This was on the island of San Giacomo. There was a storm and I had hired a small boat because I was late and had missed the ferry that was taking spectators to the performance site. There were water and waves everywhere, and I was holding the cameras up so as not to get them soaked. It was dark when I arrived, and before I entered the building where the performance was, they kindly made me leave the cameras outside. They also gave me an apple that I kept with me all night long. There I saw Apocalypsis. I was angry, hungry, cold and my poor glass eye was shut. There I was. The alienation had become physical. But really, I watched with great interest planning a new ambush to legitimate what I wanted to do: photographs, still points of a ‘movement’ that had an end in itself.


So how did you get to photograph Apocalypsis?


Some years passed. One day they called me from the Centro di Ricerca Teatrale in Milan and asked if I wanted to document Apocalypsis’ last performances. I was not in touch with the Teatr Laboratorium, but they had asked if I could be called. I was to take photographs of some parts of the performance during a rehearsal made mostly for me. When I arrived, Cynkutis told me I should sit still in a corner, without asking for anything, without speaking and without moving. I am saying all this to accentuate the cold atmosphere that, for me, surrounded Grotowski. I was in awe of it, I was feeling cut off, but at the same time this atmosphere protected my own observation post.


And what happened then?


Recently I had just been reading about a new lens – not yet for sale – that was almost as luminous as the human eye. It had been designed and built by Canon to film the candle-lit scene in Kubrik’s Barry Lyndon, which later became very famous. I managed to get one such lens in exchange for some photos, and it gave me a little bit more of a possibility. Everything took place in half-darkness, even darker than I had remembered, apart from the beginning when the two very old-fashioned floodlights were turned on at a low intensity, directed towards a white pillar. They reflected a low and poor light through the room, like an aquarium without any lights on... then they proceeded to light the beautiful yellow candles, made of real wax – but candles nevertheless. At night, in the darkroom, I managed to get some scraps of images. The next day I came back with some prints. I remember waiting, and then Cynkutis arrived. He took the prints from my hands in a cold and official way that reminded me of some apparatchik. He looked at them, then asked me to wait and took the photos to another room, to the other members of the group.


So you had not spoken to Grotowski?


No, I had just seen him sitting in a corner, in the shadows. He can be seen in some images, but he is very dark. Well, I heard them talking in the other room. As often happens when you hear a foreign and hard language, I had the impression that they were swearing all the time. Then Cynkutis came back and said: “Having looked at these photos, Mr Grotowski understands that you are one of us. If you wish, tonight you can take photographs of the performance with an audience, and move about freely on the stage.” Can you imagine... but this new freedom worried me even more. I did not take advantage of this: I moved about very cautiously behind the audience, and I think I ventured onto the stage at only one moment. Now I also had to consider the audience who sat on the floor all around the stage area and who were not aware of my ‘membership’. In reality, I felt more secure in my illegitimacy and also in my alienation before something that I was not sure I could understand.


In what sense?


I still could not catch a rational discourse or narrative. For instance, I could not see the Apocalypse that I was expecting – Saint John’s – anywhere except in Cieslak’s sort of great desperation of the last day. It was enacted in and lived through his body, like a ‘martyr’. I could feel the rhythm of these figures as they made their way towards a final silence, like a foreigner, a visitor or, we could say, an anthropologist, who observes a different way of acting that belongs to another culture. He cannot understand it, he can only describe it – but he is fascinated. Yes, this is what Apocalypsis and in general the theatre were for me, something that went beyond simple understanding. After all, this is what happens when from a window you watch somebody approaching, following a route and then disappearing. Theatre comes to life in the ‘field’ of view.


Later on, did you photograph other phases of Grotowski’s work?


No, the lists were always closed and managed by the ‘Committee’ according to its own plans and opportunities. I also thought that traversing the Wood at night, being enrolled in a list of amateurs, would be a demeaning experience compared to my long-term, absolutely solitary practice in the woods. I took photographs on Olmi’s set for Apocalypsis, I photographed some intense workshops led by Cieslak in Pontedera, a Medea with Elizabeth Albahaca directed by Marconcini and Billi in a beautiful hunting lodge in Buti. Then the group L’avventura directed by Pluchinotta in the Volterra Conservatoire, out of which experience came Punzo, who then crossed the street and went straight in through the front door to start a new adventure of theatre in prisons. I photographed several groups, here and there in Italy, who were inspired by this hypothetical Method...


And what can you tell us about the photographs you took of Cieslak?


I felt affection for Cieslak. You could see the touch of the demon in him, an absolute need to make theatre and his despair at not being able to achieve this, especially after the Teatr Laboratorium closed. I think he felt lost. He knew he was not a potential actor for other theatres. The only one who gave him a real chance was Peter Brook. The last time I saw him he was blind and ascetic in The Mahabharata, of which I took some photographs. I went to meet him in the dressing room that he was sharing with Vittorio Mezzogiorno. Over dinner they told me about their plans, Cieslak to go to Denmark, Vittorio to do a film of a Pirandello... A few years later I learned that Ryszard was ill in the United States... then Vittorio too. The two women from the Teatr Laboratorium, Elizabeth and Rena Mirecka, are beautiful today and still living. I think Zygmunt Molik is over eighty years old.


What did you do with the photographs you had taken of Apocalypsis?


Almost nothing. I think that there are no traces of the prints that I gave the company. I never used the negatives, apart from two or three images that I printed for my books or for some magazines: the one of Cieslak at the beginning – the one of the ‘saint’ squatting by the pillar – and the final one when he is on the floor and the others are leaning over him holding candles. A couple of years ago I started to work with a scanner in order to digitalise some parts of my archives, and I came across Apocalypsis. The negatives were in a very bad state and what prints I could get from them – which are unpublished till now – would have been hard to get in the darkroom. Then with the Grotowski Institute in Poland we thought about organising an exhibition in the historical space of the Teatr Laboratorium, for the tenth anniversary of the director’s death. I worked on 150 images, 80 of which are of Apocalypsis. The rest are about the following years and the attempts by some members to survive in the theatre after the dissolution. These photos, like a little fund that also includes some portraits of Grotowski, are now part of Wroclaw’s historical archives.


Later you must have had a closer meeting with Grotowski, since you shot some portraits of him...


Yes, he had come back from the United States. He had taken refuge in Pontedera, living and working at the Workcenter with Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini. Mario called me and asked me if I could take some portraits. He was joking saying Grotowski was thinking about a portrait “to leave for the future, after his death”. He asked me to keep it confidential. I went to the Centre in Pontedera and found it deserted because everybody was on tour in South America. Only the three of them were left. In one of the rooms I prepared a small set, with a black background and some lights. Then I waited for Grotowski to come. He was not feeling well, he had to conserve his energy and – I also thought – maybe they were still playing with his ‘aura’ a bit. They kept postponing the meeting every hour. Two days passed. They told me he was only going to stay for half an hour, so I had to be ready and quick. For two days I waited, prepared things and was anxious too. They came to ask me how he should dress. I suggested bringing some suits, but the best suit would be his favourite one. He came at night, with a suitcase full of clothes. We started to talk. About Kantor.


You followed Kantor’s work for a long time. Had you ever talked about Grotowski with him?


No. But a couple of times Kantor had talked in a horrible way about him – I think it was during tea and biscuits once. He accused him of being one of the ‘functionaries’ of power who had prevented him from leaving Poland. I think he was referring to those people who took care of ‘communications’ in the Wrocław milieu. He called Grotowski a ‘gigolo of culture’. He knew I had taken photos of Apocalypsis because he talked about it with some of his actors, but he never touched on this subject with me. I think he wanted to avoid an argument. But that is another story.


And what did Grotowski say about Kantor that day in Pontedera?


He started by remembering the photos of Apocalypsis in a way that was gratifying for me. Then he surprised me – but maybe I was expecting it a little bit – when he talked about my photos of Kantor’s performances. He said he knew those performances through my photos. He said they were a très remarquable work that allowed people without any direct knowledge of Kantor to appreciate his value. He also proved the extent of his intelligence by asking me what I had drawn from my intense relationship with such a great artist... I would have liked to have talked more about it but I was on tenterhooks because I knew he was only going to sit for half an hour...


And the portraits?


We opened the suitcase and he showed me his suits. The first jacket was black, the second and the third were also black. The shirts were all white. The ties were green or red – they were all going to look the same in a black and white photo... He was subtly and pleasantly ironic; we carried on with this game of trying things on and fitting and I took several shots, also with a plate camera. He was very diligent, completely still, looking steadily ‘into the camera’ as I was asking him to do. He seemed to be physically tired, but beautiful. The session really lasted little more than half an hour, then they took him away. Now I have chosen one photograph that I consider to be Grotowski’s final portrait, an image where he has an air of importance, a big beard and white hair. He is looking at the viewer, solemnly. I also photographed Thomas Richards with him: the image of their two faces was meant for the cover of the book in which Thomas becomes his heir.


What picture of Grotowski as both a man and as an artist emerges from your archives?


I gave the exhibition the title Dust. I thought about what he knew he was and about what he had become. It is an album of far away experiences and people, of lives that have disappeared, of human beings who lived, whom I saw living and feebly tried to hold onto. What I keep in my archives is maybe the image of a man who reduced himself to poverty to the point that he gave up his fundamental nourishment. His genius coincided more and more with the history of his theatrical anorexia.


Interview by Massimo Marino, published in Hystrio, a quarterly magazine on the theatre and performance, Year XXII, no. 1, Milan 2009


Translated by Roberta Secchi with Paul Allain