Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 1
 Issue 6 
12 Nov
2001

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Jan Lenica (1928-2001)POLAND
Only the images
A profile of the late Jan Lenica

Animator, graphic artist and set designer Jan Lenica died in Berlin on 5 October 2001, aged 73. Daniel Bird reviews his career.


When Sight and Sound asked a young Roman Polanski to name his favorite Polish filmmakers, he cited only two—Andrzej Wajda and Jan Lenica. The first choice was not much of a surprise, but to single out Jan Lenica, a comparatively obscure animator, must have seemed a little puzzling. Lenica, who died last month, is probably best known in the UK for his poster artwork for Roman Polanski's films for the Compton production company, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac (1966). Both are childlike gouaches, verging on the abstract, though immediately distinctive. Like Polanski films, Lenica's career in poster art and set-design cultivated associations with the absurd, a preoccupation that culminated with a series of remarkable animations during the 1960s and 70s.

From sound to images

Poster design for Wozzeck by Jan Lenica
Lenica's graphic work
Born in Poznań, Lenica studied music at the Poznań College of Music, before studying architecture at Warsaw Polytechnic in 1952. However, Lenica soon emerged as an exceptionally gifted painter. After a stint contributing cartoons for the satirical journal Pins, Lenica turned to poster design. Marked by simplicity of expression and an abstract use of colour and line, Lenica developed an immediate, distinctive style and was awarded the state award for lithography in 1955.

In 1957, together with another poster designer, Walerian Borowczyk, Lenica produced a short animated film Był sobie raz (Once Upon A Time, 1957). A witty, formalist joke derived from the free-association of cutout elements, Był sobie raz caused something of a revolution, childish in execution, yet thoroughly adult in conception which deservedly won the grand prize at Venice and Mannheim. During the next year both Borowczyk and Lenica, self-described film "barbarians," created a number of playful film experiments. Dni oświaty (Education Days, 1957) and Sztandar Młodych (Banner of Youth, 1957) were publicity reels with hand-painted graphic interludes in the manner of New Zealand-born animation pioneer Len Lye. Strep-Tease (Striptease, 1957), another cut-out animation, was this time spliced into a newsreel.

The following year, Borowczyk and Lenica dispensed with original artwork altogether, relying solely upon montage and camera movement to transform the work of a Sunday-painter into a rather grotesque love story in Nagrodzone uczucia (Requited Sentiments, 1958). Lenica's collaborative period with Borowczyk culminated in Dom (House, 1958), arguably their most brilliant animation. Composed of several absurdist episodes using a number of different techniques (cut outs, pixilation and object animation), Dom exploited the full potential of film animation. Against competition from Agnes Varda and Stan Brakhage, the Polish duo won the coveted USD 10,000 first prize at the 1958 Brussels Experimental Film Festival.

Differing talents

Shortly after Dom, Lenica's collaboration with Borowczyk ended bitterly and their frictions were never resolved. Within months of each other, Lenica and Borowczyk emigrated to Paris at the bidding of the esteemed Polish-French producer Anatole Dauman. Though not to the detriment of the film, Dom did illustrate the differences between Borowczyk and Lenica's concerns. Borowczyk, a brilliant craftsman, later excelled in highly formal works such as Renaissance (1963), Les jeux des anges (The Game of the Angels, 1964), Diptyche (1967), Goto, l'ile d'amour (Goto, Island of Love, 1968). Lenica, on the other hand, remained faithful to his origins in the graphic arts, pursuing wordless dramas using elegant cutouts against colorful, pictorial backdrops. However, the pair retained and developed their preoccupations with the grotesque and the absurd that was so evident in their Polish films.

Lenica's first solo film was Monsieur Tete (1959), narrated by the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco. Afterwards, Lenica was invited back to Poland, where he produced a Henryk Sienkiewicz animated pastiche, Nowy Janko Muzykant (New Janko the Musician, 1960). In 1962, Lenica created Labirynt (Labyrinth, 1963) a self-consciously Kafka-esque tale of a winged lonely man literally devoured by totalitarian rule. Along with Jiří Trnka's Ruka (The Hand, 1965), Labirynt is considered to be one of the finest political animations ever made.

To feature length and back again

In 1962, thanks to the recently implemented Oberhausen Manifesto (which forced the German government to restructure the way that films were financed), German producer Boris von Borresholm was able to lure Lenica to the Federal Republic to make Die Nashorner (The Rhinoceros, 1963)—a wordless condensation of Ionesco's play of the same name. The film A (1964) was a formally austere pessimistic tale of interrogation. Between 1966 and 1968 Lenica labored single-handedly on a remarkably ambitious feature-length animation Adam 2 (1968). In terms of accomplishing the difficult task of sustaining a rhythm throughout a feature length non-narrative animation, Adam 2 was only comparable to Borowczyk's Theatre de M et Mme Kabal (1967) in terms of inventiveness and scope.

Lenica returned to making shorter films, most notably La femme fleur (1969), a poem to Art Nouveau with a commentary by Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues and music by Georges Delerue. Fantorro, le dernier justicier (Fantorro, the Last Arbiter, 1971) was, like Borowczyk's Szkola (School, 1958) and Les Astronanutes (1959), made up almost entirely of still photographs. I haven't seen Enfer (Hell, 1973) but Still Life (1973) was a less than successful excursion into live action film. Landscape is Lenica's most atypical animation, a resoundingly abstract study made during a stay at Harvard in 1974.

An unrealised dream

Jan Lenica's Ubu et la Grande Gidouille (1979)
Lenica's version of Jarry
As short animations became increasingly difficult to finance and distribute throughout the seventies, Lenica channeled his efforts back into posters and set design, bringing his unique style to productions of Lulu and Kiss Me Kate. However, in 1976 Lenica returned to animation, choosing Alfred Jarry's Ubu roi (King Ubu, 1976) as the subject for a medium-length feature project. In 1979, Lenica edited this German production into a later French production of two other Ubu plays, Ubu cocu and Ubu enchaîné, a venture which resulted in the feature length Ubu et la Grande Gidouille (1979), the only one of Lenica's films that was to rely upon dialogue.

During the early eighties Lenica enjoyed a major retrospective of his poster and animation work at the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, through his work has never received the attention it deserved in the UK. Lenica returned to animation in the mid-nineties, embarking on a feature-length project in collaboration with his brother-in-law, the acclaimed writer Tadeusz Konwicki, author of Mała Apokalipsa (A Minor Apocalypse). Lenica labored on the project for several years at the Miniatura studios in Poland, screening extracts occasionally at animation festivals. By all accounts, the extracts marked a radical departure from his previous work. For once the term "labour of love" was entirely apt, making it all the more of a shame that Lenica never managed to complete his final film.

Jan Lenica:
4 January 1928 (Poznań)—
5 October 2001 (Berlin)

Daniel Bird

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Also of interest
About the author

Daniel Bird is a freelance writer and film programmer based in Britain. His book on Roman Polanski will be published in April 2002.

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