‘Richard Demarco is without a doubt a remarkable man, an Italian Scot, a founder of the Traverse Theatre, a man who is an artist, a writer, a philosopher. He is a man who has brought contemporary visual arts to the Edinburgh Festival. He has been involved in more than 50 Edinburgh Festivals, and has brought great artists like Joseph Beuys and Kantor to thousands of people. He has also brought the visual arts from other parts of the world, from Eastern Europe, long before other people were interested. And he has inspired us all…’
Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate Gallery (1)
I have met Professor Richard Demarco on many occasions. Summerhall, the present home to Demarco Archives , is one of the places where you can see him often moving through the Gallery’s corridors with a camera around his neck, always ready to chat about his latest projects, his passion for art and people. And there are always many young people around Richard Demarco. Some of them come to see him for advice and support at the advent of their artistic careers. Researchers like me, interested in the past, are hungry for information from its truest source – from a man who actively shaped the growing Scottish arts scene after WWII.
Demarco, who has always focused on building bridges rather than defining boundaries, was one of the first to introduce artists from behind the Iron Curtain in the United Kingdom. Such an idea produced a profound outcome, as Polish art, with the world’s greatest theater names like Kantor, had a revolutionary impact on the Scottish audience and the people associated with theatre and art industry. From the very beginning, shows and exhibitions were lively and endlessly discussed by everyone in the city. And even nowadays, those who were lucky enough to participate in those inspiring events recollect them with passion and a noticeable note of nostalgia in their voices.
It has to be mentioned that the Professor was well versed in Polish history and culture long before his first visit to Poland in the 60s. ‘I was a schoolteacher and the children I taught were the result of the intermarriage between Polish soldiers and Scottish girls. They were a new kind of Scots. I was also intrigued by the history of the post war period in Europe when Poles who had fought so valiantly for freedom against Nazi tyranny and against the stupidity of the Russians were then unable to return to Poland. As a Roman Catholic I got to know the Polish community in Edinburgh in a church where I was serving for mass. I could see soldiers in Polish uniforms praying there. I thought that Poland was an important unexpected new dimension in the history of Scotland.’ (2)
The Demarco Gallery was brought to life three years after Traverse Theatre and Traverse Gallery were founded, as Richard’s ambition to establish Edinburgh’s hub of international creative energy to stretch beyond festival time. The first two exhibitions that immediately stood out from this period were an exhibition of Polish artists in 1963 and of Polish film posters four years later (3). Nobody could ever have predicted that those two remarkable events were just the beginning of a long-standing cooperation between Richard Demarco and the Polish Avant Garde.
The fruits of such a relationship were almost immediate. In May 1967 Richard selected the exhibition 15 British Painters for the gallery of the Union of Warsaw Artists. In return, the exhibition 16 Polish Painters, along with famous Roman Opalka, was presented at Demarco Gallery in October that same year (3). The exhibition of Polish artists turned out to be very popular with the Duke of Edinburgh, a special guest attending the event (2).
The years passed and Richard’s unusual interest in Poland persisted. After a collaboration with German and Romanian artists, he reconnected with Poland in April 1971 with Józef Szajna’s exhibition at Demarco Gallery (click for photos). Szajna returned to Edinburgh the following year with a production, Replique, and installation, Auschwitz. Both artworks were included in the Festival program of contemporary Polish visual art, literature, film and theatre, titled Atelier 72. (3)
Atelier 72 was the result of close collaboration with Ryszard Stanisławski, director of the Museum Sztuki in Łódź. It was an incredible project with highly sophisticated artistic aims and an impressive list of participants including T. Kantor, M. Abakanowicz, W. Borowski, J. Beres, Z. Gostomski and others. This is how Demarco commented on Atelier 72: ‘I wanted an exhibition which would emphasize the artists’ role as a magician able to revive our sense of wonder. I wanted an exhibition which would free the artist if he wishes, from the responsibility of making master works, thus revealing more clearly his creative activity, his existence, and his preparedness to involve himself in new means of communication. I wanted an exhibition, which would weaken the spirit of materialism.’ (4)
Tadeusz Kantor, as an experienced painter, philosopher and theatre director, fully understood Demarco’s vision for Atelier 72. The first production he introduced to the Scottish audience was ‘The Water Hen’ by Stanisław Witkiewicz (click for photos). The performances were improvised in Polish under the close supervision of Kantor who conducted ‘actors’ on ‘the stage’. ‘The Poor House’ was a truly unusual space where Kantor and his theatre, Cricot 2, proved their artistic excellence while staging ‘The Water Hen’ and later ‘Lovelies and Dowdies’ (click for photos). Following Kantor’s special request, it was a room with ‘traces of other activities, not artistic but with traces of commercial life… a kind of a storeroom of rather ‘poor theatre’ where many objects were found in disorder, useless, gathered together, carelessly thrown about… no conventional seating arrangements… there should be the impression that one is part of the milieu of events.’ (5)
Indeed during Cricot 2 performances the audience, that once included Sean Connery, was entirely engaged in the frightening drama that gradually unfolded. Through cathartic proceedings on the stage, the audience was confronted with ‘suffering, death, sexuality, insanity, torture, passion, love, redemption, and suicide’ (5). Demarco remembers the participants being totally overwhelmed. ‘They had never seen anything like this before in their lives but they immediately recognized genius. The world’s greatest manifestation of theatre in the 20th century was Polish, and it was from Kantor (2). Kantor returned to Edinburgh in 1976 with his famous production ‘The Dead Class’ (click for photos). It was, however, Tadeusz’s last theatrical collaboration with Richard Demarco, presented at the Edinburgh College of Art for the Fringe Festival (3).
Following the success of Atelier 72, Demarco presented several other highly regarded exhibitions of Polish art in Scotland. Among them were: ‘Awangarda Polska’ in 1979 including artworks of famous H. Stażewski, S. Witkiewicz, T. Kantor; ‘The Polish Exhibition’ in 1986 featuring such great names as M. Abakanowicz, T. Kantor, E. Dwurnik, W. Hasior, Z. Jurkiewicz, J. Robakowski, J.Przybyla; ‘Art at the Edge: Contemporary Art from Poland’ with artworks of M. Abakanowicz, E. Dwurnik, I. Gostowska, J. Beres, J. Nowosielski, L. Tarasewicz and many others. It is worthwhile to mention that Demarco also supported the art of Z. Makarewicz, B. Koslowska and one of the leading Polish film directors at the time, A. Wajda (3).
Overall, between 1967 and 2010, Richard Demarco presented over 12 exhibitions specifically devoted to Polish contemporary art in Edinburgh. He has always believed that ‘all serious art originates in the meetings of friends and their preparedness to work together with their shared values, ideals and hopes, and their willingness to take risks’ (1). This bore fruit in Demarco’s lifelong relationships with many of the finest Polish galleries such as: the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw, the Museum Sztuki in Lódź, the Krzysztofory Gallery, Wrocław Art Academy and others (1, 2). Due to his connections, he was in the position to introduce Scottish and international art to the Polish audience. In the spirit of creative friendship, the Foksal Gallery exhibited artworks by T. MacPhail, D. Mach, I. H. Finlay, J. Beuys, to name a few (2). Poland was also one of the Professor’s destinations on his pan-European 7,500-mile ‘Edinburgh Arts’ journey into the origins the European Culture and contemporary art language of the 20th century (5).
There have been many other exhibitions of Polish artists on the international art scene supported by Richard Demarco not mentioned in this article. Those who would like to further explore the cultural dialogue he initiated between Poland and Scotland are more than welcome to visit the Demarco Collection and Archives currently at Summerhall . Part of the Collection has been purchased by The Scottish Nationally Gallery of Modern Art. It has also been digitized by University of Dundee and it is available online (6, 7). The Archive, recognized as ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ – a total artwork, comprises hundreds of thousands of photographs of artistic events documenting the past 50 years of the arts in Scotland. It includes over a thousand contemporary artworks and among them are paintings, sculptures, prints, posters, even conversation transcripts and unique correspondence with artists and galleries from around the globe. On top of that, the Archives offer its own library with a collection of rare art books, catalogues, and various publications in several languages, including Polish (1).
Richard perceives ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ ‘as a unique form of academic resource for people studying artistry, history of theatre, history of Edinburgh Festival, history of Poland in relation to English speaking part of Europe, history of Kantor and many more’ (2). He wishes his ‘total artwork’ to be a tool of education but above all a source of inspiration to young artists. Poles who live and create here are especially welcomed to visit the Archives to rediscover the legacy of the Polish Avant Garde artists who achieved spectacular success in the UK. Such a visit, to those aware of the Scottish-Polish artistic connection, could serve as a starting point for a new creative practice, whether in following or in opposition to the Polish art trends introduced in Scotland several decades ago (2).
Professor Richard Demarco’s involvement in promoting art has been widely recognized in the UK, Poland and worldwide. He received the Edinburgh Award and was also appointed European Citizen of the Year in 2013. Among his accolades are the Romanian and German Orders of Merit, and the Gloria Artis gold medal of Poland awarded by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland, Bogdan Zdrojewski (2, 3, 8, 9). It is not the medals that are the most important to Richard Demarco though. The man described as ‘one of those rare people who have truly made a difference’ (1) untiringly believes in friendship and the power of encounters ‘between human beings in settings and situations in which creative energy is discernable’ (1). This truth has been made manifest in a variety of collaborations with Polish and international artists throughout the decades. It is also present every time the Professor meets young generations to ignite and support their quest for self-development in the world of art.
Words: Iga Bożyk
Iga Bożyk, along with Patrycja Godula, is a curator at the Polish Contemporary Art Group – the leading organisation promoting Polish artists and artists of Polish origin who create in Scotland.
All historical photos are from the Richard Demarco Archive; find many more amazing photographs from this archive in digital form www.demarco.heroku.com website.
Photo at the top of page – The Water Hen, performance by Kantor’s Cricot 2 Theatre, Forrest Hill, Poorhouse, Edinburgh, 1972
Photo on the home page: The Polish Invasion, Radosław Słomnicki, www.radek.art.pl
(1) The Demarco Collection and Archive (2009) Demarco Archive Trust Ltd, ISBN 978-0-9562305-0-8
(2) Interview, Iga Bożyk with Richard Demarco (04.07.2014), private collection
(3) 10 Dialogues Richard Demarco. Scotland and the European Avant Garde (2010) the Royal Academy of Art and Architecture, ISBN 978-0-905783-21-5
(5) Richard Demarco a memoir (2005) Charles Stephens, ASIN: B005885BTE (4) The Demarco European Art Foundation, Foton http://www.richarddemarco.org/documents/foton.html
(6) Richard Demarco and The Demarco European Art Foundation link
(7) Research Project, The Demarco Archives link
(8) Richard Demarco to receive Edinburgh Award link
(9) Richard Demarco – Zasluzony Kulturze ‘ Gloria Artis’ link
Full Atelier 72 catalogue in pdf format link
Richard Demarco awarded with Polish Bene Merito and Order of Merit of the Republic of Germany link
10 DIALOGUES: Richard Demarco, Scotland & The European Avant Garde link