Andrzej Klimowski & Danusia Schejbal

Behind the Curtain

In the 1970s two young British art students, recently married, decided to study in Poland, the country of their parents and their origins. At a time when most people were trying to get out of Poland, Danusia Schejbal and Andrzej Klimowski wanted to get in. Youthful and adventurous, they thrived in a world that was controlled by the Kremlin and where food shortages were the norm.

Pocko talked to Danusia and Andrzej about life as young artists in Poland and took a peek into their studios and their lives as collaborators. They have recently released a delightful and compelling story of their adventures in Warsaw, in the form of a graphic novel, entitled, Behind the Curtain.

The book took 4 years to complete and is a mix of the two individuals in the story-telling as well as  each artist completing their own panels. Woven in the images is a world that no longer exists, a world of the Eastern Bloc with fantastic stories of political intrigue, violence, war, and hardships along side discourses into family, love and of course, art.

Danusia gives lectures, continues to paint and has recently become obsessed with sculpture. In addition to his personal practise, Andrzej has been teaching at the RCA since 1983 and was Professor of Illustration from 2006 to 2014. He recently finished his 99th book cover for a series of books by PG Wodehouse, published by Everyman.

The following day, we left for Kraków. Danusia’s friend took us to see the ‘Forefathers’, a drama by Adam Mickiewicz. It was a visionary and emotionally charged performance. We had never seen anything like it before. This was the reason why we had to come to study in Poland

How did you meet?

Andrzej:  I met Danusia’s father first while we were both working as film extras, playing Polish officers.

Danusia: I saw Andrzej in a photo my father had of all of the actors and I thought, “Hmmm…he looks nice.”  Then on Guy Fawkes Night I went out with a fellow who wanted to introduce to me his friend who was Andrzej.

Andrzej: Yeah, and it was love at first sight.

Danusia, you became quite a successful stage designer and Andrzej, you were designing film and theatre posters, also very successfully. What was it like working in austere circumstances, such as food shortages and strict governmental control?

Danusia: You wouldn’t expect how creative it was. There were many workshops where we could get crafted goods, made exactly how we wanted. Especially for theatre costumes, this was wonderful. In England all the costumes were already made and this spoiled us creatives.

Andrzej: The thing that first comes to mind is how differently materials were used. It was difficult to get tracing paper, and I would reuse the same sheet over and over, erasing its contents. One piece lasted me more than a year! There were shortages of specific products, and to get photographic fixer I would need to travel right across Poland to the town where it was available.

Danusia: I used to just get the cheapest paper possible. It was very rough children’s block. But now-a-days that sort of paper would very trendy.

Andrzej: But everyone lived under the same conditions. You could be a famous film director living in a block of flats, just like us. I remember meat wasn’t available as much but food was never a problem.

Danusia: I learned so many things from friends who were able to be creative in their cooking and did vegetarian dishes because there was no meat. We were young and we had fun! No one had cars but Warsaw was very small and you could walk from one end of the city to the other.

Andrzej Klimowski, Film Posters for The Omen, 1977 and Taxi Driver, 1978

How were you paid? Were you able to make a decent living? 

Danusia: The art people were very spoilt under Communism, and that was a plus thing. No actors were out of work, and all artists were doing what they wanted. You never found anyone working in a shop.

Andrzej:  Supporting the arts was a way of maintaining national identity. Poland had been partitioned for 150 years between Russia, Prussia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So, this is why graphic design and theatre were so important- more than painting which had to do with fine arts… maintaining cultural identity was a priority.

Danusia: I used to earn a fortune, earning half a years rent which was a lot for 2 months work.

Andrzej: But not in the beginning. I used to earn 1,800 for a film poster and that was the fee that was set up in 1954 and then in 1976 or 77 they changed it to 5,000.

And you never felt like you missed England, that you missed having a more comfortable life?

Danusia: I used to come back occasionally to visit my parents and I returned when my son Dominik was born. I did miss it at times, especially the simple things and food, I remember sausages were impossible to get in Poland.

Andrzej: But sometimes things would just arrive out of the blue, like toilet paper.

Danusia: Yes and there was also the case of the toilet paper, one would have to buy it if you went to a restaurant or a public toilet. There would be a couple of ladies sitting there and you would have to give the 5p for one sheet of paper and sometimes it was old newspaper.

Andrzej: And sometimes you could get stuff from Cuba, because it was a friendly Communist country, so we could get oranges and of course cigars!

Danusia: We could also go to the cinema everyday because it was so cheap!

But everyone lived under the same conditions. You could be a famous film director but you still lived in a block of flats.

Danusia and I understand each other’s work and this helps us in collaborations, we can expect what the final result will be like.

How did you collaborate on a book project such as Behind the Curtain?

Andrzej: We do work together and this is the fourth project we collaborated on, I mean it depends, we talk a lot but I work in my studio and Danusia in hers, but our work is very intuitive, as we know each other very well. The story for Behind the Curtain was planned out according to the addresses where we lived during our stay and we definitely worked chronologically, we have shared our different memories that – when put together – narrate our experiences in detail. It all started when we were invited to a cultural convention in Poland, we sat down at a bar and started reminiscing. It felt like fiction, a very different generation to today’s one. There are only a few pages where we fully work together, usually we cut between every scene and we get our own spreads to work on. We thought it would be nice to overlap our work, but it’s also up to the publisher to decide how to edit the scenes. They give us full freedom, but they always help in reorganizing the editing. The storyline is fully a product of collaboration, and we do decide what color panels to use beforehand, to give a sense of continuity and flow.

Danusia: haha my scenes seem so minimal, I always like to put as little as possible.

Andrzej: But that was the reality, there was no advertising and the walls were grey.

Danusia: Yes, the locations were truly minimal, we had the kitchen, the entrance and lounge were all in one room. We only had one sink, which was both a bathroom and a kitchen sink.

Andrzej: At one point the project was interrupted. The Polish Cultural Institute asked us to create a book that would celebrate space exploration and we came up with the idea for “Robot”. Danusia and I understand each other’s work and this helps us in collaborations, we can expect what the final result will be like.

The Master and Margarita, 2008.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 2009 Danusia Schejbal and Andrzej Klimowski

Have you always worked together?

Andrzej:  We always worked together in some capacity…

Danusia:  I used to be his model…

Andrzej:  And my consultant…

Danusia:  At the same time, I value his advice a lot.

Andrzej:  We never really dreamt of collaboration on books, but it came naturally, some students introduced me to the idea of working with Danusia. They talked about us to Selfmadehero publishers, with whom we did an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” . We went on after this project and started working together on other books, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Smokers Union – 1990 ( mixed media on linen), Untitled – 1990 (mixed media on linen), Danusia Schejbal.

Do you ever find illustrating a book to be a challenging job?

Danusia:  I always loved the idea of illustrating, within literature and theatre especially. I find it quite natural to translate a written story into images.

Andrzej:  Many times I find myself taking notes while reading a book, drawing on the margins and blank spaces and underlining a few things. I find very often that the very first ideas that come to mind are the best ones. You don’t want to find yourself over-elaborating an idea and trying to be clever, whilst that first initial idea might actually be the best.

Danusia: Although the ideas behind the illustrations are often intuitive and unprocessed, there is a lot of sketching behind each panel. My natural way of drawing is very free and full of character, as I usually draw with large, fast strokes of color. In making a graphic novel, my style loses many of its natural characteristics, but for the best. Andrzej helped me a lot, especially in the initial steps, in learning how to approach the work of making a book.

I use a variety of mediums for the original drawings, I used a lot of water crayons as opposed to paint in the last projects as I found myself more comfortable with them. But I love textures, coming from a theatre background, where costumes and fabric play a big role in the play, I developed a special affection towards the tactile aspect of art.

Series of Covers for PG Wodehouse books, Published by Everyman, Andrzej Klimowski.