The Polish artist, playwright, novelist, photographer, and philosopher Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939), who used the single name of Witkacy, produced a richly experimental and often surreal body of work in each of the several forms of expression he took up. Underlying much of his work were the themes of individualism and the power of art as responses to a chaotic and disintegrating universe.
Only moderately well known during his own time and almost completely suppressed during the early decades of Communist rule in Poland, Witkacy posthumously became the subject of a major revival in Poland, and increasingly often abroad, toward the end of the twentieth century. A foe of both Communism and fascism, Witkacy turned into a prophet of hedonism. His writings also refer to illicit drugs and recreational sex, which he saw as hedonistic outlets for people living in fundamentally repressive societies. And, in spite of the madcap, disorganized quality of much of his creative work, Witkacy was an uncannily accurate prophet. In addition to predicting the sensual excesses of the student counterculture, Witkacy foresaw the rise of the modern dictator, the growth in the international power of Chinese Communism, and the attraction of Eastern mysticism for disenchanted youth in the West. His surreal artworks have been shown in several major exhibitions outside Poland, and his sprawling novel Insatiability (1930) has been published in English and then issued in a new revised edition in 1996.
Educated at Home
Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz was born in Warsaw, Poland, on February 24, 1885, but grew up in the elegant mountain resort city of Zakopane; some of his first artistic efforts depicted the scenic Tatra Mountains that surrounded the city. His father, also named Stanislaw, was a landscape painter regarded as perhaps Poland's leading artist of the late nineteenth century, and his mother, Maria Pietrzkiewicz, was a pianist and music teacher. The elder Witkiewicz homeschooled his son and made strong attempts to mold him in his own image, but the son took the name Witkacy, derived from his last and middle names, in 1912, after a period of psychoanalysis. Witkacy (vit-KAH-tsuh) was fond of making puns on his new name, sometimes spelling it Vitecasse (“breaks quickly”) in the French fashion.
Broadly educated in painting, music, literature, drama, and philosophy, Witkacy wrote his first play, Cockroaches, at the age of eight, printing it himself on a toy press. The play depicts an attack by a cloud of airborne roaches that come from America. Among his childhood friends were the pioneering Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski and the composer Karol Szymanowski. As a teenager Witkacy wrote extensive essays on German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and other philosophical subjects, but his first love, and the field in which most of his important ideas first emerged, was art. In the years after 1900 he painted some naturalistic landscapes under his father's influence, but it did not take him long to discover the new currents that were roiling the world of European art.
Travels to Russia and Italy facilitated his explorations, and his paintings took a less representational turn after he saw an exhibition of Paul Gauguin's paintings in Vienna in 1906 and traveled to Paris the following year. He settled in the French region of Brittany for several years and studied with one of Gauguin's Polish students, Wladyslaw Slewinski. Gauguin's flat planes of intense color influenced Witkacy's landscape paintings, but he was also interested in fantastic themes of monsters and horror, and in portraiture that might distort the image of the subject for psychological effect. Portraits would be an especially important segment of his mature output. In 1910 Witkacy wrote a novel, The 622 Downfalls of Bungo. By 1913 he had become engaged to Jadwiga Janczewska and had mounted a solo exhibition at the Society of Friends of the Fine Arts in the Polish city of Krakow.
Witkacy's life turned upside down the following year when Janczewska, using Witkacy's gun, committed suicide. He then decided to accompany Malinowski on one of his pioneering research trips to the Trobriand Islands in what is now Papua New Guinea. The relationship of the two men was close but volatile (scholar David A. Goldfarb has suggested that it may have been based on homosexual attraction), and their friendship came to an end after they disagreed violently over the nature of the tribal religious rites they had witnessed. Malinowski saw them as essentially primitive, but Witkacy placed them in the context of his developing ideas about art as a basic human response to the puzzle of existence.
Fought for Russian Army
Returning to Poland, Witkacy agreed to join the Russian military—something he was expected to do, for Russia controlled much of Poland at the time. But his father, who was strongly anti-Russian, was aghast, and died soon afterward. The aristocratic Witkacy was untroubled by life in the army; military conflict supported his philosophical view of the world as violent and chaotic, and he later, according to an article by Adam Shatz in the Nation, “claimed to have hit upon his philosophy of art as ‘an affirmation of Existence in its metaphysical horror’ during an artillery barrage.” During this period Witkacy made a photographic self-portrait showing himself, in uniform, reflected in a series of mirrors. He experienced trench warfare during the later stages of World War I and was wounded in Ukraine. Witkacy witnessed the dissolution of the old order, the failure of democratic forces, and the installation of Communism in Russia in 1917.
Soon, however, Witkacy became disillusioned with socialism and returned home to an independent Poland. For much of his life he lived in his hometown of Zakopane, where he was regarded as something of an eccentric intellectual. He had a fondness for odd stunts, such as luring his friends into absurd situations, and, noted Mark Rudnicki on the University of Buffalo's InfoPoland Web site, “He kept a formal list of his friends in order of importance. His best friend would be in the first position and so on. In the event that a ‘friend’ somehow irritated him or, perhaps, pleased him in some way he would be demoted or promoted on the list as the case may be.”
Beginning around 1920, Witkacy entered a period of intense literary productivity. Most of his philosophical treatises date from the early 1920s. In the field of aesthetics, Witkacy outlined what he called the Theory of Pure Form, which argued against realism in art and saw artwork (whether visual or dramatic—he did not count novels, which were necessarily representational, as art, although he wrote several massive novels) as a primal response to the basic conditions of existence. Many of his ideas were summarized in the 1920 book Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form in the Theatre. Witkacy also wrote books and essays on social themes. He believed that European society was in decline as the individual artistic spirit was being overwhelmed by the forces of democracy and collectivization, which he saw as closely linked. Witkacy's artistic ideas had parallels with those of early abstract artists such as Russia's Wasily Kandinsky, and his social writings paralleled those of European conservatives such as Oswald Spengler and José Ortega y Gasset. In the breadth of his thinking, however, Witkacy was unique.
Witkacy's career as an adult dramatist began with a play called (in English—Witkacy's punning Polish titles often pose major problems for translators) Tumor Brainiowicz, performed in Krakow in 1921. He wrote some 30 plays. Among the most famous are Gyubal Wahazar (1921), a play that seemed to anticipate the rise of Adolf Hitler and other leaders who commanded cultlike devotion, and The Madman and the Nun (1925), depicting a mental hospital in which it is unclear whether it is the doctors or the patients who are insane. Many of Witkacy's plays went unproduced until after his death; they were rediscovered in the 1950s and 1960s and hailed as precursors of the European theatrical movement known as the Theater of the Absurd.
Established Unorthodox Portrait Studio
Around 1925, with funds running low, Witkacy established the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Studio, boasting, according to Shatz, that: “The customer must be satisfied. Misunderstandings are ruled out.” Paradoxically, however, Witkacy wrote in a set of studio rules (which he published in 1928, as quoted by Rudnicki) that “Any sort of criticism on the part of the customer is ruled out.” Customers could choose from one of five portrait types (with several subtypes) designated by the letters A through E, ranging from the most conventional (type A) to “spontaneous psychological interpretation at the discretion of the firm” (Type E, as translated by Rudnicki). An option was to have Witkacy execute the portrait under the influence of tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, or stronger drugs, singly or in combination, all of which he would list on the painting next to his signature. Originally sold very cheaply, Witkacy's portraits today command prices of more than $5,000 apiece.
Witkacy devoted much of the late 1920s to a pair of novels. Farewell to Autumn appeared in 1927, and his most ambitious and controversial work, Insatiability (Polish title: Nienasycenie), was published in 1930. Insatiability was a gigantic satire with elements of science fiction, set in the late twentieth century. It revolves around a brewer's son named Genezip Kapen (the name is a Polish-French pun, for “je ne zipe qu'a peine” meaning “I'm on my last legs” in French) who experiences the last days of European civilization amid a haze of sexual and spiritual adventures: Poland is invaded by a collectivized Chinese army, a “mobile Chinese wall,” despite the efforts of Poland's incompetent dictator, Kotzmolochowicz. A Malay mystic purveying a tranquilizing “Murti-Bing pill” appears in the later stages of the novel, anticipating the drugs-as-social-control themes of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
In the 1930s Witkacy watched uneasily as the rise of Nazism in Germany appeared to confirm his gloomiest prophecies about the brutal conformity toward which modern society was headed. He devoted the bulk of his time to a philosophical treatise, The Concepts and Principles Implied by the Concept of Existence (1935), but also found time to write, producing a satirical essay about Poland, Unwashed Souls; his last play, The Shoemaker; a book on drugs (Nicotine, Alcohol, Cocaine, Peyote, Morphine, Ether, 1932); and parts of several new novels. He established the Artistic Theatre in Zakopane (a Witkacy Theatre was founded in Zakopane in 1984 in his honor). In September of 1939, Witkacy and his longtime companion, Czeslawa Korzeniowska, along with many other Poles, fled eastward as Germany invaded Poland from the west. Trapped by the simultaneous advance of Soviet Russian troops from the east, he and Korzeniowska made a suicide pact. He tricked Korzeniowska into avoiding the lethal dose of barbiturates that he himself took on September 18, 1939, in Jeziory, Poland. It was thought that he had been buried in a grave in what is now Ukraine. When the Polish government decided to honor him with a reburial on Polish soil in 1988, his casket was exhumed, but when X-rayed it turned out to contain not Witkacy's remains but those of an unknown Ukrainian woman. His final resting place remains unknown, and it is likely that he played one final prank on an unfriendly world.
The Witkacy Reader, edited by Daniel Gerould, Northwestern University Press, 1992.
Edinburgh Evening News, March 3, 2005.
Nation, May 6, 1996.
New York Times, April 24, 1998.
Science Fiction Studies, November 1979.
Times (London, England), October 25, 1993.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), July 21, 1978.
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