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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz

Sunset on the Sea, Stanislaw Witkiewicz--the father's work.
I don't know whether I heard (or read) it somewhere, or if I came to the conclusion myself, but I've always considered the definition of an educated individual as: "One who knows a little about a lot and a lot about a little." In that I consider myself to be educated, my "little" involves art and the world in which I live. The "lot" is everything else. Thus, when faced with the task of writing about a man like Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, even though he was an outstanding Polish artist, I have to consider myself as being out of my league. I shall try not to get in "over my head." I have some understanding of Witkiewicz as an artist, (even though I can't begin to pronounce his name); but the man was also an art theoretician, philosopher, architect, photographer, playwright, poet, novelist, and astute visionary of things to come. Moreover, Witkiewicz is one of the few Polish artists whose significance as to world art history endures the test of time. His name often shortened to "Witkacy," has become one of the most frequently translated Polish authors, his texts having been translated into more than thirty languages across Europe, South America, the United States, and Japan. Around the world, his plays are the most frequently performed of any Polish playwright.

Witkacy was born Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz in Warsaw, the son of the painter, architect and an art critic Stanisław Witkiewicz. His mother, Maria Pietrzkiewicz Witkiewiczowa, was a music teacher. Both of his parents were born in the Samogitian region of Lithuania. Witkiewicz was born in 1885 and reared at the family home in Zakopane. In accordance with his father's staunch rejection of the "servitude of the school," the boy was home-schooled and encouraged to develop his talents across a broad range of creative fields. He had an absorbent mind demonstrating a variety of talents. As early as 1893, only eight years old, the boy they called "Staś" printed his first series of short dramas on a little printing press at home. Like his father, as a teenager, Staś was interested in painting, photography, music, science, and philosophy. Begining in 1900, he spent four vacation seasons with his aunt in Syłgudyszki, Lithuania. Together, they toured around Saint Petersburg, where he painted and took photographs. Two of his Lithuanian landscapes made it to the Painting and Sculpture Exhibition held in Zakopane in 1901. The following years, at the age of 17, the young writer put his philosophical essays together into a collection entitled Marzenia improduktywa (The Dreams of an Improductionist).

Sea Shore in Brittany, 1911, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz
In 1914, Witkiewicz was invited to act as draftsman and photographer on an expedition to Oceania, a venture that was interrupted by the start of World War I. By coincidence, Witkiewicz was a citizen of the Russian Empire, so he went to St. Petersburg where he was commissioned an officer in the Czar's army. Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Witkacy's ailing father, who was a Polish patriot. He died the following year, deeply grieved by his son's decision. He never saw his son again. The younger Witkiewicz witnessed the Russian Revolution up-close and personally while stationing in St Petersburg. He claimed to have worked out his philosophical principles during an artillery barrage. In any case, when the Revolution broke out he was elected political commissar of his regiment. Witkacy's later works would show his great fear of social revolution and foreign invasions, often in the most absurdist language.

Composition, 1922, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
A Witkiewicz play poster.
Witkacy began to support himself through portrait painting even as he returned to Zakopane in Poland. There he was to enter a major creative phase, setting out his principles in New Forms in Painting and Introduction to the Theory of Pure Form in the Theatre. Witkacy associated with a group of "formist" artists in the early 1920s. Most of his plays were written during this period. They number about forty, written between 1918 and 1925; however only twenty-one survive, and only Jan Maciej Karol Hellcat met with any public success during his lifetime. His plays were made up entirely of satire, mocking the then current convention of operettas, melodramas and farce, that were flooding the Polish theater during the interwar period. Later, Witkacy quit writing plays in favor of the novel, which he deemed more useful in expressing his ideas. His first published novel was entitled Farewell to Autumn, which was released in 1927. Three years later, he published Nienasycenie (Insatiability).

Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz's portrait grades.
Although I've been using it freely up to now for the purposes of brevity, it wasn't until 1925, that Witkiewicz took the name 'Witkacy'. He re-branded his painting of portraits, which provided his economic sustenance, as The S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Company. Witkacy is the first artist I've ever encountered to set up varying "grades" of portraits (above), from the merely representational to the more expressionistic, and finally those that were "narcotics-assisted." Many of his paintings were annotated with mnemonics listing the drugs taken, even if it was only a cup of coffee. He also varied the spelling of his name, signing himself Witkac, Witkatze, Witkacjusz, Vitkacius and Vitecasse--the last one being French for "breaks quickly." Art historians hate it when painters fool around like that. Fortunately, Witkacy's style is so distinctive he could have signed them "Mickey Mouse" with no confusion as to attribution. A customer had to abide by the "Book of Rules," the final one being: "Misunderstandings are out the question." Over the next twelve years, starting about 1925, Witkacy drew thousands of portraits. Indications are that he may have turned down hundreds more. Not everyone was accorded the "honor" of portrayal. Many commissions were refused for no other reason than, "I don’t see the reason!"

Nova Aurigae, 1918, Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz
During the 1930s, Witkiewicz wrote a book on his experiences with narcotics, while also pursuing his interests in philosophy. He worked promoting emerging writers such as Bruno Schulz. Shortly after Poland was invaded by Germany in September, 1939, Witkacy retreated with his young lover, Czesława, to the rural frontier town of Jeziory, in what was then eastern Poland. After hearing the news of the Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September, 1939, Witkacy committed suicide the following day by taking a drug overdose and trying to slit his wrists. He persuaded Czesława to attempt suicide with him by consuming Luminal, but she survived. Witkacy's reputation as an artist and playwright also survived in a diminished role. However, having grown more prominent during the postwar period, Poland's Communist Ministry of Culture decided to exhume Witkiewicz's body, move it to Zakopane, and give it a proper burial. However, no one was allowed to open the coffin. Then in November 1994, the (non-Communist) Polish Ministry of Culture and Art ordered the exhumation of the presumed grave of Witkiewicz in Zakopane. Genetic tests on the remaining bones proved that the body had belonged to an unknown woman. Witkacy would have appreciated this final, absurdist joke, some fifty years after the publication of his last novel.

 Multiple Self-portrait in Mirrors, St Petersburg 1915-17,
a sample of Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz's photography.

Witkiewicz the absurdist.


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