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September - the month of ‘Witkacy’

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

September marks the 83rd anniversary of the passing of the Polish avant-garde artist Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, also known as 'Witkacy'. Alongside Witold Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz, he is regarded as one of the progenitors of the Polish avant-garde movement. Spanning the interwar period, Witkacy's multifaceted career embraced various forms of artistic expression – painting, photography, prose, and drama. His art was defined by its exceptional originality and keen sense of the absurd, qualities that often cast him as enigmatic in the eyes of his contemporaries. Witkacy, an astute observer of contemporary life, was influenced by the political tumult of his era, including the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the outbreak of World War I, and most significantly, the Russian Revolution. In his works, he presaged the pivotal issues of his time: the downfall of the aristocracy, the disintegration of traditional values, the rise of totalitarian systems, the mechanization of life, and the ensuing loss of individuality.

Witkacy developed a novel artistic concept called the 'pure form,' which he applied across all his artistic expressions. His work diverged from realism and coherence, manipulating formal elements to depict a distorted reality. A showcase of Witkacy's creations is currently on display at the National Museum in Warsaw until October 9th. The exhibition revolves around themes that resonate with his concept of pure form: cosmos, body, history, movement, primary artistic vision, psychological intensity of metaphysical experience, and sociological reflection.

The Warsaw exhibit also features portraits from "The S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Company," an establishment he founded with the ironic motto: "The customer must always be satisfied." Additionally, the website has curated an intriguing program for Witkacy enthusiasts, albeit the content is available only in Polish.

During his lifetime, Witkacy was frequently misunderstood, existing as a relatively obscure artistic figure who often relied on his parents for financial support. He was renowned more for his scandalous life than for his art; in his work "Narcotics," he chronicled his experiences with various drugs. Only after his death did he attain national and international recognition in post-war Poland. This renaissance was propelled by theatre director Tadeusz Kantor, who staged Witkacy's play "Cuttlefish" during the thaw of 1956, following the Stalinist regime. In the English-speaking world, Witkacy's prominence grew with excellent translations by American scholar Daniel Gerould, who captured Witkacy's vivid style. Moreover, Martin Esslin acknowledged Witkacy in his book "The Theatre of the Absurd" as a precursor to this genre. Italy uniquely embraced Witkacy, with his plays gaining popularity throughout the country in the 1970s.

Despite this resurgence, Witkacy's international fame has once again waned. Reportedly, his final play was performed in Italy in 2013 to disastrous results. Nonetheless, in Poland, he remains a revered national artistic genius, his works continuing to captivate and inspire subsequent generations.

Witkacy passed away on September 18, 1939, at the age of 54. In the midst of attempting to evade the German attack from the West, he was immobilized by news of the Soviet invasion from the East on the preceding day. Consequently, he opted for suicide, overdosing on drugs and slashing his wrists. Having experienced the Russian Revolution and foreseen the repercussions of the Soviet regime, he chose death over total mental subjugation.

Until 1994, the body discovered near his place of death was believed to be his own, and it was interred under his name. However, the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art later ordered the body's exhumation. After a meticulous genetic examination, it was revealed that the body was, in fact, that of a woman – an outcome that struck some as an absurd twist straight out of Witkacy's oeuvre.

A singular photo of Witkacy captured during World War I, donning his officer's uniform from the Pavlovsky regiment, offers a poignant glimpse of his individuality. This image, refracted through a mirror, portrays five Witkacys seated at a table. This photo seemingly suggests that capturing Witkacy and his art as a cohesive entity is implausible; his art and persona must be perceived as a mosaic of countless fragments, each reflecting a different aspect of his being.

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