An Alternative Biography of Witkacy
The startling connections of Chevalier de Vitecasse: Culture.pl presents little-known eccentricities from the life of the innovative writer, painter, photographer, philosopher, art theorist and man of the theatre Stanisław Witkiewicz – aka the illustrious Witkacy. This “hashish-swallower, morphinomaniac, megalomaniac, schizophrenic, paranoiac, mocker, cynic, pervert and dadaist and pseudo-lunatic”, in the words of his contemporary Witold Gombrowicz, is a legend for his art – but allow us to introduce you to the quirks that make Witkacy the prototypical hipster.
Cynical and Specific – Witkacy’s metaphysics and his fiancée’s suicide
Nowadays a prophet can be a pig – The Mother, 1924
Witkacy’s life still translates as an astonishing story, some 74 years after his death. Raised and home-schooled in the Tatra Mountains on Poland’s southern border, he was close with legendary composer Karol Szymanowski and Bronisław Malinowski, the world-famous anthropologist whose Argonauts of the Western Pacific remains a classic text. In the case of Szymanowski, the friendship had tragic consequences. Though little is certain about the suicide of Jadwiga Janczewska, Witkacy’s fiancée and greatest love, it is accepted that it resulted from a twisted threesome between the couple and the composer. Whether Janczewska had fallen in love with Szymanowski, a homosexual, following Witkacy’s suggestions, or whether Witkacy had become involved with the latter – directly or vicariously through Janczewska – the tragic event cast a shadow on Witkacy’s life that did not seem to lift afterward.
Her suicide and his crushing depression led to Malinowski’s initiative of inviting Witkacy to help document his groundbreaking research expedition to Oceania in the tropical Pacific – a journey undertaken by very few Poles at the time. On a stop in Australia, Witkacy found himself pressed to return to Europe when the First World War erupted, then fought on the Russian side, driven by the belief that it was with the support of the Russian Empire that Poland could gain its independence. After witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution, Witkacy developed a very pessimistic philosophy of history, and recurring figures of the powerful, blind crowd led by cunning demagogues are depicted in the absurdist language of his later plays.
In his theoretical elaborations, his artistic works and quite boldly in the extravagant practice of his life, Witkacy was obsessed with metaphysical feelings, which he sought to evoke in himself and those around him. This he accomplished in ways that can seem downright mad, strange – and frequently humorous. According to Witkacy’s philosophical views, the Mystery of Existence and the strangeness of being were, as he believed, the result of a juxtaposition of the individual’s unity of identity and his finite nature – his Specific Existence – with the infinity of the universe.
And it does seem that in his work Witkacy was obsessed with his own identity – which took on an ever-changing multitude of forms – while in his vision of history, he was convinced of a pending catastrophe. The approaching fatality would result in a society of universal contentment, characterized by a complete lack of metaphysical feelings and the wiping out unification of Specific Existencies. In his text On the Disappearing of Metaphysical Feelings Due to Social Development / O zaniku uczuć metafizycznych w związku z rozwojem społecznym, he observed:
As life in social progress becomes more and more comfortable, more certain in its set-up, growingly automatised and mechanic in its functions, there is less and less room in the human soul for a metaphysical angst.
Gombrowicz Meets Witkacy the Prankster – Clashing Egos and the Museum of Horrors
Life makes most sense at the height of nonsense – Letters to His Wife Jadwiga, 1923-1927
In spite of this philosophical background, the angst Witkacy was capable of inducing in others was not always all that metaphysical to them... Another giant of the 20th century, the novelist, playwright and diarist Witold Gombrowicz, recalled his first encounter with Witkacy in the mid 1930s, both in his famed Diary and in Polish Memories / Wspomnienia polskie:
We ring the doorbell – I am a bit excited with all the stories that circled around about the oddities and follies of this man, gifted with such great intelligence – and all of a sudden a gigantic dwarf emerges in the opening door, and begins to grow… it was Witkacy who opened the door for us squatting down and was gradually rising up. He liked these jokes! But to me they were not funny. From the first moment, Witkacy exhausted and bored me – he was never at rest, always taut, tormenting himself and others with the neverending acting, the desire to emanate and draw attention, constantly cruelly toying around with people... All of these faults, which were also my own, I was now witnessing as in a crooked mirror, monstrous, and disintended to apocalyptic sizes.
He was showing us his ‘museum of horrors’, which was crowned with what he called the dried-up tongue of a newborn, and some hair, which was supposedly that of Beilis [a Ukrainian Jew accused of ritual murder whose trial, a known affair at the time, sparked international criticism of the Russian Empire’s antisemitic policies], or the letter of a nymphomaniac – which was indeed lustful to the point of disgust. I said, “But don’t you show us such things! Why, it is inappropriate!” He looked at me attentively. “Inappropriate?”, he asked. He was a little disoriented. […] On my part, it was an instinct of self-defense, I knew that if I didn’t counter Witkacy right away, he would devour me, dominate me, and make me a part of his chariot.
Obsessed with Faces – Witkacy’s Photography
Specialization is the greatest failure of our times – The Crazy Locomotive, 1923
One might think that such a seeker of individual identity, an opponent of overpowering technology, would not gladly take to the form of photography. But from 1911 to 1914, a decade before he founded his Portrait Firm, he shot extreme close-ups of his family, his friends and himself. The images convey a haunting intensity, capturing something very rare: the absurd and grotesque verging on beauty and melancholy.
Witkiewicz set up long, emotional photo sessions and waited until ''his subject attained the sense of 'inner unity' '' – or at least until ''he or she assumed an expression of someone struck by the strangeness of existence,'' writes Stefan Okołowicz, owner of Witkiewicz's negatives and archives. Then Witkacy took the picture, very close up.
From a global perspective, it may be that today Witkacy is most increasingly appreciated not as a writer, painter or thinker, but as a photographer. His experiments with photographic portraiture and the very intimate character of photo shoots were decades ahead of his times. In 2011, a Witkacy self-portrait was auctioned at Phillips de Pury & Company for $52,200 – probably the record to date for a Polish photographer – and several photos are in the Metropolitan Museum collection in New York City.
Narcotics and Commissioned Creation – the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Firm
I’ll paint a full-size portrait for 100 złotys. My poverty and my art will end, and my life as well – Letters to Leon and Władysława Reynel, 1919-1925
Witkacy mockingly announced his retirement from exploration in the visual arts in 1924, in favor of painting commissioned portraits. He ironically rebranded these paintings, which provided his economic sustenance, founding the S.I. Witkiewicz Portrait Painting Firm with the motto: "The customer must always be satisfied". Several grades of portrait were offered, from the merely representational to the more expressionistic and those assisted by narcotics. Many paintings were annotated with mnemonics listing substances taken during a portrait session, even if this happened to be only a cup of coffee.
He also varied the spelling of his name, signing himself Witkac, Witkatze, Witkacjusz, Vitkacius and Vitecasse – the last being French for "breaks quickly".
In the concept for his Portrait Painting Firm, Witkacy underlined threats imminent to the onset of a dehumanized, "technicized" culture, in which art was to lose its reason to exist. Rules and regulations for the firm defined five basic image types – A, B, C, D, and E – corresponding to different conventions of representation. Types A, B and E called for the artist to maintain maximum objectivity during the creative process, and were to result in faithful representations of the models. The portrait typology also took into account iconographic issues and included provisions for representing the heads of subjects on pediments as sculpted busts, or their heads floating above lightly sketched landscapes or adorned with oriental turbans and shawls.
The firm's contracts excluded the possibility of selling type C portraits a priori, as the artist viewed these as further experimentation into his concept of Pure Form. The rules and regulations classified this type as a "Subjective description of the model – caricatured exaggeration of both a formal and psychological nature not excluded. In the extreme, an abstract composition, i.e. a 'Pure Form'". In his endless efforts to penetrate deeper into the psyche of his models (usually the artist's friends), Witkacy created under the influence of cocaine, peyote, mescaline and/or alcohol, which he believed intensified intuitive cognizance to the point of making psychoanalytical vivisection possible. (Witkacy also pursued a peculiar analysis of facial grimaces in a series of photographs from the 1930s that recorded his own grotesque mimicry.)
Vitcasse’s Hipster Sweater – Fashion Quirks
I shall be distasteful, I shall. – The Shoemakers, 1934
For his self-seeking games, Witkacy would toy with his image by changing apparel and by dressing up. In his Memoirs, the writer Michał Choromański recalls the artist’s look, saying that Witkacy paraded on Zakopane’s central promenade in a gigantic navy beret and “the fabulous sweater”, which had papal colours. Witkacy apparently owned two such sweaters, knitted by his mother. They were definitely striped, and are described as bearing vertical lines of lilac and orange, or as violet-pink in colour. Witkacy proudly declared that thanks to his attire, he resembled the pope’s Swiss Guards. (Michał Choromański, "Memuary", s. 63-64)
Apparently, Choromański’s sister, a beautiful lady named Lidia, once witnessed this sweater become the actor in a peculiar little scene… She stormed into Witkacy’s home, furious about his misbehaviour. After listening with a concerned look, Witkacy took a few steps back, threw on “some pinkish-violet robe”, and, with his back turned to the lady, wrapped his arms around himself to perform a passionate scene between two lovers. Lidia’s heart is said to have melted…
Mr. Clean – Witkacy and the Sennewaldt Bros.
What strange forms can take the insanity of healthy people! – Farewell to Autumn, 1927
Witkacy loved to dress up – and, on other occasions, to dress down. What in the context of those times was his obsession with washing and taking baths provided Witkacy with numerous chances for nudity, whether or not in the company of others. The artist felt an obligation to teach Poles about cleanliness of the body and soul, praising the Sennewaldt Brothers’ bristle-brush products and insisting on daily use in a thorough scrubbing of the entire body. He propagated these ideas in a social environment where the notion held that two baths a year – for Christmas and Easter – should suffice… In his Unwashed Souls, he explained:
... the best brushes for this purpose are those of the Sennewaldt Brothers (Bielsko, Biała Śląsk), 29 H No2, 30 F No2 i 137 є) which are recommended by this company for [washing] lingerie. All those whom I offered these brushes (and, for propaganda, I have given out more than dozen of them already), praise me and this company. The brushes are made of bristle and on first sight they appear to be too coarse. When soaked a little in hot water, they become simply marvelous. I knew ladies complaining of chronically chapped skin. After using the brushes, they turned smooth as alabaster.
He is known to have undertaken special measures to set up his own showers in the wooden cottage houses of Zakopane, which often did not have running water. One thing seems certain – hygiene was one of those things Witkacy took seriously:
I am for a bath every week, and for a “wholesome” wash with soap, and perhaps a Sennewaldt brush every day. […] For a steam room is like washing yourself with a brush from the inside, skimming the inner organs, ligaments, joints, muscles, nerves, simply skimming the cells themselves.[...] All piggishness comes out of the man with sweat – all organs begin to live anew, the processing of matter becomes right, and all acidic residue, as well as the arthritic swelling of members it induces, become alleviated.
The artist’s favourite brush company is still operating and continues to produce bristle brushes and more…: http://www.befaszczot.com.pl
View more source material in Polish gathered by Janusz Degler on: www.witkacologia.eu
The Priest Who Quoted Witkacy – Henryk Kazimierowicz
If God wanted, he could create a second God just like himself – after all he is almighty. That way he wouldn’t be bored. – Farewell to Autumn, 1927
With the remarkable man, Witkacy, come remarkable men he befriended. Malinowski, Gombrowicz and pianist Artur Rubinstein endure as figures of world culture, but Henryk Kazimierowicz is one such man whose existence has fallen into oblivion – as was the case with many exceptional Poles who perished in the Second World War.
Kazimierowicz was a devout, extraordinary Catholic priest, described by Przemysław Pawlak, who has conducted research into the exchange between Witkacy and Kazimierowicz, as a cultural anthropologist, an ethnologist of religion, the pioneer of ecumenism and a book lover and admirer of Witkacy’s plays.
In his text On How the Priest Quoted Witkacy in the Catholic Press / O tym, jak Xsiądz w prasie katolickiej Witkacego cytował, Pawlak explains that if the artist did come into contact with priests, it was usually in Zakopane, the resort capital of the Tatra Mountains. Common themes and interests normally centered around mountaineering and mutual acquaintances. Yet Kazimierowicz proved an exception. He had read, analysed and studied Witkacy’s plays with devotion long before their first encounter. His passion for the plays came at a time when contemporary critics showed little understanding, not to mention appreciation, of Witkacy’s work. Kazimierowicz instigated contact, showing up in Witkacy’s Warsaw apartment on Bracka Street. This meeting marked the beginning of an eight-year friendship, which lasted until Witkacy’s suicide.
Witkacy had full trust in this relation, and frequently asked Kazimierowicz to advise him and to correct his manuscripts. Not only did the man of God correct the plays, he staged them in amateur parish theatres. On one occasion, Witkacy visited a town where Kazimierowicz staged The Madman and the Nun. The vicar, who had familiarised himself with the appendix to the treatise Narcotics and thus knew of Witkacy’s love of a daily bath, went to a lot of trouble to ensure Witkacy a tub and a maid with a bristle brush.
Kazimierowicz was an exceptional figure and, similiar to Witkacy, was someone ahead of his times. In articles for the Polish Catholic Review / Przegląd Katolicki and the Church Paper / Gazeta Kościelna, he enthusiastically quoted and referenced the works of Freud, Jung and Witkacy. Not only was this priest interested in psychoanalysis and acquainted with its major theoretical concepts and texts, he was also convinced it was a useful tool in the work of a confessor. He authored a paper, Catholicism, in the light of psychoanalysis, in which he employed the theory of instincts to explain suffering and problems encountered by men. Kazimierowicz delved into the anthropology and enthnology of religion, convinced of the mutual emotional root of all religious belief. His texts set up the word “pope” against another, “libido”, in once sentence, only to fearlessly follow a reasoning in service of zealous faith. The priest’s publications were too controversial for his times – as a result, he was repeatedly moved and redelegated across provincial parishes. Most likely, in the Catholic Poland of today, he would prove even more controversial…
Kazimierowicz’s scattered texts has been collected by Przemysław Pawlak, but the volume remains unpublished to date and his oeuvre is yet to be re-discovered. For original resources in Polish, see: http://witkacologia.eu
We cannot claim that the priest was Witkacy’s confessor – the artist’s areligious stance was something he firmly held on to throughout his life. Kazimierowicz was most definitely a friend – another Specific Existence.
The Embryo Complex – Was Witkacy Psychoanalysed?
In some, self-analysis becomes self-grooming – the grateful grooming of a cat contentedly licking itself. – Insatiability, 1930
Witkacy’s parents befriended Karol de Beaurain, a Polish neurologist and psychiatrist, a follower of Freud and a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Poland. Beaurain conducted some form of psychoanalysis with Witkacy in 1913 and is reported to have diagnosed him with the “embryo complex”… For Witkacy, the experience was precious, and he dedicated Unwashed Souls to the doctor, and called Freud one of the greatest geniuses of the era:
I owe my being acquainted with Freud’s method, so-called psychoanalysis, to the friend of my Parents (and, to some extent my own, considering the big age difference), Dr. Karol de Beaurain, to the memory of whom, with a feeling of deep gratitude, respect, awe and sympathy, I dedicate this work. For years I failed to appreciate what this first near-pioneer of Freudian ideas here had done for me indirectly. Interested with my dreams, in 1912 he proposed a systematic “practical course” of psychoanalysis to me, to which I consented happily as a “novelty” – but I approached this experiment not without a light mistrust and a critical stance. I won’t go into the details of this “cure” here, which, for all that was never really meant to cure me of anything [...] as I am a relatively normal man. For Dr. Beaurain, apart from the personal sympathy, which, I believe, he had for me, I was also an interesting “experimental Guinea pig” (ein Versuchskaninchen) [...] apart from the fact that this exceptional and never enough appreciated man what to give me something of himself, of his deep knowledge of humans and life, multiplied a hundred times with the great apparatus of Freud’s theory, this also not enough appreciated that man, one of the greatest geniuses and of humanity of our era. Dr. de Beaurain wanted, in way, to save me from myself.
Though Witkacy states that Unwashed Souls is a series of observations that he tries to explain historically “with a strong support of Freud’s theories,” and with special emphasis on the complex of inferiority, of Dr. Beaurain’s project of salvation he concludes: “It is possible that it is a good thing that he did not entirely succeed in this”.
The Ultimate Prank – the Exhumation of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
I could kill myself, but to think that I could not exist at all sends chills down my spine. – Farewell to Autumn, 1927
The artist's final gesture in negating contemporary reality was his suicide, which occurred the day after the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939. In the post-war communist period, Poland's Ministry of Culture decided to exhume Witkacy's body from a village cemetery in Ukraine, move it to Zakopane and give it a solemn state funeral. This was carried out according to plan – though no one was allowed to open the coffin that had been delivered by Soviet authorities.
On 26 November 1994, the Ministry of Culture and Art in newly democratic Poland ordered the exhumation of the new grave in Zakopane. Genetic tests on the remaining bones proved that the body had been an unknown young woman. It is hard not read the event as a final absurdist joke, 50 years after the publication of Witkacy's last novel.
Author: Paulina Schlosser, 1/09/2013
Gombrowicz original source in Wspomnienia polskie. Wędrówki po Argentynie (Polish Memoirs. Walks Across Argentina), Literary Institute, Paris 1982, pgs. 114-115. Courtesy of the witkacologia.eu website; A Polish Satirist Obsessed with Identity, article by Sarah Boxer, April 24, 1998, The New York Times; Irena Kossowska’s biography, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Science, December 2001; information about Witkacy’s sweater in Marek Sołtysik’s Świadomość to kamień. Kartki z życia Michała Choromańskiego, Poznań 1989, pg. 64, courtesy of the witkacologia.eu website; S. I. Witkiewicz, Dzieła zebrane. [Tom 12:] Narkotyki – Niemyte dusze (Collected Works. Narcotics - Unwashed Souls). edited by A. Micińska, Warsaw 1993, pgs. 135, 323-234; courtesy of the witkacologia.eu website; S. I. Witkiewicz Niemyte dusze (Unwashed Souls), electronic version; press release
Translation of excerpts from Witkacy and Gombrowicz by Paulina Schlosser; quotes by Lea Berriault