Painter, illustrator, art critic and theoretician, a writer representing the nineteenth-century trend of realism, creator of the Zakopane style in architecture. The father of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy). Born in 1851 in Poszawsze in Samogitia, died in 1915 in Lovran on the Istrian Peninsula on the Adriatic Sea.
Painter, illustrator, art critic and theoretician, a writer representing the nineteenth-century trend of realism, creator of the Zakopane style in architecture.
He was born on 8 May 1851 in Poszawsze in Samogitia, on his parents' estate. He was brought up in the patriotic and religious traditions originating in Romanticism. He realised these ideas as a twelve-year-old: during the January Uprising , he fulfilled the role of a courier and a supplies officer for partisan units. His parents supported the uprising, as did his two older siblings. After the crushing of the uprising they were sent into exile to Tomsk. In order not to break up the family, they took Stanisław and his two younger siblings with them.
In Tomsk, Stanisław began taking drawing lessons. In 1867, he went for a short visit to Poland to try to obtain a pardon for the family. After a certain time, their pardon came through but it was too late: his father died on his way back home. Stanisław stayed in Russia where, in 1868-1871, he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg. He was, however, very disappointed with the academic rigours imposed there. He returned to Poland for a few months.
In 1872, he went for further studies to Munich, which was at that time a very important centre of artistic culture. He became friends with such outstanding Polish painters as Aleksander Gierymski, Józef Chełmoński and Henryk Siemiradzki. The Munich period, which was very important in his artistic and intellectual development, was also a very difficult time: he lived in difficult material conditions, endured starvation and contracted tuberculosis, from which he suffered until the end of his life. In 1875, he returned to Warsaw.
He rented the laundry at the Hotel Europejski as a painting workshop, in which, despite his acute poverty, active social life thrived. Witkiewicz was friends with numerous artists and writers, including Bolesław Prus. His painting workshop in the Hotel Europejski; today we would call this atelier a "cult place" since so many artists, painters, writers, critics and journalists passed through it. Its regular habitués quickly became part of the intellectual elite of Warsaw and they belonged to the circle of guests of Helena Modrzejewska [Modjeska]'s artistic and literary salon. The workshop was often visited by Henryk Sienkiewicz and Antoni Sygietyński, the composer and art critic, who will play a key role in the propagation of the realistic trend in Polish artistic circles.
The latter awarded him a scholarship named after his deceased wife, Maria of the Szetkiewicz family, about which Witkiewicz was unaware but which constituted the basis of his upkeep in the last years of his life. In 1881-1882, he went for treatment to Merano and Marienbad, among other places. He also probably made short visits to Paris, Vienna and Venice, mentions of which can be found in his letters, but the dates and the details are not known. It is known that in 1891 he visited an exhibition of European art in Berlin and in 1897 he was the guest of Cyprian Godebski in Carrara, where the design was being prepared for a monument to Adam Mickiewicz.
Having lived in Warsaw until 1890, Witkiewicz left for two years, mainly because of the poor state of his health, for Marienbad, Merano and Munich (1881-1882). In 1884, Artur Gruszecki offered him the post of artistic director for the literary and artistic weekly, "Wędrowiec", which soon became the intellectual forum for the spokespersons of realism in literature and art; in the battle for a new creative attitude and for victory over academic conventionalism in art, the most active participants were Bolesław Prus, Adolf Dygasiński and Antoni Sygietyński, whereas among the artists were Aleksander Gierymski, Antoni Piotrowski, Władysław Podkowiński and Stanisław Masłowski.
In 1884, after a many-year-long engagement, he married Maria Pietrzkiewiczówna and a year later he became the father of Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, the greatest love of his life. In 1886, he made his first trip to Zakopane, where he became fascinated by the mountains, the highlanders and folk art. The years 1904-1905 were spent in Lorvan by the Adriatic Sea in order to save his increasingly threatened lungs. He returned for a further three years to his beloved Zakopane but in 1908 he settled in Lorvan for the rest of his life. He died there on 5 September 1915. His body was brought back to Poland and buried in the cemetery in Zakopane beside the graves of his friends, Tytus Chałubiński and Sabała.
Painter and theoretician
He belonged to the group of artists who most strongly influenced the history of Polish art at the end of the nineteenth century. His writings also left their mark on Polish social thought at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He was well known and highly regarded as a moralist, undertaking issues connected with religion, ethics and national identity. The name of Witkiewicz is associated with the figure of an outstanding critic and theoretician of art, a painter, a draughtsman and the author of architectural designs who fought for a breakthrough in Polish art which was, in the European context, backward, provincial and dominated by literary contents and conventionalised means of expression of an academic provenance. Being an advocate of realism in the visual arts, Witkiewicz became at the same time "the spokesman for the Zakopane style" in architecture and the designer of objects of daily use referring to the Podhale patterns. It is not possible to ignore his services as the father and mentor of another outstanding artist, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy), who, in confrontation with the views of the "old" Witkiewicz, created his own artistic vision, completely different from that of his father.
Witkiewicz's painting oeuvre played a less significant role in the history of Polish art than his theoretical reflections. A whole series of the paintings that he created, however, evades unambiguous classification and astounds us by simultaneously belonging to several artistic trends. In a surprising way, the most outstanding of his paintings combine within themselves a Romantic mood with a naturalist workshop and a symbolist perception of the two-dimensionality of the world, showing at the same time both its material and its spiritual nature.
The name of Witkiewicz has always been linked with the Munich circle, with a strong influence of the realistic trend using the formula elaborated by Maksymilian Gierymski and Józef Chełmoński. An enormous influence on the shaping of his ethical and aesthetic attitudes was exerted by Adam Chmielowski, who aroused in him the passion of a polemicist and a talent pronouncing the objective judgements of his mentor. He also confirmed him in the conviction about the faulty academic system of teaching, which imposed on artists lifeless rules and stiff aesthetic conventions.
Thematically, Witkiewicz's creative work concentrated on landscape, particularly on his native landscape (which is significant), but in its early phase it embraced also genre scenes, as befits the experience of a Munich painter (At Pasture, 1875; Narrow Gateway, 1877; Before the Tavern, 1878) and portraits (Musician, c. 1877; Portrait of Ignacy Witkiewicz on Horseback, 1880). Markets, taverns, hunting, funerals and ploughing constitute the iconography typical of the young Witkiewicz's painting. Among the more interesting scenes taking place in the countryside is the painting At the Fair (1882), which is distinguished by the randomness of the framing of the scene, the crowd of peasants engaged in trading and the variety of the poses, gestures and expressions of the figures. What is significant in realistic painting is the meticulous recreation of architectural details, attire and objects on the market stalls. The illustration activity during the period of cooperation with "Wędrowiec" gave Witkiewicz the idea of documenting the everyday life of Warsaw and showing the real face of the city.
This is a statement by Witkiewicz the naturalist; apart, however, from his desire to recreate faithfully the realities of everyday life at the beginning of the 1880s, he was also directed by the desire to depict the recent past, Poland's contemporary history. The artist, following in the footsteps of Maksymilian Gierymski, presented in several compositions episodes from the 1863 rising. He chose, as had Max Gierymski, dramatic but not heroic extracts from the national epic, everyday events taking place on the margins of great events, battles, fights and skirmishes. The composition of A Wounded Insurgent is characterised by an extended anecdote divided into several roles, presenting the various psychological reactions of the participants in an event - the carrying of a wounded insurgent brought by some of his battle comrades into a country cottage. Here can be seen the attachment of Witkiewicz the naturalist to details, particularly of attire and buildings; here there is the expression of thorough observation of a grey and poor landscape.
In the field of portrait art, the closest to the aesthetic principles of Witkiewicz, the theoretician of realism, was Portrait of Wojciech Roj (1900), veristically recreating the physiognomic features of the highlander, blunt in character, arising from the tradition of painting of Piotr Michałowski. In Sztuka i Krytyka (Art and Criticism), Witkiewicz defined in this way the properties of the naturalistic, psychologically deepened, painterly image:
The character of a given face is constituted by its shape and colour. The forehead, nose, eyes, lips, chin, not only by their shape, express the given individuality, their colour in almost equal measure affects the expression of the face, just as colour changes appropriately to various emotional stirrings. The presentation, with the help of the means of the painterly art, of this individual character with all of its properties is the task of a portrait. This means the recreation of a given known person and not some ideal average human type. [...] observation of the face, concentrating all one's attention on it [...] means that the surroundings of the person, some equipment, small details of attire etc. either completely escape our attention or are seen in the most general and least clear forms. So, that which in real life happens with the help of the natural logic of the activity of the human mind - in the fictitious world of art the painter has to impose on the viewer, force him to see within the frame of the painting only the given person, to observe his face and not to have his attention distracted by any incidental details.
The starting point for Witkiewicz's aesthetic revolution was the attack on the cult of historical painting, which was situated highest in the hierarchy of academic painterly genres. The shafts of his criticism were aimed by Witkiewicz initially at the outstanding figure of Polish historical painting, Jan Matejko, who was seen not so much as the author of perfectly directed costume scenes recreating historical realities but as the creator of fatherland historiosophy and patriotic iconography and also in other publications, the critic showed that it is not a great subject and artistic narration read in the context of a literary text or historical documentation that constitutes the artistic value of a painting but its aesthetic values independent of extra-artistic premises. The foundation arising from the positivist world-view of Witkiewicz's aesthetic theory was "not what, but how", and at the head of painterly tasks was the postulate "the harmony of colours and the logic of chiaroscuro".
Striving for a limiting of the narrational aspect of visual arts, the artist concentrated on the painting of landscapes; he painted many, including Czarny Staw (1891), A forest (1892), Crocuses Against the Background of Snow-Clad Mountains (1897), Blossoming Apple-Trees (1899), Lake with Water-Lilies (1901), Spring Landscape With a Tarn (1902), Young Birches (1904), Crocuses and Marsh Marigolds (1907). In the Tatra mountains, enchanted by the enormity of the forces of nature, overwhelmed by the majesty of the mountains, fascinated by the raw beauty of the rocks and the changeability of atmospheric phenomena, Witkiewicz painted his most expressive paintings, paintings on the borders of realism, naturalism and symbolism, capturing the realities of nature and at the same time evoking an uncommon mood, an atmosphere of expectation, sometimes of terror, mental tension and anxiety before something unknown and unforeseeable. Such an aura emanated from the paintings by those Romantics trying to transmit by use of a painterly language the spirituality of nature; a similar mood was created by the symbolists seeking artistic equivalents for the spiritual element permeating the universe. The attitude of a naturalist dispassionately analysing tangible reality became transformed unnoticeably in Witkiewicz's painting into the attitude of a neo-Romantic, a pantheist striving to convey the spiritual dimension of the universum.
The period spent in Zakopane was the time of Witkiewicz's ideological metamorphosis, the time of unlimited fascination with the native landscape and the Podhale folklore, the time of the strengthening of faith in the cultural identity of the nation as seen in folk art. This was also a period of revision of earlier aesthetic assessments. Eagerly seeking testimonies of Polishness in art, Witkiewicz wrote about Matejko in 1908 in a new spirit:
Matejko came from a generation and from times in which human souls blazed like in a volcano with great desires, immeasurable hope and equally immeasurable despair, and he felt this in a great and profound way and passed through human souls, rousing them to the highest summits of feelings, increasing them, in this way fulfilling the mission which, before him, had been fulfilled by the great poets.
This diametrical change in Witkiewicz's attitudes was most effectively summarised by Żeromski in his lecture, "Literature and Polish life". The ideological transformations soon found expression in the morphological structure of his paintings, in their luministic values, colouristic range, compositional frame, brush stroke and texture. Stylistically, Witkiewicz began to approach, involuntarily and unknowingly, the art of Polish modernists, like Chełmoński, increasingly synthesising forms and making unreal, in accordance with his own impression, the shapes and colours of nature in order to extract its spiritual essence. The indirect link in departing from positivist objectivism was his admiration for the luminous values of the landscapes by Corot, who was the precursor of French realism and at the same time a painter-poet immersing the landscapes painted in a silver-grey sfumato.
The attribution by Witkiewicz of the fundamental role in painting to light and colour, inseparably connected with light, directed his attention towards impressionism. The artist admittedly did not adapt the pointillist technique but carefully followed the changeability of colour tones depending on the lighting; he also observed the accidental method of framing, strongly emphasised in the canvases of the impressionists, and the highly raised (Cloud, 1899-1900) or radically lowered (Morskie Oko) point of observation - compositional tricks borrowed from Japanese woodcuts. The "Japanising" frame appearing in some of Witkiewicz's paintings (The Forest Wilderness, 1893; A Snow-Cap in The Sunlight) is proof of the relationship between his painterly search and the modernistic aesthetics assimilating the Japanese models consistently promoted in Polish artistic circles by Feliks Manggha-Jasieński, a collector of Japanese art. What seemed close to the Young Poland symbolists, particularly to Ruszczyc, was the fragmentary views of a forest interior with a stream breaking through the tangle of vegetation, painted freely, summarily, in places impasto (A Brook in a Forest, before 1894).
Witkiewicz was linked with the Young Poland trend also owing to his love of nocturnes, which had another, even deeper, root, because it was from Munich (Stimmung painting). The darkness embracing the landscapes (Ukrainian Night, 1895; Dusk, 1898) served to heighten the mood just as well as the mists enveloping numerous landscapes (Spring Fog, 1893; Sheep in a Fog, 1899-1900). A convenient field for an analysis of luministic effects was for Witkiewicz marine landscapes, a series of which appeared in 1885-1886 in Połąga. Observed at different times of the day and in various atmospheric conditions, the sea was at one time dangerously frenzied, at other times slightly agitated and then as smooth as the surface of a lake, and it sparkled with the reflections of the sun, shone with the rose of twilight or reflected the white light of the moon (A View of the Baltic Sea at Połąga, 1885). The study of the shining of the water surface, lightly creased by the wind and coloured bronze from the slopes reflected in it, can also be seen in Czarny Staw - Snowstorm (1892).
The mountain landscapes became for Witkiewicz the area for becoming acquainted with the essence of nature and for penetrating its spiritual dimension. Nobody painted the Polish Tatra mountains like Witkiewicz! Among his most interesting Tatra paintings is An Autumn Scene (1894), a composition in which the artist confronted the enormity of the mountainous space, the power of the summits and the strength of the closed wall of the forest with the fragility of human existence. As in the paintings of the Romantics, the small figures of the male and female highlanders leading the flock of sheep are lost in the snow-swept landscape and at the same time constitute an important element of it; the reflections of the lantern carried by the young shepherd introduce into the composition a powerful luministic effect; the red of the girl's highland shawl brings a strong tone among the whites, greys and blues of the stretches of snow.
Among the masterpieces painted by Witkiewicz is Föhn Wind (1895), in which the darkened sky, the clumps of clouds devouring the mountain summits and two solitary trees bending under the onslaught of the most powerful of Tatra winds suggestively convey the terror of the moment and the power of the unbridled element. The description from the collection of tales by Witkiewicz entitled Na Przełęczy (On the Mountain Pass) can be considered a self-written commentary to the painting:
Above Giewont there billows a huge bank of clouds, spilling with desperate compulsion into the dark depths of the valleys, the moon shines from behind the falling fog then fades, looms in the light and twilight; in the torn clumps of clouds, on the black blue of the sky there flicker frightened stars. The moving darkness writhes in the forests and flies with the shadows of the clouds along the snow, lying ponderously in the light dimmed by the half-lights of violet gauze. Somewhere a brook sparkles in the light of the moon and a pair of spruces, torn by the storm, bends, struggles, leans towards the earth and sways in desperate impotence.
The theatre of the Tatra mountains, sunk in the darkness of night or steeped in glorious sunlight, remained a permanent motif in Witkiewicz's painting until 1908. A Winter Landscape in the Tatra Mountains, painted in that year, is the most astonishing work by the artist - the painting breaks the barriers between artistic trends, realism and symbolism, and anticipates the tendencies of "magical realism". The sharpness of seeing the snow-clad summit, the boulders lying at its foot and the frozen waterfall can here be explained by the clarity of the icy air; the violent contrast of the parts illuminated by moonlight and those engulfed in darkness can also be empirically explained. In the context of the artistic tradition, the asymmetrical frame seems to be borrowed from impressionist paintings, which were the culmination of the naturalistic trend.
Nothing, however, can explain the poetics of obliqueness and the aura of uncanniness which this painting evokes. Also, the radical narrowing of the range of colours to a blue-streaked white and blue broken by black is not here an obvious result of the direct observation of nature; the tone of the blue impeccably binds the opposing poles of black and white and gives the painting a visionary dimension. This is a step in the direction of making unreal the observed section of the landscape, a painterly transformation serving aims different from an objective recording of natural phenomena; this is an attempt to subordinate sensual cognition to intuition, which reaches the essence of things, the spiritual essence of nature.
Witkiewicz achieved the surprising visual effects based on the profound experience of contact with nature also in several earlier Tatra paintings, such as A Female Chamois in the Mountains (before 1896) and A Tatra View - the Nest of Winter (1906-1907). The subtle colourist nuances of the layers of snow covering the rocks and of the clouds enveloping the summits and the shiny white of the mountainsides illuminated by the sun contrasted with the blue dominating in the shade are the constituent features of these paintings of winter; and also the originality of the frame, its fragmentary nature, spatial depth and the highly raised observation point. In some sense these paintings anticipate the concept of the "strangeness of existence", which many years later will be announced by the artist's son, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz.
In the Zakopane period, Witkiewicz's attitudes towards the social and national role of art matured. The monograph article on Juliusz Kossak from 1889 was already full of considerations on the "tribal character and spirit" of art. In Zakopane, the critic became aware of the relationship between his actions and the activity of the great reformers of thinking about art - Morris, Ruskin and Norwid. His struggle for the "Polishness of our culture" began with the discovery of Podhale art. The art that developed from popular tradition was meant, in his opinion, to create bonds of national solidarity and to break down class distinctions. Witkiewicz's designs in the field of the applied arts embraced all elements of interior decoration and were effected using various techniques and materials and included both altars, church chalices and candle-holders and suites of furniture, individual sideboards, shelves, chairs and armchairs, wooden chests, bowls, plates and cutlery, metal coffee services, salt cellars, brooches and pendants, ceramic tea and coffee services, butter dishes and ladles, and even serviettes and curtains.
Witkiewicz's first monographic art exhibition was held in 1927 in Warsaw's Zachęta Fine Arts Society. A retrospective exhibition of the artist's work was organised by the Dr Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane in 1996.
Stanisław Witkiewicz, 'Halny Wind', 1895, oil on canvas. 93 x 132 cm, photo: National Museum, Kraków
creator of the zakopane style
Writer and art critic
Witkiewicz was a contemporary of the leading Warsaw positivists. He had origins and a biography typical of this group, including the generational experience of the January Uprising. He was friends with many of them. He is informally counted as part of this formation although the truth is more complicated. He came from the tradition of Romantic patriotism and was an important figure in cultural and artistic positivism but also of the next intellectual formation - Young Poland. He had his own creative input in both groups and he agreed with some of the attitudes of both groups, while polemicising with others. He constituted a formation by himself: an independent artist, patriot and moralist, the creator of a modern theory of art.
His close cooperation with "Wędrowiec" was an important stage in Witkiewicz's work. This weekly, founded in 1863, was originally a periodical devoted to natural history and geography. In 1884, Artur Gruszecki became the editor. He brought in such collaborators as Bolesław Prus, Antoni Sygietyński, Adolf Dygasiński and Cezary Jellenta. Witkiewicz became the artistic director. The periodical changed its character into a cultural and social periodical and it began to play an important role in shaping tastes and opinions at that time.
He published in the columns of Wędrowiec a series of very important articles entitled Painting and Criticism Among Us, provoking a discussion about the values of a work of art and about the tasks and methods of criticism. He published a beautiful study about Mickiewicz as a colourist. In the same periodical and in others, he wrote about European painting from Raphael and Michelangelo onwards and about nearly all the important Polish painters: Henryk Siemiradzki, Henryk Rodakowski, Wojciech Gerson, Jacek Malczewski, and Władysław Ślewiński.
In 1903, he published an interesting book whose subject was Józef Siedlicki, a well-known Kraków collector, but there also appeared accounts of numerous painters. He contributed to the propagation of knowledge about art and to the development of artistic sensitivity and he did so in beautiful suggestive language which has retained all its values after the passing of more than a century. Above all, however, in writing about the responsibilities of criticism, he laid the foundations for a modern theory of art.
He thought that what was needed was objective criticism that would explain all artistic phenomena - from primitive art to contemporary art. In order to achieve this, it must be recognised that a work of art has an autonomous value, independent of the idea, anecdote or fashion for some direction. He waged a war against the then fashionable historical painting, with Matejko at the forefront. He did not agree to the situation in which the value of a work in social reception was decided by a "sheet with a title", namely the theme, idea or anecdote. He did not want a work of art to be boorishly utilitarian or didactic or to refer to national feelings. Obviously, it can do this but only if it affects the viewer by purely artistic means and not because of the worthy intention of the author. His saying that a well-painted head of cabbage is worth more than a badly-painted head of Christ passed into common circulation.
What objective tools, therefore, does an art critic have at his disposal? An analysis of the harmony of colours, of the logic of chiaroscuro, of the perfection of form and composition. Witkiewicz was an advocate of realistic painting, although he treated realism quite elastically, accepting impressionist and symbolist tendencies. Art presents reality, nature. Obviously:
art is not nature. The means by which it evokes impressions in the human mind must often be different from those in nature but the impression itself of the work of art must be as true as the impression received from nature.
Apart from objectivity in the analysis of a work, the second important principle is the recognition of the individualism of the artist. Witkiewicz polemicises with Taine's opinion that the creator is a product of the environment. In the spirit of Romanticism and of Young Poland, he sees in the artist one unique personality which perceives reality in a way appropriate only to itself and transmits this message to the viewer. That is why it is necessary for artistic criticism to have a knowledge of psychology in order to understand the kind of sensual sensitivity and the state of the soul of the artist. Psychological analysis is not based on some external elements; its subject is the work of art itself.
Witkiewicz's attitudes to the function of art evolved. After 1900, he agreed to its social and patriotic functions on the condition that artistic consistency was maintained. An example of this change in his attitude to painting is the oeuvre of Matejko. In his study, "Matejko's greatest painting" (1899), without denying the artist's talent, he accuses him of betraying the talent of a realist, subordinating presentation to an idea. He states that it is only thanks to the patriotic content that he was promoted as an outstanding painter by critics who understood nothing beyond anecdotes. In his monograph of 1908, he softened his position:
Matejko's Polishness was not an empty phrase, it was not capitalising on fame and wealth (...). Just as his creativity was a processing of his Polish feelings into paintings that were painful and had deep content, so all of his will and all of his actions were given over to the idea, which completely consumed the enormity of his feeling.
Remembering his own painful experiences from the Academy in St Petersburg, Witkiewicz paid great attention to the individual shaping of artists and the freedom to search for their own way. He followed these principles in practice when providing patronage for the development of his son, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. After the actieve Warsaw period, Witkiewicz began a new chapter in his life as a painter, writer and social activist. In 1886, he went for the first time to Zakopane.
Zakopane had been "discovered" by Dr Tytus Chałubiński, who recognised its health values and gradually turned it into a place that was amazingly popular. The town attracted artists and writers who were fascinated by the mountains and the highlanders. They formed a somewhat crazy group indulging in mountain sports but also in social activity, affairs and stormy revelry. When Witkiewicz lived on the street named Krupówki, he hosted, among others, Tadeusz Miciński, Stefan Żeromski, Władysław Orkan, Leon Wyczółkowski, Jacek Malczewski and Helena Modrzejewska with her retinue.
Witkiewicz's friends included Karol Potkański, the editor of Lud, and Maria Dembowska, a known collector of folk art. The artists contributed immensely to the development of the culture of the region. They conducted readings and opened networks of libraries. They founded the Adam Mickiewicz People's University and the Woodcarving School (later the Timber Industry School). Numerous publications appeared: "Goniec Tatrzański", "Zakopane", "Kurier Zakopiański" and "Przegląd Zakopiański". Witkiewicz was also involved in these cultural activities and he quickly became a figure of moral authority for this milieu. The literary effect of this period included the books Na Przełęczy. Wrażenia I Obrazy Z Tatr (On the Mountain Pass. Impressions and Images from the Tatra Mountains), Po Latach (Years Later) and Z Tatr From the Tatra Mountains (1907).
What fascinated Witkiewicz? Nature in the Tatra mountains, the highlanders and their architectural and decorative art. In his descriptions of the Tatra nature, he certainly does not yield to Mickiewicz as a colourist. With his words, he paints pictures of the mountains, the untamed nature in the changing light at various times of the day or year, the diversity of the landscapes, their majesty and autonomy.
The highlands with their discrete culture, ethics and ceremonies are for him - just as for other Zakopane artists - the subject of wonder. (In any case, the tendency at the time to come closer to the people found excellent ground here; it was easier to fraternise with the proud and haughty highlanders than with the humble ignorant peasants from the lowlands.) There also appears here a considerable thoroughness of observation. Apart from the exotic beauty of this world, he sees dirt and poverty, dreadful sanitary conditions, contrasts between the "white room" and the "black room", in which everyday life went on among the animals and the vats. But he also sees in these dirty huts astonishing decorative art, thanks to which even the most banal object is a masterpiece. He observes how the initially disinterested mutual fascination between the "lords" and their guides gradually transforms itself into business dealings: each side wants to sell dearly and buy cheaply. And he draws colourful portraits of Tatra guides, old shepherds, young shepherds and rural poverty. He recalls the figures of the Tatra pioneers: Tytus Chałubiński and Father Józef Stolarczyk. He immortalises the figure of Sabała, the robber and songster (at that time of very advanced age). He records his tales and is fascinated by the language, which he regards as being equal to Homer's. The figures of Chałubiński and Sabała are for him a symbol of the joining of the past and the future.
One is the brightness of the dawn of new times, the other is the last gleam of the dusk of old times (...) these two men, so far from each other, with such different fates and worlds (...), understood each other so well and adored each other so judiciously.
In the Zakopane architecture and decorations, Witkiewicz perceived a national style, worthy of universalisation among all social classes. He regarded the discovery of this style by artists as a climacteric moment: the saving of elements of Polish culture from extermination and its resurrection for the good of the whole nation.
It was not only saved from destruction, it was a renaissance of the life of the thought that had centuries earlier created it. Through a happy coincidence, at a crucial moment of the existence of this folk culture, there arrived people who did for it everything that could be done to save it and to bring it anew to life and to development.
Interest in folk culture as a medium of national bonding and in the people as an important part of social energy meant a shifting of attention to general social problems. This interest was strengthened by historic events, mainly the 1905 revolution and, later, the formation of Piłsudski's Legions.
The philosophical foundation for Witkiewicz's national and social views was the idea of the comprehensive improvement of the individual, taken over from Romanticism and continued in various versions by Young Poland. Witkiewicz obviously did not share the views propagated by Stanisław Przybyszewski: art for art's sake, the limitless freedom of the artist and evolution through destruction and auto-destruction. He was, however, close to the heroism of Tadeusz Miciński, the idea of development espoused by Cezary Jellenta, Artur Górski and the utopia of Stefan Żeromski. He considered that it was the duty of every human being to make constant efforts to improve skills, the mind and the heart. The moral state of society - all of society - is the foundation of the future existence of the nation and social order.
One of the certainties that history teaches us is that the decisive factor of collective life is not the forms of facilities and institutions but the state of the human souls in a given society. The most perfect statute, the most carefully devised system, will be of no use whatsoever if the human material is poor, if the ethics and the minds of individuals constituting society are of low order. Everything, therefore, that is to be fulfilled in the future as a real change of relations must be decided in human souls.
The society of the future, based on morality, will accept the principles of brotherhood and equality as the foundation for collective life. This idea of solidarity, sacrifice and love for others influenced Witkiewicz's attitude towards the revolution. He admitted that the exploited and the aggrieved were right to demand decent living conditions. He feared, however, that after the inevitable slaughter there would still be a lack of moral foundations for the construction of a better future.
Distressed by the national matter and awaiting independence (which he did not live to see), he followed with attention the creation of the Legions. At first, he was against the fact that they were being formed at Austria's side but later he attached great hope to Piłsudski (to whom he was related). In his soul he, as one of many, carried a romantic vision of the future Poland.
An important part of Witkiewicz's legacy is his private correspondence. In total, he wrote over two thousand letters. He wrote to his family, friends and most often to his son. His beloved Staś grew up under his father's watchful eye in Zakopane. His godparents were Modrzejewska and Sabała. He was taught at home. When he was fifteen, he began going to open-air exhibitions and then, to his father's indignation, he enrolled at the Academy in Kraków. The correspondence begins in 1900 and continues until the end of Witkiewicz's life. The letters are full of love and are addressed to "my golden boy" or "my dearest". Unfortunately, Witkacy destroyed all of his own letters. Witkiewicz writes about everything: about private matters, about his surroundings, about art, politics and morality. His profound love does not weaken even when there appear between father and son dissonances concerning the perception of art, patriotic feelings, relations with others, relations with women... Witkacy rejected his father's concept of realism in art, its national mission and the requirement for social commitment. The father, an advocate of freedom in individual development, does try, however, to influence his son in accordance with his own code of values.
The transformation, improvement, development of a human being can only take place under the pressure of ideas and social feelings. The human soul which does not love, does not have compassion, does not suffer or rejoice beyond its own personal aims at that which is happening to other people, becomes impoverished, tightens up, is barren and becomes common - or quite simply becomes wild or does not reach its full development [...].
There are many such paragraphs. The letters constitute an invaluable document of the epoch, a priceless contribution to the subject of Witkiewicz's attitudes and the image of his personality: a wise and noble man and a loving father.
Authors: Halina Floryńska-Lalewicz and Irena Kossowska, 2006; English translation © Tadeusz Z. Wolański