Painter, draughtsman and illustrator, exceptional artist of the 'Young Poland' movement, representative of early Expressionism and Symbolism, active in Warsaw and Kraków. Born in 1879 in Warsaw; died there in 1909.
Painter, draughtsman and illustrator, exceptional artist of the 'Young Poland' movement, representative of early Expressionism and Symbolism, active in Warsaw and Krakow. Born in 1879 in Warsaw; he died there in 1909.
In 1898 Wojtkiewicz began to study at the Drawing School in Warsaw under Adam Bodowski and Jan Kauzik. During a brief stay in Kraków in 1901, he attended classes at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1902 he was invited by his uncle Joseph to Saint Petersburg, where he intended to continue his artistic studies at the local academy. After two weeks, he returned to Warsaw and began working with the periodicals Wędrowiec / Wanderer, Kurier Warszawski / Warsaw Courier, and Tygodnik Ilustrowany/ Illustrated Weekly, for which he produced satirical drawings. He also worked with the satirical weekly Kolce / Thorns, writing humorous and ironic columns about the artistic life. In 1903 he showed his drawings at the Wystawa Jednobarwna / Monochromatic Exhibition, organized at the Salon of Aleksander Krywult in Warsaw. He also earned money by designing postcards for the publishing company of G. Grabowiecki. In the autumn of the same year he departed for Krakow with Stanislaw Kuczborski and Stanislaw Rzecki to continue his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts under Leon Wyczółkowski. In 1903-1904 he worked as an illustrator for the Krakow-based weekly Liberum Veto. In 1905 he became a member of the Grupa pieciu / Group of Five, exhibiting with its other members at the Fine Arts Friendship Societies in Krakow and Lviv, the Zacheta Society for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Warsaw, and at the Secession House in Vienna. Wojtkiewicz was a member of Krakow's artistic boheme and was linked to the Zielony Balonik / Green Balloon Cabaret, designing invitations for its shows and painting one of the murals in the Cabaret's venue, the famous Jama Michalikowa (Michalik's Cavern) café. The artist graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow in 1906. A handful of months later, during an exhibition of the Group of Five at the Schulte Salon in Berlin, Wojtkiewicz's paintings were 'discovered by' André Gide and Maurice Denis. Fascinated by what he saw, Gide then mounted a show of the artist's works in May of 1907 at the Galerie Druet in Paris, inviting Wojtkiewicz to the opening. The catalogue produced for this exhibition included an enthusiastic introduction by Gide himself. In 1908 Wojtkiewicz became a member of the Towarzystwo Artystow Polskich Sztuka / Art Association of Polish Artists and assumed an active role in the exhibition activities of the Grupa Zero / Zero Group.
Within the Young Poland movement, Wojtkiewicz is distinguishable for the originality of his oeuvre. Many also view the artist as a precursor of the various trends that appeared in Polish art of the 20th century - from grotesque art colored by irony through Expressionism that penetrated the human soul and Surrealism that examined the subconscious using a refined aestheticism. Drawings dominated the early stages of his artistic career. Initially, these were primarily illustrative and satirical, providing social and political commentary, created for elite periodicals like Liberum Veto, Hrabia Wojtek / Count Wojtek, and Chochol (named after the symbolic straw sheaf from Wyspiański's play Wesele / The Wedding). In time Wojtkiewicz's drawings became increasingly autonomous and gained stylistic sophistication. The drawings he created in 1903-1904, referred to collectively as Szkice tragikomiczne / Tragicomic Sketches, revealed the artist's inclination for combining elements of tragedy with satirical distance in a stance so characteristic of his imagination. These works were influenced by the metaphysics of gender of Stanisław Przybyszewski, who in 1898 succeeded in disseminating among the Krakow boheme the basic principles of his philosophy which contended that human existence was subject to the power of an all-encompassing eroticism. The early Expressionistic tendencies visible in Wojtkiewicz's drawings were also shaped by his fascination for the art of Francisco Goya. His Tragicomic Sketches simultaneously testify to the shift that occurred in the ideology and values of the Young Poland movement, a process initiated in the literary works of Waclaw Berent, Stanisław Wyspiański and Karol Irzykowski. At the time, the modernist avant-garde was clearly seeking to reinterpret the aesthetic canons of the Young Poland movement. Another manifestation of this effort took the form of an album published in 1905 on the initiative of members of the Green Balloon Cabaret. This contained parodies of the paintings presented at the 9. Wystawa Towarzystwa Artystow Polskich Sztuka / 9th Exhibition of the Art Society of Polish Artists and was effectively a collection of lithographic reinterpretations and travesties of the works of some of Poland's most esteemed painters, including Stanislaw Wyspiański, Leon Wyczółkowski, Jozef Mehoffer, Wojciech Weiss and Olga Boznańska. As early as 1902, Wojtkiewicz had exhibited drawings modeled after the paintings of Falat at an exhibition titled Humor w sztuce / Humor in Art, organized at the Krywult Salon in Warsaw. Titled Jedna trzecia melancholii / One Third of Melancholy and Pochód modernizmu / The Procession of Modernism, these made light of the authority figures and manifestoes of the Young Poland movement. In 1905, also at the Krywult Salon, in a show known as the Wystawa karykatur / Caricature Exhibition, Wojtkiewicz presented his parodies of the works of masters like Leon Wyczółkowski, Jan Stanislawski and Ferdynand Ruszczyc (Orka / Plowing, 1905). The artist also contributed drawings to the Teka Melpomeny / Melpomena Portfolio, a portfolio published in Krakow in 1904 containing caricatures of famous actors and satirical drawings of scenes from well-known theatre productions mounted at Krakow's Teatr Miejski (Municipal Theatre).
In his Tragicomic Sketches, Wojtkiewicz seemed to place the quotation marks of irony around Przybyszewski's overstated, pompous metaphysics of gender, simultaneously making fun of the exalted poses of the artistic boheme and the snobbism of the Modernist generation. Compared to the Expressionistic stance of which he was an outstanding representative, in these sketches Wojtkiewicz achieved a satirical distance and a self-satirical perspective. He adopted a formula of the grotesque and used it to make light of some of the most painful problems of human existence, distorting images of love, motherhood, suffering, loneliness and grief (Alkoholik / The Alcoholic, Pesymisci / Pessimists, Samotnik / The Loner, Matka / The Mother). Above all, however, in this series the artist subverted Przybyszewski's thesis stating that humanity was burdened by a curse - namely, that of the battle of the sexes (Zakochany / In Love, Trzy pokolenia / Three Generations, Romantyczni / Romantics, Bolesne ogledziny / A Painful Examination). A caricature variation on the motif of the demonic woman appears in the drawing Upadla kobieta - Rozpustnica / Fallen Woman - The Wanton, while the figure of a harlot attracts perverted old men - also rendered in a grotesque poetic - in the drawings Czulostkowi. Zuzanna i starcy / The Sentimentals - Susanna and the Old Men (1904) and Natrety / The Interlopers (1906).
Once again, dramatic tones harmonize with portrayals bordering on the grotesque in the series Rok 1905 / The Year 1905 (1905-1906), which constitutes the apogee of the Expressionistic tendency in Wojtkiewicz's oeuvre. This series includes the ink drawings Zerwane Kajdany (Alegoria Polski) / Broken Manacles (An Allegory of Poland), Manifestacja uliczna / Street Manifestation, Na wiec! / To the Rally!, Pochod / Procession, Katorznicy / Convicts and Jutrzenka swobody / The Dawn of Freedom. The chief idea of these works was to draw a link between the proletarian revolutions of 1904-1906 and the tradition of national insurrections, i.e. the armed uprisings of the Poles, who were deprived of statehood in 1795 as a result of territorial partitioning by the neighboring empires of Russia, Prussia and Austria. In this series, Wojtkiewicz's message seems to oscillate between one supportive of the solitary surges of the proletariat, and ironic evaluation of revolutions, the suffering, deprivation and tragedy they engender. By stripping historical reality of its heroic dimension and examining it in a sharp and penetrating manner, the artist achieves an almost caricatured depiction thereof. The artist's extensive experience as an illustrator and his ability to create visual equivalents of literary texts predestined him to join (in 1905) the Grupa pieciu / Group of Five - a collective of artists who contested the formulas of representation applied by the leading lights of Polish painting affiliated with the Towarzystwo Artystow Polskich Sztuka / Art Society of Polish Artists. The young artists of the Group of Five (which in addition to Wojtkiewicz included Leopold Gottlieb, Mieczyslaw Jakimowicz, Vlastimil Hofman and Jan Rembowski) sought the revival of the Romantic concept of the correspondence of the arts - an idea propagated by Baudelaire regarding the affiliation of the visual arts, literature and music. They chose as their patron the great Polish Romantic, poet, painter and draughtsman, Cyprian Kamil Norwid.
As a result of this blend of impulses and inspirations, in the years 1905-1906 Wojtkiewicz's means of expression began to show signs of originality. Gradually his works evolved towards a poetic that was both lyrical and grotesque, one unique in Poland and having no equivalent in world art. In the lithographic drawings he created at this time, Wojtkiewicz explored a sphere that spans the real world and that of art - the realm of the circus, theatre and the marketplace - and in doing so continued to expand the artistic fictions he constructed (Cyrk. Spoczynek / Circus - Resting, 1905). In these works, the limp figures of comedians, jugglers and pierrots disappear within the abundant folds of their costumes, remain prisoners to their frailty. Bound to a common fate, the clowns seem lost in thought and attentive to the world of passions and fears that plays out underneath the frozen grimaces of their masks.
Beginning in 1905, Wojtkiewicz began to create paintings in which he continued to develop on the themes he had explored in his drawings. Initially working in oils, he later shifted to tempera, a type of paint that allowed him to achieve specific, matte color tones. These muted, powdery colors added to the nostalgic mood of the scenes the artists imagined and painted. His portraits of this period, painted in a decorative style, were highly evocative and seemed to embody melancholy reflection. Wojtkiewicz was a frequent visitor of the intellectual and artistic salon of Krakow-based medical professor Stanislaw Parenski and his wife, Eliza Parenska of the Mühleisens. His works of this period include painted portraits of the lady of the house, who was his friend, and of her daughter, Maryna Parenska-Raczynska. He also produced likenesses of Liza, the muse of Krakow's bohemia, as well as of leading intellectuals, scientists and academics, including Boleslaw Raczynski, Maksymilian Rosen and Zygmunt Skirgiello.
Wojtkiewicz's imagination remained focused on a series of motifs and themes that eventually arranged themselves into a loose series titled Monomania, in which the artist penetrated the depths of the human psyche and the sphere of a-normality. The maniacs he depicted in his paintings represent existential fears and obsessions, the sadness and pain of existence unfiltered by social and cultural convention (Patos / Pathos, c. 1906; Przechadzka w zaprzęgu / A Stroll in a Carriage, 1906; Wariaci na sniegu / Madmen in the Snow, 1906; Obłęd. Cyrk wariatow / Lunacy - The circus of Madmen, 1906). He enclosed his 'madmen' within their hermetic world, imprisoned them on wheeled platforms, deformed them through caricature. In time, however, the artist transformed them into representatives of his artistic fiction - i.e. masked comedians, clowns and pierrots, frozen and unmoving, restricted by helplessness, imprisoned in their own thoughts as pensioners nearing their death might be (Wegetacja / Vegetating, 1906; Samotny Pierrot / Lonely Pierrot, 1907). In Melancholia (1907), Cyrk / Circus (1907) and Marionetki / Marionettes (1907), his standard array of actors are accompanied by marionettes and puppets that seem to embody human feelings and more lively, tragic and grotesque than the clowns. Wojtkiewicz drew this idea of animating dolls from the marionette theories of Heinrich von Kleist and the reformist theatrical concepts of Maurice Maeterlinck (Lalki / Dolls, 1906). In his canvasses, the marionettes engage in tournament duels, dance in tight embraces and gesture in a lively manner before the stunned gazes of viewers who stand still, daydreaming or fantasizing. The episodes Wojtkiewicz retells - be they dramatic, melodramatic or farcical - seem suspended between the reality of ordinary experience and imagined space. Stripped of their narrative dynamic, they are transformed into symbols of moods, their symbolic meanings conveyed through facemasks that are sometimes repeated and often appear as crowds of masked figures - in a manner similar to the canvasses of James Ensor or Edvard Munch (Przed teatrzykiem. Cyrk / In Front of a Miniature Theatre - Circus, 1906-1907; Uczta / Feast, 1906).
Another realm that Wojtkiewicz continued to explore in his art with increasing depth was the world of children. In 1905 he painted three variations on the motif of a children's procession - Korowod dzieciecy / Children's Procession, Dzieci zaskoczone Burza / Children Surprised by a Storm and Krucjata dziecięca / Children's Crusade. The artist drew his inspiration from the children's crusade to Jerusalem depicted in Marcel Schwob's "La Croisade des enfants" (Paris, 1896). In Wojtkiewicz's canvasses, the muted color scheme dominated by grays and matte blues exudes gloom and suggests the desperation of the small pilgrims who are depicted as venturing into the unknown and struggling against the natural elements. On the other hand, certain decorative features are observable in his compositions of the Z dziecięcych póz / Children's Poses series, painted in tempera in 1908. In these works, the artist imbued his colors with power and a muted, internal light. Another of Wojtkiewicz's themes which he explored in many variations were the passions of a princess and her suitor - their amorous disappointments, farewells, elopements and leaps into the void (Rozstanie / The Parting; Ucieczka / The Escape; Napaść / The Attack; Orszak / The Entourage; W otchlan. Szal / Into the Void - Madness; Turniej / The Tournament). The artist intensified the fictional dimension of these fairy-tale scenes by inserting out of the ordinary objects into their rural settings. In some of these canvasses the viewer encounters a wooden toy horse, in others there are flowerpots with fancifully deformed plants - more likely in a greenhouse than in a garden.
These motifs would reappear in the Ceremonie / Ceremonies series, which crowns Wojtkiewicz's oeuvre. Unfortunately, the artist stopped working on this series in 1909 when he was afflicted with a life-threatening disease. The works in this cycle fully manifest Wojtkiewicz's original poetic inspired by French Parnasism, English aestheticism, as well as the dramas of Maurice Maeterlinck and Oscar Wilde. Manifest in them is the artist's sophisticated aesthetic tastes, his sense of erotic subtext and hidden perversions as well as his ironic distance towards the matters of everyday life.
The individual pieces in the series Z dziecięcych póz / Children's Poses and Ceremonie / Ceremonies were accompanied by drawings that the artist treated as autonomous artworks, which functioned independently and were far from being mere preparatory sketches. In these drawings, the protagonists of his children's dramas are depicted as entwined in web-like nets of dried branches, twigs and flowers, while little princesses and princes, surrounded by their courtiers, disappear in the folds of richly patterned robes. All of them seem paralyzed by thought, their attention focused on their inner worlds (Orszak / The Entourage, Asysta księżniczki / The Princess's Attendants). In Wojtkiewicz's paintings of the Ceremonie / Ceremonies series, the underlying theme is court ritual, transpiring in idyllic landscapes or the stifling interiors of palaces. Thus we have artful ornamentation on the clothing of the princesses and princes, rich patterns on refined fabrics, sophisticated hats and diadems adorning the heads of small figures who are frozen, lost in thought or gaze narcissistically into their own reflections in a pond's surface (Zjawisko. Bajka / Apparition - A Fairy Tale). Juxtaposed against scenes of regal adoration like Asysta księżniczki / The Princess's Attendants, Wezwanie / The Summons, or Idylla. Swaty / The Idyll - Wooing, Wojtkiewicz's images depicting figures meditating on the meaning of life and death acquire ambiguous meaning, as can be seen from Smierc dziewczyny. Wyzwolenie / The Death of a Girl - Liberation, Medytacje. Popielec / Meditations - Ash Wednesday, Chrystus i dzieci / Christ and the Children. In a scene that paraphrases the biblical motif, what surprises is the lazy sensuality of the girls, who seem to tempt Christ with ripe fruit and seduce him with seemingly innocent charm.
Multiplication of the levels of artistic fiction, symbiosis of the ironic and the grotesque, an undertone of distortion - these all seem to be shared aspects of the artistic oeuvre of Wojtkiewicz and the prose of Roman Jaworski, author of short stories like Zepsuty ornament / Broken Ornament, Trzecia godzina / The Third Hour, and Medi, which were published under the title Historie maniakow / Stories of Madmen (1909). A perverse imagination and the desire to parody established artistic conventions also link Wojtkiewicz and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. The links existing between the visions of these three artists and friends eventually found expression in the illustrations Wojtkiewicz produced in 1908 for Jaworski's Trzecia godzina / The Third Hour, a work that many viewed as exemplifying the aesthetics of ugliness. Looked at from this point of view, Wojtkiewicz's art anticipates the subsequent achievements of greats like Witkacy, Bolesław Leśmian, Bruno Schulz and Witold Gombrowicz, considered the founders of the fantastic and grotesque Surrealist movement in Polish literature of the 1930s.
Author: Irena Kossowska, Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Science, June 2002